Most of the religions of the world share a common teaching which is popular and powerful message – ‘God will save you if you will surrender to Him’. And so we are encouraged and exhorted to choose God as our savior, treat God as our refuge and take God as our shelter. If we thus surrender to God as our savior, refuge and shelter, we will be free from all the problems of life.
This universal message is also found in Hinduism. Surrendering to the Lord and taking Him as refuge is called saranagati. Today the saranagati message has become very popular. Many people explain and expound the tenets and precepts of saranagati. (Let us call this group, the popular group and the saranagati enunciated by them as the popular saranagati.) Unfortunately this saranagati is so different from the saranagati that is given in our scriptures. (Let us call this saranagati, the traditional saranagati and its believers the traditional group.)
There are four main differences between the two groups.
1. The first and foremost concept, the most powerful message given by the popular group is that we have to surrender our will to the Lord. This group does accept free will but claims that in saranagati our free will has to be surrendered to God’s will.
The traditional group says free will is the most unique feature that humans are blessed with. A human being is a human being only because of this gift called free will. It is this faculty that differentiates us from all other living beings. Free will enables us to choose the right goal (called purusarthas) and the right path. Choosing between options is possible only by the exercise of free will. Katha Upanisad talks about two paths, the good and the pleasant that are open to man. (1.1.2). A discerning man chooses the good while short-sighted person prefers the pleasant. It is by exercising our free will that we can get moksa. Hence, there is no question of surrendering free will in traditional saranagati.
2. The popular group points out that we must transfer all our responsibilities to God. Thereafter God will decide what we have to get and how. The Lord knows our problems and He will take care of us. This is a very, very popular message of the popular group.
The traditional group feels that as human beings endowed with free will we have the privilege of exercising choice. Hence, we must accept responsibility and take charge of our lives. Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavat-Gita – ‘One should lift oneself by one’s own efforts’ (6.5). How can we lift ourselves by ourselves? We have to use our buddhi or intellect. Katha Upanisad says that he who uses the intellect and chooses the right path attains the highest goal (1.3.9). What we have to do, Bhagavan can never do, will never do. At best God will be a cheer leader encouraging us in the game of life just as parents at best can only cheer their little ones in a running race and not run the race for them. Hence, there is no transfer of responsibility in traditional saranagati.
3. The popular group recommends that having surrendered our will and transferred responsibility to the Lord, we must have faith in God and His capacity to solve all our problems. God is omniscient, omnipotent, etc., and therefore He will solve our problems.
We may be a little skeptical. Our problems are many – financial problems, family problems, career problems, etc. Is God going to solve all our problems? And how will He do that? The popular group responds by narrating innumerable stories of devotees – how they were rescued by God. All these stories have a common feature – the occurrence of miracles. All the devotees were saved from their trials and tribulations by miracles. The message conveyed is that in our lives too we can and should expect miracles since we have surrendered our will and responsibility to the Lord. The popular group believes faith in God is tantamount to faith in God’s miracles.
The traditional group postulates that God rescues His devotees through His teaching. God has already provided solutions to all our problems in the teaching which is the sastra or scriptures. The word ‘sastra’ means that which protects the people, i.e., the protector. The word ‘saranam’ that occurs in ‘saranagati’ also means protector. Thus saranagati means sastragati. These teachings do not refer to the miracle stories that do find mention in the sastras. What then is the central teaching of the scriptures? The scriptures teach us how to face life. The sastra answers our questions. Who am I? What is the world? How does the world create problems for me? How can I solve these problems? The traditional group believes that faith in God means faith in God’s teaching.
4. The popular group suggest that we have to surrender to God who will solve all our problems. How? By performing miracles! And so whenever there is a problem or crisis in our lives, we must expect a miracle. But to our destiny we find that miracles do not happen like they keep occurring in scriptural stories. Consequently we doubt the efficacy of saranagati. We wonder whether God is blind to our problems or deaf to our pleas. God has not solved our problems even though we have surrendered to Him. Our faith in God, faith in saranagati, faith in miracles is shaken. There is a crisis in faith that is inevitable.
The popular group admonishes us that we should never doubt God; faith should be unflinching. Doubting God is a maha papam. This creates a problem. It is the nature of the intellect to doubt, question, think and analyse. The popular group says we have to set aside and suppress our intellect.
