Tapas. It is a word, a concept, that triggers inside my mind a paramount philosophical fascination. It comes from Sanskrit. This language was written in Devanagari (“the writing of the gods”). The beauty of its calligraphy can be enjoyed in the text that flies over these phrases. It is the beginning of the famous Creation Hymn (10.129) of the Rig Veda. You can find it on this generous website:
Tapas… We are going to philosophize about a specific type of suffering: the creative suffering.
Nietzsche raised the -of course unwilling- suffering to the highest realms of human nature and sacralized who were able to cry a heroic yes to life, with all its suffering. The philosopher of the hammer worshiped a heroic artistic effort whose goal would be to enhance the bewitching aesthetic power of life, of the sole, immanent reality. Schopenhauer, on the contrary, uttered a radical no to life, to this world, and also proclaimed not only the urgency of its complete annihilation, but also the possibility of the Creation of another world, of another whole reality, unthinkable, even unimaginable, from this one. [See my paper, still in German, on the place of magic in the philosophical system of Schopenhauer].
Pain. Suffering. Creation of reality. Tapas…
We are facing a Sanskrit noun related to the verb tap (to heat). I recommend, to those who still do not know it, this powerful resource:
There we find these meanings for Tapas: “heat”, “the five fires to which the devotee is subjected in the hot season”, “pain”, “suffering”, “religious austerity”, “mortification of the body”, “the sacred learning of the Brahmins”, “giving the soul to the Brahmins”, “service”, “feeding with roots and herbs”…
The point is that Maurice Blomfield went far beyond and, in his edition of the Atharva Veda, translated Tapas as “creative fervor” (Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 42). You can access this work from here:
Such conception of the Tapas can also be found in the aforementioned Creation Hymn of the Rig Veda, whose third verse sings:
“Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat”.
I have quoted from the translation and editing of part of the hymns of the Rig Veda made by Wendy Donniger (Penguin, London 1981). This translator includes a note in the word “heat” that says the following:
“Tapas designates heat, in particular the heat generated by ritual activity and by physical mortification of the body.”
But it turns out that we are facing a hymn that wants to explain the mystery that there is something instead of nothing: something, in addition, that arises out of nothing: the Creation. And the key seems to be in a certain type of suffering; or, rather, in a creative channeling of suffering.
This creative power of the ascetic sacrifice -the “heat” of asceticism- shows up in another famous hymn of the Rig Veda, the Purusa-Sukta (10.90), which describes Creation as the result of a violent dismemberment of a primordial man. Let’s read its ninth verse:
“From that sacrifice in which everything was offered, the verses and the chants were born, the meters were born from it, and from it the formulas were born”.
It would seem that the huge suffering of that ‘proto-human’ who was dismembered by creative gods would be the fundamental energy of all creation -including the primeval Word [See the introduction of this philosophical dictionary].
I now proceed to convey some personal thoughts on the mystery of suffering (I have lived long enough to have experienced it, several times, in its amazing fullness):
1.- The reality of suffering, even of extreme suffering, is undoubtedly one of the core elements of our existence. Furthermore, it could also be said that the intensity that such feeling can reach is one of the most astonishing experiences of our lives.
2. I see two basic types of suffering: ‘protective’ and ‘creative’.
- The protective suffering. This one serves to protect, to sustain our world, our current model of existence (for example, the pain that prevents us from performing acts that may threaten the integrity of our physical body, or the stability of our financial dimension, or the survival of our family-archetype, or the purity of our model of sexuality, or the alleged sacrality of our nation’s flag). The worlds and their bewitched inhabitants are protected by a dualistic pleasure/suffering system. Anything that threatens or breaks our cosmos causes suffering. Let’s think about the suffering (‘logical suffering’ could be called) caused by the discourses that derive from political ideas radically different from those that structure, that sustain, the political /ideological comfort of the listener.
- The creative suffering. This one would propitiate the need to flee from one unbearable world and create another, and even to take some essential jewels of the first and bring them in the new one. I mean something like a metaphysical emigration that carries what is unrenounceable (a son, for instance) in its harsh, but also creative travel. This type of Creation/Migration requieres extreme, unbearable suffering. It reminds me of Marx’s idea of using the extreme suffering of the working masses to completely dynamite that which he considered as a capitalist (and therefore anti-human, evil) system. In fact that extreme suffering, when it exceeds certain thresholds, works like a plow (and also as a magical wand) in the infinite garden of our conscience. That extreme suffering can even break the containment dykes that separates us from ‘the other’. Anyway, if, as Buddha or Schopenhauer say, life is extreme suffering, we could affirm that life is Creativity (with capital letters). Ubiquitous and permanent Creativity. Creativity that also presupposes (needs) destruction, pain. I am talking about an involuntary personal hell that, at the same time, is the factory of any heaven, and not only of our private heaven, but also a heaven that might be shared with others.
3.- Many of us can remember this: to be suffering intensely inside a dream, and, suddenly, to be conscious -from a mysterious, radical lucidity- that we could escape from that torturous dream at any moment. Only willing to do it. And we do it. We actually did it, because otherwise we would not be reading this text.
4.- It could be said that all the worlds are open. It is possible to leave, to scape to another Maya, or to the ‘nothing’ from which they sprout and to which all the worlds return. Can we create worlds? Yes. And not only that: we can re-create ourselves. And it seems that the decisive force for such huge project is a previous, unbearable suffering: a prodigious emotional catapult. A catapult that you have to handle wisely if you want it to cause the desired effects. Paradoxically, extreme suffering may be an opportunity to perform allegedly impossible miracles inside the world that was protected by the non-extreme suffering. Extreme (not voluntary, let’s insist) suffering might be considered pure magic. That seems to indicate the hymns to the Creation of the Rig Veda to which I have referred before.
Next, I offer a link in which you can see a fragment of All the Mornings of the World, a film directed by Alain Corneau. It tells the astonishing story of Saint Colombe, a seventeenth-century musician who channeled his extreme suffering (and his extreme self-discipline) to create a music capable of summoning and also shaking his dead wife. That music is interpreted for the film by Jordi Savall. Enjoy in fullness this supreme fruit of creative suffering: