Austerity can be understood as hard work that leads to permanent gain. It is also defined as severe and morally strict but at the same time very simple to practice. However, it is different from penance, which is punishment that one metes out to oneself for having done something wrong. It is also different from atonement, which is to act in a way so as to compensates for a previous wrongdoing. Austerity is an important aspect of every religion and is a divine quality. Austerity is opposite of the body’s tendency to rest and derive sensual gratification. And, it is difficult to be austere when we are dissatisfied.
There are three main types of austerities. The Bhagavad-Geeta says, “God, a brahmin, a teacher and a knowledgeable person should be given due respect. Along with this, purity, simplicity, celibacy and non-violence are austerities of the body” (17.14). “Not to speak words which agitate others and to speak only what is truthful, endearing to others and is favourable to them plus to learn by repeating aloud are the austerities of speech” (17.15). “To strive for mental peace, to behave gently towards others, being sober, to practice self-control and purification of the self are austerities of the mind” ( 17.16).
Who should practice austerity ? Human beings, of course, since it is not possible for the other species to practice austerity. The precious human birth is meant for making progress in the soul’s journey towards moksha.
Some people also practice austierity for wealth, fame, knowledge, beauty, renunciation and strength ; to have sound health of various kinds - physical, mental, intellectual and spiritual ; and to gain control over one’s mind and senses – this is the preferred goal of the wise.
Austerity is not meant to give unnecessary pain to one’s body. Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-Geeta warns, “Anyone with polluted consciousness who gives unnecessary pain to the body as well as to Me, residing in the body in the form of the Supersoul, is to be considered demoniac only” (17.6).
What are the benefits of practicing austerities ? One achieves self-realization - that one is only a soul and not the body that one sees. If one continues on the path of austerity, God-realization also comes at a later stage and this leads one to liberation or moksha. Peace of mind is another benefit. Happiness, which is contingent upon mental peace, follows. Purification of one’s consciousness – since the same consciousness continues into the next body - is the real bonus of practicing proper austerities. What is more, one enjoys freedom in the real sense even during one’s life-time.
How should this vitally important austerity be performed ? In the Bhagavad-Geeta Lord Krishna says, “One should take the scriptures as the guide to know what is to be done and what is not to done” (16.24). “One who gives up the scriptural injunctions either due to ignorance or willingly, impelled by lusty desires, neither achieves success nor happiness nor supreme destination” (16.23). Proper austerities bring progressive benefits and, therefore, Lord Krishna instructs, “One should practice with conviction and patience” (6.25).
Such austerities must be done with faith. Lord Krishna In the Bhagavad-Geeta says, “This material world works under My superintendence, meaning perfectly” (9.10). One should practice austerity since childhood so that it becomes one’s second nature. Change of nature which austerities require are hard to achieve in the later part of life.
Austerities are of three types : “In the mode of goodness which is desirable, one performs austerities without expectation of specific fruits of one’s labour, which is, being totally dependent upon the mercy of God” ( 17.17). “In the mode of passion, one performs austerities out of pride and for the sake of gaining respect, honour and worship. Such austerities are neither stable nor permanent” (17.18). And, “Austerity performed out of foolishness, with self-torture or to destroy or injure others, is said to be in the mode of ignorance” (17.19). Whereas austerities in the mode of goodness bring real benefits, the austerities performed in the mode of passion may appear like a lot of hard work but have hardly any permanent value. The austerities in the mode of ignorance harm the self and must be avoided.
Human life is meant for performing austerities, but of the right kinds and for the right causes. All austerities must be performed very carefully and if possible under expert guidance. Austerities if done foolishly can do more harm than good. One should always try to remain within one’s physical and mental limits ; copying or merely following others is likely to be counter-productive. Taking inspiration is fine but blindly copying others is not recommended. One should do hard work that brings in results.