What does the traditional group say? Since we have to rescue ourselves through the teaching, we have to study and understand the scriptures. And for this we have to use our intellect. Katha Upanisad says – ‘The self is hidden in all beings. It is not noticed. Only the discerning seers, through their sharp, penetrating intellects, can perceive it. (1.3.12). Our saranagati is to the scriptures from which we have to learn the methods of protecting ourselves. In this self-protection, what is the contribution of God? It is only His teaching, the sastra. Hence, there is no suppression of intellect in traditional saranagati.
The four important differences between popular saranagati and traditional saranagati are summarized below:
Popular saranagati Traditional saranagati
1. Drop free will -- Retain free will
2. Transfer responsibility to God -- Accept responsibility
3. Have faith in God’s miracles teaching -- Have faith in God’s teachings.
4. Suppress the intellect -- Use the intellect.
A question arises when we study traditional saranagati. How does the sastra help us protect ourselves (since we do not expect miracles to solve our problems)? The sastra gives four kavacams or shields for our protection.
1. The first kavacam or method given by the scriptures is dharma. A Sanskrit verse says ‘dharma when violated, hurts us; dharma when followed protects us’. Dharma means a healthy way of life, consistent with the physical and moral laws of the universe. We cannot ignore dharma and hope to enjoy a happy life.
The sastra says all the problems we face ranging from minor suffering to major tragedies are due to our violating dharma in the immediate or remote past. We alone are accountable. We alone are accountable. We alone are responsible. If violation of dharma is the cause of our suffering, adherence to dharma is the solution to our problems. Lord Krishna talks about a dharmic way of life in several places in the Bhagavad Gita – in chapters 3, 16 and 17. Just as a healthy regimen (right food at the right time and right exercise) wards off diseases, a dharmic lifestyle protects us from problems.
2. Not all our problems are solved by dharma. Many healthy people, inspite of all their conscientious efforts, do fall ill. In such a case, sastra prescribes a special remedy called parihara or prayascittam meaning remedial measures. Many of our daily prayers including the mantras of sandhya vandanam are remedial measures. Rudram, is very, very powerful prayacitta mantra.
3. Some problems will not go away either by dhdarma or parihara. The scriptures contain stories of many people—Yudhistira, Nala, Hariscandra—who were dharmic to the core, who did all the parihara and yet had to go through untold suffering. The only method to face this situation is to develop a skill by which choiceless sufferings are converted into learning experiences. We can call this yoga kausalam. It is like extracting medicine from poison. Science has advanced to such an extent that killing poison canbe converted to life-saving drugs. If poison can be converted to medicine, suffering can be converted to tapas. Brahadaranya upanisad says – ‘This is verily a great penance that a diseased person suffers. He who knows thus wins indeed a great world’. (5.11.1). When we are afflicted with an incurable disease, we must learn to accept it as a form of tapas. This requires a lot of effort and training in that we must change our perspective and attitudes. We must stop working at the outward or external level and start working at the internal or mental level. Lord Krisna says in the Bhagavad Gita that we should not lament over the inevitable. (2.27).
4. The fourth and most powerful is atma jnanam or Self-knowledge. Once Self-knowledge solves a problem, it is solved for good. The problem is gone, never return. Lord Krisna says in the Bhagavad Gita – ‘Arjuna, when you have reached enlightenment, ignorance will delude you no more’. (4.35).
The other three shields offer a relative solution; jnanam is a permanent solution. And jnanam is provided by the sastra. The last important verse in the Bhagavad Gita is verse 18.,66, very well known as the saranagati mantra says – ‘Renounce all dharmas and take refuge in Me alone. I shall liberate you from all sins; grieve not’. In his commentary on the Bhagavat Gita, Adi Sankara does not say drop your will, drop your responsibility and wait for miracles to solve your problems, he clearly says we have to attain jnanam.
Traditional people look upon God as the giver of the sastra. God talks to us through the sastra. Even today, we can learn the sastra from a Guru. We can study and save ourselves. Therefore, saranagati means surrender to sastra, surrender to the Guru.
On this auspicious occasion of Sivaratri, let us look upon Lord Siva as Dakshinamurthi who has provided us protection through the sastra. Let us study and make use of the scriptures. That is true saranagati.
Source: From the Talks given on Sivarathiri, March 1, 2003, by Swami Paramarthananda.