Offering Dandavat: A Nurturing Display of Surrender
From Back to Godhead
By Urmila Devi Dasi
A simple yet elegant way for each of us to yield to the loving desire of the Supreme Whole.
Surrender. Submission. Such words may conjure up images of war and aggression, where the weaker party regretfully yields to the stronger, possibly with thoughts of future victory or vengeance. With such images in mind, we may cringe when we read in the Bhagavad-gita that we must surrender to Krishna. And our qualms about surrender may increase when we see devotees exemplifying surrender by offering dandavat, or lying prostrate in submission before the Lord. But when watered with examples from the sacred literature, the hard green bud of our reservations about submission can open to reveal a soft, fragrant, enchanting rose of exaltation in the deeply satisfying spiritual practice of offering dandavat. One Sanskrit word Srila Prabhupada translates as “surrender” is prapadyate, which literally means “to throw oneself down at someone’s feet.”
Ultimate spiritual realization entails a loving and willing yielding of our self to the Supreme Whole, of whom we are an eternal part. This giving of one’s self, or surrender, is something like a child’s devotion for its mother. In healthy mother-child relationships, children naturally trust that their mother has their best interest in mind.
Surrender to the Supreme Whole is not an abnegation of will but a willful decision to “respond rightly to the dancing of Krishna” rather than dance independently, as Prabhupada writes in Krishna, Chapter 33. He also says that the whole world is full of Krishna’s singing. Those souls whose every thought, word, and action is like a song and dance in harmony with Krishna achieve ultimate surrender and unlimited spiritual bliss. Even materially, harmonious dance performances please the dancers and the audience, each dancer offering individual talent and grace as part of a whole. Surrender to Krishna in response to His singing is the pinnacle of bhakti-yoga, linking with the Supreme in loving devotion.
There are many ways to demonstrate harmony with Krishna, whether as processes to achieve full surrender to Him or as expressions of surrender already achieved. Hari-bhakti-vilasa (11.676) lists six divisions of surrender: “The six divisions of surrender are the acceptance of those things favorable to devotional service, the rejection of unfavorable things, the conviction that Krishna will give protection, the acceptance of the Lord as one’s guardian or master, full self-surrender, and humility.” Surrender can also be characterized as involving body, mind, and words, as Srila Prabhupada writes in Krishna, Chapter 14: “The best course is to surrender unto the Supreme Personality of Godhead with body, mind, and words and always be engaged in His service.” The activities of the surrendered mind can be further categorized: “In order to achieve pure devotional service, [Bhishma] wanted to invest all powers of thinking, feeling, and willing entirely in the Supreme Being, Lord Krishna.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.9.32, Purport)
A Demonstration of Surrender
All aspects of surrender can be nourished and demonstrated by the simple yet profound bodily act of offering dandavat: lying prone before Krishna or His devotees. Prabhupada explains: “The word danda means rod or pole. A rod or pole falls straight; similarly, when one offers obeisances to his superior with all eight angas (parts) of the body, he performs what is called dand avat.“ (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya-lila 1.67, Purport).
The eight bodily parts are described as follows:
dorbhyam padbhyam cha janubhyam
urasa shirasa drisha
manasa vachasa cheti
pranamo ‘shtanga iritah
“One should bow down with both arms, both feet, both knees, the chest, head, eyes, heart, and words. This is called bowing down with eight parts of the body.” (Hari-bhakti-vilasa 8.360)
Dandavat is within the category of vandanam, one of the nine processes of devotional service. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Vandanam means namaskuru—offering obeisances or offering prayers.” (Bhag. 7.5.23–24, Purport)
Another way to offer respects with one’s body involves five parts: knees, arms, head, intellect, and words. (Hari-bhakti-vilasa 8.361) The simplest form of vandanam is the anjali mudra or pranam mudra, where the devotee folds the hands and slightly bows the head.
