Sunday, April 25, 2010


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 which 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 by themselves 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 it 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. Therefore, the surface manifestations are potentially capable of undergoing transformation to befit the One that they manifest. Austerities can aid that transformation.

(From a work-in-progress: Timerless Wisdom in Small Doses)

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Desires are the root cause of misery, as declared by Lord Buddha more than 2500 years ago. Therefore, desires should be reduced to the minimum. But an aspiration gives us a reason for living. An aspiration gives a purpose to our life. An aspiration leads us towards a better and more meaningful existence. An aspiration is a desirable desire.
An aspiration is not an ambition. An ambition is usually a material goal, e.g. becoming a doctor, or becoming a millionaire. When the ambition is achieved, one has the choice of treating it as the final destination, or as a milestone on way to another ambition. An aspiration is neither material, nor a station reached in the course of a journey. An aspiration is limited to the direction in which the journey will be performed, the manner in which the journey will be performed, the way choices will be made while on the journey, and so on. The journey may have a destination, but that is not the primary concern. An ambition may or may not be fulfilled. But a sincere aspiration is always realized.
What may an aspiration be like? A good example is an aspiration for self-improvement. We may think that we are good. But very few of us can truly say that we cannot become better. Becoming better than we are may look like a very simple aspiration. Yes, it is simple, but it is not easy. Since there is always room for improvement, self-improvement is a life-long journey. After we have become a little better than we are, we find it is possible to become still better, and so on. Thus the process of self-improvement never really comes to an end. Another name for this life-long journey of self-improvement is yoga. The aspiration for self-improvement is not only perfectly compatible with worldly life, it is essential for worthwhile worldly existence. It is not enough to be a doctor or a teacher; one should be a good doctor or a good teacher. A good doctor is a good person along with being a doctor; a good teacher is a good person along with being a teacher. To put it ‘mathematically’,
A doctor + A good person = A good doctor
A teacher + A good person = A good teacher
If the good doctor or good teacher has an aspiration for self-improvement, he becomes a better person. As the good person turns into a better person, he also becomes a better doctor or a better teacher.
Aspiration is one of the three major tools in the yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother: the other two are rejection and surrender. According to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, the aspiration should be intense and sincere but not impatient. Calm and steady effort towards the aspiration, and rejection of all that comes in way of the aspiration, is all that is required of us. For the rest, it is enough to surrender to the Divine.

(From a work in progress: Timeless Wisdom in Small Doses)

Friday, April 9, 2010



Recently, the Government of Delhi decided that no beef would be served at the Commonwealth Games. The decision respects the sentiments of a large number of Indians, which are important, but there are other considerations which are even more important. Vegetarian diets have now been scientifically shown to be healthy and adequate. They are also ethically more sound than non-vegetarian diets. From this angle, causing pain to a goat or a pig for the sake of our food is just as unethical as to a cow. No sensitive person takes meat without at least sometimes feeling uneasy. But most importantly, vegetarian diets are more eco-friendly. The conversion of plant food into animal food is so inefficient that if only the world went vegetarian, the problem of hunger can be wiped out from the world in one stroke. Also, according to a 2006 UN report, the contribution of meat industry to global warming exceeds that of all the cars, SUVs, trucks, ships and aeroplanes of the world put together. Therefore, if only we all went vegetarian, we would not have to worry about global warming for a long time to come. One reason why many people in the West are unable or unwilling to give up meat is because they do not know how to cook palatable vegetarian food. Here India has something unique to offer. I have seen hundreds of guests from the West being served Indian vegetarian food. They are not only extremely happy with it, but are also amazed to find that vegetarian food can be so palatable. Thus, without sermonizing, we can deliver an important message of global significance by serving only vegetarian food during Commonwealth Games. Being vegetarian is no longer an issue that revolves around individual choice of a healthy lifestyle or personal ideas about ethics and morality. It is now a question of how much we are willing to do to safeguard the future of our planet. Commonwealth Games may be able to say silently what Copenhagen could not.