The last of the nine processes of devotional service to Krsna incorporates the other eight.
Faithful readers of Back to Godhead will remember the very earliest installments in this series on the nine processes of devotional service. Completing all nine has taken me years, because I have a great trepidation when it comes to expounding on such sacred and powerful topics. Nevertheless, this discussion of atma-nivedanam, surrendering everything to the Lord, completes the series. For new readers, here is a little background information about the subject.
The nine processes of devotional service to the Lord are listed by Prahlada Maharaja in the Seventh Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. They are (1) sravanam, hearing, (2) kirtana, chanting, (3) visnu-smaranam, remembering the Lord, (4) pada-sevanam, serving the Lord's lotus feet, (5) arcanam, worshiping the Deity, (6) vandanam, praying, (7) dasyam, becoming the Lord's servant, (8) sakhyam, considering the Lord one's best friend, and (9) atma-nivedanam, surrendering everything (mind, body, and words) to the Lord. Srila Prabhupada writes, "One can engage in all nine devotional processes, or eight, or seven, or at the very least in one, and that will surely make one perfect." (Bhagavad-gita As It Is, 11.55, Purport) And in The Nectar of Devotion, Srila Prabhupada lists the exemplars of each of the nine processes each became perfect by perfecting one process.
King Bali's Surrender
In considering atma-nivedanam, it is good to start with the story of the devotee Srila Prabhupada cited as the best example of surrendering everything to the Supreme Lord, the great king Bali Maharaja. The story takes place in an ancient time, so some of the elements may seem fantastic to us now. Nevertheless, human nature is as recognizable in this tale as in yesterday's headlines. Greed, envy, betrayal, and redemption all make their appearances as a magnificent king is forced to make a difficult choice.
Bali Maharaja had conquered this entire planet, and his power was so great that he also overcame the devas, the rulers of the heavenly planets. Now, Bali was a pure and pious soul, but he had been born in a family of materialistic atheists. The author ofSrimad-Bhagavatam calls such atheists asuras, or demons, for however great their riches, however strong their armies, however beautiful their kingdoms, they remain unconscious of the majesty of the Supreme Lord.
The asuras' motivation was materialistic gain, and even religion was simply a tool to obtain more material opulence. Bali Maharaja's conquest of the heavenly planets a tremendous surge of demonic power deeply alarmed the devas. While the devasare themselves replete with riches beyond our imagining, they are ultimately servants of the Lord. So, naturally, in their distress they turned to the Supreme Lord with prayers, requesting His intervention.
When God decides to involve Himself in affairs of this world, He often comes in a form that shows His flair for surprise and humor. Perhaps the devas were envisioning the Lord in the form of a frightening warrior, slashing through the formidable army of Bali Maharaja. They certainly wouldn't have expected the form the Lord did assume, that of a brahmana boy-dwarf named Vamana. Surely no one could inspire less trepidation in the heart of a mighty king than this small, peaceful child. And yet it was Vamana who brought Bali Maharaja to his knees.
You need to know a little bit about Bali Maharaja. Much earlier, in another story, he was killed and then brought back to life by a powerful mystic, Sukracarya. Predictably, Sukracarya acted as Bali Maharaja's greatest advisor in both material and spiritual matters. For demons, spiritual matters consist of performing the proper sacrifices to increase wealth and power. Don't underestimate Sukracarya's importance to Bali Maharaja; in those days, a king like Bali would rather die than disobey his spiritual master.
Vamana in Bali's Court
So, the sweet brahmana boy came to Bali Maharaja's court. Vamana was so effulgent and beautiful that it was immediately evident that He was not an ordinary brahmana. It was the custom at that time for the ruling class to serve the saintly brahmanas. So when Vamana entered Bali's palace, Bali observed the custom of washing Vamana's feet.
Although Bali Maharaja and his family were asuric, they still understood the need for a class of pure-hearted persons fit to perform austeri-ties and sacrifices for everyone's benefit. This kind of brahmana worship is something very different from devotional service; it is more like a spiritual business deal.
The air must have been tremendously surcharged, and Bali Maharaja understood that here was a divine person. In the humility born of his natural piety, Bali Maharaja took the water from Vamana's feet upon his own head.
Sukracarya was not pleased to see all of this. He was instantly able to perceive Vamana's true identity, and the knowledge filled him with fear, which only increased as he listened to King Bali offer Vamana any boon He desired. Here was a person who could take it all, all of the wealth and power Bali Maharaja had acquired over so many triumphant years of conquest. Yet Lord Vamana made the most humble of requests. Three paces of land was all He asked. And, looking at the boy-dwarf standing before him, Bali could only think that they would be three very small steps indeed. So Bali tried to talk Vamana into a more substantial offering, an entire island perhaps. But Vamana demurred, stating philosophically that three paces of land was all this humblebrahmana needed. Bali agreed to Vamana's request.
But Sukracarya could not stand this. It is a trick, he hissed at Bali Maharaja. Obviously, this little brahmana is the Supreme Lord, always looking out for the welfare of the devas, our enemies. If you agree to give Him anything at all, you will loseeverything.
Some spiritual guide, this Sukracarya! He demanded that Bali retract his promise of three paces of land, pretty much telling Bali that if he didn't, Bali could go to the hellish planets. Although it was a grave sin to lie to any brahmana, what to speak of such an exalted brahmana as Vamana, Sukracarya insisted that Bali would be blameless for breaking his promise, because he would only be defending his hard-won kingdom.
