From the pages of Srimad-Bhagavatam, the story of an elephant’s devotional plea provides an example for us all.
By Vraja Vihari Dasa
“One day everything will be well; that’s our hope. Everything’s fine today; that’s our illusion.” – Voltaire
The crocodile’s invincible jaws have got me. But the bigger tragedy is that I am unaware of its vicious grip even though its terrible gaping maw inflicts continuous pain, with brief moments of relief that I take as pleasure. In times of mental clarity, I realize I can’t get out of this deadly trap unless I call out to the Lord in utter surrender.
Thousands of years ago in a higher world an elephant king named Gajendra was captured by a crocodile in a lake. The elephant was sporting with his many wives when unexpectedly a crocodile grabbed his legs in its jaws. Gajendra tried to escape, but water is home for aquatic predators, and for Gajendra it was a foreign environment. He struggled, and even his wives and children tried pulling him away. But the crocodile just wouldn’t let go. Exasperated, Gajendra’s family left him to navigate the crisis alone.
This incident is narrated in Srimad-Bhagavatam, a scripture that describes life, the world, and relationships from a dimension different from the reality we commonly perceive with our limited senses. The explanations of the cosmos by modern science and Srimad-Bhagavatam vary because they view the universe from a different scale of perception. For example, I may see a gray powder, but you may view it under a microscope and discover that it’s white and black granules. What exactly is it? Although the two views differ, each is correct according to the perspective.
Srimad-Bhagavatam describes the universe from a scale of observation different from that of modern science, and in its stated purpose and scheme of things there are special planets with extraordinary creatures and animals. For example, the animals talk and pray, and they experience life differently than animals do here on earth. Yet even in the twenty-first century the principles that emerge from their stories, including Gajendra’s struggle, which lasted for centuries, have a universal appeal and deliver lessons to a spiritual aspirant.
In his pain and suffering Gajendra realized he needed to take his existence to the next level – to that of surrender. He called out to God helplessly and promised he’d offer his entire existence only to serve and please the Lord. He realized that no one could help him in this moment of crisis and that he was all alone in this dangerous world of suffering. The moment his appeal was sincere and heartfelt, the Lord descended on Garuda, His giant eagle carrier, and hurled His Sudarshana disc to cut off the head of the unrelenting crocodile. Gajendra was thus saved and awarded the highest position – service to God.
Three Stages of Life
We can view this narration as an example of three phases of our existence in the material world. First, like the king of the elephants, we seek to enjoy pleasures. This stage is called SENSE GRATIFICATION. We discover that sense pleasures bring misery, but we hope to find relief with more pleasure pursuits. The result is an endless, complicated mesh of suffering. This next stage is called STRUGGLE or SUFFERING. We pull and push our way through in this world, paying a heavy price for all the sense gratification we engaged in. We suffer as we struggle, and with no respite in sight we delude ourselves into believing it’s all part of the game called life. But our hearts hanker for unending happiness and relief from all suffering.
After many lifetimes of sense gratification and struggle, finally a battered and bruised living entity, if fortunate, surrenders to God. This is the SURRENDER stage, where in a state of utter helplessness the soul finds shelter in God’s loving embrace.
Before taking to spiritual life, we live a material life centered on our own pleasures – sense gratification – where our mind drags us in different directions. Gajendra led a merry life of enjoyment; we too are oblivious to the harsh realities of this world. Somehow a few of us come to a spiritual path and understand the seriousness of strict practices. Yet the mind, like the crocodile, drags us again into the lake of the material world. We want to get out of the grind of material life, but on our own we are helpless. During this second stage – struggle – we try to control our minds. Previously the mind hauled us around wherever it wanted to go, but now we seek to master it. As Gajendra struggled for centuries, we may endeavor for decades to gain mastery over our mind. But it is obstinate, and we suffer perpetually. Until, of course, we decide to enter the third stage – surrender –where we allow God to control our minds.
