SŪRDĀS (also called Sūr Dās and Sūradāsa; c. 1483–1563), a North Indian devotional poet. Known for his brilliant padas (lyrics) in the Braj dialect of Hindi, Sūrdās is one of the most popular poets of Kṛṣṇa bhakti (devotion) in the North Indian heartland.
The traditionally accepted story of his life has come down through the hagiographic accounts of the Vallabhite sect of Kṛṣṇa bhakti, which claims Sūrdās as the first of its "eight seals"—eight poets who lived during the early days of the sect and whose compositions are part of the sect's daily liturgy. According to these accounts, Sūrdās was born near Delhi in 1478, the same year as Vallabhācārya, the founder of the sect, and, like him, was of the Sārasvat Brāhmaṇ caste. Reputedly blind from birth, he was endowed with miraculous gifts of clairvoyance as well as great musical talent. At a young age, he left home to become an ascetic, eventually settling near Agra. There he composed devotional songs and attracted a following. In 1510 Vallabhācārya came through on one of his preaching tours and met Sūrdās. Until that time, all of Sūrdās's compositions had been of the vinaya type—hymns of supplication and humble pleas for salvation. Vallabhācārya taught him the story of Kṛṣṇa as embodied in the tenth chapter of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, instructed him in his doctrines, and enjoined him to sing about the līlā (divine play) of Kṛṣṇa. He then brought Sūrdās to the sect's newly established Shrīnāthjī temple in Govardhan and put him in charge of composing songs for the liturgy. In this setting, where he spent the remainder of his life, Sūrdās composed the Sūrsāgar, a retelling of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa in twelve chapters of verse. He died, according to Vallabhite sources, shortly before the death of Vallabhācārya's son, Viṭṭhalnātha, in 1585, his life thus spanning that of both the founder of the sect and his immediate successor.
Serious scholarly doubt has been cast on this account. Another nonsectarian Hindu tradition suggests that Sūrdās's dates are 1483 to 1563, that he was by caste a Bhāṭ (panegyrist), and that he became blind only later in life. The issue is further complicated by references in Muslim sources to a renowned singer named Sūrdās at the court of the emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605). The somewhat subordinate ranking of this Mughal Sūrdās—he is far less celebrated than his father, a certain Rāmdās—and a disagreement among the royal choniclers as to whether Rāmdās hailed from Gwalior or Lucknow makes it unlikely, however, that this Sūrdās is the same as the renowned Vaiṣṇava poet. The early-seventeenth-century Afsānah-i-Shāhāṅ of Muḥammad Kabīr also mentions a Sūrdās, who is referred to as a performer at the court of the Afghan ruler Islām Shāh (r. 1545–1555). This Sūrdās—who sounds more likely to be "our" man—is included in a select list of "accomplished scholars and poets" whose luster was intended to burnish the reputation of Islām Shāh a half century or more later. Sūrdās is the only non-Muslim to be included in the group.
This image of Sūrdās as a court poet is entirely at variance with the Vallabhite account that has become so standard. But the most serious challenge to the Vallabhite view comes not from alternate biographies, Vaiṣṇava or otherwise, but from the textual history of the Sūrsāgar itself. Though the present-day standard edition of nearly five thousand padas is indeed divided into twelve chapters following the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, the oldest extant manuscripts, which contain only a few hundred padas, are not. Nor do the older manuscripts follow the Vallabhite liturgical calendar, use the characteristic theological terminology of the sect, or group the vinaya lyrics at the beginning as a distinct genre. The present-day Sūrsāgar is thus the product of gradual addition to an original core of episodic lyrics, and of the imposition of a systematic framework by a self-conscious sectarian tradition. A critical edition prepared by Kenneth E. Bryant in cooperation with Vidyut Aklujkar and others is shortly to be published and will force a radical reevaluation of the text, at least in scholarly circles.
Despite the incorporation of Sūrdās into the history and liturgy of the Vallabhite community, his importance as a religious figure extends far beyond the sectarian. His name has become a household word used to refer to blind persons, especially blind mendicant singers, while the Sūrsāgar, whose lyrics are sung by Indians of all sectarian persuasions, is considered one of the literary and devotional treasures of the Hindi-speaking area. Sūrdās's lyrics touch on all aspects of the Kṛṣṇa story, but he is best known for his depiction of Kṛṣṇa's childhood and adolescence. Among the poems on Kṛṣṇa's childhood, those dealing with Kṛṣṇa as the butter thief are among the favorites. Also popular are the lyrics that describe the irresistible attraction of Kṛṣṇa's flute-playing and how it draws the cowherd women (gopīs) from their homes. Sūrdās's second most beloved theme is that of the pain of separation (viraha) felt by Rādhā and the cowherd women after Krishna leaves them and settles in Mathura, resuming the royal station he was forced to abdicate at birth. Among these viraha poems are the famous "bee songs," in which the cowherd women mock the cold monistic philosophy of Kṛṣṇa's emissary Uddhav and assert the superiority of their loving personal devotion to Kṛṣṇa. Sūrdās's third most popular theme is that of vinaya, in which he turns from dramatic third-person description and narration to the intimate first-person voice of the devotee praying to his god for salvation, sometimes humbly, sometimes with reckless abandon. The Sūrsāgar also contains padas that plumb Kṛṣṇa's activities as a mature adult—stories associated with the great Mahābhārata epic—as well as a number that celebrate Rāma and Sītā, as in the Mahābhārata' s parallel epic, the Rāmā-yaṇa.
