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TAPAS . The Sanskrit term tapas, from tap ("heat"), was in ancient India an expression of cosmic energy residing in heat, fervor, and ardor. Through anthropocosmic correspondences established in early Vedic sacrificial traditions tapas became one of the key concepts of South Asian religions and the accepted term in Sanskrit and other Indic languages for ascetic power, especially a severely disciplined self-mortification that produces both personal and cosmic results.

A wide range of religious expressions concerning tapas appears already in the gveda. The gods Agni, the sacrificial fire, and Sūrya, the sun, both possess heat inherently, whereas tapas is generated within the warrior deity Indra and his weapons as a concomitant of heroic fury in battle. Indra's heated rage may be connected to certain proto-Indo-European warrior-cult phenomena; gvedic references to ascetics who handle fire, as well as other references to sweating as an initiatory technique, may be connected with pre-Vedic ecstatic or shamanic experiences. Tapas can be a weapon itself, used by Indra, for example, to encircle Vtra, or employed, perhaps ritually, by enemies of priests who pray to Indra and Varua for protection (gveda 10.167, 7.82). In Hymn 9.113 the ritual production of divine soma is accomplished by tapas, faith, order, and truth. But perhaps the most influential gvedic speculations on tapas occur in such late cosmogonic hymns as 10.129 and 10.190, where tapas, existing prior to both divine and human beings, is linked in the procreative process with primordial desire (kāma ), mind, order, and truth, a cosmic association that served as a template for late Vedic soteriologies as well as post-Vedic popular mythologies. Finally, the gveda reveals that the ancient sages and godlike ancestors also embody this cosmic fervor, the is sitting to perform tapas (10.109), and the pits ("ancestors") attaining their invincible places in the heavens by means of tapas (10.154).

It is in the Yajurveda recensions, the Atharvaveda, and the several Brāhmaas that tapas receives full recognition: the human body becomes a metaphor of sacrificial fire and tapas is simultaneously the means to and the experience of transformation. The Vedic student (brahmacārin ), according to Atharvaveda 11.5, generates such powerful tapas that it fills his teacher, the gods, and the three worlds. Tapas is primal energy ready to be drawn upon by the knowledgeable, the adept, and the aggressively self-disciplined. Prajāpati, lord of creatures, continues, in the Brāhmaas, the older impersonal cosmogony involving tapas and blends with it the personal one of self-sacrificing Purua (gveda 10.90): overcome with desire (kāma ), Prajāpati discharges in heated procreation, exhausting himself into the substance of the universe by repeated emission. That this striving to create by self-heating provided a ritual model is clear from the many correspondences defining the Vedic sacrificer, who maintains the created worlds by laborious ritual (karman ); he is simultaneously identified with the sacrificial fire, Agni, and Purua-Prajāpati, as he undergoes spiritual regeneration. The way is now clear for ascetic technique to replicate, and in some ways to replace, sacrificial technique. Both are performances on an exhaustive, even painful scale: procreative on a sexual model, yet requiring chastity; bearing personal cosmic fruits, results that can be stored; and burning away, by inner heat, those impurities that are hindrances to transcendent, immutable being. Śatapatha Brāhmaa 10.4.4 is an illustration of the Brahmanic bond between cosmogony through sacrifice, and transcendence (rebirth) through ascetic perseverance, all declared in Prajāpati's thousand-year tapas.

The Upaniads further explore these mysterious connections in the heat of sexuality, hatching, ripening, digestion, strife, grief, rage, ecstasy, and mystical vision. The way is opened for a normative tapas practiced by every religious seeker in the third stage (āśrama ) of life, and thus a modification or lay version of the extreme tapas professed by the ascetic bent upon world- and self-conquest. In the texts of the Jains and Buddhists, in various traditions of yoga and Tantra, and in popular myths and folklore collected in the Sanskrit epics and Purāas, a profile emerges of ascetic tapas. By degrees of fasting, chastity, silence, meditation, breath-control, and difficult postures, usually practiced in solitary vigil in forests and mountains, the yogin or tapasvin "heats the three worlds." His techniques include a "five-fires" position (sitting naked between four fires beneath the midsummer sun), immersing himself in a river in midwinter, and remaining unsheltered in monsoon rains.

The ascetic, like the sacrificer, demonstrates his interior fire as a cosmic force capable of recreating, reordering, or dismissing the world. So powerful is this religious model that much of the dramatic tension of post-Vedic mythology is provided by world-threatening tapas produced from ascetic ardor. Gods, goddesses, demons, kings, heroes, married sages, celibate yogins, young children, even animals perform tapas. The god Brahmā produces by tapas ; Śiva's tapas and magical fire alternately create and destroy; Pārvatī maintains tapas for 36,000 years; a host of demons (asuras and daityas ) concentrate on world domination by tapas ; the Pānava heroes exercise tapas in forest exile. Tapas and kāma cooperate in keeping the created world together; erotic desire poses the strongest threat to ascetic world-transcendence, and therefore repression and lust together with self-control and self-abandon provide antiphonal parallels to the ancient Indra-Vtra cosmic opposition, a cooperative discord that threads the drama of creation and recreation.

Whereas Hinduism routinized tapas into ordinary observance of fasts, meditations, and yogalike practices, and Buddhism elected a middle path between austerity and indulgence, Jainism perfected tapas in both lay and monastic careers as a means of burning off old karman and blocking accretions of new karman. In Jainism and in some traditions of Tantric yoga tapas survives today as disciplined self-mortification and as an internal experience of transfor-mation.

See Also

Agni; Indra.


The best contextual discussion of tapas in Brahmanic initiation, sacrifice, cosmogony, and eschatology is by Mircea Eliade in A History of Religious Ideas, vol. 1 (Chicago, 1978), esp. pp. 220238. See also his Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, 2d ed. (Princeton, 1969), pp. 106114, 330341. Chauncey J. Blair's Heat in the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda (New Haven, 1961) has analyzed the root tap, its derivatives, and other words concerning "heat" in two Vedic texts. I discuss the religious significance of tapas as fire and heat in the Vedic tradition in my book In the Image of Fire: Vedic Experiences of Heat (Delhi, 1975), esp. chaps. 45. In Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Śiva (London, 1973) Wendy Doniger OʽFlaherty provides penetrating analyses of some forty-five motifs, primarily in the Purāas, on creative and destructive tapas and so forth; see motifs 8, 10, 18, 25, 36, 39, 45. On tapas in Jain monastic traditions, see Padmanabh S. Jaini's The Jaina Path of Purification (Berkeley, 1979), esp. pp. 250251; for lay traditions, see R. H. B. Williams's Jaina Yoga: A Survey of the Mediaeval Śrāvakācāras (London, 1963), pp. 238239.

New Sources

Bronkhorst, Johannes. The Two Sources of Indian Asceticism. Bern, 1993.

Kaelber, Walter O. Tapta-Marga: Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Albany, N.Y., 1989.

Keemattam, Augusthy. The Hermits of Rishikesh: A Sociological Study. New Delhi, 1997.

Yadavaprakasa. Rules and Regulations of Brahmanical Asceticism: Yatidharmasamuccaya of Yadava Prakasa. Albany, N.Y., 1995.

David M. Knipe (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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