The term penance or austerity which finds finds frequent reference in our holy books (as Tapas) Should not be mistaken to be merely the act of standing and meditating on one leg in the region of the Himalayas or adopting the posture of stretching the body upwards, with the head on the floor.
It is an intelligent activity in which a person withdraws the energy which he was hitherto spending in wrong channels but conserve the same, preserve and reserve, re-diverting it in a beneficial manner. It does not mean torturing oneself.
Three levels are involved in observing the austerities… physical, vocal and mental. Those intended to preceptors the Gods, Preceptors, the truly wise and true devotees and those which include purity, simplicity and in offensiveness appertain to physical ‘Tapas’. Austerities not unpleasant to anyone, truthful and full of soft words and conduct relate to the speech while those which are conducive to the serenity of the mind, silence and purification of the heart are categorised as mental. The ethical conduct of man can be summed up to fall under the purifying agents sacrifice, austerity and charity.
Emphasising how people Should respect those teachers who profess wealth of knowledge, (when conducting austerities), Prof. C. G Vasudevan in a lecture said they should descend to the level of students allowing them to discover the morals from the stories narrated. The ‘truly wise’ as Lord Krishna points out in His ‘Gita’, may not teach in its strict sense but will be full of worldly knowledge and commonsense.
A story is told of a bishop who became rich which made the king envious. He challenged the former to reply to his three queries or face execution. Seeing the bishop’s grief, a shepherd volunteered to deputise him. To the first question, ‘How long will it take for me to go round the world,’ the answer was ‘If you rise with the Sun, and go with it one full day.’ “What is my value in the world”, was the second to which the commoner said, “29 pieces of siver”. Why 29? “Because Jesus was sold for 30 and you are worth about it.” Thirdly, he was asked, “What is God thinking of now”?” How foolish are you, as you are listening to a shepherd before you!”