According to the Bhagavad Gita, there are three kinds of austerity based on our inner nature: the inferior kind (tamasic) is practiced with a determination based on foolishness, by means of self-torture, or for the purpose of ruining another (17.19); the mediocre kind (rajasic) is practiced in order to gain respect, honor, and reverence, and for ostentation (17.18); the superior kind (sattvic) consists in the practice of the austerity of body, speech and mind with supreme faith by steadfast people, without the desire for results (17.17).
Every austerity needs to be judged by the strengthening effect it has on our will, and by the disciplining effect it has on our mind. We may undertake fasts and vigils on auspicious days, but they will not effect any spiritual transformation if simultaneously we do not keep the mind on a higher plane.
Our will is usually bound by desires, which sprout from our mental impressions. The will becomes free from desires and grows stronger only by repeated practice of spiritual discipline, thinking noble thoughts, and doing work as worship. We need to be steadfast with this practice no matter how hard our mind rebels against it. Strengthening of will requires practice and perseverance.
Study of scriptures, or svadhyaya, is another divine quality described in the Bhagavad Gita (16.2). In the Taittiriya Upanishad, after imparting instructions in Vedic texts to his disciples, the teacher exhorts them: "Do not neglect the study and teaching of the Vedas." (1.11.1)
By Vedanta is meant the Upanishads, which form the knowledge portion of the Vedas. Vedanta teaches that God alone is real and the world ephemeral and thus unreal. Our difficult experiences in the world may awaken in us discrimination between the real and the unreal. We then yearn for something real and abiding, and begin to understand that God-realization, or Self-realization, is the only goal of life that can lead to supreme fulfillment. A regular study of scriptures always reminds us of this ultimate goal and helps us to strive for it.
Study of scriptures is not an end in itself: it should lead to purity of mind and devotion to God. Mere scholarship is deprecated in a well-known Sanskrit verse: "Just as a donkey carrying a load of sandalwood on its back does not recognize the worth of the sandalwood but only groans under its burden, even so many people learned in the scriptures do not realize their true purport and simply bear the 'weight' of outward knowledge."
Sri Shankara says in his Vivekachudamani: "Erudition, flowery speech, skill in expounding the scriptures-these things give pleasure to the learned, but do not lead to liberation." (58) "A network of words is like a dense forest that causes the mind to wander all around. Hence those who realize this should earnestly strive hard to know the true nature of the Self." (60)
Sri Ramakrishna teaches the true import of scriptural study: "Shall I tell you the truth? What will you gain by mere scholarship? The pundits hear many things and know many things-the Vedas, the Puranas, the Tantras. But of what avail is mere scholarship? Discrimination and renunciation are necessary."
"You may learn a great deal from books; but it is all futile if you have no love for God and no desire to realize Him. A mere pundit, without discrimination and renunciation, has his attention fixed on 'woman and gold'. The vulture soars very high but its eyes are fixed on the charnel-pit."