Monday Morning Greetings #9 – Is Surrender a Bad Word?

February 29th, 2016

When I was in my teens a popular and favorite situation comedy on television was called The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. It was about typical young men in the 50s. The character that amused us the most was Dobie’s best friend, a beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs. Beatniks, like their descendants the hippies, had the reputation of never working.  During the show whenever Maynard was causally asked if he would like to work, he would nervously shriek “Work!” We loved it. It was as if “work” was a bad word.

I almost find the same reaction today among some devotees when you mention the word “surrender”, even though surrender is the foundation of bhakti. Ouch! Why do I hear some of my readers react that way when I say that surrender is the foundation of bhakti? Is surrender a bad word?

How can that be? Surrender is unquestionably the first thing Arjuna says to Krishna after accepting Him as his guru:

“I am a soul surrendered unto you. Please instruct me.”

And later when Krishna describes the responsibly of a disciple he says  “pranipatena” –  that before receiving knowledge the student must offer prostrated obeisances which takes the “I surrender” mudra of hands raised up in the air to the next level, falling flat at someone’s feet.

When discussing this very point about surrender in my Nectar of Devotion seminar, Satyahari, one of the students and a scholar in his own right, shared an insight from one of his teachers on the difficulty for some people with the word surrender. “When you translate words from Sanskrit to English the translated word is pregnant with history [of its usage].”

The English word “surrender” means to capitulate or submit and its usage in English are almost exclusively to an enemy or opponent.

But isn’t there a better word in English for prapatti or saranagati than surrender? Why is such a word with such negative connotations as “to enemy or opponent” used?

The core meaning of surrender is derived from the Middle English word “rendre” which means to return or give back, and the prefix “sous” which mean “under”, literally to place oneself under someone else.  “To an enemy or opponent” is the implied meaning in English due to the pre-Renaissance culture into which the meaning of surrender was born. But capitulation or submission does not have to be to an enemy. It can also be done out of great love.

In other words, both prapatti and surrender have the exact same meaning. They both describe the act of giving oneself over or to or “under” the control of another party. However, according to the culture in which that word is used and one’s personal experience with authority in life, surrender will conjure up one of two images or meanings:

One hears surrender and sees an image of waving a white flag and then marching in the hot sun with bayonet in back and hands raised in air. To such a person surrender means exploitation and abuse

Another hears surrender and sees the image of a child in the arms of their loving mother, completely “under” her care. To such a person surrender means shelter and love.

Regardless how you are conditioned to view the word, the more important consideration for a devotee is whether he can accept and embrace the base meaning of surrender, “giving control over oneself to another party”, for without the mood “ I am yours” one cannot enter the door of bhakti. Isn’t the mood of giving oneself to another by supplicating one’s will to their desires the basis of any relationship with a worthy object of love, especially one’s guide or protector?

I think there are a few other images that need to be clarified before the moniker of weakness can be lifted from the word surrender. Surrender –  “giving control over oneself to another party”  – does not mean one’s initiative is squelched or one is micromanaged, provided the person one surrenders to is worthy. One is fully empowered according to one’s ability, but always in the mood of dependence and humility. I heard a beautiful analogy that describes the subtlety of balancing full initiative and full dependence at the same time:

In an Indian joint family when the father retires his sons will be given the business and full initiative to run it. The father will come, however, everyday and sit there. Although he doesn’t interfere and the sons have full initiative to run it, they happily feel his presence, shelter, and authority. In a similar way a mature and educated disciple is given full initiative to practice spiritual life and render service according to his full realization, but always with an eye towards his spiritual guardians and their authority.

“But what if the guru is not qualified and I will be mislead or exploited?” The subtleties of dealing with that are another story and another paper, but we can’t change the philosophy about what surrender means on the basis that we have entered into the wrong relationship. Before judging guru in such a way, we better be sure that the problem is not mostly with us, the disciple. And it goes without saying that there must be a period of examination between the guru and disciple before one makes such a heavy commitment as “surrender”.

That’s it. Surrender is not a bad word, although the reality of our absolute dependence on God is a challenging one. False ego means we want power to control and enjoy, and accepting authority takes that power from our hands. Naturally we resist it and the words that represent it, but surrender is just not a bad word. Surrender is the gateway to world of bhakti.


One Response to “Monday Morning Greetings #9 – Is Surrender a Bad Word?”

  1. Harmonist | Is Surrender a Bad Word?on 20 Jun 2016 at 3:33 am

    […] By Dhanurdhara Swami, originally published at Waves of Devotion. […]