Murty Classical Library of India Sheds Light on Sixteenth-Century Lyrical Poet Surdas

Poems in the style proliferated for centuries.

HUMANITIES, May/June 2015, Volume 36, Number 3

In sixteenth-century north India a poet named Surdas—meaning “servant of the sun”—composed many pads, or poems, on the life of Krishna and gained wide renown. Little is known today, however, about the life of Surdas. One tradition has it he was blind from birth, permitting him to see an inner light with great clarity. Two hundred thirty-nine pads have been attributed to him with certainty. By the nineteenth century, however, a manuscript of his work had swelled to ten thousand poems.

In all likelihood, the myriad of poems credited to Surdas, or Sur, beyond his initial corpus, were the work of many followers who, inspired by his spiritual vision, later wrote in the same vein. No one today seriously considers the whole body to be exclusively the work of Sur.

In 1600, a hagiographer by the name of Nabhadas lauded Surdas, especially for his talent at putting into words the essence of Hari. The term Hari can simply be a designation for god or an aspect of Vishnu. Sur’s Ocean, Poems from the Early Tradition, a compilation of poems either by Surdas himself or by one of the poets making up a “multiplicity of Sardases,” as John Stratton Hawley describes in the introduction, contains a long sequence of poems, Krishna Growing Up, that illustrate Hari’s childhood, his amorous youth, and his role in the Mahabharata, the early epic, written in Sanskrit, of the Bharata Dynasty.

Another beguiling sequence of pads, which are meant to be sung, carry the rubric The Bee Messenger. First in this sequence is one imploring Krishna’s messenger, Udho, to go “Sound out your message of Vedic revelation / and quench the fire that inflames those lovelorn girls. / Passion is its blaze, my body is the wick, / and their sighs apart from me, / the wind that fans the flames. / Only the water that their eyes supply / keeps them from turning to ash.” The short lyric ends with Sur asking and others wondering, “How can fish survive without the sea?” The word in the second line, “Vedic,” referring to Hindu culture between 1,750 BCE and 500 BCE, is an indication of how early the “early” in the subtitle might be considered to be.

An NEH research grant assisted in the translation and editing of the poems in Sur’s Ocean, and the original seed money came from an unlikely source, Rohan Murty, son of Infosys founder, Narayana Murthy. The hope is that the handsomely bound volumes in the Murty Classical Library of India, published by Harvard University Press, will last for generations in personal and institutional libraries, in the same way that the Loeb Classics, also published by the Press, endure. The Loebs fit neatly in the hand, offering classical writings and translations from Latin and Greek in red book jackets for the language of Cicero and green for that of Plato and Socrates. For Sur’s Ocean, the Murty Classical Library of India adopts a similar format (though heftier), with English translations occupying right-hand pages, while the verso presents the text in the original language from Braj, the region to the south of Delhi.

Regarding the authorship question, Neel Mukherjee, writing in New Statesman, observes that “it may be entirely correct and consistent with the available evidence to talk about Surdas as an authorial construct, or a collective, or to speak of a ‘Sur tradition’ instead of Surdas.” The editor, Kenneth E. Bryant and the tome’s translator, John Stratton Hawley, reason that it’s fitting to retain “a sense of a single excellent poet standing at the headwaters of the Sur tradition,” adding, “Perhaps . . . the Sursagar might better be thought of as a river than as an ocean—gathering strength in the course of time, but gradually growing more sluggish and losing a good bit of the purity that could be tasted farther upstream.”