Individuals who are not religious make progress toward achieving their goals in life by self-effort. Whatever they accomplish is, from their perspective, solely the result of what they do to achieve it. People who are religious have another factor in their life—the help of divine forces. Even in Buddhism, which does not recognize a Supreme Being, the idea of surrendering to a higher power is present, as followers take refuge in the Buddha, the teachings and the brotherhood. Religious individuals invite blessings into their lives by practicing self-surrender, humble submission or taking refuge in the Divine. Before individuals have surrendered to the Divine, their free will is likely an expression of their instinctive nature, focused on accomplishing what they desire, which often entangles them more in the world. If that instinctive willfulness is thwarted or they fail to achieve their goals, the reaction is often frustration and anger. Fear and worry are also commonly experienced. Devotees who have surrendered to Ishvara, God as a person, no longer become angry or live in fear or worry. As my Gurudeva wrote,“When difficult times come, they know it is because they are being unwound from accumulated and congested, difficult karmas or being turned in a new direction altogether. They know that at such a time they have to consciously surrender their free, instinctive willfulness and not fight the divine happenings, but allow the God’s divine will to guide their life.”
When looking at self-surrender within Hinduism, it is natural to think first of bhakti yoga. In fact, an alternate term for bhakti yoga is sharanagati yoga—the yoga of self-surrender. This is the practice of devotional disciplines, worship, prayer, chanting and singing with the aim of awakening love in the heart and opening oneself to God’s grace. Such practices are done at the temple, in nature and in the home shrine. Bhakti yoga seeks communion and ever closer rapport with the Divine, nurturing qualities—such as love, selflessness and purity—that make such a profound relationship possible. In Hinduism, the soul comes closer and closer to God through these practices. In Vaishnavism, the devotee is seen as progressing through five levels of relationship with God: neutrality; servitude, friendship, parental affections, and belovedness. Saivism has a similar paradigm for the relationships between jiva and Siva. The final stage is called prapatti or atmanivedana, defined as unconditional submission to God. My guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, shared: “You might ask how you can love something you cannot see. Yet, the Gods can be and are seen by mature souls through an inner perception they have awakened. This psychic awakening is the first initiation into religion. Every Hindu devotee can sense the Gods, even if he cannot yet inwardly see them. This is possible through the subtle feeling nature. He can feel the presence of the Gods within the temple, and he can indirectly see their influence in his life.”
While most commentators agree that surrender is central to bhakti yoga, few acknowledge its importance in karma and raja yoga. Karma yoga is the path of service and sacred action. In its profoundest sense, it is performing all actions in a spiritual manner, as a conscious offering to the Divine. This can be conceived of as worshiping God by serving all beings as His living manifestations. The fruit of all action is surrendered as service to the Lord, a concept known as Ishwara arpana buddhi in Sanskrit. Normally karma yoga is done at a temple or ashram, but it is wise to extend service as widely in your life as you can, such as helping others in your workplace, performing beyond what is expected, willingly and without complaint. Performing menial tasks in the home, temple or ashram is an effective way to restrain pride and nurture humility. Practically speaking, this can include washing dishes, laundering clothes, caring for the kitchen and bathrooms, working in the gardens, washing the windows and sweeping the paths—all without seeking or expecting praise.
Performing our work with the aim of reaching God naturally leads to the perspective that each task is an offering to the Lord. Every act, from the grandest to the lowliest, becomes a sacred rite. Work is worship. The whole of life is sanctified and the conflict between secular and spiritual ceases to exist.
Karma yoga can ultimately lead to the realization that the universe is all the action of God. This insight gives the perspective of not merely renouncing the fruit of action but also surrendering the sense of being the doer. Gurudeva shares an insight on this: “Having the Self as a point of reality reference and not the material things, with the life force constantly flooding through these nerve currents, you are actually seeing what you are doing as part of the cosmic dance of Siva [Ishvara], as the energy of Siva flows in and through you.” Paramaguru Yogaswami put it simply in one of his four great sayings: “Siva is doing it all.”
Surrender has a seldom-recognized place in raja yoga as well, as Patanjali noted in his Yoga Sutras. Raja yoga begins with ethical restraints and religious observances followed by ever-deepening stages of concentration, meditation and contemplation. Samadhi is the goal of yoga, a oneness between the meditator and the object of meditation, and surrendering to God, to Ishvara, is the key to attaining it. Patanjali speaks of it as Ishvara pranidhana, the fifth essential observance (niyama), the surrender of our limited self-identity to the infinite perfection of Ishvara, the source of the yoga teachings. This surrender is the acceptance of God’s perfection and our desire to be influenced by that as we progress on the yoga path. We seek divine blessings, wisdom and ultimately union, samadhi, through the grace of the adi (first) guru of yoga. Before developing Ishvara pranidhana, progress in yoga is self-centered. We think, “I am making yogic progress through my striving and dispassion.” Ishvara pranidhana supplements such effort with reliance on Ishvara to bestow the ultimate grace called samadhi. Swami Hariharananda Aranya interprets Patanjali’s thinking: “Through contemplation on God as on a liberated being, the mind in the normal course also becomes calm and thereby concentrated. From knowledge derived through such concentration, the spiritual needs of a yogin are met.”
Let us compare this to taking a test in school. If you were to simply study and take the test, you would get a B+. However, by also sincerely seeking God’s blessings, you do better and earn an A. In all complex fields, an individual can only go so far on his or her own. To truly master any discipline, a qualified teacher or coach is needed. What better teacher for raja yoga than its progenitor and first guru—Ishvara? Taking Ishvara as your teacher is done through the practice of Ishvara pranidhana. My guru gives an insightful description of how the advanced meditator practices self-surrender, or giving up, while experiencing God’s absolute state (Si) and God’s all-pervading consciousness (Va): “While in a dual state of assuming some personal identity, he states, ‘Siva’s will be done,’ as his new and most refined sadhana of giving up the last of personal worldliness to the perfect timing of the infinite conglomerate of force and non-force within him. This he says as a mantra unto himself when he sees and hears in the external world. But when eyes and ears are closed, through the transmuted power of his will he merges into the samadhi of Va and Si and Si and Va, experiencing Reality as himself and himself as Reality.”
As we have shown, surrender is present in three major yogas: bhakti, karma and raja. Its role is central to realizing the deepest attainments of all three disciplines. It is perhaps an irony that to attain our immortal Self we must relinquish our personal self.