When vandanam refers to the offering of prayers, the prayers can be said with or without specific bodily postures. On the other hand, when offering respect with one’s body, one should recite a prayer or mantra aloud. (The Nectar of Devotion, Chapter 8; Bhag. 11.27.45)
Categories of Vocal Vandanam
There are categories of vocal vandanam as there are categories of bodily vandanam. The first category of vocal prayer is an expression of feeling, as in the following:
yuvatinam yatha yuni
yunam cha yuvatau yatha
mano ‘bhiramate tadvan
mano me ramatam tvayi
“Just as the minds of young women take pleasure in thinking of young men and the minds of young men take pleasure in thinking of young women, kindly let my mind take pleasure in You [Krishna] alone.” (Vishnu Purana 1.20.19)
The second type of vocal prayer is a declaration of humility:
mat-samo nasti papatma
naparadhi cha kashchana
parihare ‘pi lajja me
kim bruve purushottama
“Dear Lord, let us inform you that no one is more sinful than us, nor is there any offender like us. Even if we wanted to mention our sinful activities, we would immediately become ashamed. And what to speak of giving them up!” (Padma Purana, quoted in Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu 1.2.154)
The third are prayers suitable for those in advanced consciousness, where submission is combined with a specific request for perfected service, such as fanning the transcendental body of the Lord.
Prayers with or without bodily postures of respect can be simple yet elegant, such as the greatest mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. By calling the names of the Lord and His pleasure energy, the Hare Krishna mantra is a request for loving service.
In addition to, or instead of, the types of prayers mentioned above, devotees often say prayers glorifying their spiritual master when they offer bodily respect. Another simple prayer to say while offering dandavat is prasida bhagavan: “O Lord, please be merciful to me!” (Bhag. 11.27.45) The devotee should then stand with folded hands before the Lord and pray, “O my Lord, please protect me, who am surrendered unto You. I am most fearful of this ocean of material existence, standing as I am in the mouth of death.” (Bhag. 11.27.46)
Dandavat, the bodily expression of full submissive prayer, is a graphic and tangible reminder to the bhakti-yogi of his or her trusting love for the Lord and gives much satisfaction to the devotee’s heart. When Krishna sees the devotee offering dandavat, His own naturally soft heart melts with satisfaction and He offers all protection and peaceful freedom from fear, as He promises in the Bhagavad-gita (18.66). Devotees offeringdandavat feel peace and arise ready to dedicate themselves in loving service. Therefore, in his instructions to his wife Diti on the process of bhakti-yoga, the sage Kashyapa said, “One should . . . with great delight and satisfaction, offer obeisances, falling straight like a rod [dandavat].” (Bhag. 8.16.42) And Shukadeva Goswami, while explaining how a woman should perform the Pumsavana ceremony, says, “One should offer obeisances unto the Lord with a mind humbled through devotion. While offering dandavat by falling on the ground like a rod, one should chant the above mantra ten times. . . .” (Bhag. 6.19.10)
Many scriptural examples of offering dandavat can inspire us in our own practice, whether we are trying dandavat for the first time, perhaps with some trepidation, or whether dandavat is part of our regular bhakti-yoga practice. The first example is Kashyapa’s wife Diti, as just mentioned. Fear of her enemies and envy of their position of power had engulfed her. Through dandavat, prayers, and worship of the Lord, Diti became purified and filled with peace.
Other ancient examples include Prince Dhruva, who, desiring to see the Lord, performed austere yoga in the forest when he was a mere child. When Lord Vishnu appeared before him, Dhruva offered dandavat in great love. When he arose he “looked upon the Lord as if he were drinking the Lord with his eyes, kissing the lotus feet of the Lord with his mouth, and embracing the Lord with his arms.” (Bhag. 4.9.3) The goddess Aditi, when seeing the Lord after her worship, had a response similar to Dhruva’s:
When the Supreme Personality of Godhead became visible to Aditi’s eyes, Aditi was so overwhelmed by transcendental bliss that she at once stood up and then fell to the ground like a rod [danda-vat] to offer the Lord her respectful obeisances. Aditi stood silently with folded hands, unable to offer prayers to the Lord. Because of transcendental bliss, tears filled her eyes, and the hairs on her body stood on end. Because she could see the Supreme Personality of Godhead face to face, she felt ecstasy, and her body trembled. (Bhag. 8.17.5–6)
There are many examples of devotees offering dandavat during the time of Krishna’s appearance at the beginning of the current world age. When the demigod Brahma, the chief universal engineer, saw the sweetness and opulence of Krishna, he offered dandavat and his glowing golden form appeared like a falling gold rod, with the helmets of his four heads touching Krishna’s lotus feet. The many celestial beings who saw Krishna in His city of Dwarka offered Him dandavat. Offering dandavat was the first act of the wives of Kaliya when they begged Krishna to forgive their husband for poisoning the Yamuna River in Krishna’s rural home.
