By Satyaraja Dasa

Great Vaisnava teachers have selected certain scriptural verses as ultimate spiritual instructions.

As devotees of Krishna, we often study the Vedic literature with a great deal of seriousness. Over time, certain verses stand out as particularly significant, and they help us on the path of transcendence.

Recently, I have been studying the three charama-shlokas (“ultimate verses”) made popular by eminent followers of Ramanuja (1017–1137), an important acharya in the Vaishnava tradition.

The first of these is found in the Ramayana (Yuddha-khanda 18.34): “If anyone surrenders to Me even once (sakrid eva), saying, ‘I am yours,’ I will protect that person in all circumstances. This is My promise.”

The context of the verse is as follows: When Vibhishana, the younger brother of the demon Ravana, decides to turn against his own flesh and blood and seek refuge in Lord Rama, the Lord’s associates become suspicious—except Hanuman, who knows Vibhishana’s heart. Hanuman had met Vibhishana in Ravana’s court after Hanuman’s earlier flight across the ocean to Lanka. Showing his favor toward Lord Rama and His devotees, Vibhishana had interceded when Ravana had ordered Hanuman killed.

Nonetheless, everyone in Rama’s camp suspected that Vibhishana’s defection was insincere and that he was probably acting as a spy on Ravana’s behalf. But Rama and Hanuman knew better, and Rama uttered the shloka above, affirming that He will accept and protect anyone who comes to Him in a mood of full surrender (sharanagati), as Vibhishana had done.

The next shloka is from the Varaha Purana (114.64–65), with Lord Varaha (Vishnu’s boar incarnation) making a similar proclamation about sharanagati to His consort Bhumi Devi, the predominating goddess of the Earth: “The entire universe is My body. Neither birth nor death has any effect on Me. When one gives oneself to Me [sharanagati] with the firm belief that I am his everlasting support, I think of him at the time of his death and rush to his side even if he has no control over his senses, with his body appearing like a log or stone. I lead him then to My supreme abode, where he performs eternal service to Me.”

This verse emphasizes the reciprocal nature of love: Not only does the devotee love the Lord, but the Lord loves His devotee. The devotee remembers Krishna, and Krishna in His kindness remembers His devotee, bringing him to the Supreme abode.

The final shloka is the famous utterance of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita (18.66): “Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender [sharanam, i.e., sharanagati] unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.”

Srila Prabhupada’s commentary is illuminating:

The Lord has described various kinds of knowledge and processes of religion—knowledge of the Supreme Brahman, knowledge of the Supersoul, knowledge of the different types of orders and statuses of social life, knowledge of the renounced order of life, knowledge of nonattachment, sense and mind control, meditation, etc. He has described in so many ways different types of religion. Now, in summarizing Bhagavad-gita, the Lord says that Arjuna should give up all the processes that have been explained to him; he should simply surrender to Krishna. That surrender will save him from all kinds of sinful reactions, for the Lord personally promises to protect him.

In Krishna’s words we see the same essential elements of the other two shlokas: He asks for complete surrender (sharanagati), assures reciprocation, and offers His devotee a sense of protection and well-being.

Vishvanatha Cakravarti Thakura and Baladeva Vidyabhushana, two acharyas in the Gaudiya Sampradaya, the lineage to which the Hare Krishna movement belongs, also consider this verse (18.66) the zenith of the Bhagavad-gita’s teaching, a culminating doctrine central to devotion to Krishna. It behooves devotees, then, to look at the concept more thoroughly, for herein one finds the essence of spiritual thought.

How to Surrender

The question of just how to surrender looms large. Srila Prabhupada often said that while Lord Krishna asks for surrender in the Bhagavad-gita, it took the appearance of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, some five hundred years ago, to show the method or practical application of this instruction. Mahaprabhu taught that in Kali-yuga, the current age of quarrel and hypocrisy, one surrenders to Krishna by chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra with other devotees under the direction of a bona fide spiritual master. This is the core of the surrendering process.

Acharyas have detailed the characteristics of the surrendered soul. In Ramanuja’s branch of Vaishnavism, known as the Sri Sampradaya, sharanagati is often referred to by its synonym prapatti. The Alvars and other saints in that lineage have written about it extensively. Ramanuja explores it briefly in his work Saranagati Gadyam, a Sanskrit prayer regularly recited by devotees in the Sri Vaishnava tradition.

