By His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedānta Swami Prabhupāda
Namah means surrender. “Om namah” – this is the way of chanting Vedic mantra. Om means addressing the Absolute, and namah means “I am surrendering.” Every Vedic mantra begins with om namah. So this mantra is chanted with surrender, namah. Nothing can be done without surrender because our present conditional life is rebellious life. We have rebelled against the supremacy of the Personality of Godhead. That is conditioned life.
There are so many theses to support this rebellious condition. Somebody is thinking that “I am one with God”; somebody is thinking, “God is dead”; somebody is thinking, “There is no God”; somebody is thinking, “Why are you searching God? There are so many Gods loitering in the street.” So in this way, there are many theses. All of them are different symptoms of rebellious condition. The sum and substance is, just like atheists are boldly saying, “There is no God.”
But the impersonalists are saying, “There may be God, but He has no head, He has no tail. That’s all.” So in this way our condition is rebellious condition. Therefore Bhagavad-gita instructs that “You surrender.” Sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekam śaranam vraja [Bg. 18.66].
So without surrender, there is no question of making any spiritual progress. Just like a person who has rebelled against the government—the first condition is to surrender; otherwise there is no question of mercy from the government. Similarly anyone, the living entity, any one of us, who has rebelled against the supremacy of the Lord, the beginning of spiritual life is surrender.
So this mantra namah means surrender. And who can surrender? One who has understood the Lord, he can surrender, as it is stated in the Bhagavad-gita, bahūnām janmanām ante jnānavān mām prapadyate [Bg. 7.19]. After many, many births of cultivation of knowledge, when one is perfectly wise, at that time he surrenders. The perfection of acquiring knowledge, or wisdom, is to surrender.
[An excerpt from an Initiation lecture delivered in Los Angeles on Dec 1, 1968]