Austerity in Sanskrit is tapas, which means conservation of heat or energy. It is the practice of conserving and directing energy towards a goal. It requires discipline and control of consuming pranic energies. In materialistic terminology, it means exercising control to avoid over-consumption.
However, in spiritual terminology it means conserving tradition of fire that burns underneath the belly to achieve the goal of enlightenment. The three kinds of austerities are first, reverence for holy spirits, seers and teachers; straight forwardness, harmlessness, physical cleanliness and sexual purity. The second is purity of speech, not hurting another while communicating, to be truthful and to study the scriptures regularly. The third is of the mind which is serenity, sympathy, meditation and withdrawal of mind from the senses to remain tranquil and balanced in difficult situations.
Austerity is not about inflicting self-punishment, being harsh to oneself, or living a limited, restrictive lifestyle — it is about sane self-control, not abusing the body, by reining in the senses. The Bhagwad Gita defines austerity performed with foolish stubbornness or self-torture or harming others as ignorance. The Katha Upanishad says the senses are like horses; the road is the maze of desire, the greatest deceiver. Desire makes the mind uncontrollable and the senses unmanageable like restless horses.
Bodily diseases are caused when the organs do not get the required supply of energy consumed by the sense objects. The mind gets diseased by aggression, worry, anger and fear when it is devoid of positive thoughts; when the apertures of reproductive organs are let loose to exit energy. Austerity cleanses the body which is an ocean of different microbes that produces plenty of waste matter in the form of excrements. Removing the body of these impurities on a regular basis is essential to avoid infection that causes diseases. Austerity purifies the mind that creeps with negative thoughts.
When we talk of discipline of body and mind, we almost are at the doorway that leads to austerity. Discipline is the base camp before reaching the summit. Non-adherence of discipline creates situations of disorder and chaos in our lives. Normally we detest stiff rules; taxing bosses and teachers who scold employees and students for wrongdoings; for not obeying them; for not abiding by the rules. Though there are lot of constraints and rules, its approaches are negative which result in bad feelings. Very few do something to strengthen resolve; a majority is insolent.
If discipline is applied judiciously and positively, it gives power to stick to decisions without being desultory. It is one of the cardinal requirements for achieving goals. It manifests as intrinsic strength, helps overcome addictions, laziness, bad tempers, gratifications and ephemeral worldly pleasures. It plays an important role in nation building, in becoming a civilised citizen, in leading a successful and decent life; it can lead to winning a war against enemies.
Today we have become obsessed with speed and greed for accumulation of wealth; we consume more than we conserve. The impact of conserving energy is directly related to longevity and senescence. Austerity is the power which enables to us harness more power.
So, when we consume more through the sense gratifications, we do not conserve. The higher the sense desires, the lower the energy levels and when energy levels get depleted, higher the flaws, fragilities, and frailties. Discipline paves way to austerity of the highest spiritual order as discipline of life is more important than the discipline itself.