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
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
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
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.