On this auspicious day of Gita Jayanti, the day when Sanjaya narrates the Bhagavad Gita to Dhritarashtra on the divine Song Celestial, a discourse between Krishna and Arjuna, let us take a peek at one of the most simplest, yet very esoteric and profound and also least understood thoughts in Indian Philosophy – Saranagati, also known as Prapatti and usually translated as Atma Nivedan or Self Surrender. It is essentially the central tenet of Sri Ramanujacharya’s Visishtadvaita – Sri Sampradaya, but also Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Goudiya Sampradaya, popularly known today as ISKCON.
Few months ago, I was blessed with the privilege of listening to a great Vaishnavite scholar who gave an in-depth understanding on Vaishnavism. At the end of the few day talk series, the overwhelming feeling I got was, most of the Vaishnavaite ideas seemed to be echoing in the statements of missionaries or the Church. Not enthralled by the superficial similarities, a quick look into the history of digestion, made the picture clear. Nothing could be a better example of DIGESTION (a phenomenon studied and highlighted first by Rajiv Malhotra), than usurping Saranagati and reviving ideas like Church as the body of Christ. This prelude I think is important for us to wade into the original refreshing ideas given by our great acharyas.
Though Saranagati is primarily a core Vaishnavaite tenet, it will be hard to discard the examples found in non Vaishnavite Hinduism. But the breadth and depth of Saranagati in Vaishnavite literature will make this article more colored by it.
Saranam means end or conclusion and agathi means coming to, implying Saranagati is coming to the end of Samsaric cycle, liberation, moksha. Vaishnavites have so many synonyms like Prapatti, Nyasam, Atma Samarpanam, Atma Nivedanam etc as it forms the primary method of approaching Narayana, Para Brahman.
Self Surrender is an easy and sure way to God realization. It is not a mere pretense of dumping our wishes to HIS feet, but it comes more as a cleansing of our ego and thinning of our vasanas. Just like in Karma Yoga, the novice and the adept are both termed as Karma Yogi, anyone on this path of liberation is said to tread Saranagati. So with the exception of ourselves, our guru and Paramathma, it will hard to fathom where we are. Luckily there are some external pointers given by great acharyas which guide us along this wonderful journey.
Swami Sivananda refers it as giving the Power of Attorney to God and letting HIM guide you in whichever way HE prefers. There is no worry or anxiety. The elevated mind feels whenever sorrowful events take place as a sign of karmic debt erasing from one’s account and whenever joyful events happen as a blessing for the past good karma. In either case, a Prapannan or Saranagatan feels detached from the karma bondage. The mind is entirely occupied by Paramatma, Narayana and there is no hankering for karma phala.
Qualities of a Prapannan – One who Surrenders
Let us make it clear as to who qualifies to surrender – Anyone who chooses to. There is no place or timing nor prerequisite for Self surrender. Usually the ones who feel they do not qualify for the regular paths of Bhakti, Karma or Jnana, either due to their guilt or lack of commitment are the primary candidates, which makes most of us. In the traditional method, one approaches a guru and gets diksha.
On the other hand, if one has intense desire for Paramathma – sakara (with form) or nirakara (formless), guided by the intensity, Saranagati comes naturally to a purified mind. One cannot find a person who has done Saranagati without Yama and Niyama or in vedantic parlance without Sama and Dama. These aid in increasing our positive vasanas and help us gravitate to a Sadguru. In our Guru Parampara, a realized Guru is the gateway to our efficient spiritual progress. The surrender is complete and can never be partial, though the intensity of grace felt is proportional to the degree of surrender.
The entire being, mind, intellect, Chitta and egoism, must be surrendered to the Lord. OFFERING the body, mind and soul EXCLUSIVELY to the service of God is Saranagati (self-surrender) – Swami Sivananda
Desire and egoism are the two biggest obstacles in the path of Self surrender. Vaishnavite acharyas have codified these traits wonderfully as
ANUKULASYA SANKALPAH PRATIKULYASYA VARJANAM
RAKSISYATY ITI-VISVASO GOPTRTVA VARANAM TATHA
ATMA NIKSEPA KARPANYE SADVIDHA SARANAGATIH
Saranagati or Self Surrender has six aspects or facets. These are not steps or stages or parts. Anukulasya sankalpah - Accepting the path of unalloyed bhakti. This unwavering, unerring stubborn sticking to the path conducive to bhakti, saranagati is the key to keeping the Saranagatan on track.
Pratikulasya Varjanam – Rejecting all things not favorable to Saranagati. These two are directly per Yama’s advice to Nachiketas in Kathopanishad, where he talks or Shreyas and Preyas, the path of good and pleasant.
Raksisyaty iti visvaso - Unshakeable faith, even when the entire surface we stand is crumbling. Most of us can hold upto maximum 90%, and then we question our own fallacy on leaning on God. This takes Prahlad like belief as God is the ONLY protector.
Goptrtva Varanam – Having a sense of 100% dependency on God. This does not mean one sits and does nothing, expecting God to spoon feed, but doing all the karmas will the clarity that the karma phala data, giver of the fruits of our actions knows the best to give. Knowing that even though we are the doers, having total clarity that the motive, energy and fruit of action are all provided by HIM.
