Monday Morning Greetings 2022 #31 – Is Surrender a Bad Word?

August 1st, 2022

Is Surrender a Bad Word? [1]


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 asked if he would like to work, he would shriek nervously, “Work!” We loved it. It was as if work was a bad word.


I find almost the same reaction today among some devotees when they hear 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 “praṇipātena”—that before receiving knowledge, the student must offer prostrated obeisances, which takes the “I surrender” mudrā of hands raised up in the air to the next level, falling flat at someone’s feet.


When discussing this point about surrender in my Nectar of Devotion seminar, Sat Hari—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,” he said, “the translated word is pregnant with history [of its usage].”


The English word surrender means to capitulate or submit, and its usage in English is almost exclusively to an enemy or opponent.


Isn’t there a better word in English for prapatti or śaraṇāgati than surrender? Why use a word with such negative connotations—“to enemy or opponent”?


The core meaning of surrender is derived from the Middle English word render, 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 in which the meaning of surrender developed. 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, depending on 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 a person 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 imagines a child in the arms of his or her loving mother, completely “under” her care. To such a person, surrender means shelter and love.


Regardless of how you are conditioned to view the word, the more important consideration for a devotee is whether he or she can accept and embrace the base meaning of surrender, “giving control over oneself to another party,” for without the mood of “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 with one’s guide or protector?


There are a few other images that should be clarified before the sense of weakness can be lifted from the word. Surrender—“giving control over oneself to another party”—does not mean that one’s initiative is squelched or that 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: In an Indian extended family, when the father retires, his sons will be given the business and full initiative to run it. The father, however, will come every day and sit there. Although he doesn’t interfere and the sons have full initiative, they 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 toward his spiritual guardians and their authority.


“But what if the guru is not qualified and I am misled 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 a guru in such a way, we had 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, though 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 not a bad word; it is the gateway to the world of bhakti.


[1] This Monday Morning Greetings was original published on February 29, 2016.


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