Tapas or performing austerities have various roles in many religions, especially in Hinduism. When we hear the word ‘tapas’ most of us think of sadhus standing on one leg or yogis meditating with encrustations on top of them. These may be various forms of tapas but these are images promoted by media. The true role of tapas is to break through your conditioning, step out of your comfort zones in an attempt to grow intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. Sometimes, tapas involves putting your body through some difficult practices. Through the body you handle emotions. Anything can be a tapas if it helps you step out of your comfort zone. Like for example, one common tapas all householders were asked to do was to go on tirthayatras, pilgrimages to break the conditioning of the type of food you eat, the culture and forms of worship you are used to. Let’s say you go from Southern India to Kashi, you will pass so many states, come across different food habits on the way that you definitely step out of your comfort zone. Unless of course like modern people who carry their own food. That is not tapas. One may say, we do all this on our holidays as well. Here is where another aspect of tapas comes in. There has to be some form of devotion, bhakti. A commitment to spiritually and emotionally grow and not just build up memories of wonderful experiences is what makes it tapas. That is the difference between a pilgrimage and a spiritual tourism. From Dehradun one can take a helicopter to Kedarnath in the morning and return by night. This is spiritual tourism. This is not tapas. But if you're driving down to Gaurikund and trekking up to Kedarnath with a sense of devotion, not as a trekker, but as a devotee, then it is a pilgrimage. Spiritual tourism or any travel can open your mental vistas. But if you add worship and spiritual growth to it, then it becomes tapas so that we would ultimately, come to know the reality behind the whole creation.
The writer is the founder of Aarsha Vidya Foundation. You can write to him at email@example.com