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Surdas

Category: Poet

 

Surdas was a 15th-century blind saint, poet and musician, known for his devotional songs dedicated to Lord Krishna. He was part of the bhakti movement, and is classified as a Saguna, a group that also included Mirabai and Tulsidas.  Surdas and Tulsidas are often depicted as a pair of distant ‘brothers’, with Surdas as the great poet of Krishna and Tulsidas the great poet of Ram.

The Saguna as a whole tended to use love with visualisation, concentrating on some deeply revered figure rather than a living being.  Surdas appears to have not only practised this form of devotion, but through his blindness actually had visions of Krishna which makes him of especial interest, as it adds evidence to the theory that the blind can ‘see’, but not with their eyes.  Surdas is remembered, for example, for having, in his poetry, ‘captured every smile and pout of Krishna’s childhood, every glance and gesture of his youth’ and his depictions of Krishna are sometimes very graphic.  His blindness seems to have given him a uniquely privileged access to the divine realm – he was never in any danger of having his visions polluted by what he saw on the earthly plane and his poems are vivid and evocative.

 

Surdas was blind from birth and this too adds extra interest, the images constructed for him cannot possibly have been constructed from perceptions or memory, as neither would have contained any images.  Instead the image comes from ‘elsewhere’.  What Surdas ‘saw’ appears to have been his Higher spirit personified, the Atman,  and from descriptions in his poetry, Surdas attained mystical union – moksha and nirvana – with his spirit. 

The philosophy of Surdas is a reflection of the times. He was very much immersed in the Bhakti movement that was sweeping North India at the time. This movement represented a grass roots return to spirituality and a ‘spiritual empowerment of the masses’, one which rejected caste and also included a mystical aim – spiritual experience for all, regardless of gender or social standing. A corresponding spiritual movement in South India had already occurred in the seventh century A.D., and in central and northern India in the 14th-17th centuries.

Works

 

Surdas is said to have written and composed ‘a hundred thousand songs’ in his magnum opus the 'Sur Sagar' (Ocean of Melody), out of which only about 8,000 are extant.  But here great caution is needed. The then Mughal emperor Akbar became a great admirer of Surdas’s poetry and offered handsome sums for any poem that could be found bearing the poet’s genuine signature.  One avaricious poet named Kavisvar attempted to pass off one of his own inferior compositions under Surdas’s name, but was found out. How many other poems crept through unchallenged, however, remains a controversial point.

An abundance of old manuscripts recording Surdas’s poetry do exist, however, making authentication a little easier.  One manuscript recently made accessible apparently draws together three earlier collections and is even older than the Adi Granth.  Two poems of Surdas are in the Adi Granth.

Songs of the Saints of India – Professor John Stratton Hawley
More numerous than the childhood poems in old manuscripts of Sur are poems having to do with Krishna’s amorous adventures.  These are traditionally grouped under the heading of madhurya bhava and are poems having to do with the sweet, literally ‘honeyed’ emotions that lovers feel.  Nowadays these madhurya poems are not thought to be Sur’s trademark, … yet there they are:  a central aspect of the old Sur Sagar, insofar as we can reconstruct it……….. poems of this genre also served as a forum for expressing the distress the gopis feel when the great lover is absent.  These poems are attractive love poems in their own right, but they are at the same time piercing expressions of the painful emotions experienced by human beings when, for all their devotion, the ‘God’ to whom they have dedicated themselves seems unavailable.  The experience is called viraha, a word that refers to the separation of lovers and the tortured feelings of longing and anger it provokes.

 

Surdas' poetry was written in a dialect of the Hindi language, Brij Bhasha, [or Braj Bhasa – the dialect of Braj] instead of the prevalent literary languages of either Persian or Sanskrit. It is this choice of language and his choice of subject – essentially love in all its manifestations, requited and unrequited, that have made Surdas such a popular poet with ordinary people.  He effectively says that it is possible to reach the divine through love – the simple love between two people, or the more complex love of spirit.  It was a rejection of the contemplative, meditative and ascetic view often promoted at the time.