In more contemporary examples, the great saint and teacher Sanatana Goswami regularly offered dandavat to Lord Chaitanya, at one time keeping his distance because of an oozing skin disease. In that incident, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was so pleased with Sanatana’s humble surrender that He embraced Sanatana and declared that he smelled like a combination of heavenly fragrances. After the embrace, Sanatana found himself cured. Sanatana’s brother Rupa Goswami also regularly offered dandavat to the Lord. A prostitute who had tried to seduce the saint Haridasa Thakura ended up becoming his disciple. She then offered dandavat to Haridasa in apology. Although an incarnation of Krishna, Lord Chaitanya showed respect to His mother by offering dandavat to her.
Evidence that offering dandavat has been part of temple worship for millennia is found in ancient stone carvings throughout the huge complex of the Sri Rangam temple of South India. Etched into the floor in various places are images of a man and a woman offering dandavat side by side. As stated in the Chaitanya-charitamrita, local villagers all offered dandavat to the deity Gopala daily. Srila Prabhupada also taught his followers to demonstrate surrender through the bodily act of offering dandavat, which brings as much satisfaction today as it has for hundreds or thousands of years, whether one is a resident of earth or the higher planets, whether one is old or young, male or female, rich or poor. We might note that in some areas of India, modern local customs dictate that women offer only five-part obeisances or some modified form of dandavat, rather than the full dandavat described in Vedic scriptures. Such local customs have also become the norm in ISKCON, although evidence suggests that Prabhupada approved of women offering dandavat, even in later years of his time with us. For example, my godsister Ramaniya Devi Dasi described for me her initiation in New Mayapur, France, in 1976:
When the first devotees were called to come up to receive their beads from Prabhupada and recite the four regulative principles, they were bowing down in front of Prabhupada but not full-out dandavats. So Prabhupada said that everyone should give full dandavats when they come in front of him to receive their beads.
I was the next one called to come, and I asked a godsister what I should do. Should I give dandavats or not? She said, “Why not!” So I went in front of Prabhupada and gave full dandavats. A photo shows a sari on the floor in front of Prabhupada. Prabhupada had a big smile. He was very pleased with me for following his instruction.
Srila Prabhupada wrote to a disciple (November 15, 1974), “You have also mentioned to repeatedly offer obeisances to your spiritual master. This is very important. A disciple should offer dandavats, not namaskara. The more one becomes fixed up in guru obeisances, the more he advances in spiritual progress.”
I would like to see a return to the original tradition, because regardless of one’s material position, when offering dandavat one truly feels the sentiment expressed by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura in his Bhajana Rahasya:
yo ‘ham mamasti yat kincid
iha loke paratra cha
tat sarvam bhavato ‘dyaiva
“Myself and whatever little I possess in this world and in the next—all this I now offer unto Your [Krishna’s] lotus feet.”
The Skanda Purana states: “A person who bows down before Lord Vishnu is glorified on Vishnuloka for a period of time equal to a thousand years multiplied by the number of particles of dust that decorated his body as he bowed down.” (Quoted in Hari-bhakti-vilasa 8.371) And Rupa Goswami tells us that such a practice gives this result: “The person who has once offered respects, bowing down before the deity, will not come back to this world, because he will go directly to the abode of Krishna.” (The Nectar of Devotion, Chapter 9) Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya states: “A devotee who falls down to the ground to offer dandavat obeisances to Lord Vishnu drops all his sins at that spot. They will never rise from there again.” What is perhaps astonishing is this statement: “A hypocrite who makes a show of bowing down before Lord Krishna, who holds the Sarnga bow, becomes purified of hundreds of sins. His sins are destroyed in a moment.” (Hari-bhakti-vilasa 8.370)
We should not be surprised at such wonderful results, for Krishna Himself has said in the Gita (9.34), “Engage your mind always in thinking of Me, become My devotee, offer obeisances to Me, and worship Me. Being completely absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me.” Externally, the act of offering dandavat may seem simple and even ritualistic. But performed with attention and care, it binds the loving soul and the beloved Lord in an eternal union of loving surrender.