“I am the original fragrance of the earth, and I am the heat in fire. I am the life of all that lives, and I am the penances of all ascetics.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.9)
The Vedas describe the material world to be a place filled with illusion, where things go opposite to how they should. One analogy used is to a mirror, wherein the image is reflected from the original but is inversely oriented. Therefore what is right is taken to be wrong, and vice versa. One manifestation of this truth can be seen in what is popularly determined to be heroic. Something that really demonstrates weakness is deemed to demonstrate strength. On the flip side, real strength, in the form of asceticism, can bring many powers, the greatest of which is the ability to think of the Supreme Lord in any and all situations.
We can use drinking as an example to see where a particular ability is considered an indication of strength when it really isn’t. In social drinking circles, to be able to consume a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time without being physically affected is considered noteworthy. “I can drink you under the table,” is the challenge presented to another drinker. You line up with your competitor, as if preparing for an arm-wrestling match, and then proceed to “down” shots of hard liquor.
One shot isn’t enough. “Hit me again,” you say to the bartender. You do shot after shot until one of you passes out or throws in the towel. Once a person taps out, the person that remains standing is declared the winner. They are the superior drinker. The same type of game is seen in eating, as there are even formal competitions relating to food consumption. The person who can eat the most number of hotdogs in an allotted period of time is considered superior. The person who can eat the most meat without quitting is the champion eater.
To the sober person who is aware of their true identity as spirit soul, such feats of strength are actually exercises in stupidity. For starters, if the aim of consuming alcohol is to get a temporary relief from the senses, why would the person who requires more alcohol to reach the state of inebriation be considered superior? It should actually be the other way around. Moreover, we eat and drink to maintain the body. To do it in excess shows a tendency not seen even in the animal. The fish may not be wise enough to know how much to eat, but other animals are. If a large stock of food suddenly drops into the middle of the road, the pigeons will not try to eat as much as they can. They will take what they need and then move on.
Gluttony is not an auspicious trait, and so to eat a lot for no reason represents a weakness, not a strength. The same goes for consuming alcohol in large quantities. What is actual strength, however, is austerity. A person who can go without engaging the senses too much achieves real powers. This should make sense if you think about it. The professional athlete is an expert at controlling their food intake. They don’t eat more than is required, for otherwise their performance would be hindered. They don’t show up to their competitions in a drunken state. If they did, they wouldn’t be very successful. The concept of a diet also affirms the potency of austerity. You limit your food intake so that you will be healthier, so that you will lose weight.
In ancient times, even miscreants who were after personal gain would take to austerity, living on basically nothing for months at a time. As a result they would please various divine figures and receive boons thereafter. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna says that He is, among many other things, the penances of ascetics. The particular passage where this is spoken gives the message that the Supreme Lord is the life of everything. To be an ascetic requires austerity and penance. If I say that I am a bus driver and I have never driven a bus in my life, my claim is meaningless. In a similar manner, to say that you are an ascetic and then not practice any austerity means that you are a cheater.
And why would Krishna mention the ascetic? Because asceticism leads to good things, and it can be practiced properly only in the human species. The greatest austerity measure is abstention from sex life. From this practice alone, one can stay sober in mind, and through that sobriety they can attain great things. The question then remains, “What should I aim to achieve? What should be the purpose to my asceticism?”
In the human form of life we have the ability to shape consciousness. The properly situated consciousness thinks of God all the time. Krishna is that God, the detail to the abstract picture. He is not an old man or a vengeful figure eager to punish the sinners. Rather, He is the best friend, full of sweetness in His all-attractive form. His transcendental effulgence spreads to His words found in the Bhagavad-gita, and also to His holy names. Through asceticism there is the ability to constantly chant the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, in full sobriety. When sense engagement is limited, reciting this mantra makes one truly superior and worthy of the transcendental abode in the afterlife.
“To consume a lot I am capable,
I can surely drink you under the table.
So much in one sitting I can eat,
With ease to consume fistfuls of meat.”
But this is really not wise,
Better to control portion size.
Indication that penance and austerity,
Are the true mark of superiority.
The penances of ascetics is Shri Krishna,
Chant His name along with Hare and Rama.