In my 8th Grade history and Lit class, we recently read selections from the Ramayana. (1) In it, the rishi get that way by performing tapas, which are not, in this case, tasty Spanish nosh-fodder, but rather, are disciplines and austerities one performs in order to rid one’s self from bad karma, and gain spiritual enlightenment and power. A maharishi – a highest rishi, or greatest sage – has performed so many (much? not clear on the usage convention here) tapas that he has reached the highest plain of enlightenment and power this side of godhood.
It is clear from the stories, however, that such enlightenment and power do not include surrender of one’s will or even of one’s vices. Sages perform tapas to get power, to satisfy their ambitions, to get revenge, in response to jealousy or envy. In one early story, a sage’s excessive tapas make him a threat to the gods themselves, who throw temptations in his way to slow him down.
Viswamitra was a king who attained sainthood through terrible austerities. He had long ago exhibited his spiritual powers by starting to create another Brahma and a rival universe. He had gone as far as the creation of new constellations, but was prevailed upon to stop by the entreaties of the alarmed gods.
Only at the very end, after thousands of years of tapas and many setbacks due to his temper and falling to temptations sent by the gods, does the sage attain to brahma-rishi-hood, which entails some control over his own desires.
I’ve heard that Hindu rituals are all about cutting deals with the gods. Certainly, in the Ramayana, that’s all tapas are about: you do the discipline, and the gods appear to recognize your achievements and grant you power. Want more power? Do more tapas. In addition to tapas, the Ramayana also describes elaborate rituals similarly designed to get something. These rituals call down the power of the gods to the ends of the person offering the ritual. Doing it right is critical – sages and other experts are recruited to guide the preparation and ritual. If the gods don’t do as you want, you must have failed somehow.
Gods are clearly compelled: when the sage performs tapas, they, it seems, must grant him powers. When the ritual is performed correctly, they must grant what the boon sought. Nowhere, it seems, is anything like a personal relationship with a personal god a goal. Hinduism does seem to have a strong sense of duty built into it, including duties to one’s fellow man.
But for us, no deals can be cut with God. We can only beg that He remembers His promise of mercy, and does not judge us as out sins deserve. This Lent, perhaps the most important Lent of our lifetimes, we say, with the king of Nineveh, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” There are no deals to be cut, no amount of tapas or rituals can earn us a reprieve from justice. If Nineveh deserved to be overthrown, if Sodom and Gomorrah deserved to be consumed with fire, how much more do we, who have sinned greatly in the greatest land of plenty and peace the world has ever know, deserve anything we get?
Old Scratch will have his day – but just a day. Americans have, sometimes, been very brave and generous, very neighborly and compassionate. Not always, not maybe even often, but – still. God is like the mom who cries when her kid gives he her a dandelion. He is looking for any opening, any sign, any flaw in our defenses through which He can sneak in and lavish His grace and love on us.
- This is supposedly a popular retelling. The poem is very long and meandering; when wrestled into English poetry, I found it long and difficult. Hate to water things down for kids, but, just this once…