Chords of a celestial sort

The Bhakti saint Surdas tenderly voices some of the gentlest and most crucial shades of human love.

india Updated: Dec 09, 2006 18:07 IST

Reading Surdas is a five-hanky experience, because you start squirming at just how much he tries to guilt-trip God, who treated Himself to a happy childhood as Krishna but denied this life phase to so many human beings

There are two stories that never cease to haunt me out of all the zillion stories found in the world and I find I keep going back to them. One is the tale of the boy Shunashepa in the Vedas, whose name literally means Dog- tail in Sanskrit. He was sold by his own father, for human sacrifice (narbali) to a king who felt he needed to propitiate the deities in this gruesome manner. Tied to the stake, awaiting the blade on his throat, Shunashepa suddenly sang aloud, verses of unearthly beauty in praise of the very deities he was being offered to.

The moody, capricious celestials had no option but to untie the cords that bound him, for even the most immovable object has to melt when flooded by the irresistible force of loving grace. Such grace is the special quality of us mere mortals, because in the final analysis, that is all we have to offer each other and to the malicious fates: good attitude.

This theme resonates most movingly in tale after tale across time and space and most touchingly in the story of the Bhakti saint-poet Surdas. Born blind to an emotionally ignorant family that denied him love and liking because of his handicap, he ran away one day with a band of travelling singers who came by his village. They fed him for the night but stole away at dawn while he slept for they did not wish to be burdened by him.

The little boy, however, made a life for himself by singing and one day, when his heart absolutely insisted, he set off through the jungle to Krishnabhumi. Sur stumbled into a dry pit and waited patiently inside to be rescued, stilling his frightened heart with Krishna’s name. On the sixth day, a young boy pulled him out and vanished so suddenly that Sur was sure that it was Krishna himself who had appeared to save him. When he made it to Vrindavan, he finally felt he had come home and was looked after by the great Vaishnava saint Swami Vallabhacharya. (We owe the exquisite Madhuraashtakam verses on Krishna to the swami and can hear it sung even today by great Hindustani singers on CDs and in concerts while several classical dancers regularly perform to it).

Sur’s relationship with Krishna is intense in a heartbreaking way because — and his verses suggest this — he invests in Krishna his whole heart’s longing to have Divine Love translated to him through human kindness. Sur tenderly voices some of the gentlest and most crucial shades of human love, especially the parental, describing how Krishna was the most cherished Baby on earth. How there was such rejoicing in Gokul at his birth; how the very gods came to bless the event; how Yashoda cared for him and tried to make him finish his food by promising him the moon to play with. How Krishna, as his father’s darling (Nand ke dulaare) should deal kindly with love-starved bhaktas like Sur, whom nobody has the time for.

Reading Surdas in one go is a five-hanky experience, because you start squirming at just how much he’s trying to guilt-trip God, who treated Himself to a happy childhood as Krishna, everybody’s forever andalways darling, but denied this important life phase to so many human beings. Ultimately, however, as he keeps pouring his heart out, a slow change steals over Sur. With his mind so focused on love, the alchemy of awareness happens. In reproaching Krishna indirectly for not blessing him with what he himself enjoyed, Sur discovers that actually, his own heart is full of love.

Love for Krishna and through him, for everybody, because God is indeed present in all as taught by culture, even if Sur’s parents were not clued in to this. One interest ing parallel that comes to mind here is Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, who went berserk looking for his lost love, Shams Tabrizi. He never found Shams, but in the process, singing and dancing ecstatically, ‘found himself ’.

Well, the world seems to keep finding this out and each time through personal journeys. What really strikes one though, is how music is the stairway to heaven, reaching into the rhythm of the heartbeat, the four-stroke that be came Adi Talam, the first sound pattern identified by the human race.

First Published: Dec 09, 2006 17:38 IST