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Introduction Basavanna, also known as Bhaktibhandari. Basavanna (elder brother Basava) or Basaveswara (Lord Basava) was a 12th-century philosopher, statesman, Kannada poet and a social reformer…
Surdas, the 15th-century sightless saint, poet, and musician, is known for his devotional songs dedicated to Lord Krishna.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. He is considered a saint and so also known as Sant Surdas, a name which literally means the “slave of melody”.
The time of Surdas’s birth and death are uncertain and suggest that he lived over a hundred years, which make the facts even murkier.
Some say he was born blind in 1479 in Siri village near Delhi. Many others believe, Surdas was born in Braj, a holy place in the northern Indian district of Mathura, associated with the exploits of Lord Krishna. His family was too poor to take good care of him, which led the blind boy to leave home at the tender age of 6 to join a wandering group of religious musicians. According to one legend, one night he dreamt of Krishna, who asked him to go to Vrindavan, and dedicate his life to the praise of the Lord.
A chance meeting with the saint Vallabharacharya at Gau Ghat by the river Yamuna in his teens transformed his life. Shri Vallabhacharya taught Surdas lessons in Hindu philosophy and meditation and put him on the path of spirituality. Since Surdas could recite the entire Srimad Bhagavatam and was musically inclined, his guru advised him to sing the ‘Bhagavad Lila’ – devotional lyrical ballads in praise of Lord Krishna and Radha.
Surdas lived in Vrindavan with his guru, who initiated him to his own religious order and later appointed him as the resident singer at Srinath temple in Govardhan.
Surdas’ lilting music and fine poetry attracted many laurels. 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, the place of his birth and lived on the donations, which he received in return of his Bhajan singing and lecturing on religious topics until he died in c. 1586.
Surdas was profoundly influenced by the Bhakti movement – a religious movement which focused on deep devotion, or ‘bhakti’, for a specific Hindu deity, such as Krishna, Vishnu or Shiva that was prevalent in Indian between c 800-1700 AD and propagated Vaishnavism. Surdas’s compositions also found a place in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs.
Although Surdas is known for his greatest work – the Sur Sagar, he also wrote Sur-Saravali, which is based on the theory of genesis and the festival of Holi, and Sahitya-Lahiri, devotional lyrics dedicated to the Supreme Absolute. As if Surdas attained a mystical union with Lord Krishna, which enabled him to compose the verse about Krishna’s romance with Radha almost as he was an eyewitness. Surdas’ verse is also credited as one that lifted the literary value of the Hindi language, transforming it from a crude to a pleasing tongue.
There is no end to the deeds of Krishna:
true to his promise, he tended the cows in Gokula;
Lord of the gods and compassionate to his devotees,
he came as Nrisingha
and tore apart Hiranyakashipa.
When Bali spread his dominion
over the three worlds,
he begged three paces of land from him
to uphold the majesty of the gods,
and stepped over his entire domain:
here too he rescued the captive elephant.
Countless such deeds figure in the Vedas and the Puranas,
hearing which Suradasa
humbly bows before that Lord.
Surasagara [Ocean of Surdas], edited by R.K. Dasa. 1908; also edited by Dasa and others, 1936, and Jagannath Das and N.D. Vajepeyi, 2 vols., 1948-50; as Bhramaragitasara, edited by R.C. Sukla and V.P. Misra, 1953; as Suradasa aur unka bhramaragita, edited by D.D. Gupta, 1963; as Surasagara satika, edited by Horadeva Bahari and Rajendra Kumara (critical edition, with modern Hindi), 4 vols., 1974-; as Sur Sagar, edited by Jagannath das Ratnakar, 1976; The Padas of Surdas (manuscript facsimile), edited by Gopal Narayan, 1982; selections in: Surdas, translated by U. Nielson, 1982, Surdas: Poet-Singer Saint, translated by John Stratton Hawley, 1984; Divine Sports of Krishna: Poems of Sur Dasa, translated by A.J. Alston (includes 295 verses), 1993; as The Poems of Suradasa by Krishna P. Bahadur, 1999.
Poems to the Child-God: Structures and Strategies in the Poetry of Surdas by Kenneth E. Bryant, 1978; Surdas: Poetry and Personality by S.N. Srivastava, 1978; Krishna the Butter Thief, 1983, and Surdas: Poet-Singer, Saint, 1984, both by John Stratton Hawley; Surdasa: A Critical Study of His Life and Work by K.C.Sharma, K.C. Yadav and Pushpendra Sharma, 1997.
One of the greatest bhakti (devotional) poets in Hindi (he wrote in a dialect of Hindi called Brajbhasa, the language of Braj—a region of Uttar Pradesh, formerly called United Provinces), Surdas was born into a Brahmin family, in a village between Mathura and Agra in western Uttar Pradesh. Little is known of his life, except that he was blind, although whether he was born blind is uncertain. He was a follower of the southern Indian reformer Vallabhacharya, founder, and exponent of the movement called Krsna bhakti (devotion to Krsna), and dedicated numerous poems (padas) to Krsna, who was regarded as the personification of the Supreme, just as Rama is so regarded by the other great bhakti poet, Tulsidas. Whereas Tulsidas’s Rama embodies heroism and perfection even from childhood, Surdas’s Krsna, although divine by nature, acts and behaves like any other child, until he grows up and becomes the champion of virtue, moral perfection, and personal purity and morality.
