In one of our recent youth satsangs, we had a very engaging discussion on ‘thawam’ from the Kural, which in Tamil means penance / austerity. Is penance only for the likes of Ravana or others who sat and meditated for years together? Or is there some penance possible in our daily lives as well?
Maybe waiting in a line for 14 hours to get one’s hand on the next latest and greatest iPhone could be considered penance. But that would only be scratching the surface. To some, penance is minimalism, such as getting rid of all gadgets (including aforementioned iPhone) and spending time with nature instead. They may also spend much lesser money than others – never eating out, never traveling – being extremely frugal. But where does one draw the line? Does one also stop wearing clothes, taking bath, not sending the kids to school, not visiting a doctor for a medical emergency? Surely penance is about frugality, not miserliness.
Great men and women have said (and experienced) that nothing worth having comes easy. Which means penance is a part of all success worth having. It also begs the question, why is penance so hard? The answer is that it’s not hard. It’s very easy in fact, if one TRULY wants something. Most struggle with this, because they want something (like success), but do not want to work for it.
It’s one thing to do penance for our own benefit. But the truly great people – like my Guru, they observe penances solely for the benefit of others. He observes fasts or chants 21,000 ashotrams for other people’s health – sometimes people who he has not even met! As Thiruvalluvar says, “How fire refines the gold, the pain of penance refines the person.” What more can one ask for?