Spiritual Surrender??? ISKCON Surrender? Guru Surrender?

My dad recently gave me a whole bunch of my old diaries. One of them is from the first Shelter tour, with Quicksand and Inside Out in the Summer of 1990. As I read it, it becomes clear that I never “surrendered” to ISKCON, at least not in a spiritual sense. It was very clear to me from the start that ISKCON was a mess. But I found one person in ISKCON who stood out from the turbulence like a port in the storm, and I surrendered to him, in the spiritual sense, becoming his student and taking him as my teacher, my guru.

Ironically, I met him while on stage with Zack de la Rocha screaming “No Spiritual Surrender.”

Career Surrender

OK, I guess I did surrender to ISKCON too, but it wasn’t spiritual surrender, it was career surrender. I surrendered my career options in normal world in hopes of making a career for myself in ISKCON’s world. I did this while knowing fairly well how unstable and strange ISKCON was, so I definitely  admit that I am the main person to blame for what I now rank this as one of my life’s top 10 bad decisions.

It took about 6 to 10 years for me to fully give up on my ISKCON-carrer-surrender idea. There were two major experiences that made this happen.

The first was when I developed the opinion in 1993 that a significant majority of people in charge of ISKCON were downright phobic of real Krishna consciousness, unless it was forced into the most starched, pressed, shaved, and bleached/dyed robes; Xeroxed and stamped bona-fide by GBC resolution. I realized they would never really embrace and support a personality like mine, which expresses itself without conformity to uniforms and bureaus. They would always keep me in the curtained corners of the rooms reserved for  “dissidents,” “sahajīya” and “gopī-bhāva club members.”

The second experience that destroyed my resolve to build a career in ISKCON was when I saw, up close and first-hand, how eagerly and how thoroughly they wanted to scapegoat and sacrifice my guru’s career (he was the Headmaster of ISKCON’s boarding school in Vṛndāvana), at the exact moment that large sums of ISKCON money were placed at risk as a result lawsuits from the abused alumni of all ISKCON’s boarding schools. Hmmm, a “moral” issue indeed. The complexities of his case are significant and are not the topic of this article. The way this experience damaged my carrer-surrender is the topic. I thought, “He’s willing to die for ISKCON, and they still want to kill him? Forget about it, it’ll never be safe for me here. If I make a mistake, or am even in charge of other people who make mistakes – they will roast me to protect themselves.”

Anyway, the ultimate point here is that I’m not shy of surrender as a result of being burned by surrendering to ISKCON. (A) I’m not shy of surrender, I’m shy of the word. More on that in a moment. (B) I never surrendered to ISKCON, anyway. (C) I was never burned by the person I did surrender to, my guru. (D) ISKCON did “burn” me in some significant ways, but I feel that’s my own stupidity, or was just simply unavoidable in the quest for the rare thing that I wanted and still want to somehow achieve.

Spiritual Surrender

The ramifications of making a drastically bad career decision at the age of 20 certainly still affect my life and some of my feelings about ISKCON, but have nothing much to do with my relationship to guru or Krishna, or with my concept of “spiritual surrender.”

My issues with spiritual surrender are their own. They lie in the semantics of the connotations. For example, ISKCON linguistics tends to say something like this, “The disciple surrenders fully and officially to the guru at dīkṣā.” Because of connotations, I’m not comfortable with this choice of words. I would express the same point using these words, “Dīkṣā occurs when a student fully accepts a teacher, and the teacher fully accepts a student.”

First of all I get rid of the word “official.” Who needs that? I have to file papers with some “office” even to get self-realization!? A great sādhu once told my guru, “In spiritual life, nothing is a formality.”

Second, I get rid of the word “surrender.” Why? Because I already say that I, “fully accept you as my teacher. ” If I accept you as my teacher, the connotation is that you have knowledge and experience that I do not and you are capable of transmitting that knowledge and experience to me. Thus the connotation is full of humility and surrender. What is the need for explicitly using the word “surrender” – which brings in new connotations, strange connotations, as if there was a war going on between us which I now give up on, or that I am going to give you something without getting anything in return?

