The underlying theme of the poetry of Surdas is the dance of Love of the Lord and the human soul, in which the whole manifest world is seen as the creative sport of the Lord.
My eyes like the Khanjana bird
Have been intoxicated with the beauty
And delight of form. Now they are restless
As they draw nearer to the source of Bliss
And cannot be contained in this cage.
They would have broken their bars long ago and fled,
If Beauty had not restrained them, says Surdas.
THUS sang Surdas, the great blind poet of India, upon his deathbed. By the beauty of his songs and the serenity of his life, this devout man of God was able to influence all classes of men, the Emperor Akbar himself and many at his court, as well as those in the fields and workshops. Turning away from offers of wealth and worship, Surdas was happy in the obscurity of a modest temple cell, where he lived adoring the personal aspect of the Lord as Shri Krishna. Blind and poor as he was throughout his life, he had no need of eyesight or of wealth, for his inner eye was open to the countless riches of the Spirit.
With this inner eye, Surdas could see that the multiple forms of the world were but a shadow play of life and love within the silent and actionless infinity underlying and pervading all existence. He sought to lead men through his songs to the realisation of this Truth, to lead them through Beauty into eternai Bliss. He sang of the longing of mankind for God, embodied in the simple and singleminded devotion of the cowherd men and maidens of Braj for Shyama, the Lord Krishna. This devotion is the leit-motiv running through his poetry, and if he writes of nature it is as an echo of this love.
How lovely are the trees
As they bend their branches to kiss the earth!
The black bees hover, humming, above the blossoms,
And in an ecstasy of love
The cuckoo calls from the Kadhamba tree
The poems are like tapestries of pastoral scenes and they reveal the intrinsic beauty of the manifested Lord, hidden within the pattern of His play.
The bucolic setting conveys the tranquillity of the true devotee, whose mind is simple enough to be aware of the presence of the Lord and quiet enough to hear the ‘ music of the spheres.’
The leaves and branches all lie motionless,
And lo ! the moon itself is charmed and moveth not;
The night is absolutely still.
Says Surdas : Shri Hari is abroad in Brindavan ;
His companions know this, and they run to meet Him.
Looking at the world with the outer eye alone we are appalled at the evil and suffering around us ; it is as if we were looking at cheback of a tapestry, seeing only a confused design of tangled threads. Similarly, listening with the outer ear alone, we fail to hear the heavenly music of Shri Krishna’s Flute, which is drowned by the discords of materialism. When there is so much that is wearisome in the world, when men find the empirical life dissatisfying and the spiritual life difficult, then how refreshing it is to look into the poetry of Surdas ! For the poet has seen the right side of the tapestry, where each thread is woven into and is lost in the divine design.
He gives us a reading of the manifested world as the Creative Sport of the Lord, which is unfolded in the play of love between God and the human soul. Through the eyes of Surdas we can watch this ‘ mystic dance ’ by which the Lord Hari invites devotion to Himself. Incarnate as Shri Krishna, He calls forth the love of His innocent devotees as he sings and dances and plays the Flute for them.
Listen, listen, O dear Companions,
Listen to Shri Hari—He is playing His Flute,
And in all the spheres the Dev as and other beings
Are enamoured of the music.
The women of Braj run wildly towards the sound,
The water of the Yamuna is stilled,
And the birds, the deer and fishes are all motionless
Like pictures upon a canvas.
There is magic in the sound of the divine Flute. When it is heard the whole world is turned upside down, the dry land and the ocean become as one, lotuses blossom in the desert, the waters of the Yamuna flow upward and the Rishis interrupt their meditations. The poets accuse Surdas of havirg exhausted the whole treasury of rhetoric in describing the beauty of the Lord, seeing which ‘ the similes, ashamed, sink into oblivion.’
But the Gopis, the cowherd maidens, like all people, live a practical life on earth and they are busy milking their cows and churning butter for their Lord. It is well known that He creeps into their houses when they are not looking in order to steal their butter ; they expect Him to do so and so they never shut their doors.
‘There is hardly a house in Braj,
In which He has not played the thief and stolen butter.
In this way Surdas shows us Shri Krishna in one of His chief roles as ‘ Robber ’ of the hearts of His Gopis. To the Western mind it may seem a strange conception, but it is a most revealing one. In the philosophy of Yoga, contemplation of the Lord within is likened to the churning of the milk of devotion in the heart. The butter of divine love, or union with God, is hidden in every particle of milk, but the churning process is necessary before it will come forth. The process itself can be offered to the Lord, but not the butter, for it is not the devotees’ to give. And so when it is made, the Lord must come and steal it ; He does so when they are least aware that it is there.
In one poem we see the Lord creeping into a Gopi’s house unnoticed and beginning to help himself to the butter. The returning Gopi sees Him, and hiding herself watches Him feeding His own image reflected in a crystal pillar. She overhears Him saying :
Take the whole pot, eat well, don’t feel shy.