The exquisite torment facing Bali Maharaja at that moment can hardly be contemplated. He knew, with the very deepest conviction of his heart, that Vamana was really the Supreme Lord. And, despite his upbringing, he understood that everything in this world truly belonged to Him. Still, he was facing unprecedented wrath from the very man who had given him life and guided him well throughout the years. It would have been easy, so easy, to simply yield to the instructions of his spiritual master, ignoring the truth hammering in his own heart. For all Bali knew, Sukracarya's curses were correct, and this gift of three paces of land would result in eternal suffering for Bali.
Bali spoke respectfully but firmly to Sukracarya, explaining his decision to fulfill his promise to the brahmana Vamana. All the wonderful opulence he had gained would be lost at death anyway, he said. After his death, all that would remain of him would be the dark legacy of his lie, his cheating of a brahmana. Since the Supreme Lord is the recipient of all Sukracarya's elaborate sacrifices anyway, what would it matter if Bali just handed over everything today?
Well, none of this convinced Sukracarya. Furious, he cursed his formerly beloved disciple to lose all his opulence. A very powerful yogi, Sukracarya could indeed make that happen.
Apparently unperturbed, Bali again washed Vamana's feet and poured the water on his own head. He then invited Vamana to take His three steps of land.
Three Big Steps
Sukracarya was right about one thing: It was a trick. Vamana at once grew to a tremendous size, and with His gigantic first step He covered the entire universe. This is difficult to picture, but the Srimad-Bhagavatam helps us out by describing how everything in the universe then became part of Vamana's body. The earthly surfaces were on the tops of His feet, all the birds in the universe in His knees, the seven oceans in His waist, and so on. When Bali saw this incredible sight, he was awed. His asuric friends, however, were scared out of their wits. It was one thing to speculate about the potency of this divine brahmana boy, and quite another to see the entire universe absorbed into His huge form.
Then Vamana took His second step. This step stretched so far, far out of sight, beyond all of the heavenly kingdoms, that it covered all that existed. After this step, there was no place left for step number three. Bali's demoniac associates were extremely angry at this point, and there was a bit of a scuffle with the devas, but the demons lost in the end. And Bali himself was arrested and humiliated for failing to keep his promise of three steps.
Nothing to Withhold
Then Vamana stood before the greatly diminished Bali and demanded, "Where shall I place My third step?"
In one of the most beautiful moments in all of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Bali lowers his head and replies, "Please, place Your third lotus footstep on my head."
This is what Prahlada Maharaja was talking about when he spoke about atma-nivedanam this incredible moment of love and realization, when there is nothing at all to withhold, and no reason to fear any loss.
For very few does the test come with such clarity and drama; for most of us, to remember who we really are and who really controls everything around us is a minute-by-minute struggle. We cling to our collection of possessions, our place within the community, our commendable religious practices. Perhaps there are days when we long for this one single, defining act. But the real battles are in those moments when resentment flares ("How dare he do that to me?"), or when our control wavers ("I never said to do that!"), or when smoldering envy kicks in ("It looks good, but she must have cheated!).
Our chances for atma-nivedanam come most often within the privacy of our own hearts, when Krsna is tugging at our attachments and we respond with gratitude or anger. To be willing to give away our sense of superiority to others, to walk away from insults with a light heart, to feel the needs of others more deeply than the needs of our own self these are precious intimacies that Krsna offers repeatedly in human life. It's sometimes as simple as nodding your head or writing a check. And it's sometimes as complicated as changing your livelihood. For every soul the extractions of devotion are highly personal and unpredictable.
For Bali Maharaja, the ending was happy, much happier, in fact, than if he had clung to his enormous kingdom. Vamana awarded Bali an entire planet to rule, and He Himself would serve as the doorkeeper. The real prize was not the breadth of Bali's new kingdom, but the opportunity for eternal association with the Supreme Lord.
Beyond Surrender of Possessions
So, can a person claim the prize of devotional service just by giving everything away? Many have tried. But for most, just walking away is little more than relinquishing responsibilities that had become unwanted anyway. For others, the "renunciation" has its true basis in fear fear of intimacy, or failure, or even of success. Someone might relinquish all possessions and embark on a monastic life for a million reasons that have nothing to do with surrendering to the Supreme Lord. On the other hand, a person who can let go of materialistic trappings is in an advantageous position to begin work on the subtler attachments of the mind and intelligence. The original impulse may be self-centered, but certainly it's easier to detach yourself from your possessions if you have none.
A good system of tithing can help loosen our grip on our material well-being. But be sure you give your money to someone who will truly spend it in the service of the Lord. If you support the activities of pure-hearted souls, you will receive some benefit. If you toss your money at a charity that is corrupt or not God-centered, then you'll cheat yourself of the chance to render real service.
With elegant symmetry, the ninth process of devotional service encompasses the first eight. We need to speak, so why not speak about God? We need to work, to serve, so why not serve God? We need our stories, our memories, our prayers, so why not form all of these around God?
After explaining about all nine processes of devotional service, Srila Prabhupada notes an exceptional devotee, Maharaja Ambarisa, who practiced them all. It would be fitting to close this series with a description of the remarkable Maharaja Ambarisa:
King Ambarisa fixed his mind on the lotus feet of Lord Krsna, engaged his words in describing the abode of the Lord, his hands in cleansing the temple of the Lord, his ears in hearing the pastimes of the Lord, his eyes in seeing the form of the Lord, his body in touching the body of the devotee, his nostrils in smelling the flavor of the flowers offered to the lotus feet of the Lord, his tongue in tasting the tulasileaves offered to Him, his legs in traveling to the holy place where His temple is situated, his head in offering obeisances unto the Lord, and his desires in fulfilling the desires of the Lord . . . and all these qualifications made him fit to become a mat-parah devotee of the Lord." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 9.4.18-20)
Dvarakadhisa Devi Dasi, a longtime BTG contributor, has a Master's degree in library science and works as a librarian for the Alachua County [Florida] Library District.