Atma niksepa – Complete total surrender.
Karpanye – Feeling meek and humble. This never happens as long as ego is dancing like a hooded serpent. Just if we realize when compared to even a town or country or even this planet how insignificant we are, not to mention the solar system or the milky way or the Universe. Having the perspective of humility gives us two advantages in this path – constant reminder that we need HIS protection and also the feeling of universal love as we can relate to other’s needs.
From a brief analysis of the facets of Saranagati, it is very obvious Saranagati is not like some copy cat Abrahamic telling we surrender to the will of God. Unless desire and ego are surrendered, it is impossible to do anukulasya sankalpah or pratikulasya varjanam. The idea of still hankering for desires and expecting God to take care of them, be it via prayers or a false idea that magically they will happen due to the belief in the Higher, is the most absurd degradation of Saranagati. The digesting forces of Abrahamism, keen only on market footprint and not theological holism, are constantly ready to imbibe any fresh idea to patch up its hollow and shallow theology. Read more in Jehovism Deconstructed.
The best role model for being a Prapannan or Saranagatan is Prahlad. We see the epitome of Bhakti that effuses all over his actions that is ripened in deep Jnana and yet all his actions are exemplar karma yoga. Despite all these attributes, Prahlad wants nothing from Bhagwan in return. All he seeks is his company. We find the same behavior in Dhruva, who begins with the desire of sitting on his father’s lap, but is extremely merged into the divinity and seeks nothing. As a beginner we will be stumped by our own desires and ego, but as we mature in this path, we will see the thinning of the same and eventual complete self surrender occurs.
In Saranagati, our actions do not determine the grace nor does it amount in proportion. To begin with one finds more clarity and progress in proportion to the degree of surrender. As one advances in this path, one realizes that even those actions are due to the Grace of Paramathma. One perceives everything as Grace and Bhagwan as mere Grace Personified. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used to give this wonderful analogy of a salt doll trying to fathom the depths of the ocean, akin to a surrendered ego trying to fathom the depth of divine grace.
The mind is more malleable when the ego is shed in surrendering. Since Divinity is a very high ideal and there is a strong emotion to merge with it as a fundamental nature of a Jeeva, devoid of ego, Saranagati happens as a natural process. The progress is very rapid in this seemingly simple path for the one who can challenge their vasanas and ahamkara, riding on the power of divinity.
In Hindu philosophy, two pathways are often highlighted – marjala kishora nyaya – the way kitten gets transported by the powerful female cat which holds it with their sharp teeth or markata kishora nyaya – the way little monkey clings on to its mother, which is busy jumping from tree to tree. Sarnagati is the former method, where Bhagwan does all the heavy lifting for the Saranagatan. Now the busy digesting Christian missionary needs to know this logical flaw if they try digesting Saranagati. This is not like dumping all our karma on poor Son of God who is busy suffering for you. Karmaphala is not subject to bankruptcy or cannot be transferred. Note in Saranagati, the Prapannan is evolving beyond the reach of Karmas. There is no substitutional atonement, but a complete takeover of the Jeeva by Paramatma’s grace. There is no silly account tallying and hence trying to copy Saranagati into Christianity is not only untenable, but also starts exposing more holes in Jehovism. Perhaps the poor copycats can first start eating food for their beloved ones, ingesting medicines for others, before trying to peddle substitutional atonement in this modern world, to anyone who can use their intellect.
Exemplary role models
Sanatana Dharma scriptures are replete with stories and incidents of great exemplars whom we can role model for Saranagati. In fact, Vaishnavites view Ramayana as Saranagati Shastra as every Kanda has one or more examples. Let us briefly see a few examples from our scriptures:
Prahlad: On numerous occasions, the little boy did not give up, questioning “Why Me, God”, but was more than content to ignore the catastrophes he was hurled into, by his own father. Prahlad’s complete Saranagati is highlighted by Krishna in Bhagavad Gita as Krishna himself is Prahlad amongst Daityas. When the Jeeva is totally devoid of vasanas and ahamkara, the Jeeva functions as a mere part of Paramatma. Prahlad’s Saranagati, as we will see in other Saranagati’s almost forces Divinity to act and intervene or is it the divinity created that opportunity to shine light on the character of the devotee?
Gajendra: This is the best example to show that there are no qualifications needed for Saranagati, even an elephant could. Gajendra wrestled with its ahamkara when battling a crocodile that was trying to pull it inside water. Once the ego got depleted, paving way for complete Saranagati, words or thoughts are not needed, nor are special language. Gajendra thinks of Adimoola, and Vishnu comes running to its aid, carrying even the Garuda as the divinity rushes to the aid of a Prapannan. The Bhagavatam details on a lighter note that Vishnu had to bring all the paraphernalia like Garuda, shanka, so that Gajendra will believe its savior to be the one it worships.