Finally, there are poems that function as verbal icons, as in the following example. Here, one young woman catches a glimpse of Kṛṣṇa playing his flute Muralī and shares her vision with a friend, likening her mind and eyes to two birds: the chātak, which survives on raindrops, and the chakor, which lives on moonbeams:
Look, friend: look what a mass of delight—
For my chātak- bird mind, a cloud dark with love;
a moon for my chakor- bird eyes.
His earrings coil in the hollows of his neck,
gladdening his tender cheeks,
As crocodiles might play on a nectar pond
and make the moonlight shudder in their wake.
A wealth of elixir, his mouth and lips,
and little Muralī perched in his hands
Seems to be filling that pair of lotus vessels
with still more of that immortal liquid.
His deep-toned body, sheathed in brilliant silk,
glitters with a garland of basil leaves
As if a coalition of lightning and cloud
had been ringed by parrots in flight.
Thick locks of hair; a lovely, easy laugh;
eyebrows arched to a curve—
To gaze upon the splendor of the Lord of Sūr
is to make one's wishes lame.
Hawley and Bryant, Sūr's Ocean, §41
The Sūrsāgar is a work of remarkable range, yet it is important to keep in mind that, at least until the eighteenth century, it was composed entirely of independent lyrics such as the one above, most of them quite short and all of them intended to be sung. The poet's task was not to retell a sustained narrative but to allow his audiences to experience familiar episodes in a fresh way, either by introducing some novel vignette or perspective, by phrasing his poems as puzzles, by assembling metaphors and allusions in new ways, or by seducing his listeners into a langorous lethargy from which he could then awake them. The hagiographer Nābhādās, writing early in the seventeenth century, summed up the views of many subsequent listeners, performers, and critics when he observed that what set Sūrdās apart was his status as a poet's poet: "What poet, hearing the poems Sūr has made, will not nod his head?"
For a brief overview of the traditional understandings of Sūrdās and his relationship to the Vallabhite sect, see S. M. Pandey and Norman Zide's "Sūrdās and His Krishna-Bhakti, " in Krishna: Myths, Rites, and Attitudes, edited by Milton Singer (Chicago, 1966), pp. 173–199. Vrajeśvara Varmā's Sūrdās, 2d ed. (Allahabad, India, 1979), is a balanced and thorough study of Sūrdās's life and poetry. Pastorales par Soûr-Dâs, translated and edited by Charlotte Vaudeville (Paris, 1971), contains representative padas and a critical introduction. Kenneth E. Bryant's Poems to the Child-God (Berkeley, Calif., 1978) is a rhetorical study of Sūrdās's poetic strategies and breaks new ground in the analysis of Indian devotional poetry. In "The Early Sūr Sāgar and Growth of the Sūr Tradition," Journal of the American Oriental Society 99, no. 1 (January–March 1979): 64–72, John Hawley presents for the first time the manuscript evidence that challenges the traditional view of the Sūrsāgar. Other essays by Hawley on various aspects of Sūrdās's life and works are collected in his Sūr Dās : Poet, Singer, Saint (Seattle, Wash., 1984); these are supplemented by a further set that appear in Three Bhakti Voices (Delhi, 2005). The most extensive translations of poems attributed to Sūrdās are by Jaikishandas Sadani (Rosary of Hymns, New Delhi, 1991), A. J. Alston (The Divine Sports of Krishna, London, 1993), Krishna P. Bahadur (The Poems of Sūradāsa, Delhi, 1999), and J. P. Srivatsava (in Medieval Indian Literature: An Anthology, vol. 2, edited by K. Ayyappa Paniker, New Delhi, 1999). The most ambitious critical assessment by Indian authors writing in English is K. C. Sharma, K. C. Yadav, and Pushpendra Sharma's Sūradāsa: A Critical Study of His Life and Work (Delhi, 1997).
The standard edition of the Sūrsāgar, upon which many authors rely, is the Nagari Pracharini Sabha's Sūrsāgar, 2 vols. (Varanasi, India, 1948, with subsequent reprints). Partial editions have also been produced by Javāharlāl Chaturvedī (Calcutta, 1965) and Mātāprasād Gupta (Agra, India, 1979). A full-scale critical edition of Sūrdās poems that can be traced to the sixteenth century has recently been completed by Kenneth Bryant and will be published as volume two of Sūr's Ocean (forthcoming). In the first volume of that work, John Hawley provides a translation and poem-by-poem analysis of compositions included in the Bryant edition, with extensive introduction. Bryant and Gopal Narayan Bahura have performed a valuable service by publishing a facsimile edition (Pad Sūradāsajī kā, Jaipur, India, 1982) of the earliest extant manuscript containing poems attributed to Sūrdās. Written at Fatehpur in 1582, it contains 239 Sūrdās padas.
Karine Schomer (1987)
John Stratton Hawley (2005)