Surdas is a very important person in Indian history. He was a poet, a saint, and a musician, and is equally revered for his accomplishments in all of these areas. We really know very little about the life of Surdas. Fact and fiction are inextricably woven together to create the rich legend of this great saint. We do not even know his given name at birth. “Surdas” is really more of a title than a common name.
The dates of his birth and death are not clear. The date of his birth is sometimes given as 1479a.d. and sometimes 1478 a.d. The date for his death is placed variously at 1584a.d. or 1581a.d. All of these dates are somewhat doubtful because they place his age at over 100 at the time of his death. Although centenarians are common today, it is highly unlikely that anyone would live to this age in mediaeval India. This doubt is especially significant when one considers the Indian tendency to inflate the ages of great saints.
Surdas lived in Brij (Braj) which is the land associated with lord Krishna. He appears to have been born blind to a poor Brahmin family. Due to this affliction, he received much neglect and ill treatment. This caused him to leave home at the age of 6.
Surdas was obviously a very intelligent boy. He memorized most of the Srimad Bhagavata and other Sanskrit works. His religious training was under the great sage Vallabhacharya. Under this great teacher he received knowledge of Hindu philosophy. After his training he followed the life that was typical of a Hindu holy man. He never married and lived on meager donations that were given as he sang bhajans and lectured on religious subjects.
Surdas’ fame spread far and wide. Even the Mogul emperor Akbar gave homage to him.
Surdas was very prolific composer in his life. He is known for his “Sur Sagar” (Ocean of Melody). This magnum opus is said to originally contain 100,000 poems or songs; however, today only 8000 have survived.
It is interesting to note that Surdas’ poetry was in the language of Brij Bhasha. This dialect of Hindustani was considered to be a very crude language. At the time, the literary languages were primarily Persian and Sanskrit. Sur Das’ work is one of a number of works that is credited with raising Brij Bhasha from the status of a vulgate into that of a literary language.
The philosophy of Surdas’ work is a reflection of the times. He was very much immersed in the Bhakti movement that was sweeping India. This movement represented a grass roots spiritual empowerment of the masses. Surdas in particular was a proponent of the Shuddhadvaita school of Vaishnavism (also known as Pushti Marg). This is no doubt due to the training he received under his spiritual Guru Sri Vallabhacharya. This philosophy is based upon the spiritual metaphor of the Radha-Krishna Lila (The celestial dance between Radha and Lord Krishna). This is derived from earlier saints such as the great Kabir Das.
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”.
Early Life of Sant Surdas
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.
Surdas’s Guru – Shri Vallabharachary
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 Attains Fame
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.
Philosophy of Surdas
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.
The Poetical Works of Surdas
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.
- A Lyric by Surdas: ‘The Deeds Of Krishna’
- 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.