“By tapasya only can one get the profit of human life, and not by a polished civilization of animal life. The animal does not know anything except sense gratification in the jurisdiction of eat, drink, be merry and enjoy. But the human being is made to undergo tapasya for going back to Godhead, back home.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.9.6 Purport)
“My generation, commonly known as the Baby Boomers, had it so easy that they had to invent their own traumas. In the two previous generations there were world wars. There was also the Great Depression. People didn’t have it easy at all. They had to grow up very quickly. They had to risk their lives to save their family and their nation. They had to struggle through poverty, not knowing where their next meal would come from.
“My generation, on the other hand, had it easy. We had the Vietnam War, but other than that there has been tremendous prosperity in the country. The hippy movement and the counterculture of the 1960s came about because of tremendous opulence. Children of parents that were financially secure didn’t know about struggles in life, so they invented their own. They came up with disorder after disorder just to make themselves feel like victims. In reality, they never had any real problems, as they inherited a safe, secure and prosperous nation from their parents.”
While this only represents a single viewpoint, it is very common to hear the World War I and World War II generations lauded for their character, while at the same time hearing the generations subsequent to them criticized for their low moral standards. There is actually a reason for the difference, as the forced austerity of the previous generations left little time for self-reflection and hankering for more and more material wealth. Survival itself was at stake, and so a minimalist lifestyle, though albeit one not specifically preferred, was sufficient for continuing on.
From studying the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, we see how it is completely understandable why the more recent generations would have to find their own dilemmas and issues. The many calls for social change today are due in large part to the economic situation, which is still considered very good despite recent downturns. “I need to matter, and since we’re not at war or struggling to put food on the table, I will matter in some other way. I will invent a disorder that I suffer from, and from there I will try to stamp out that disorder in society, raising awareness for it. I will take my identity from my sexual preference, my diet, or my ethnicity. In this way I will make myself stand out and give more attention to the work that I do.”
In previous generations, where times dictated a stricter focus on responsibility, such activism wasn’t as common. In essence, there was forced austerity. In the Vedas, there is a call for voluntarily imposed austerity. This austerity, known as tapasya, is to be practiced from the time of birth all the way up until the time of death. All of the fasts recommended in the many religions of the world are based on this concept of tapasya. The regulations to pray a certain number of times a day, to perform such and such rituals, and to recite such and such formulas are all forms of austerity.
“Why the need for self-imposed restriction? Why don’t the religious books call for endlessly searching after sense gratification? What is wrong with trying to make a lot of money? What is the harm in buying a large television to sit in the even larger living room?”
Tapasya’s potency can be understood through knowing the influence of the senses. The spirit soul is our identifying agent. When we say “I”, we are really referring to the soul. The hands, legs, ears, nose, and other body parts can be removed and we still can say “I.” Once the soul exits the body, however, the “I” goes somewhere else. What remains is what was, not what is.
That which surrounds the soul in the manifest world, the place we currently inhabit, is not the soul; it is not spirit. That which is not is known as maya in Sanskrit. Maya has various elements that are so powerful that they delude the real “I” into thinking in terms of “Mine.” My house, my wife, my car, my child, my arm, my leg, etc. These objects are really just temporary manifestations of the material energy that do not have any bearing on the soul.
When the “Mine” mentality is not checked, you get a situation of unending desires. If you have desires that never cease to grow, like a raging fire that you can’t put out, how will you find any peace? Real peace in this sense is not getting whatever you want, whenever you want. Rather, peace is the lack of desire, or at least a control on it.
In the Vedic system, the first austerity measure is celibacy, which is placed upon students. This principle is known as brahmacharya, and it is followed by the student until they get married, should they choose to. Even then, there is the austerity of only having sexual relations when there is the desire for progeny. In old age, the austerity is to retire from work and live very renounced. Finally, in the last stage, known as sannyasa, there is complete renunciation. There is no association with the spouse in sannyasa.
Aside from controlling desires, and thereby making one a better person in general, tapasya allows one to better focus on God. The soul represents us, and the soul’s core property is to serve. This is its dharma. There is an ideal recipient of this service as well. He is known by many names around the world, but the most common one is God. It is God who gave us the system of tapasya, which is coupled with yajna, or sacrifice, to benefit mankind. Tapasya is the restriction and yajna is the specific action, the service if you will.
As in the present age, especially in the current post-World War II period, there are unlimited desires borne of attachment to material opulence, tapasya is difficult to practice. Any mention of restriction will get you mocked and made fun of. This doesn’t mean that there is no chance at peace. The Supreme Personality of Godhead has given us the sankirtana-yajna for this age. This is the sacrifice of chanting the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” This sacrifice is so powerful that one who constantly performs it will gradually have all of their material desires removed. Whereas world wars and economic depressions were needed just to keep previous generations more grounded, through simply reciting the holy names of the Lord in a regulated fashion one can re-assume their eternal identity, servant of God. The servant of the Supreme Lord is perpetually in so much ecstasy that they have no need to invent traumas and ailments; their only affliction is love for God, which they are more than happy to suffer from.
World War II generation had it tough,
Growing up young in depression was rough.
Generation after inherited robust state,
Traumas and ailments left to create.
To forced austerity difference due,
Who knew that less is better for you?
Tapasya throughout life practice,
Clearer focus for God to notice.
In renunciation all good qualities to come,
With intense hankering over the trivial be done.