The principle of surrender exists in almost all spiritual traditions. Surrender is the way of acceptance and provides purity to the mind. In the Śrīvaiṣṇava tradition, it goes by the name of prapatti.
This essay will seek to clarify a basic misconception about surrender in modern Śrīvaiṣṇavism, and for that reason, this article would specifically talk to a narrow audience.
Somehow, it has come to be understood in some of our circles that surrender implies inaction. One shall not perform any action in one’s own interest if one has surrendered. This misunderstanding comes from the complex nature of surrender.
Prapatti or surrender is not an excuse for abandoning one’s spiritual practice. Surrender, by itself, does not replace any other discipline. It is part of a larger discipline that leads to the realization of the Supreme Self.
The common notion is that once one has surrendered, grace will begin to act and take over. This would lead to liberation and nothing else needs to be done. Through this understanding some folks go to the extent of abandoning all spiritual discipline. Some even go to the extent of criticizing those who are committed to some spiritual discipline.
Here, I will show that not only is individual effort / discipline significant but also that it is absolutely necessary to go along with prapatti.
Prapatti is understood not to have any restriction with respect to the fruits it can deliver. It has no phala niyama. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that a student performs prapatti in order to do well in an important exam. Should the student put individual effort to study or should he/she not?
If the student understands personal efforts in achieving the goal to be obstacles to prapatti and refrains from studying, the prapatti will definitely not succeed and the student would miserably fail in the exam. Prapatti or surrender only removes the anxiety of the student and lets him/her come intimate with the study – to study with focused attention without getting too anxious of the reward. The student abandons the worry of succeeding or failing, and channels complete focus and energy into the effort. This is the true principle of surrender. Surrender is not the state of complete inaction; it is the state of maximum action.
Just as in the above case, in the domain of spirituality too, one cannot bypass the disciplines taught in different texts by different masters using prapatti or surrender. I have no worry. Hence, no discipline is necessary. has become a common utterance. Or, some others do not know what they are supposed to do ‘after surrender’ and invent some rituals by themselves to avoid appearing to do the established discipline while also keeping in touch with some part of it.
Surrender teaches us that worry or anxiety is not the motivation for action. I have no worry, hence I act with discipline. As long as there is worry, the discipline is degraded as something that one must get over as soon as possible to obtain a different result. It fuels the ego instead of subduing it.
But in surrender, one acts in the discipline leaving the result to God. One is not anxious – self-evaluating, judging at every step but letting go and allowing the discipline to work with grace to produce its result on its own terms.
A famous verse in Muṇḍaka Upaniṣat goes like this:
The Self cannot be attained by instruction, or by intelligence, or through much listening (to different teachings). It is attained by one who is chosen by the Self. To that person, the Self reveals its true form.
While it is correct to understand that this verse establishes the role of grace, just look at the very next verse in the same text which is not quoted quite as often.
The Self cannot be attained without strength (in efforts), or by negligence (in discipline), or through austerities without intent. He who truly tries by established methods, he understands and enters the light of Brahman.
The above verses are not contradictory and must be understood correctly. Grace and individual effort are complementary, and are unopposed to one another. The Gītā explains the way of right action which invites grace. Grace is the force behind the inner transformation effected by the Self which underlies the ego. Grace is said to be causeless because of the understanding that what is in the effect must be present equally in the cause. Since grace is exceedingly beautiful and there is no end to its transformative power, there is nothing the individual could have done to elicit the power of grace. The individual only sets the stage for grace to operate by acting in the right way, by following the right discipline (not by utter inaction).
This understanding can easily resolve the division in Śrīvaiṣṇavism today. Sādhana is not a dangerous term. Of course, the Supreme Brahman is the real means, being the support and source of all. But, this is a deep understanding which cannot be oversimplified to a point where it demands total inaction from the individual and completely discredits the value of individual effort/discipline to a point where it is blatantly illogical.