(Note: This article was first published in the October, 2006 issue of Life Positive. As we are in midst of a complete lock-down to combat the spread of SARS COV-2, I revisited this article and found it to be relevant to the circumstances)
All through life we are confronted with adverse situations that are beyond our control. It could be disease or death, financial bankruptcy or the loss of a reputation. Often, the event sends us skydiving into fear, worry and doubt, estranging us from God. However, there is another, more empowering way of confronting these events which becomes clear when you embark on a spiritual quest. You realize that an unseen hand is guiding you and that every event has its reason. A strong trust fills you and you find yourself acquiescing to even the most unsupportable condition.
I often have a conversation with the Supreme Being and tell Him that He knows best and that I leave it to Him to protect me and my near and dear ones. There is a strange peace when you surrender unconditionally to the highest authority of the universe. When you introspect, you find that God has a definite plan and a purpose for each of us and has given us duties best suited to our nature.
When we come into this world, most of us face circumstances similar to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. His plight was pathetic, when he was confronted with the fact that he had to fight against his kin and elders against his will. A feeling of total dejection overpowered his normal reasoning. It was then that the Lord Sri Krishna took him through the sea of knowledge that we know as the Bhagavad Gita. After explaining the various paths to self-realisation, namely karma yoga (path of action), jnana yoga (path of knowledge and study), mantra yoga (repetition of invocations and sound), bhakti yoga (path of devotion and selfless love), Sri Krishna advises Arjuna to rise above the lesser dharmas or duties which keep the soul bound to matter. He urges Arjuna to ‘surrender all unto me and I shall free you from fears, bondage and sorrows’.
This act of surrender is termed as Saranagati.
Saranagati forms the nucleus of the vishistha advaita philosophy and is referred to as the prapatti yoga or nyasa (explained by the learned 13th century Vaishnava saint Vedanta Desika) and does away with the rigors of bhakti yoga. The Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, and the Ramayana also exhort devotees to take the path of saranagati. Saints such as Adi Shankaracharya and Madhavacharya gave immense importance to saranagati. This act of self-surrender at the feet of the Supreme Being is the pinnacle of bhakti yoga. The Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya says that this is the simplest course available to devotees to reach Godhead in the present times and to release oneself from the never-ending cycle of births and death. It does not have the danger of any lapses. It does not require any prerequisite rituals and can be followed by all, irrespective of caste, creed or sex.
In one of his talks, Paramahansa Yogananda refers to two boys watching some potatoes boiling in a pot. One of them says, ‘Look, brother, the potatoes are jumping up and down.’ The wiser boy says, ‘But it is the fire that makes them jump.’ What the great guru wanted to emphasize was that God was the fire that animates all living beings. In our daily duties, God is working through us. While he has given man freedom of choice, He is still the determinant of our lives – and we need to recognize that.
The act of surrender can never be forced. It has to come from within the devotee and is a result of transcendental love. Indeed, when there is force, there can be no love. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says, ‘It takes many births for a soul to know that I am the cause of all causes and to surrender unto me.’ A soul who recognizes this is indeed very rare.
Six steps to surrender are described in the Bhakti Sandarabha (written by the 16th century saint Jiva Goswami), which says, ‘Anukulyasya sankalpa pratikulyasya varjanam; raksisyati iti visvaso goptrtve varanam tatha; atma-niksepa karpanye sas-vidha saranagati’.
o Entertaining favorable thoughts (anukulyasya sankalpa): The mind has to be trained to do so with simple spiritual practices.
o Forsaking unfavorable thoughts (pratikulyasya varjanam): Prejudices and negative feelings such as jealousy, anger, pride and hypocrisy have no place in the mind of a devotee. Undue attachment towards power, wealth, name and fame can prove an obstacle to the path of realisation.
o Unshaken faith in God (raksisyati iti visvasah): The devotee has the unshakable faith that there is always a guiding hand with him. Even if we don’t understand some of His ways, the devotee knows that the Highest Being is his ‘well-wisher’ rather than a ‘wish-fulfiller’.
o Truly seeking refuge in God (goptrtve varanam): The devotee prays that the Lord has to guide him at every step till he is liberated.
o Casting oneself at the mercy of God (atma-niksepa): Here, the devotee casts aside any ego and other reservations which come in the way of total surrender.
o Expressing helplessness (karpanya): When we express our helplessness, He quickly responds and is forever there to uplift us.
History and mythology is replete with instances of pure devotion displaying the six-fold factors of surrender. The oft-quoted example is the Vibhishana saranagati, as this brother of the demon, Ravana, sought refuge in Sri Rama under difficult circumstances. No wonder then that he is considered an epitome of bhakti. When Lord Brahma appeared before the three brothers, Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Vibhishana, who were in penance, and granted them any wish, Vibhishana merely asked for blessings that his heart should have love for the Lord at all times, while his two brothers asked for personal boons.
This is the first step towards total surrender where favorable thoughts (anukulya sankalpa) lead to an intense yearning for the Lord. Despite having a dominant brother in Ravana, Vibhishana tells him that it is wrong to have kidnapped Sita and tries to make Ravana see reason.Vibhishana’s personality is initially timid and only after sadhana does he muster the courage to openly eschew unrighteousness (pratikulasya varjanam). This is the second step to surrender. He leaves Lanka because he finds it difficult to practice dharma and he is sure that the Lord will protect him when he seeks refuge. This is the third step to surrender (raksisyati iti visvasah). The faith that the Lord will grant him refuge is the fourth step to surrender (goptrtve varanam). Vibhishana then reaches Rama’s camp where Sugriva, the king of monkeys, warns Rama, that he is, after all, a rakshasa and therefore not to be trusted. But Rama dismisses the warning, affirming that even if the worst sinner were to come to him seeking refuge in repentance, he would forgive him. Vibhishana, on the other hand, cannot believe his good fortune in actually being in the presence of the Lord. Instantly, the last two factors of surrender – casting oneself at the mercy of God (atma-niksepa) and expressing total helplessness (karpanya), burst forth in his heart.
Lord Rama then addresses Vibhishana as Lankesha (king of Lanka). At that instant it is clear that Ravana’s days are numbered. Vibhishana, who had no desire for power or wealth, and had surrendered to Sri Rama, was instructed by the Lord to take care of Lanka. Hence, Vibhishana saranagati is an example of how God showers us with his blessings even when unasked.
Saints in India have time again spoken about the path of surrender. The South Indian woman saint Andal or Godha Devi (meaning ‘gift of mother Earth’) rejected earthly marriage and ‘married’ Lord Vishnu spiritually and physically. In her magnificent collection of poems called Thirrupavai, she explains the path of surrender to God.
Surrendering or taking saranagati, does not mean that you abandon your worldly duties. As Lord Krishna states in the final chapter of the Gita, ‘Discharge your duties in the world. But fix your mind on me…. Take refuge in me and you will overcome all obstacles and you will enjoy enduring happiness.’