“Into Sur’s Ocean: Poetry, Context, Commentary” by John Stratton Hawley

A little before John Donne and George Herbert penned their devotional poetry in the sixteenth century, a couple of bhakti (devotional) or sant (saint) poets in India began to write about the glory of God and the sentiment of devotion. Surdas, Tulsidas, Mirabai and Kabir are among the medieval saint poets becoming increasingly well-known outside their native India. However, with the exception of Tulsidas whose Ramcharitmanas is known to the West as the Bible of North India and has been translated several times in English, it can be difficult to separate the historical, authorial personalities from the interpolations by later poets who continued to compose in a similar vein.

Both English and Indian poets used poetry (and music and song) to express a love of God. But in India, the poets became saints too. Along with the difference in the notion of sainthood, the notion of authorship also differs between both the cultures. While the English poets are known as authors of their works, the Indian saint poets are much less tied to their poetry; serious concerns haunt the corpus ascribed to them.

The legendary blind poet Surdas, was a contemporary of Tulsidas. The poet is believed to have lived in Mughal Emperor Akbar’s time, yet several traditions emerge. The Vallabh Sampraday sect claims Surdas as a follower of its founder Vallabh. One of its documents has it that when Akbar heard his favourite singer Tansen sing one of Surdas’s songs, he set out to meet Surdas in Mathura.

Surdas, however, is not just a name of a poet—it has become a term of art as well. The blind beggar singers singing in the trains are referred to as Surdas. In most cases, the people who give them alms, simply call them Surdas, unaware of the poet whose poems are taught to school students studying Hindi language and literature.

Surdas is also a tradition. Innumerable poets and performers who have something to say about Krishna’s life—his birth, childhood adventures and miracles, his role in the Mahabharata, the longing of Radha and other girls after Krishna leaves his village—follow the oral signature “Says Sur” or “Surji Says”.

Since the Surdas himself is believed to have lived, the number of poems has grown to ten thousand. The collection is known as Sursagar—“Sur’s Ocean”—a  text akin to a pool of lyrics with no clear origins. The modern Hindi editions published in the 20th century and since, have been rather simplistic or arbitrary in incorporating the poems (pad)  that sound more formal or archaic, without looking at the historical significance of the manuscripts they emerge from. A lot of these Hindi editions depend on a cumulative “vulgate” Sursagar that does not try to separate the poems known in the sixteenth century from the ones that came later.


Into Sur’s Ocean: Poetry, Context, and Commentary, John Stratton Hawley ( (Harvard University Press, April 2017)
Into Sur’s Ocean: Poetry, Context, and Commentary, John Stratton Hawley (Harvard University Press, April 2017)

It is amid this chaos that scholars Kenneth E Bryant (editor) and John Stratton Hawley (translator) identified 433 poems known when Surdas lived and published them as Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition in 2015. This edition is based on investigations into different “scribal practices, relations between manuscripts and the dynamics of oral variation that the earliest manuscripts so richly attest.”

The outcome of this research is astonishing: the most well known Surdas poem (“I did not eat the butter, ma”—Krishna as butter thief is a well-known aspect of the mythology around him) is not found in the earliest manuscripts and so cannot be attributed to him at all.

With his new edition Into Sur’s Ocean: Poetry, Context, Commentary, Hawley provides a more detailed introduction to the poet, his times and oeuvre, with independent essays on the translation of each poem.

The analyses of the poems discuss different interpretations possible for certain words in the context of the performance as well. Hawley builds on the context of the previous Bryant edition as the first English translation of Surdas’s entire corpus (rather than selections) and elaborates on the challenges and processes of his translation. He clarifies that his selections form a tentative, constitutive (rather than a definitive) text.

But it is a text that matters a lot—especially since there is no such “authentic” text in Hindi, based on rigorous historical research and since knowing about the early poems broadens the contemporary understanding of how scandalizingly sexual Surdas can be. For those who know of Surdas only in the context of Krishna as a child-god, as a butter thief, and as a performer of several miracles, Hawley’s poems and his interpretations of certain words as innuendoes can be quite surprising, to say the least. An example from poem 83 is representative of the implications of such possibilities. In a general sense, Krishna is understood to be “behaving well” with Radha, but in an esoteric, tantric context, it is clear that he is “penetrating well”.

Hawley’s analyses of the individual poems, especially along the lines of these meanings, reveal devotion and “saintliness” in a different light. The reader begins to understand that a gesture in approaching or expressing the sublime is intertwined with the corporeal dimension. The Indian public has been fed a steady dose of angelic portraits of devotion through popular bhajans (devotional songs), outside any of these provocative, sexual references.

It would be interesting to observe the reactions of the same people when they are exposed to love for the divine in this manner.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.