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.”


For more than 2,000 years, several volumes of classical South Asian texts remained locked away in languages that have either died, have a dwindling number of speakers or no one bothered to translate these stories for a global audience.

Now, Harvard University Press has partnered with the Murty Classical Library of India to launch a series of Indic literature that its editors believe will grow to rival the Loeb Classical Library of ancient Greek and Latin texts.

MurthyclassicsFunded by the son of Infosys billionaire Narayana Murthy, Rohan (who spells his last name differently), the Murty Library aims “to present the greatest literary works of India from the past two millennia to the largest readership in the world” and “to reintroduce these works, a part of world literature’s treasured heritage, to a new generation.”

The Murthys (senior), fellow Infosys billionaire Nandan Nilekani and Azim Premji of Wipro have been the most active of India’s billionaires in their charitable and philanthropic work. Regretfully, they are exceptions among India’s wealthy, for whom charity at most means building temples or expensive hospitals, and it is encouraging that the younger Murty is giving away his money in this fashion.