Draupadi: During the vastra haran episode when she was totally helpless, with all her five husbands in their own moral bind, the elders like Bhishma and Drona bound by their illogical loyalty, Dritarashtra blinded by his love for his son, Duryodhana. Karna taunts her as a prostitute (something none of the Karna fans can ever argue for his case). Duryodhana launches the beast in Dushasana to disrobe the mensurating Draupadi clad in single cloth in public. Draupadi tries her best to seek the help of the onlookers, even tries her best to fend off Dushasana with her hands and clasping the cloth with her teeth. When she came to a point of total realization that only Bhagwan is the sole refuge, only HIS support sustains everything, she lifts both her hands in her realization and exhibition of Saranagati. As long as she was fending for herself, no divine intervention came. A very important lesson in Saranagati is total surrender of ego – 100%.
Ramayana is studded with so many gems of Saranagathas that it may need special attention at some other time. Lakshmana does Saranagati and pleads Rama to take him to the forest. It also might appear that Bharata’s Saranagati went in vain, but in reality Bharata is the example Rama takes all the time as a good devotee and follower over even Lakshmana who follows his like a shadow. Bharata’s Saranagati shows that the divine actions and preferences naturally overpower individuals’.
Even in the case of Kakasura, a crow that hurts Sita, trying to escape Rama’s arrow, goes around the world, but when it does Saranagati at the feet of Rama, is forgiven for its horrendous acts. A wonderful example of a grave sinner qualifying for mercy. We are all aware of Hanuman’s Saranagati. Sundara Kanda is filled with numerous instances of Hanuman’s actions depicting complete Saranagati. We also saw that one of the primary reasons behind Vaali vadam is Vaali’s ignoring the pleas of surrendered saranagata in Sugreeva.
Vibhishana is perhaps one of the best exemplary Saranagata’s. He had to overcome his natural asuric tendencies and his affinities to his own brother to stand against Ravana. Standing for Dharma, he did not hesitate to sacrifice his country, his people and everything at his disposal. Foolish western interpreters and braindead mythologists busy feeding the sepoy army will rather claim that this was treachery to defect to the enemy camp for potential gain. Nothing can be more illogical and demeaning. Vibhishana’s Saranagati provides a lot for us to emulate.
Maa Sita is perhaps the best of the best Saranagati examples; usually that escapes most of us. Maa Sita gives two concrete examples of her ability to control agni – when Hanuman’s tail is set on fire, her prayers keep his tail untouched by the fire, which seemed to burn everything in Lanka but Hanuman’s tail; also during agni pravesha episode where she comes unscathed despite entering fire. Though she is fully capable of reducing Ravana to ashes, she prefers to play a mere causatory role in his death not a direct one. She prefers Rama to be the ONLY actor. A Saranagata prefers to let Divinity be the ONLY guide. It does not imply they will quit their karmas.
Meera is a historical example from few centuries ago. She consumed the poison given by the family, who thought her Krishna Bhakti was causing dishonor and infamy to the clan. The poison had no effect and is recorded in her own words in bhajans. She did not rush to die or wish away, went through the motions without any emotion or commotion, knowing fully well it is only the will and grace of Sri Krishna that prevails, not human efforts.
The final words of Krishna in Bhagavad Gita gives a clear direction as to how one can approach HIM. The Dharmas of our plane are different from the Cosmic and Universal Divine Dharma. If we abandon ours, by shedding our ahamkara, and by accepting HIS complete direction, no conditions attached, Saranagati becomes a reality. We can map ourselves against this golden standard how far we are.
सर्वधर्मान्परित्यज्य मामेकं शरणं व्रज।
अहं त्वा सर्वपापेभ्यो मोक्षयिष्यामि मा शुचः।।18.66।।
sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo moksayisyami ma sucah
Abandoning all Dharmas (of the body, mind and intellect), take refuge in Me alone; I will liberate thee from all sins; grieve not.
Saranagati gives us a simpler way to fine tune our body, mind and intellect. In our scriptures where using divyastras are described, there is only one antidote for Narayanastra – Surrendering unconditionally. An episode occurs when Aswaththama deploys it against the Pandavas. Krishna and Arjuna have tough time trying to convince Bhima that surrendering is the only option, which he believes is worse than even death or capture by enemies. We need to educate the Bhima in us.
In Vishnu Sahasaranama, Parvati’s request for a shortcut to the entire Vishnu Sahasaranama fetches a response from Shiva as Rama Nama. Along the same lines, Saranagati can be viewed as a shortcut for doing Bhakti, Jnana and Karma Yogas all rolled into one. Bhagwan is bound due to Saranagata’s attitude, as only HIS actions are reflected in Sarnagata’s.
May we all surrender our egos and vasanas to the Lotus feet of Sriman Narayana. May HIS GRACE descend upon us that we can even see this wonderful path that is a shortcut to rise above samsara. The only trump card we humans have in this game is Sadhana. This one card we are allowed to multiply as much as we want. Sadhana purifies our mind and intellect enabling us to do complete Self Surrender or Saranagati at HIS feet. Bhagavad Gita Chapter 6, Sloka 5 lays out the path of how we can aid ourselves in this wonderful inner journey. A travel where there is no destination, only realization. A good mantra to keep chanting is "Sree Krishna Saranam Mamah". May HIS Lotus feet guide us in this endeavor.
Om Tat Sat