Austerity is commonly used as the English equivalent of what has been called Tapas in the Indian tradition. Austerity bears a superficial resemblance to tapas, but the two are not the same; there is no word in English that conveys the exact meaning of tapas. A life characterized by austerities is an extremely simple life. The simplicity is the result of self-denial, which in turn may be based on a philosophy of life that believes in reducing desires. Austerities may also be a type of self-imposed suffering, which in turn may be penance for a sin, or a religious practice aimed at a life higher and nobler than the ordinary. Tapas, on the other hand, is concentration of energies on something important. If we consider something to be important, we would like to pay more attention to it. This would require finding more time for it. Time is something we cannot manufacture or buy from the market. Each of us has available exactly twenty-four hours in a day; in this respect at least, all of us have equal opportunities! Therefore, when we feel strongly that something needs more time, we cut down on the things that we do not consider really important. Taking away from our lives what is not important helps us concentrate on what is important. That is how the word is used also in chemistry. If we wish to concentrate a sugar solution, we heat it so that the water evaporates. Taking water away leaves behind a more concentrated solution, a sweeter solution of sugar. We are interested in sugar, not in water. By taking away water, we get a more concentrated solution of sugar. The more water we remove, the more concentrated the solution becomes. If we remove all the water, we will be left behind with only the sugar. In the same way, a stage may come when we cut down so much on the ‘unimportant’ in our lives that we are spending almost all the time on what is important to us. That would also be a life of self-denial, a life full of austerities, but it has been arrived at by a different route, and for different reasons. In the Indian spiritual tradition, and in all other mystic traditions, some occasional individuals have considered finding the deepest Truth of existence extremely important. Since this Truth is not easy to realize, those who have made it their mission in life have gradually lost interest in all those things such as food, sex, clothing, shelter, etc. which an ordinary person considers quite important. This voluntary change in lifestyle makes it possible to concentrate intensely on the one issue which is important to the person. That is why it is called tapas. A student, who has his board exam coming, may give up sports, TV, movies, gossip, etc. for a few months so that he can do his best in the exam. This is also a form of tapas!
What is important to realize is that austerities are not a virtue in themselves. They involve giving up the lower for the sake of a higher goal. The motive behind the austerities is at least as important as the austerities. If the austerities are treated as a virtue in themselves, they may lead not only to needless suffering but also arrogance. Greater the self-imposed torture, greater may be the arrogance. Further, total denial is sometimes easier than moderation. Based on these principles, the Mother has talked of austerities involving different parts of the being. Physical austerity includes appropriate exercise for the body; diet, which is healthy and just right in quantity; good quality sleep, which is also just adequate in duration; work, done with interest and dedication; and sexual continence. Emotional austerity involves purification and refinement of emotions to an extent that they translate into enthusiasm and dynamism of action. The emotion of love should be retained but the love should be universal, unconditional, and should not expect anything in return. Mental austerity should consist of speaking only as much as is necessary. Restraining speech throughout the day is more difficult but also more fruitful than observing total silence for twenty minutes a day. These austerities are based on treating the body and life on earth as manifestations of the Divine. In turn, austerities can make it easier to appreciate that the body and life on earth are manifestations of the Divine.
(From a work-in-progress: Timeless Wisdom in Small Doses)