We acquire gnana through penance. Thriumoolar did penance; as a result, the world got his great work of religious wisdom: Thirumantiram. Tiruvalluvar speaks highly of the value of penance. He says he who does penance can obtain whatever he desires. He further says that even Yama, the God of Death, fears those who do penance. He who wishes to do penance must first learn to control his senses, and this will take time. He must be prepared to ignore the elements and not be afraid of exposing himself to the harsh rays of the sun. Nor should he hesitate to expose himself to torrential rains. He must always have one thought: his penance, which he does with great difficulty, is for the benefit of all mankind.
Tamil poet Nalladanar says purity of thought and truthfulness characterise one who does penance. He also said that such people will not hurt others by word or deed. Another poet called Kaariyaasaan says he who wants to do penance must not harm others; he must not be affected by the difficulties that may come his way; he must never lose his temper. The poet Kanimedhaviyaar has a different definition. Penance, he says, means the state of being devoid of desires and worldly ties.
Penance also means one has to meditate, and keep one’s thoughts from going astray, said Malayaman, in a lecture. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa said offering one’s prayers to God was like talking to God; but meditating meant listening to God. He also gave an example to show how difficult it is for us to keep our thoughts focused on God. Suppose a sack containing mustard seeds bursts open. One can imagine how the seeds will scatter all over the place, and how difficult it will be to gather all the seeds and put them back in the sack. As difficult as this is the task of gathering one’s thoughts and keeping them focused on God. Meditation helps us acquire atma gnana. He who meditates will be able to accomplish tasks that might otherwise seem impossible of accomplishment. A Tamil poet says penance is greater than the world itself. This is indeed true, for after all it is the penance of righteous men, which keeps the world going.