The concept of “tapasya” is frequently translated to mean the practice of austerities, an ascetic discipline, but the sense is actually much more complex and nuanced than that. The root word implies production of heat, radiating energy. It is generally associated with yogic disciplines, in some cases with penances, privations and physical suffering. Sri Aurobindo, however, in his translation of the Taittiriya Upanishad translates it to mean “concentration of thought” or “concentration of force”, and this represents the more central, inner sense of the phrase. The teacher in the Upanishad asked the disciple to undertake tapasya, because “tapasya is the Eternal.” This shows the essential nature of tapasya and the need we have to truly understand what is implied by it in the deepest sense. The other inflections represent the influence of the Gunas on the practice of tapasya, as each Guna will yield a different sense of what “tapasya” must be.
Sri Aurobindo describes Tamasic Tapasya as follows: “…that which is pursued under a clouded and deluded idea hard and obstinate in its delusion, maintained by an ignorant faith in some cherished falsehood, performed with effort and suffering imposed on oneself in pursuit of some narrow and vulgar egoistic object empty of relation to any true or great aim or else with a concentration of the energy in a will to do hurt to others….a darkness in the mind and nature, a vulgar narrowness and ugliness in the doing or a brutish instinct or desire in the aim or in the motive feeling.”
He describes Rajasic Tapasya as well: “Rajasic energisms of askesis are those which are undertaken to get honour and worship from men, for the sake of personal distinction and outward glory and greatness or from some other of the many motives of egoistic will and pride. This kind of askesis is devoted to fleeting particular objects which add nothing to the heavenward growth and perfection of the soul; it is a thing without fixed and helpful principle, an energy bound up with changeful and passing occasion and itself of that nature. Or even if there is ostensibly a more inward and noble object and the faith and will are of a higher kind, yet if any kind of arrogance or pride or any great strength of violent self-will or desire enters into the askesis or if it drives some violent, lawless or terrible action contrary to the Shastra, opposed to the right rule of life and works and afflicting to onesel and to others, or if it is of the nature of self-torture and hurts the mental, vital and physical elements or violates the God within us who is seated in the inner subtle body, then too it is an unwise, an Asuric, a rajasic or rajaso-tamasic Tapasya.”
It is thus important to recognize that, as with all things and forces in the world, the pervasive action of the Gunas can distort the action and destroy the intended spiritual result.
Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 18, The Gunas, Faith and Works, pg. 472