Augmenting the knowledge found there, the Gaudiya Vaishnava acharya Bhaktivinoda Thakura, the father of Srila Prabhupada’s guru, offers a clear articulation of sharanagati, methodically outlining its characteristics in his poem of the same name:

Out of compassion for the fallen souls, Sri Krishna Chaitanya came to this world with His personal associates and divine abode to teach sharanagati, surrender to the almighty Godhead, and to freely distribute ecstatic love of God, which is ordinarily very difficult to obtain. This sharanagati is the very life of the true devotee

The ways of sharanagati are humility, dedication of the self, acceptance of the Lord as one’s only maintainer, faith that Krishna will surely protect, execution of only those acts favorable to pure devotion, and renunciation of conduct adverse to pure devotion.

The youthful son of Nanda Maharaja, Sri Krishna, hears the prayers of anyone who takes refuge in Him by this six-fold practice.

Bhaktivinoda places a straw between his teeth, prostrates himself before the two Goswamis Sri Rupa and Sri Sanatana, and clasps their lotus feet with his hands. “I am certainly the lowest of men,” he tells them weeping, “but please make me the best of men by teaching me the ways of sharanagati.

The scriptural basis upon which Bhaktivinoda Thakura draws this information is the Lakshmi Tantra. Many acharyas have developed this same theme to clarify the various ways of surrender. For example, Vedanta Deshika (1269–1370) in the Sri Vaishnava tradition was the first to explore it methodically, summarizing six divisions of self-surrender (shad-anga prapatti) in a clear and analytical way. Jiva Goswami (1513–1608) then developed the idea in his Bhagavata Sandarbha, and the idea was adapted by Bhaktivinoda as follows:

*anukulyasya sankalpah: the acceptance of those things favorable to devotional service

pratikulyasya varjanam: the rejection of unfavorable things

rakshishyatiti vish vasa: the conviction that Krishna will give protection

goptritve varanam: the acceptance of the Lord as one’s guardian or master

atma-nikshepa: full self-surrender

karpanya: humility (Giving up all material ego and the false sense of who we are—and realizing that we are a spiritual spark, a minute part of the marginal potency [tatastha-shakti] of the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna—we should be humbler than a blade of grass.)

The law of surrender is fundamental to the spiritual enterprise. It asks us to move beyond our self-centered ideas about life and into God-centered ideas. This is not a sign of weakness but of strength. It is the recognition of our dependence on God, fostered by the realization that we are constitutionally His servants.

Every religion teaches this, in one way or another. In certain forms of Buddhism, for example, the first principle is “I take refuge in Lord Buddha” (buddham sharanam gacchami). Notice the word sharanam, as in the shlokas. And in Christianity we find the same principle: “Not my will, but Thine, be done.” (Luke 22.42) This is the essence of the Christian tradition. Indeed, the Christian flag, which represents all of Christendom, has a white field with a red Latin cross inside a blue canton. In Western culture it is understood that a white flag is a sign of surrender, and here, according to Christian commentators, it is a reference to Jesus’ nonviolence and surrender to God’s will. Again, this is not a surrender of weakness—it symbolizes strength of purpose and the ability to humble oneself before God.

Draupadi’s Example

An extraordinary example of spiritual surrender is found in the wife of the Pandavas, Draupadi, whose devotion is illustrated in the Mahabharata. A complex series of events put her in the court of the Kauravas, the evil cousins of the Pandavas, and the Kaurava Duhshasana tried to strip her naked. As he tugged on her sari, she prayed to Lord Krishna. But while praying as Duhshasana pulled and pulled, she clung to her cloth. Her clinging symbolized a kind of holding back, which showed that her surrender was incomplete. Finally, she realized she could protect herself no longer, and she let go, throwing her arms in the air, totally giving herself to Krishna’s will (“Thy will be done”). As she did this, calling out His name, “piles of saris rushed to her rescue.” Duhshasana found it impossible to denude her—because more and more cloth arose to protect her.

This is the way sharanagati works. If we surrender with reservation, we get a commensurate result. But if we give our all, we get God.

Indeed, the Vaishnava sages teach that a completely surrendered soul has no cause for worry under any circumstances: the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna protects and sustains any and all surrendered souls, giving them just what they need to progress in spiritual life. The faithful devotee is not afraid to get his due, based on his karma and desire, and his main concern, always, is surrender to Krishna, with heart and soul. This is the essence of sharanagati.