Stage 1: Sense gratification – the mind controls us.
Stage 2: Struggle – we try to control the mind.
Stage 3: Surrender – God takes charge of our mind.
When Gajendra realized he couldn’t get out of suffering by his own methods, he gave up the struggle. This is also what Draupadi did. When she realized that cruel Duhshasana, goaded by his treacherous brother Duryodhana and their wily uncle Sakuni, were determined to disrobe her; when her own husbands were incapable of helping her; when she couldn’t do anything on her own – she gave up the struggle and surrendered completely to Krishna.
Spiritual Progress and the Need for Grace
We aspiring devotees on the path of Krishna consciousness must reach the stage where the realization dawns that we can’t achieve success on our own. To go back to God’s kingdom, we need to access His grace, a power beyond our own. The advanced spiritual levels are not achieved by our endeavors; rather they are rewarded to us. And to receive grace, we need to surrender.
Imagine a man riding in a chariot where the five horses drag him, the miserable passenger, in all directions against his will. A soul trapped in this world of enjoyment and suffering is riding the chariot of his life, dragged by his mind and senses. That’s the first stage.
In the second stage, he decides to hold the reins of the horses and maneuver the chariot as he wills. After some time he realizes that the horses are wild and his attempts to control the chariot are feeble.
He then choses the third phase – spiritual life – where he allows God take charge of the chariot. He lets go of the reins.
The difference between the first and third phase is that in the first stage, when he let go it was his mind that dragged the chariot of his life, but now when he releases control, it’s God who has taken charge. The difference in these two approaches is the inner aspiration: his desire has changed from wanting to be an enjoyer in this world to wanting to be a servant of God and His devotees. Until the soul makes this conscious choice to be a servant, he is relentlessly pummeled by the indefatigable material energy.
We all surrender – either to the mind or to God. In between we show our sincerity by struggling to control the mind. As we realize the formidable challenge ahead of us, we humbly call out to God, in deep realization of our puny existence and His magnificent omnipotence. It is this realization that made Gajendra a hero in the pages of Srimad-Bhagavatam.
The main lesson from the story of Gajendra and the crocodile is that we have to move from sense gratification to struggle to finally surrender to God.
One may wonder: if surrender is the final objective, why not surrender now? And what stops us from calling out to Krishna as Gajendra did?
Why Can’t We Surrender Now?
We lack the ability to call out to Krishna helplessly like Gajendra for at least three reasons.
First, we are not aware that we are in the jaws of the crocodile called maya – the material energy or our own wicked mind. A snake swallows a frog slowly, but surely. Even as the snake is gulping down the frog, the frog stretches out its tongue to catch a flying insect. Similarly, even as we are reduced to insignificance by all-powerful time, we stay oblivious of our situation, busily catching insects daily in the form of our petty materialistic goals.
Second, even if we realize we are suffering in this world, we imagine that the crocodile of Maya will tire and eventually let us go. “She can’t keep biting me forever,” we delude ourselves. “She has to let go sometime.”
Sorry. She never lets go. She is never tired. The crocodile of Maya never sleeps.
We foolishly hope that things will get better in this world. A German saying that translates as “Hope dies last” has been around for a long time. Yet despite our undying hope, in the material world things never really improve. The crocodile of Maya will never relax. The only way to get relief is to surrender to Krishna completely.
A third reason why we don’t surrender is that we falsely assure ourselves that we have in fact surrendered to God because we practice many rituals. But although we may learn scriptural verses or visit holy places, none of this can match the quality of the surrender of Gajendra, who cried out to Krishna for help. Until we take complete shelter of God, the crocodile will continue to bite us.
The only hope for the living entity suffering in the material world of repeated birth and death is to take complete shelter of Krishna. Krishna in the form of His holy names can give us complete relief from suffering.
When Krishna reciprocates with our sincere effort in chanting, we’ll see the crocodile of Maya as a blessing. Until then, we’ll see and experience only suffering in this world.