I am so pleased to see you, little companion.
Unable to contain herself at the sight, the Gopi bursts out laughing, whereupon the Lord runs away, leaving her disconsolate. Thus does Surdas sing of the subtle sport of Shri Krishna, who, stealing into the heart that is absent from its own concerns, is reflected in the crystal pillar of the watching, waiting mind, but vanishes when the ego re-asserts itself.
The poems in adoration of Shri Hari are among the most beautiful of the works of Surdas. ‘ O,’ he exclaims,
O, how I wish that my heart were this very ground,
On which, dressed as a peasant boy,
My Lord is dancing and playing about!
The senses, when dead to the charms of the outer world, become alive within ; transformed into organs of adoration, they play in concert with the universal rhythms.
The eyes are given to gaze on Him,
And the ears that they may hear His Flute
And the nectar of His words ;
But, O my companions, how can one look on Him and live ?
The great flow of adoration and the ebb of separation are but tidal movements in the boundless sea of devotion in which the soul must ultimately drown. This devotion purges the soul of the dross of individual detail and leads it away from the pangs of personal suffering into the expanding sphere of universal compassion.
In addition to the sport of Shri Krishna with His Gopis, we are shown the Lord in a number of other roles. We see Him depicted as a little child, romping and playing about, covered in dust and dirt, clapping His hands and throwing up His ball, that we may enter into the innocent and happy spontaneity of childhood. We see Him waking up, sleepy-eyed, with tousled hair and clothes awry, that we may not forget to watch for Him to reveal Himself at unexpected moments.
We see Him rushing to meet His old schoolfellow, Suddama, washing his feet with tears of joy, that we may draw closer to the mystery of Grace. We see Him as the Master Lover, with His wayward Radha, who is now loving, now indifferent, and as we see Him sorrowing for her when she has left Him and welcoming her back when she returns, we learn more of the mystery of Mercy. When we see Him swinging her—but not too high, for she is frightened !—we participate in the pure play of life.
O Prince of the realm of my heart,
O Hari, let me swing, but let my eyes
Ever rest upon Thy face.’
In this way we understand that the oscillations of nature, the swing from joy to sorrow, are forms of play once the heart is fixed upon the Spirit, the actionless animator of the world.
Swami Rama Tirtha, a saint of modern times, had great love for the rain ; it was, as he said, the way in which the heavens embraced the earth. When we listen to the ‘ Song of the Rain ’ of Surdas we understand more of the mystic union of the soul with God that causes the heavens to open and rain love and beauty upon the earth. When the world is seen apart from its Lord, it is a world of darkness ; the darkness of ignorance covers the nature of the Spirit even as a cloud covers the light of the sun. ‘ Dark- coloured ’ is the literal meaning of the word ‘ Shyama and the dark-complexioned Shri Krishna is often called the cloud-coloured Lord .
Through the poems of Surdas, we learn more of the dark, or hidden, Beauty of the Lord which indicates His presence in the world. In sport, Shri Krishna takes on a dark complexion, in sport God hides Himself behind a cloud, but that man may come to know that He is hiding, He calls to him, whispering in the wind, beckoning in the waving rushes and singing in the songs of the birds. The world is thus a mighty mystic dance in which all are called to join, to have the great vision of Shri Krishna dancing in the grove, of the Light that is over-present in the darkness.
Wherever I look, all is Shyama—
The grove is dark, so are the waters of the Yamuna ;
Darkness, darkness underlies all colour.
Since I have become drunk with the love of Shyama,
Everything has changed for me l … .
The black pupils of the eyes of my friend seem different.
Dark is Maya, the Enhancer and Manifester of the Beauty of Shyama.
If with Surdas we witness the sport of the Lord in His many roles, if we look at the joys and sorrows of the Gopis, we will be able to w?tch more easily the movements of our own minds. Our lives will become less determined by our own mental states and less subject to the disturbances of fortune. Through the power of disinterested devotion, which is at once stimulating and stabilising, duties will become a delight, while difficulties and distress, when seen in relation to the whole design, will appear integral parts of the very dance itself.
When we watch the great tragedies of the stage, we are more moved by the beauty of the conception seen as a whole than distressed by the calamities portrayed. Similarly, when we read of the joys and sorrows of the Gopis, two sides of the golden coin of single-minded love, it is not so much happiness or sadness that is felt as the purifying power and beauty of devotion. It is this which lifts man above the light and shade of the vacillating mind onto that impersonal plane of Peace where the emotions are still and reason is at rest.
From here a cool blue flame will be seen spreading slowly across the paper of this transient world, burning up the difficulties ana the differences, and revealing the world as the shadow play of Pure Spirit, the dark and beautiful ‘ undanced dance of God.