It is while probing into the psychology of Krsna as a child, and at the same time representing him as an incarnation of the Supreme, that Surdas reaches the poetically charged meeting between the human and divine, between innocence and experience, between what is linguistically simple, ingenuous, and childlike, and what constitutes the subtly symbolic and allegorical vein running through the language in which Surdas conveys the feelings of the devotees and the lovers of Krsna.
Although there are two other works attributed to Surdas (SUrsaravali and Sahitya Lahari), it is chiefly by virtue of his voluminous collections of lyric poems that Surdas ranks with Kabir, Tulsidas, and Mira Bai, as one of the greatest bhakti poets. The principal themes of his poetry, apart from the various phases and episodes in the life of Krsna seen in a dual capacity (god and child), are love, pangs of separation, nostalgia and longing for reunion with the beloved, and hankering after the heart-rending as well as heart-soothing melodies of Krsna’s flute.
Love of Krsna, on the part of his female admirers, the so-called ”gopis” (milkmaids) and especially Radha, is depicted in emotional and subjective terms, and is often a veil for the aspiration to something higher: the Supreme Being Himself. That is why the accents through which it is expressed are often those of a passionately felt prayer. In one of the most poignant lyrics Radha, personifying female love at its most intense, bemoans her sense of separation from her beloved Gopala (another name for Krsna), and the disastrous consequences it has had both on her and on the world around her:
In Gopal’s absence
these groves and thickets
have turned into my enemies.
Once so cool and refreshing,
the creepers have turned into flames.
The Yamuna flows in vain,
and in vain do the birds sing,
the bees hum, or the lotuses bloom. . .
The burning intensity of Radha’s love for Shyam (yet another name for Krsna) is such that the more she tries to hide it, the more difficult it becomes to do so:
”Radha!,” a friend of hers tells her,
”you are hiding your love from me.”
”Who is Shyam? Is the dark/or fair? Where does he live?
Whose son is he?
Is he old or young
or is he just a child?”
”O look! how Radha pretends.
She’s asking me what Shyam is like!”
Radha’s jealousy of another woman—for, like a bee, Shyam goes from one flower to another—makes both her love for him and her devotion to him even greater and more intense:
0 black bee,
why do you want to taste me?
1 is not that yellow jasmine you spent the night with, having spent the day with me.
Take your fragrant body to the night Lily.
Your face, your body, your limbs,
they shine differently with different women.
It irks you that I’m devoted to you,
but for my separation from you
is a mountain I cannot climb,
and each day finds me
Another dimension to such love and devotion is the one where the poet turns to Krsna for his own salvation, and, using a very ingenious piece of logic, begs forgiveness for his sins:
My Master, please don’t take note of my faults. You are the one who looks upon everyone with the same eye; hence save me. One piece of iron is used
in a place of worship, another in a butcher’s shop;
but the Gilder doesn’t differentiate
between them and he covers them
both with pure gold . . . hence save me or you will break
your own promise to help your devotees.
This is the promise Krsna makes to his devotees in another well-known poem by Surdas:
I belong to my devotees and they to me. Listen to me, Arjuna, this is my promise which can never be broken. Wherever my devotees are in trouble, I run barefoot to help them, abandoning all sense of shame. . . . Those who are his enemies are my enemies too. That’s why I am driving your chariot. If you win I win too, and your defeat is also my defeat.
The most popular poems by Surdas, however, are those where Krsna, a child, talks to his mother Yashoda (also called Jasumati), and she to him, while each, caught up in the web of emotions of love and affection, forgets the divine aspect of the child’s personality:
O mother, my elder brother Dau teases me a lot.
He tells me that you didn’t give me birth,
just bought me. That’s why
I don’t go out to play.
He keeps asking me:
Who’s your father, your mother?
Why are you dark, when they
both are fair? Encouraged by him
all the cowherds clap their hands
and mock at me
You never punish Dau only me.” Seeing Krsna’s angry face, Jasumati is secretly amused.
And she reassures him: ”Listen, Krsna, Dau has been a naughty boy since his birth. I swear by all I cherish that I am your mother, and you, my son.”
Against the background of religious, devotional, and philosophical thought and sentiment, Surdas’s songs throb with a lyric fervour and intensity in dealing with such themes as the love of Radha and Krsna, Yashoda’s love for her unique son Krsna, and the passion of love which the ”gopis,” Radha included, feel for one who is both unattainable and unforgettable. Last, but not least, is the poet’s own rapturous devotion to the multi-dimensional, multifaceted figure of Krsna: child, lover, guru, an exemplar of human perfection, and embodiment of the Supreme.