The English word “surrender” is mostly a word with negative connotations. Why should we try to use it in a positive way, against the way our subconscious naturally hears it? Simply because our previous gurus chose this word? Are we eternally preschool neophytes beholden to our previous gurus’ choice of English words, when English was not their native language? Are all of us forever unfit to serve their mission by translating their message into terminology that better communicates to native and modern minds?

“Surrender” gives the wrong impressions, because it has confusing and inappropriate connotations.

“Surrender to guru” for example, is a very confusing phrase.

First of all, it implies passivity. When we surrender we are done. But nowhere does śāstra describe the disciple’s role as passive! On the contrary, the disciple is enjoined to be inquisitive (jijñāsu, ŚB 11.3.21) and question from every angle (paripraṣna, BG 4.34)! Certainly, the disciple feels grateful to and humble in comparison to the teacher (sevā and praṇipāta for example, from BG 4.34), but is never passive as the word surrender implies.

Better to say, “Humbly knowing the guru to have knowledge and wisdom you do not, inquire carefully from all angles, and tend to whatever needs the guru may have.” That would, in my opinion, very accurately reflect Krishna’s advice in Gītā 4.34.

Wikipedia suggests the following definition of “surrender” in a religious sense: “To surrender in spirituality and religion means that a believer completely gives up his own will and subjects his thoughts, ideas, and deeds to the will and teachings of a higher power.”

What the hell is that?

Whatever it is, it is not ŚB 11.3.21 or BG 4.34! It is not gauḍīya-vaiṣṇavism, which never gives up individuality and individual will, but applies individuality and freewill to the service of the Supreme Individual.

Clearly, then, “Surrender to guru” is a slogan that creates a mood of passivity, which generates mindlessness, which degenerates gauḍīya-vaiṣṇavism into a cult. The proof is in the pudding! Many, many members of ISKCON descended into a significantly mindless and culty society, especially when this “surrender to guru” talk was at its max-perihilion during the late ’70s and ’80s, though many ISKCON members may not be fully aware of this history because disclosure of it is very thoroughly avoided in ISKCON.

Where in śāstra is the Sanskrit word that is the basis for what we describe as “surrender”?

Is it शरणागति (śaraṇāgati)? How could “surrender” be the best translation of this term when शरण (śaraṇa) means “help, protection, refuge.” A clearer translation of this term would certainly be “Seeking Refuge.”

Maṁ ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja (BG 18.66) “Surrender unto me alone” doesn’t imply that we should fight with everyone else, and fight against everything else, except Krishna – with him we should be passive puppets. No! It means, “I am the only one you need seek for refuge and protection!”

Then, is समर्पण (samarpaṇa) the Sanskrit word for “surrender”? No, not when arpaṇa means “giving.” A clearer translation is certainly something like “giving everything.”

Is it निवेदण (nivedana)? I’m sorry, that’s not it either. Almost everyone knows that वेद (veda) means “knowledge.” Ni-veda means “disclosing knowledge,” as in communicating, confiding, or revealing oneself.

All of the above certainly have some connotations in common with some of the connotations of “surrender” – which surely explains why several important 19th and 20th century figures trying to export knowledge of bhakti-yoga from Sanskrit and Bengali into English and other languages may have chosen to use the word. But “surrender” has so many connotations that are not in congruence with the primary meanings of words like śaraṇāgati, samarpaṇa, and nivedana. For example, it has military connotation and fails to communicate the warmth and emotional intimacy in these Sanskrit words.

If “Surrender to Guru” is confusing, what then is the proper attitude towards guru and Krishna? 

It is “surrender.” That’s not “wrong,” it’s just not the best word. A better description of the correct attitude towards guru and Krishna is one where we feel the powerful need for their help and protection and guidance, so we give all our efforts towards availing ourselves of what they give by trying our best to comprehend and put their guidance into practice.

This is why, in all my recent writing about guru-tattva I haven’t used the word “surrender” much, if at all.

Vraja Kishor das

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  1. Thanks for touching on this. Not knowing Sanskrit as you do, I’ve often wondered about and/or pondered on the actual nuanced distinction between saranagati and atma-nivedanam. Perhaps you can elaborate a bit more on this theme.


