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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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TAPAS Although the root meaning of tapas is "heat," this versatile term can indicate creative cosmic energy, sexual fervor and chastity, ecstasy and pain, contemplative ardor and austerity, self-promotion and self-mortification. It held diverse meanings already in the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda before becoming the key feature of asceticism in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, yoga, other philosophical systems, and in regional epics beyond the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa. Ecstatic and shamanic experiences associated with fire and heat in West and South Asia may be far older than the Vedas, as are Proto-Indo-European mythic and epic motifs of heated battle fury that rises in warrior gods and heroes. In the Rig Veda, Indra defeats Vritra with the weapon of tapas; ritual soma is empowered by tapas; ancient Rishis first envisioned the Vedas by cultivating tapas; ancestor-fathers (pitris) gained heaven by tapas; and the great gods of fire and sun, Agni and Sūrya, are natural reservoirs of tapas. In the tenth and latest book of the Rig Veda, hymns 129 and 190 separately diagram cosmogony: precosmic tapas is succeeded by desire (kāma), mind (manas), order (rita), and truth (satya). A famous passage in Atharva Veda 11.5 proclaims that a student learning the Vedas generates tapas that infuses the universe, including all its gods. Like the sun, he is a reservoir of productive tapas.

Brāhmaṇas that follow the earliest Vedas feature Prajāpati, famous as source of creation, Lord of Creatures, and successor to self-sacrificing Purusha, conceiving by desire born of heat. Giving up his body, as did Purusha, Prajāpati exhausts himself through self-heating in order to create by repeated emission. His tapas may last for a millennium. The human sacrificer identifies with both Prajāpati and his sacrificial fire (Agni) in a similar ritualized striving that simultaneously maintains the world and transcends it. The Upanishads provide further nuances to these homologies between inner and cosmic heat. With the emergence of the Sanskrit epics and Purāṇas, and developing traditions of yoga and tantra, a wide-ranging pattern of ascetic practices is apparent. A tapasvin, one who cultivates tapas, usually through a solitary forest or mountain vigil, may be a celibate yogin or yoginī, god or goddess, rishi or his wife, king, demon, child, or even an animal. Tapas can be positive, yielding drought-ending rains, for example, or negative, producing heat that melts mountains and dries up oceans. Countless myths begin with a world threatened by an uncontrollable ascetic, demon, or deity whose silent tapas has the destructive power of a raging forest fire.

Tapas has a considerable role to play in Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras, its commentaries, and succeeding traditions. Three practices in kriyā-yoga are necessary to gain samādhi: self-study, devotion, and tapas that yields perfection (siddhi) of the body and senses. Perhaps it is in Jainism that tapas has its most vigorous adepts today. Both lay and monastic disciplines declare an increasingly rigorous program of austerities—fasting, meditation, chastity—necessary to burn off the impurities of existing karma, as in the burning of sin (pāpman) by tapas recommended in the Upanishads more than twenty-five centuries ago.

David M. Knipe

See alsoAgni ; Hinduism (Dharma) ; Indra ; Jainism ; Soma ; Yoga


Blair, Chauncey J. Heat in the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1961. Philological study of the root tap-, its derivatives, and other words for heat in the two texts.

Eliade, Mircea. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. 2nd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. Links shamanic techniques, Brahmanic speculation, and the interior sacrifice, magical inner heat and light of yoga and tantra.

Kaelber, Walter O. Tapta Mārga. Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. Particularly useful on the initiatory symbolism of tapas.

Knipe, David M. In the Image of Fire. Vedic Experiences of Heat. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975. Reviews tapas from Vedic correspondences to Dharma Shāstras in the context of symbols of fire and the dynamics of heating and cooling in the history of religions.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Śiva. London: Oxford University Press, 1973. Analyzes Purāṇic and other motifs on creative and destructive tapas and related terms; see motifs 8, 10, 18, 25, 36, 39, 45.


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Tapas (Skt., ‘heat’). Asceticism conceived as a force of creative heat in Indian religions. This force is instrumental in the acquisition of spiritual power (siddhi) and in gaining liberation (mokṣa).

In the Vedas, tapas has both a cosmic and a human aspect. 1 As a cosmic force it is the power underlying manifestation. For example, Prajāpati creates the universe by heating himself (Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 7. 1. 2, 13).2 At a human level, tapas could be created in the fire sacrifice (agnihotra) and in the sacrificial priest (hotṛ) who manifested tapas by sweating.

With the Upaniṣads and the development of yoga, tapas becomes not a preparation for ritual but a means of realizing the self (ātman) and gaining release (mokṣa). The practice of austerity produces inner heat; for example, in Buddhism the Majjhima Nikāya (1. 244) speaks of the heat obtained by holding the breath; and in Hinduism, the rise of Kuṇḍalinī is associated with the arousal of heat.

Asceticism in some form is common to all yoga schools, though actual practices vary in intensity from mere celibacy to more extreme forms of asceticism such as never lying down, piercing the skin with a sharp instrument, bearing extremes of heat and cold, or, in Jainism, even slowly starving to death as a means of withdrawal from the world (sallekhanā): see also ASCETICISM.


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tapas Spanish; small savoury dishes served with wine in bars.