17.19 – True austerity is supplicative not manipulative
Gita wisdom frequently surprises us by taking us beyond surface to the substance of things. Few things illustrate this as graphically as the Bhagavad-gita (17.19) declaration that an activity which seems so obviously religious – austerity – can be in the mode of ignorance, meaning thereby that it is far removed from real spirituality.
Why would austerity be called ignorant? Because what makes a thing spiritual is not just the action, but also the motivation. When austerity is performed without understanding its purpose and meant only to hurt oneself or worse still to hurt others, then it perpetuates even aggravates our spiritual blindness.
True austerity is meant to purify and rectify us – and to seek the grace of Krishna for gaining the inner strength required for this project of individual reform. Such austerity is essentially supplicative. Though doing any form of austerity requires willpower, the focus of devotional austerity is not on exhibiting or expanding our own willpower but on strengthening our connection with Krishna by closing ourselves to distracting forms of worldly engagements and enjoyments, and thereby opening ourselves to begging and receiving his grace. The end goal of this deepened relationship with Krishna is to become even more devoted to him, to return to his world of love and to delight forever in our natural and eternal position as his beloved servitor.
Austerity in the mode of ignorance, however, is not supplicative, but manipulative. Those doing such austerities are driven by the desire to fulfill their own ulterior motives by any means possible – including accessing any higher power that may exist. They see austerity as a means to manipulate that higher power to fulfill their agenda. As their interest are no higher than the interests of people ignorant of life’s higher realities, Gita wisdom guides us to sees beyond their religious pretentiousness.
Penance performed out of foolishness, with self-torture or to destroy or injure others, is said to be in the mode of ignorance.