Why Does Maya Give Suffering?
Maya is Krishna’s agent, and she performs the thankless task of testing all spiritual aspirants to help them become stronger in their resolve to serve God.
In the third chapter of his book Teachings of Queen Kunti, Srila Prabhupada writes that Maya tests us to see how firmly fixed we are in Krishna consciousness. Since she is an agent of Krishna, she won’t allow anyone to have the freedom to disturb Him. Her plan is to see if we are actually serious or if we are simply a nuisance. Srila Prabhupada declared emphatically in his talks that this is Maya’s real business.
A thief is looking to steal from a wealthy man’s house. A friend assures him that he knows all the secrets of the rich man and helps the thief enter the house at night. Meanwhile, unbeknown to the thief, this friend, now turned traitor, quietly informs the prosperous merchant that a thief will come at a particular time on a certain day to steal his wealth.
What do you think the wealthy man will do? He’ll be prepared to receive the thief and foil his plans.
Likewise Krishna assures us that we can cross over the hurdles offered by Maya. Through scriptures, He gives us the method: the regulative principles, the shelter of a bona fide guru, and many devotional practices. Yet He also empowers Maya to test our resolve. In a sense Maya and Krishna are hand in glove in this operation. Nevertheless, Krishna has a simple solution for us: just surrender to Him.
“When the going gets tough, the tough simply surrender,” wrote biblical scholar Samuel Davidson (1807–1898).
Krishna has assured us in the Bhagavad-gita (7.14) that even though His maya is difficult to overcome, if we surrender to Him we can easily cross over the insurmountable ocean of material existence.
How Do We Surrender to Krishna?
In the devotional guidebook Hari-bhakti-vilasa, Srila Sanatana Goswami has given us a simple method: “Accept what is favorable for developing love of Krishna, and reject what is unfavorable.’ As we lead our daily lives, in every provoking situation we can simply ask this question: will this help me come closer to Krishna, or will it take me away from Him? The answer helps us surrender to Krishna.
Of course, the mind won’t agree to the proposal to surrender. Every spiritual practitioner is well aware of the mind’s belligerence and insubordination; still the solution is simple: performing the right actions. As we change our activities, or even begin to make small steps in the right direction, the mind may initially disobey, but soon it goes along with our new habits, as if nothing has changed. Our intervention is the key, and if we aren’t as strong as we wish to be, let’s make a small beginning.
When Gajendra cried and used all his effort to offer a beautiful lotus to the Lord, Krishna ended his suffering of a thousand years in just a few moments. As we surrender to Krishna, He can, if He so desires, quickly bring auspiciousness to our lives. He can change our lives in just one day.
After being saved, if Gajendra had decided he’d go back to enjoying with his family, Krishna would have sent another crocodile into his life. But Gajendra chose exclusive shelter of Krishna. We too need to have no desire other than to offer ourselves completely to the Lord. But if we hope for succor in materialistic life, Krishna will surely send the crocodiles of suffering. And He may send them especially when we least expect them.
Nevertheless Krishna consciousness is a hopeful practice because as the Lord has assured us in the Bhagavad-gita (5.29), He is the best friend of all living entities; to the extent we connect to this reality, we’ll find relief from the pangs of material miseries.
In our darkest times, when we are all alone, He is always there in our heart, waiting for us to offer a sincere appeal. No teardrop shed in love and longing for Krishna ever goes in vain. He’ll take us out of all our suffering if only we turn to Him. His reciprocation is all based on our desire. And let’s rest assured: He is always there for us.
An ancient Indian saying sums it up beautifully: “Before we can see properly, we must first shed tears to clear the way.”
Vraja Vihari Dasa, a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami, has served full time at ISKCON Chowpatty since 1999. He has an honors degree in economics and a master’s in international finance. He teaches Krishna consciousness to youth and the congregation and has written four books. You can read his daily reflections at www.yogaformodernage.com.