Question: I have heard that śaraṇāgati (surrender) is considered the doorway to bhakti-yoga, and that without it, we cannot actually perform bhakti. Should I practice bhakti in my present condition despite being unable to fully surrender, or should I first wait until I am able to fully surrender myself?
Śrīla Bhāratī Gosvāmī Mahārāja: Śrī Prahlāda Mahārāja has described the nine limbs of bhakti as follows:
śravaṇaṁ kīrtanaṁ viṣṇoḥ
arcanaṁ vandanaṁ dāsyaṁ
iti puṁsārpitā viṣṇau
bhaktiś cen nava-lakṣaṇā
kriyeta bhagavaty addhā
tan manye ’dhītam uttamam
The bhakti of Bhagavān Viṣṇu has nine limbs: (1) hearing and (2) chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities and pastimes of Lord Viṣṇu; (3) remembering them; (4) serving His lotus feet; (5) offering the Lord respectful worship; (6) offering prayers to the Lord; (7) becoming His servant; (8) becoming His friend and (9) surrendering everything unto Him. If one performs these nine limbs of devotion with a mood of surrender, then we should know this to be the topmost knowledge of the scriptures. His cultivation of the scriptures is successful.
In these verses, the words ātma-nivedanam and arpitā both mean ‘to offer,’ or ‘to surrender,’ but the word arpitā refers to initial, preliminary surrender, whereas ātma-nivedana refers to the total dedication of oneself. Ātma-nivedana is the result of following the other limbs of bhakti with preliminary surrender (arpitā).
In his commentary to the above verses, Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartīpāda has stated that the sādhaka attains total surrender (ātma-nivedana) only after he first preliminarily surrenders (arpitā) himself to the Supreme Lord and then engages in the other above-mentioned eight limbs of bhakti. It is only from this stage of arpitā that one begins performing actual śravaṇa, kīrtana and so on, by which he can attain pure bhakti. In other words, the nine limbs of bhakti bear fruit only when one performs them with total dedication to the lotus feet of Bhagavān.
It is seen that the scriptures often prescribe paths other than bhakti, such as karma-yoga, the performance of duties prescribed in the Vedas; jñāna-yoga, the cultivation of empirical knowledge; tapasyāa, the performance of penances; and other paths. By perfecting the practice of karma-yoga, one comes to the stage of jñāna-yoga, and by perfecting jñāna-yoga, one is brought to the path of bhakti. All such paths are in fact steps that progressively lead to the path of one-pointed bhakti, which is the only path leading to the lotus feet of Bhagavān.
The Supreme Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa has Himself minimized all the other paths and firmly established bhakti as the most superior means to attain Him. During a conversation with His dear devotee Uddhava, He gave this message for the benefit all living beings:
na sādhayati māṁ yogo
na sāṅkhyaṁ dharma uddhava
na svādhyāyas tapas tyāgo
yathā bhaktir mamorjitā
Śrīmad Bhagavatam (11.14.20)
My dear Uddhava, I cannot be controlled by those who study Sānkhya philosophy or śāstra, or who perform mystic yoga, pious acts, austerity or renunciation. I am controlled only by that powerful bhakti rendered to Me by My pure-hearted devotees.