book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

The Memory of Love: Surdas Sings to Krishna

Suradasa and John Stratton Hawley (tr.)

Suradasa [Surdas, ?1483-?1563]; John Stratton Hawley (tr.);

The Memory of Love: Surdas Sings to Krishna

Oxford University Press, 2009, 315 pages

ISBN 0195373995, 9780195373998

topics: |  poetry | history | india | religion | bhakti

The work of Surdas, the sixteenth century bhakti mystic, is little known outside hindi-speaking circles. Even there, his compositions are mostly sung, and the connection with words is often frail. Thus, this scholarly annotated translation by Hawley does sterling service.

This book considers the sUrsAgar - Sur's Ocean - a compilation of manuscripts with varying versions of songs from the oral tradition, most of which date to the 16th c.

It considers this not as the work of a single author, but as a canon, a "Sūr tradition," following Kenneth Bryant. (p. 26)

The songs are numbered based on Bryant's compilation of the Sursagar. Also given are the numbering from the nāgarīpracāriNī sabhā edition of the sUrsAgar (NPS) - a.k.a. the Kāśī NāgarīpracāriNī Sabhā - the standard devAnAgari text used by Indian scholars. The NPS version, according to Bryant and Hawley, are missing some lyrics such as _lāla tumārī muralī nain.ka vajāun_ ("Dear, let me play your Muralı¯ for a moment"), which bears the signature of Sūrdās...

The list of manuscripts consulted are mostly from the collection with the Maharaja of Jaipur, the Anup Sanskrit Library of Bikaner, and some others from Allahabad, Kota, etc.

After a long introduction, translations from Surdas are organized into eight sections, starting with Krishna's childhood, the start of his love, his departure to Mathura, messengers, encounters, songs to Rama, invocations and songs to rivers.

I only wish there was an Indian edition available for the Indian English reader (my edition is from OUP USA).

Hindi vs BrajbhAShA

Modern Standard Hindi (MSH), the national language that is taught as a
compulsory subject in schools across India, has existed as such for only
about a hundred years. Its grammars, dictionaries, and textbooks draw on a
register of common speech called khaDī bolī, which has come to have a
literary aspect, but only since the early years of the twentieth
century. Hindi’s more venerable classics tend instead to be drawn from two
linguistic streams that have flowed strong and hard for half a millennium,
reaching back to the days when the Mughal Empire brought much of India under
a common rule, and even before.  These two streams are conventionally called
avadhI and brajbhāShā. Their labels associate them with particular
geographical regions, though as literary idioms they could be adopted by
writers and performers living far away from these regional centers.

[see (Ronald) Stuart McGregor in "The Progress of Hindi, Part I: The
 Development of a Transregional Idiom," in Pollock. ed., Literary Cultures in
 History: Reconstructions from South Asia, pp. 912–957. Also worthy of note
 is Rupert Snell’s The Hindi Classical Tradition: A Braj BhāShā Reader,
 especially pp. 29–36.]

Avadh (Oudh): the Gangetic region southeast of Delhi. Its cultural capitals
   included Jaunpur, Banaras, and Lucknow, but Sufi centers such as Jais and
   Kalpi also figured in the mix.

BrajbhāShā. rose somewhat farther west - "the speech of Braj," - the region
south of Delhi under Jamunā. Its ancient cultural capital is Mathura,
birthplace of Krishna.  the Mughals worked closely with several Rajput
kings, including especially the Kachvāhā rulers of Amber (later Jaipur),
Mānsingh Kachvāhā served as a general for the great Mughal emperor Akbar
(r. 1556–1605) in his Gujarat campaigns of 1572 and 1576, and he and his
father were later dispatched by Akbar to govern Kabul, Lahore, and Bihar and
Bengal...  The culture of Braj was a major beneficiary of this system of
alliances, since from the sixteenth century onward the rajas of Amber were
staunch — though not exclusive — devotees of the god Krishna ... they played
a major role in constructing in Braj some of the most impressive temples
where Krishna could be worshiped in image form.

Was Surdas blind from birth?

the devotional tradition of the vallabh sampradAy who
have adopted sUrdAs claims that sUrdAs was blind from
birth, but Hawley, looking at the text of the songs,
suggests that there is not sufficient evidence for
this; it is also possible that he became blind later
in life, as suggested by this song:

	Now I am blind; I have shunned Hari’s name.
	My hair has turned white with illusions and delusions
	   that have wrung me through till nothing makes sense.

though mostly, it is hard to tell whether the blindness talked
about in the songs is physical or spiritual...

(image from


Transliteration                                                     xiii
Abbreviations                                                       xvii
Manuscripts Consulted                                                xix
Introduction                                                           3

Poems from Sūr’s Ocean

1. Krishna Growing Up                                                 47
2. The Pangs and Politics of Love                                     79
3. Krishna Departs for Mathura  Never to Return                      107
4. The Bee-messenger                                                 127
5. Lordly Encounters—and Others                                      147
6. Rāmāyana                                                          167
7. The Poet’s Petition and Praise                                    175
8. To the Holy Rivers                                                195

Notes                                                                199
Bibliography of Works Cited                                          285
List of Poems by English Title                                       291
List of Poems by BrajbhāsA Title                                     297
Index                                                                303


The gopis complain p. 63

     			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.

Aviary p.65

		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 p.81

		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 p.123

	      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.

John Stratton Hawley is Professor of Religion at Barnard College, Columbia

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] gmail) 2012 Apr 20