Surdas is a very important person in Indian history. He was a poet, a saint, and a musician, and is equally revered for his accomplishments in all of these areas.
We really know very little about the life of Surdas. Fact and fiction are inextricably woven together to create the rich legend of this great saint. We do not even know his given name at birth. "Surdas" is really more of a title than a common name.
The dates of his birth and death are not clear. The date of his birth is sometimes given as 1479a.d. and sometimes 1478a.d. The date for his death is placed variously at 1584a.d. or 1581a.d. All of these dates are somewhat doubtful because they place his age at over 100 at the time of his death. Although centenarians are common today, it is highly unlikely that anyone would live to this age in mediaeval India. This doubt is especially significant when one considers the Indian tendency to inflate the ages of great saints.
Surdas lived in Brij (Braj) which is the land associated with lord Krishna. He appears to have been born blind to a poor Brahmin family. Due to this affliction, he received much neglect and ill treatment. This caused him to leave home at the age of 6.
Surdas was obviously a very intelligent boy. He memorized most of the Srimad Bhagavata and other Sanskrit works. His religious training was under the great sage Vallabhacharya. Under this great teacher he received knowledge of Hindu philosophy. After his training he followed the life that was typical of a Hindu holy man. He never married and lived on meager donations that were given as he sang bhajans and lectured on religious subjects.
Surdas' fame spread far and wide. Even the Mogul emperor Akbar gave homage to him.
Surdas was very prolific composer in his life. He is known for his "Sur Sagar" (Ocean of Melody). This magnum opus is said to originally contain 100,000 poems or songs; however, today only 8000 have survived.
It is interesting to note that Surdas' poetry was in the language of Brij Bhasha. This dialect of Hindustani was considered to be a very crude language. At the time, the literary languages were primarily Persian and Sanskrit. Sur Das' work is one of a number of works that is credited with raising Brij Bhasha from the status of a vulgate into that of a literary language.
The philosophy of Surdas' work is a reflection of the times. He was very much immersed in the Bhakti movement that was sweeping India. This movement represented a grass roots spiritual empowerment of the masses. Surdas in particular was a proponent of the Shuddhadvaita school of Vaishnavism (also known as Pushti Marg). This is no doubt due to the training he received under his spiritual Guru Sri Vallabhacharya. This philosophy is based upon the spiritual metaphor of the Radha-Krishna Lila (The celestial dance between Radha and Lord Krishna). This is derived from earlier saints such as the great Kabir Das.
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