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.”
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.
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