Songs of the Saints of India – Professor John Stratton Hawley
These poems attest that it is love that makes the world go round – real bonds between people rather than some hidden level of reality that one must close one’s eyes and bury one’s emotions to find.  More than that, those who love with all their hearts turn out to be the perfect exemplars of the life that the yogi would foist upon them.  He and his ilk must undertake extraordinary exertions to remain ever wakeful, to sit still, to focus their eyes and thoughts on a single object of attention.  But the [lover], overcome with love are yogis whether they like it or not.

As a consequence of this message, one hears the songs of Surdas not just in the temples of the Vallabha sect, but in every Krishna temple of north India and in countless homes as well.

On Krishna’s birthday one finds for sale little statues of the blind bard; with one hand he clangs his cymbals and with the other he plucks his one stringed instrument, the ektar.  In Delhi, where large scale innovation is more acceptable than in rural Braj, musical dramas have been composed that make use of not only Surdas’s words, but of his person.

His poems have also ennobled the blind.  Many blind people sing, today as when Surdas was alive, and an unfailingly polite way to address a blind man in India, whether he sings or not is to call him Surdas.

Life

 

There is some disagreement regarding the exact date of birth of Surdas, some scholars believing it to be 1478 AD, with others claiming it to be 1479 AD. He was, according to accounts, born blind.  There are differing accounts of his place of birth with some recording the village of Runakta, Mathura, one version naming Sihi south of Delhi and yet others as Runkta near Agra.

The standard account of Surdas life is the one recorded in the Caurasi Vaisnavan ki VartaConversations with 84 Vaisnavas, a work whose original compilation is attributed to Gokulnath [AD 1551 – 1640].  The commentary that always accompanies it comes from the hand of Hariray.  This account implies that Surdas was influenced by the Vallabha community, however, although this community made much use of Surdas’s 'ocean of song' – the Sur Sagar – in its devotional life, and increasingly gave him a prominent formal place in its liturgical system, there is no actual evidence that Surdas was ever a part of this group. 

 

We learn from Hariray that as a young blind boy Surdas was both neglected and treated very badly by his parents  ‘for being a drain on the family finances’.  As time went on, however, they discovered he had clairvoyant powers and on one occasion he was able to divine where mice had hidden two valuable coins in the roof of the family’s house.

he was only willing to direct his parents to the place if they promised him they would let him leave home and wander with full freedom to sing of the life of Krishna”

Reluctantly they consented.  Surdas left his home and once launched on his travels became the subject of considerable interest, so much so that he had to “ward off people’s desire to avail themselves of the material benefits of his powers of miraculous vision”.

Surdas is supposed eventually to have settled in Braj (or Bhraj), a region mainly in Uttar Pradesh of India, around Mathura-Vrindavan. Braj, though never a clearly defined political region in India, is very well demarcated culturally. It is considered to be the land of Krishna and is derived from the Sanskrit word vraja.  Krishna performed his numerous pastimes popularly called his leelas in the 137 sacred forests, at the 1000 Kunds, on the numerous holy hills and on the banks of the river Yamuna. And the accounts of Surdas have him doing the same – although we will never know whether this is simply legend or fact.  

 

These accounts, along with his poems, seem to indicate that he had no teacher, that his visions were spontaneous and that after some time – after he achieved union – the visions started to disappear – a common occurrence, making way for wisdom instead.  His later work laments this loss of visual input, understandable if you are blind.

The Caurasi Vaisnavan ki Varta, however, does record an interesting encounter.  Surdas' lilting music and fine poetry attracted much praise. As his fame spread far and wide, the Mughal emperor Akbar (1542–1605) became his patron.

Surdas spent the last years of his life in Braj, and lived on the donations which he received in return for his bhajan singing and lecturing on religious topics.

Surdas exact date of death is uncertain; it is considered to be either 1581 AD or 1584 AD. 

References

Some of the observations we have included are based on an anthology of compositions attributed to Surdas called the Fatehpur manuscript of AD 1582.  This manuscript was compared with 15 of the oldest versions of the Sur Sagar and then translated by Professor John Stratton Hawley and Kenneth Bryant in the 1970s with help from Vidyut Aklujar, Mandukranta Bose and Thomas Ridgeway.  See also:

The Manuscript Tradition of the Sursagar:  The Fatehpur manuscript – Professor Kenneth Bryant

 

Observations

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