When the early Vedic peoples of India observed the world around them, they saw certain fundamental truths reflected throughout all levels of nature. The most fundamental of these truths is that we live in a universe of motion and transformation. Things change. The stuff of the cosmos changes into other stuff. Everything that we see, in its current form, was — not so long ago — in a very different form. Not so long from now, everything will be in a very different form again.
This is true for our physical bodies, for the body of this planet with its ever-shifting canyons and mountain ranges and volcanoes and sea beds, it is true for the entire physical universe, which was born from a single point and will return again to that primal singularity.
The Vedic people associated this dance of energy, this kinesis, this eternal process of change and transformation with the principle of heat, or ‘tapas.’
In Vedic understanding, it was tapas that created the universe. A primal impulse, a first loving desire transformed the inert potentiality of limitless space-consciousness into the bright, hot, spinning universe of transformation that we know and see and hear and feel around us.
“Verily in the beginning, Prajapati [God] alone existed here. He thought within Himself, “How can I be propagated? He longed to become many. He practiced tapas and created living things.”
This primal heat of transformation is responsible for the entire manifest universe. Everything we see, feel, touch, hear and, taste in this universe has ‘been through the fire’ and everything reflects the fundamental transformative, luminous, and kinetic qualities of tapas.
The very atomic fabric of creation – in its luminosity, motility, and its endless variegated forms — is tapas itself. Tapas is synonymous with creation, and is itself the source of creation’s fundamental natural laws. As it says in the earliest Vedic writings:
Order and truth were born from heat as it blazed up.
Just as the elements of the periodic table were born through the initial cosmic boiler-room temperatures of the big bang and subsequent supernovas, so the fundamental building blocks of this universe – and the laws that govern it – are born from heat.
The Vedic people saw this heat reflected on all levels of creation. Tapas blazed above them, in the form of the sun:
The sun fills the world with his tapas. He looks downward on us, heating all created things.
And tapas was within them as well:
His is that shining form which gives heat in yonder sun and is the brilliant light in a smokeless fire, the same fire that cooks the food in men’s stomachs. He who is in the fire, and he who is in the heart, and he who is in the sun – he is One.
In fact, tapas connects the whole of the Vedic universe.
To early humans, the heat generated by the campfire, or the sexual act, by the effort of hunt or battle, by dance or hard work was the expression of one and the same source, the cosmic fire.
-Wolf-Deiter Storl, Shiva, the Wild God of Power and Ecstasy
All processes of the natural world were thought to be contained in this heat. This lifetime itself was a tapas. We were born out of the heated womb, we physically grew and were sustained as beings through the heat of metabolic process, along the way we suffered the heat of pain and experienced the heat of joy. At the end of our lives, having burned through this lifetime, we returned once more to ash. Ashes to ashes. Tapas.
Tapas was at once the heat of gestation, incubation, birth, growth, creation, passion. But it was also the friction of restraint, the fire we feel when something is lacking, the primal longing, the struggle for transformation.
Tapas was both pain and joy, and pain and joy shared a common heat:
“For the first time he witnessed a birth. With astonished burning eyes he gazed at the face of the woman in labor…the expression of her face seemed most remarkable to him…the lines of the screaming woman’s face were little different from those he had seen in other women’s faces during the moment of love’s ecstasy…He was surprised by the realization that pain and joy could resemble each other so closely.”
— Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund
This primal recognition of the heat of existence formed the foundation for all of the spiritual traditions of India.
In honor of the radiant heat of tapas, and to connect to its transformative energy, the early Vedic people used fire as their main form of worship.
The fire ceremony – called yajna – dates back thousands upon thousands of years. Yajna – which involves chanting sacred mantras and pouring substances such as butter and milk and grain into a fire — was a vehicle through which Vedic people could connect to the larger natural transformative forces around them, the great order of the universe – the rta.
Rta means order, and also relates directly to the word ‘ritual.’
All human ritual seeks, in some way, to reestablish connection to an underlying natural order – and most ritual involves a connection to the transformative power of heat.
In the Native American sweat lodge, seekers enter a womb of tapas – primal fire and water — in order to reconnect to spirit though their own experience of tapas. They emerge from that gestation period like newborns, clearer and more attuned as a result of the purifying quality of heat.
All across the globe, we find the use of heat in ritual that serves to connect us to the primal heat of tapas.
Every time we enter the space of yoga practice, we are connecting to this primal fire and water. In our movement through the asanas, we are heating ourselves in order to open, and in that openness we are in a better place to receive – to receive breath, to receive illumination into our lives. It’s no coincidence that one feels clearer and cleaner and ‘reborn’ after the practice of heating through asana. This is tapas.
Through this heating process, we work to burn off that which stands in the way of us and our connection to the great transformative force of this universe, the light that some people call the Divine.