Vrindavan, 2017.04.04 (VT): On March 24th, professor John Stratton Hawley from Columbia University spoke at the JIVA Institute in Vrindavan. He is one of the foremost scholars on Hinduism in the USA, who specializes in the devotional traditions of North India, especially Surdas.
After studying world religions at Harvard University in the 1970s, Hawley did extensive research in India. Fifteen books and many scholarly articles followed, and he has won a number of prestigious awards for his work.
In 2015, Hawley published Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition, and this book was at the center of his talk at JIVA. Written in association with Kenneth Bryant, Sur’s Ocean contains the 433 pads (poems or songs) that appear in the earliest Surdas manuscripts. The original Braj Bhasha text of each pad, reconstructed from the ancient texts by Bryant, appears facing its translation, exquisitely composed by Hawley.
Professor Hawley shared with us how, beginning forty years ago in Vrindavan, he attempted to find all the oldest Surdas manuscripts dated before the end of the 17th century. To do so, he traveled to every library protecting the manuscript heritage of India. He can’t claim to have seen every manuscript, he says, but it would be surprising if there were any very old Surdas manuscripts still undiscovered.
Because of Rajasthan’s dry, hot climate, the oldest manuscripts are still preserved there. We heard a wonderful story from Professor Hawley about how Kenneth Bryant, with the help of a great scholar of the Jaipur royal family, Gopal Narayan Bahura, was able to access the oldest known edition of Surdas poems.
The manuscript is dated 1582 CE and is based on three even older collections. When Prince Charles visited Jaipur to play polo with the Raja, Bahura ji gently persuaded the Raja to show Prince Charles his manuscript collection. Thus the Surdas manuscript was brought out and they were able to have it photographed. More than 200 of the current publication’s poems are from this manuscript.
Professor Hawley encouraged us to nourish our understanding of who Surdas was by examining all the various accounts of his life. He also challenged some of the cherished notions about Surdas, which are not consistent throughout the available literature.
Many accounts of Surdas’s life were compared by Hawley in his talk. For example, the Pushti Marg scripture 84 Vaishnavan ki Varta portrays Surdas as a disciple of Vallabhacharya. But Hawley had his doubts about this as another important work, Nabhadasji’s Bhakt Maal, does not tell of such a connection. Moreover, the Bhakt Maal makes no mention of Surdas’s being blind. But regardless of these details, something vital remained constant through every portrayal: that Surdas was a great devotee of Shri Krishna, and that he wrote extraordinary poetry for his beloved Lord.
Professor Hawley also showed us the popular, modern portrayal of Surdas and contrasted it with the first known artistic representations that were found in the old manuscripts. The modern painting portrayed Surdas as an elderly, emaciated man, blind and dressed in rags, playing an ektara. But in the oldest painting, dated to 1660-1670 CE, Surdas appeared to be young and well-dressed, and without any musical instruments. But interestingly, he does seem to be blind.
Professor Hawley’s passion for Surdas left us feeling very inspired, and closer to the saint than ever.
Near the end of his talk, Professor Hawley presented some of the pads from Sur’s Ocean. A beautiful example:
सिषनि सिषरनि चढि टेर सुणायो
बिरहणि सावधान कै रहियो, लीयै पावसै दल आयो
बादर अति वनइते पवँन ताजी, चठी चटक देषायो
चंमकत वीज सेल कर मंडत, गरज नीसँण वजायो
दादुर पीक गांण मोर झलरी, सब मिल मारू गायो
मदन सुभट कर पँच बणनै, व्रज सँनमुष कु धायो
जानि बिदेस नँद को ललणां, अभलनी त्रस देषायो
सुरदास सँम्रूत वे बानै, प्राण जात व्रमायो
Peacocks have mounted whatever peak they can
to scream their warning to lonely women:
“Look out! The monsoon has come with its armies!”
Clouds, great archers, have mounted the winds—
their sleek Arab horses: they snap their whips.
Lightning-bolts brandish dazzling spears
and the thunder thunders kettle-drum sounds.
Chātak birds, cuckoos, parrots, peacocks,
and crickets join forces, singing out rāg māru,
Kāma, the warrior, clutches his five arrows
and charges straight at Braj. He knows full well
That Nanda’s Delight has left for another country,
so he terrorizes helpless women.
Surdas says, they remember bygone virtues
and the breath within them slows to a stop.
(Bryant and Hawley, Sur’s Ocean, poem 226)
Hawley highlighed several features of this poem in a very beautiful way; the following is only a paraphrasing of his thoughts.
The poem is set during the monsoon, the season of love. The heroine in separation (virahini) is generally conceived to be Radha, but that is not specifically mentioned in the poem. Thus it could be anyone pining for Krishna. Hawley explained how the ष (sha) in Braj Bhasha is often pronounced kha. Therefore सिषनि सिषरनि are shikhani shikharani, peacocks or peahens on peaks. In the rainy season, peacocks seek out high ground on which to dance and display their plumage; this is what is meant by “peaks”. Ter sunayo means that the peacocks are calling, but not just calling. The particular choice of words means a piercing call; piercing for the woman in separation, for Krishna has gone.
Savadhan kahyo: the peacocks are telling the women, separated from their lovers, to beware. And at the end, when Kaamdev (Cupid or Eros) appears as Madan in the poem, the poor suffering woman feels his arrows and, Surdas says, the breath in her comes to a stop – so the poem ends where her breath ends. It’s as if the poet himself can’t say another word until he sees his Lord. Professor Hawley feels that Krishna’s “erstwhile virtues” in the poem refer to his lifting of Govardhan Hill. It’s as though the gopis are saying that Krishna saved us in the past, now where is he? Every drop of rain is an arrow of kaam, but where is our Beloved to protect us from this onslaught?
Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition can be ordered online from Harvard University Press, or purchased in person in Vrindavan at Rasbihari Lal and Sons.