Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition – A 21st Century Rendition

By Sonali Raj

Sur's Ocean cover


Title: Sur’s Ocean – Poems From the Early Tradition
Author: Surdas; Trans. John Stratton Hawley; Ed., Kenneth E. Bryant
Publisher: Harvard University Press
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It is surprising that the books published by the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) haven’t been widely reviewed despite the international attention the project received. Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition, a translation of the early poems of Sur Sagar, is a contentious volume with right wing propagandists saying it is sacrilege that a quintessential Bhakti poet should be translated by Americans. These purists, however, do not sit down to do the work themselves.

Translated by John Stratton Hawley, a professor at Columbia University, and edited by Kenneth E. Bryant, an Indologist from the University of British Columbia, the book is divided into eight sections, beginning on a dark rainy night in the month of Bhadon, when Krishna was born.

With 757 pages of poetry, Sur’s Ocean is perhaps the most forbidding-looking volume published by the MCLI but it is actually very easy to read. However, the volume doesn’t have 757 different poems; each poem translated in English is printed alongside its Devanagari counterpart.

Surdas wrote in Braj even though the court language was Persian. His poems were performed outside of the court in fairs and temples; the language frequently reads like everyday speech, and this quality is well-reflected in the English translations: “Mother Yashoda, rest assured— / we’ll both be home in five or seven days, / brother Haladhar and I. / Meantime, now and then, check on my flute, / check on my staff and the horn I blow. / Don’t let Radhika pilfer away / any of my favorite playthings.”

If this edition has one fault it is that none of the people involved in its making are poets. The music that is inherent in the Braj version of these poems is somewhat lacking in the first half of the translations. For instance, there is a delightful poem that Radha says to Krishna about his leaving her heartbroken – it begins with: “So you think this is like stealing butter!” Alternating lines in the original poem end with “chori”, “thodi”, “bhori” and so on, but there is no rhyme in the translations except at the very end: “you’ve gone and robbed my all, / but still I trail around in your thrall,” sounds crass.

In the second half of the book the prosody picks up and is subtle, as in the following lines sung by the people of Braj, a region south of Delhi, to Udho, a bee messenger that Krishna sends to his people at home when he leaves for Mathura, never to return: “If you’re a true friend of handsome Shyam, / pure in your heart’s intent, / then make these tortured eyes behold / Hari’s face again.”

Then again, in the translations, words like “swayamvar” become “husband-choosing rite”, which, though it feels clunky to a Hindi speaker, is perhaps a feature that makes this book accessible to people who don’t speak Hindi. Many of the poems have an American sensibility, such as when Krishna’s father Nanda is referred to as “Daddy”. Again, this probably brings the book within reach of a wide 21st century readership.

Surdas lived in the 16th century, during Akbar’s time. He was blind and famously refused to sing for Akbar. His poems were so popular that for centuries after him people kept writing songs of Bhakti dedicated to Krishna and signed themselves Surdas at the end of their poems. It is not known with certainty whether all the poems in Sur’s Ocean were indeed written by Surdas, but Hawley and Bryant have taken the earliest poems from Sur’s tradition to build this book because they assume, justifiably, that the later poems were not written by him.

Sur’s Ocean is divided into sections: Krishna Growing Up, which is about Krishna’s childhood; The Pangs and Politics of Love about Krishna’s flirtations with cowherd girls; Krishna Departs for Mathura, Never to Return; The Bee Messenger; Lordly Encounters – and Others, in which Krishna marries Rukmini along with other stories such as his meeting with Sudama, the poor friend from his childhood. After that there is a section on the Ramayana followed by The Poet’s Petition and Praise, which includes some stories from the Mahabharata. At the end is a short section called ‘To the Holy Rivers’ with three prayers to the Ganges and the Jamuna.

The wisdom in many of these poems is relevant even today. Consider for example, some poems about the state of the Jamuna that get an unexpectedly pertinent reading now: “She flails about like aimless, restless bees, / turning side to side, horrid and forlorn, / babbling like a Sheldrake night and day, / subsisting on a diet of foam. / Surdas says, Lord, the state of the Jamuna / Is not hers alone: it’s also our own.”

The poems are sometimes playful: “He managed to quaff down a forest fire / but his milk must be cooled before he drinks… He could lift a great mountain, but if he tries to hold / a pail of milk, his arm begins to hurt.” And sometimes the poems are philosophical: “this Lord in cowherd’s clothes / herds cows in a cowherder’s clan, / and that, says Surdas, is the glory described / when the Vedas chant, ‘He is not this, not that.’”

Sur’s poetry is rich in imagery and the translations do justice to the original: “Take a hard look at Hari’s face and body. / How could such a little bit of curd, Yashoda, / provoke in you such wrath? / His eyes look with fear at the stick you’re holding; / they tremble and shimmer with tears / as if a bee had settled on a blue lotus petal / and made the dewdrops shiver.”

The translations in Sur’s Ocean weren’t written especially for the MCLI. John Stratton Hawley, who is a Braj bhasha scholar, translated these very poems in a book of his called The Memory of Love, published by Oxford University Press. That book is identical to Sur’s Ocean, but the MCLI version is cheaper and more easily available.


Sonali teaches German near New Delhi. She has an MFA in creative writing from City University, Hong Kong and an MA in linguistics from Delhi University. Her essays have appeared in the newspaper DNA, and journal Indian Review. She likes to write poetry, read, swim and eat good food.