Poetry Corner: Surdas


Surdas was a 16th-century blind Hindu devotional poet and singer, who was known for his lyrics written in praise of Krishna. They are usually written in Braj Bhasa, one of the two literary dialects of Hindi, the other being Awadhi.

Surdas is usually regarded as having taken his inspiration from the teachings of Vallabha Acharya, whom he is supposed to have met in 1510. There are many stories about him, but most consideringly he is said to be blind from his birth. He is said to have become foremost among the poets the Vallabha Sampradaya designates as its Aṣṭachāp(eight seals), following the convention that each poet affixes his oral signaturecalled chap at the end of each composition. However, the absence of Vallabha Acharya from early poems of Surdas and the awkward story of their meeting suggests that Surdas was an independent poet.

The book Sur Sagar (Sur’s Ocean) is traditionally attributed to Surdas. However, many of the poems in the book seem to be written by later poets in Sur’s name. The Sur Sagar in its present form focuses on descriptions of Krishna as a lovable child, written from the gopis perspective. Surdas was a great religious singer.

The gopis complain

     			song 23, NPS 909

Why don’t you reprimand that boy?
What can I say? Every day it happens.
I haven’t the strength to endure:
He swallows the butter, spills milk on the floor,
smears his body with curd,
Then chases after the children left at home,
spraying them with butter-whey.
If ever I hide a thing, even in places
far-off and secret, he knows where.
What to do? Defeated, undone,
I’m driven to despair by your son.
His thefts are so clever—that wish-fulfilling jewel!—
that their tale cannot be told,
And so, to get a hold on him, says Sūr,
all of Braj is flowing,
dashing here and there.


		song 31, NPS 984

How could you have become so angry with Kānh
That you took a stick in that harsh hand of yours
and let it touch his soft, tender frame?
Look at how those tears drip down from his eyes
and glisten as they settle on his breast,
As if a wagtail wanted to gather many pearls
in a beak too small to hold them all inside.
Those eyes shuttle back and forth in such terror—
look into his face and listen to what I say—
That it seems, says Sūr, two birds have seen the bow
of a hunter, and are desperate to fly.

Filling her pots

		song 64, not in NPS

"On the banks of the River Jamunā,
In a secluded spot, alone,
I was filling my pots with water
when Kānh caught hold of my hair.
I placed the pitchers on my head, but the path
was winding, and he was garbed all in yellow,
And the more I looked, the lovelier he seemed;
his little waist-bells so fine."
The milkmaid’s touch of embarrassment
told how that warrior had won the battle—
Sūrdās’s Cowherd: he’d taken her in his arms
and given her golden pitchers their reward.

The season of rains

	      song 224, NPS 3935

The season of rains has come
but Hari is not to be found.
Thunder rumbles deep
as lightning lights the dark sky;
Peacocks screech in the wood;
the frogs are alert, alive;
Cuckoos send out a high piercing sound
and I, friend, I could die.
Rainbows brandish arrows;
they shoot, and full of ire
They loose their pointed raindrops
at my body. I can’t endure.
Quick, dispatch a letter
by some traveler, then, says Su¯r,
So that the Yādav king may know
what torture I’ve been through.

Nothing now remains

		song 355, NPS 247

Nothing now remains.
duHshAsan has dragged me into the court
   and he’s even grabbed my clothes.
Land, wealth, happiness, palace — all lost:
   Every kind of sadness I’ve suffered.
Somewhere in my heart I wore the mantle of your mercy,
   but now their stares have burned it away—
"Govind!" she shouted, "Govind!
   Guard me at such a time!"
And then, says Sūr, the sea of compassion surged:
   its water, a current of cloth.

Dwarf at the door

		song 361, NPS 440

"A Brahmin dwarf is standing at the door!"
Hearing him chant the Veda brought the king such joy
   that he asked the scholar to come in.
He bathed his feet, drank the water from those feet,
   and asked the Brahmin what he might desire.
"Just give me three and a half steps’ worth of earth
   for a fine little hut in which to dwell."
"But why," said the king, "would you ask for only that?
   I’d give you many jewels, many towns."
Then the Lord of Sūrdās took what he had asked:
   On the prostrate monarch’s back
      he placed his foot.