On Penance (tapas) or The story of Vishwamitra

Long ago there was a great king named Kaushika, who was unequaled in might and splendour. His life-long quest began not in glory but in his utter defeat and humiliation. He and his armies were once the guests of the great sage Vashishta. The king, jealous of the sage’s gift-giving cow Kamadhenu, tried to take it by force. Upon being attacked, Vashishta reduced the king’s armies to ashes and Kaushika’s defeat was total. The king realized that his strength of might was insignificant next to the power wielded by Vashishta. Kaushika vowed to forsake the world and pursue these powers by undertaking great tapas.

vishvamitra_menakaKaushika gave up his royal comforts and sought out solitude in the forest. There he began to practice with great intensity. As time passed, his power grew and Indra, king of the gods, became worried. Indra feared that Kaushika’s power had grown so much as to eclipse his own and so he devised a plan to distract Kaushika from his tapas. Indra dispatched the most beautiful apsara (celestial dancer) Menaka to lure Kaushika away from his practice. The former king fell deeply in love with Menaka. They lived together happily and had a daughter named Shakuntala. Ultimately, Kaushika became aware of Indra’s plan and rejected Menaka to return more ardently to his practice.

Kaushika began again to re-gain his lost power. Indra, again fearful of his position, this time sent down the queen of the apsaras, Rambha, to tempt Kaushika away from his penance. This time the it was not love that the lovely lady met but anger. The former king learned that his real enemy was not Indra but himself. His anger taught him that he had still not mastered himself and again set himself to great tapas. Indra tried once more by visiting Kaushika in the guise of an old beggar just as he was about to break a long fast. The disguised Indra asked for the little bit of food that Kaushika had prepared and the former king gave it without hesitation. Indra had been thwarted and having finally conquered himself, Kaushika’s powers were like no other.

There was also an incident where Kaushika again depletes all of his powers in helping his friend Trishanku to ascend to the heavens with his physical body. Again Kaushika returned to his penance which he held without distraction for many years. Finally Lord Brahma appeared to Kaushika to reward him with a boon. When asked, Kaushika requested to be a Brahmarishi (Brahman Sage), equal to his old rival sage Vashishta. Brahma explained that because Kaushika was a king he could not be a Brahmarishi and instead gave him the title of Rajarishi (Royal Sage). Kaushika was not satisfied and continued his penance steadfastly. Again Lord Brahma appeared and offered a boon; Kaushika’s reply was the same. Brahma gave him the same explanation saying it was impossible and this time gave him the title of Maharishi (Great Sage). Kaushika continued his tapas undaunted until Brahma appeared a third time. In the last encounter Brahma finally accented and bestowed the title of Brahmarishi on Kaushika, who was renamed sage Vishmamitra.


Vishwamitra is among the most famous rishis of ancient India. He is spoken of in the earliest text, the Rg Veda, he is credited with giving us the Gayatri mantra and there is even a yoga posture named after him. Plenty of literature exists about his adventures but I have attempted to recount for you only the essentials of the “making of” Vishwamitra for the purpose of presenting the benefits of developing will power. The story may be understood as an allegory which teaches that austerity breeds strength.

The concept of penance exists in every tradition around the world. It is a universal tool at our disposal and may be used in any variety of ways. In every case the purpose is the same: to make us stronger. As the Christian world prepares for Easter, many Christians still maintain the habit of penance during Lent. The most common example we find is giving up something we enjoy for the forty days (sugar in our tea, chocolate or alcohol…). The fact is that it makes no difference to Jesus if you don’t eat chocolate during lent. Likewise, God isn’t effected by your penance but it has a great effect on yourself. By exerting our will power we develop mental strength.

The most readily available penance is fasting, which we find across religions. Penances are also called austerities but this does not mean self-mutilation or dangerous practices. It refers to controlled austerity for the purpose of developing mental strength. In the very same way that physical training is in fact controlled “austerity” for the muscles.

In India there exists a long tradition of penance for spiritual benefits. The Sanskrit term for austerities is tapas. Many traditional legends offer the same motif of a man, god or demon who performs great tapas and is eventually granted a boon. An common alternate of the same motif usually involves a man who performs such tapas that Indra, king of the gods, feels his that power is threatened and devises a way to distract the ascetic from his practice. The stories demonstrate that developing mental strength is the pathway to great personal power.

Tapas is one of the observances (niyama) listed by Patanjali in the Yogasutras (II:43). As elsewhere (notably Shamanism), the yoga tradition understands tapas as “heating”, like a fire. In this sense we also understand that penance purifies, like gold in a furnace. Likewise, yoga maintains that strengthening the will weakens the ego, which results in great personal power. It is a difficult practice because it runs counter to our regular tendencies. True freedom lies not in the easiest way, of doing what we want but in breaking mental conditioning and choosing to do what we do not want.

Here are three quotations that have always inspired me in regards to penance:

“Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”

Bruce Lee

“He who conquers others is strong; he who conquers himself is mighty.”


“A gem cannot be polished without friction nor man perfected without trials.”

Chinese proverb


On Contentment

Contrary to what many may think, Yoga does have rules. In fact Patanjali places the ten injunctions as the first two steps, before asana (postures) and pranayama (breath control). There are many ways to understand the first two steps known as yama (moral principels) and niyama (observances). That is not the subject of this discussion but I should mention that all practitioners (and especially teachers) of yoga should strive toward maintaining these ten rules. I would like to discuss the second niyama: santosha (contentment).

A yogi must be content, satisfied. We should first draw a difference between happiness and contentment. Happiness comes with unhappiness, two sides of the same coin. If we have great highs we will also suffer crushing lows, we can count on it. Contentment is stable and strong. It maintains equanimity in your life. We sacrifice the highs in order to save ourselves the terrible lows. Not an easy virtue to practice.

A good start is having a non-comparative/competitive view of our own lives. By nature humans compare themselves to others: “The grass is always greener”. If we are always looking at our neighbour’s lawn we will never enjoy, appreciate and be satisfied with our own lawn. We have the choice not to look or even better, not to compare it to our lawn. The truth is that in life there will always be someone younger, fitter, better looking, thinner, wealthier… than us, always. By constantly comparing ourselves we block our own chances of self-satisfaction. I leave you with one of Jesus’ parables found in the Gospel of Matthew (20:1-15) that speaks exactly to this point.


There was a vineyard owner whose harvest was great. He sent his servant into the market place early in the morning to get extra labourers to work in the fields. He promised them each a denarius (a Roman silver coin) for the day’s work. Near midday, seeing that there still remained much work to do to, again the owner sent his servant to fetch more men to work in the vineyard. workers in the vineyardLate in the afternoon again the owner found much left undone, he sent his servant to the marketplace to get more labourers. At the close of the day all of the workmen gathered before the vineyard owner to receive their wages. The owner happily gave one denarius to each man. The men who had worked since early morning protested but the owner rebuked them. He told them to take their pay and go home. He had not been unfair as he had given them exactly as he had promised. The men’s unhappiness and dissatisfaction came not from the owner but from their checking the wages of the other men.