Hinduism Sūrdās
John Stratton Hawley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 December 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0089


Sūrdās (Sūradāsa, or for short, Sūr) is among the most important of India’s religious poets. He is traditionally considered to have been blind. Although his life story is widely told and highly celebrated, especially in northern parts of the Indian subcontinent, there are no biographical data about him that can be regarded as historically reliable. Judging by the moment when his poems were first anthologized in collections that have come down to us, however, it seems clear that Sūrdās flourished at some point in the 16th century. The language of these lyrics is Brajbhāṣā, an aspect of Hindi, and many of them are regarded as being among the finest poetry ever to have been composed in North India. So profound was their impact that many centuries after the poet’s death—right up to the present day—other poets have chosen the signature of Sūrdās as a way to locate their own compositions in the proper genre or lineage. Thus the corpus of poems attributed to Sūrdās and collected in the Sūrsāgar (Sūr’s Ocean) named after him has grown steadily, even dramatically over time. In the largest manuscript yet discovered, a 19th-century tome housed in Datiya, these poems number almost ten thousand. The best known among them are sung throughout India and the world.

General Overviews

Bryant 1978 provides the best literary introduction to the poetry of Sūrdās in a European language and arguably the best in any language. The book also includes translations of ninety-two poems. Hawley 1984 supplements Kenneth E. Bryant’s work by bringing to bear what can be learned from studying the early manuscripts in which poems attributed to Sūrdās appear—in regard to the life of the poet, the changing shape of the Sūrsāgar over time, and specific themes that are dominant in it. Hawley 2009 presents an updated general introduction and annotated translations of 143 poems that, following the critical edition of Bryant, can be dated to the 16th century. The entire group of poems reconstructed in that edition, in Brajbhāṣā with facing-page translations into English, has been published as part of the Murty Classical Library of India (Bryant and Hawley 2015). In important ways it will supersede the much larger edition published by the Kāśī Nāgarīpracāriṇī Sabhā (NPS) in Ratnākar, et al. 1948. Critical studies of Sūrdās published in Hindi generally proceed with the NPS edition as their point of reference; it has become standard. The leading translation into English of selections from this “Vulgate” edition is Alston 1993; a smaller selection is rendered into French with a thought-provoking introduction in Vaudeville 1971. Historically, the most influential general studies of Sūrdās in Hindi are those written by Hazārīprasād Dvivedī in 1936 (Dvivedī 1973) and by Rāmcandra Śukla c. 1932 (Śukla 1948). In their wake have followed a great many others.

  • Alston, A. J. The Divine Sports of Krishna: Poems of Sūr Dāsa. London: Shanti Sadan, 1993.

    Faithful translations of 295 poems selected from the NPS edition, formatted as verse.

  • Bryant, Kenneth E. Poems to the Child-God: Structures and Strategies in the Poetry of Sūrdās. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

    This revolutionary book questioned the applicability of traditional rasa theory to the task of appreciating the poetry of the Sūrsāgar. Rather than expecting that each composition would carry forward a single dominant mood (rasa) from a limited set of possibilities, Bryant shifts to a rhetorical mode of analysis, tracing the poem as it would have developed orally, in performance.

  • Bryant, Kenneth E., Hawley, John Stratton. Sūrdās: Sūrsāgar: Poems from the Early Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

    In this thousand-page book Bryant offers his critical reconstruction of poems attributed to Sūrdās that can be shown to have circulated in the sixteenth century, when the poet undoubtedly lived. Bryant adopts a novel format that highlights the manner in which each poem would likely have been performed, incorporating its recurrent and metrically significant refrain. He also supplies notes on raga, meter, and variants. Hawley’s verse translations appear on pages facing the Brajbhāṣā originals, following the poems’ internal poetic structure rather than the alterations introduced in musical performance. Readers thereby have access to the Sūrsāgar in more than one dimension.

  • Dvivedī, Hazārīprasād. Sūr-Sāhitya. Delhi: Rājkamal Prakāśan, 1973.

    An enduringly influential monograph that places Sūrdās at the center of the saguṇa (“with properties,” i.e., narrative, imagistic) wing of the bhakti movement. In fact, this seems to be the first book in which the concept bhakti āndolan was elaborated in Hindi. Dvivedī takes a special interest in Sūr’s depiction of Rādhā. Originally published in 1936.

  • Hawley, John Stratton. Sūr Dās: Poet, Singer, Saint. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984.

    The first book-length study to restrict itself to poems attested in early (16th–17th centuries) manuscripts in forming an appraisal of who the great poet actually was—or rather, how he was perceived and performed during and shortly after his lifetime. Because the Sūrsāgar has continued to expand exponentially since that time, with new poems being added decade by decade, the poet who emerges in these early poems is often quite different from what one would think judging by the NPS edition.

  • Hawley, John Stratton. The Memory of Love: Sūrdās Sings to Krishna. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    The introduction considers whether Sūrdās may have been as much a court poet as a temple-based one and offers a walk-through designed to illuminate the structure of one exemplary pad. (The pad— a usually short rhymed lyric—is the genre in which almost all poems attributed to Sūrdās are composed.) Translations, generously annotated, are in English blank verse.

  • Ratnākar, Jagannāthdās, Nandadulāre Vājpeyī, et al., eds. Sūrsāgar. 2 vols. Varanasi, India: Kāśī Nāgarīpracāriṇī Sabhā, 1948.

    This standard—one might say “Vulgate”—edition of the Sūrsāgar was prepared as part of an effort by scholars associated with the Nāgarīpracāriṇī Sabhā to define a basic canon of Hindi literature. It contains some five thousand poems and follows the twelve-book format of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, as if Sūrdās were translating that work into the vernacular. Volume 1 was reprinted in 1972, Volume 2 in 1976.

  • Śukla, Rāmcandra. Sūrdās. Edited by Viśvanāthprasād Miśra. Varanasi, India: n.p., 1948.

    In a famous passage the renowned author of the canonical Hindī Sāhitya kā Itihās (first edition 1929) explains why he prefers Tulsīdās to Sūr as Hindi’s foremost poet, on the grounds that Tulsīdās had the greater range and moral weight. Other parts of the book deal substantially with Vallabhācārya, whom Śukla, like almost all others, took to have been Sūrdās’s guru, and with “the development of bhakti” (bhakti kā vikās) more broadly.

  • Vaudeville, Charlotte. Pastorales par Soûr-Dâs. Paris: Gallimard, 1971.

    Vaudeville’s French translations were the first major effort to render poems of Sūrdās into a European language. The introduction is notable for its argument that the historical Sūrdās was not a temple singer of Brahman origin but a considerably more humble ḍhāḍhī (bardic musician) who eventually made his way to the court of Akbar.

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