    1. atma-nivedanam means to completely disclose and share oneself. It means complete intimacy, sharing ones heart, thoughts and even body. It comes in Prahlāda’s classical list of nine aṅgas of bhakt, right after dāsyam and sakhyam, so people have commented that it refers to the utmost interpersonal intimacy of ujjvala-rasa – romantic divine love.

      Śaraṇāgati is a process (agati) of moving towards “surrender” towards Krishna’s shelter and protection śaraṇa.


  2. First upon reading this I thought, what the heck! Who is this trying to be smarter than our preceptors at the end upon noticing that it was written by Vraja Kishor who commented on it that most will dislike it if such option was provided by Facebook I then thought, well perhaps I missed something.

    I went on to read again, still oh come on please, I could not agree with all the points; but just when I was reading for the third time I noticed once more the significance of spending more time with the material and truly understanding it even if one may choose not to agree.

    Finally I could understand and agree with your argument of surrender, it is a very important subject matter.

    Recently one senior member of ISKCON was asking me who my guru is and if I do not have, who am I aspiring for. I began asking if he has time for my answer to which he answered yes and we sat down to talk.

    Being a very methodical type, I wanted the answer to be colourful and very much alive.

    I began summarising the first few chapters of Jaiva Dharma and telling him how Vaisnava Das was a qualified desciple in that he did not give up his own individuality (sense of discrimination) in the process , I explained the world of Jaiva Dharma as a world or a serious and critical exchange between the student and a teacher. I then went on to talk about a proper attitude of a descliple, that he is not functioning with passivity as his force.

    I did so because I wanted to drive home the point that if surrender to guru meant blind faith and or getting a guru because someone else “recommended” him or her then it was a wrong question to ask me.

    I very well noticed that his question came from a faculty that regards a guru as a function limited to the Institution. In otherwords it may be unthinkable for religio organisationists to think that you can be part of the Institution and have a guru elsewhere, I am not insinuating that it is so in my case. I am just saying that if he is not stamped bona-fide by GBC then he is not a guru, such is the opinion of the philosophically hijacked.

    Basically my answer to his question was intended to challenge him in a sweet and nice way if he really understands his question. I wanted to get my understanding of guru out of the way first.

    After listening to me he said he doesn’t understand because I also cannot understand myself and Prabhupada told that we should not read other books and that he himself is reading Bhagavad gita. Shocked I thought to myself, well ok maybe I spoke for a long time and he lost patience. I told, well ok, let me say in terms of the Bhagavad gita then- disgusted he excused himself.

    Well anyway that doesn’t have to concern me, I don’t take questions simple, why should I give a simple answer. He is a senior, I am not responsible for what he can or cannot understand.

    The point is that ‘surrender’ to guru will continue to be the wrong choice of the English word as long as it carries with it the connotation of passivity also because the very acceptance of guru has with it the willingness to learn from the guru.

    Allow me please a little latitude to say the following:

    History is very important, and many will will do good to learn from it things like the ideas of the Zonal Guru and other such very disturbing ideas which plainly reflect a very poor general understanding of guru tattva in ISKCON. That these has not been used to understand and correct the present simply surprises me.

    The problem about the guru system in societies like this is that it may have been largely inspired by the desire to lord over and take advantage of the Institutional resources. Little studying of history will prove this a fact.

    I have to acknowledge those individuals who are seriously, with the heart and mind accepting the truth when they see it. ISKCON is not all bad, I have seen persons here who are waking themselves to the reality, this rare and honest individuals makes up the small percentage that cannot be lied to very easily. And I give thanks to them. As for those preferring passiveness to the societal oligarchy, shame!


  3. I enjoyed reading this, because I am always thrilled to see people parse Sanskrit terms. I thought it was interesting to see the definition of spiritual surrender, and it reminded me of the third step of Alcoholics Anonymous, although I think that AA phrases it better. I’m curious if you are familiar with the 12 steps, and what your option is of their take on surrender/refuge/acceptance.


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