During the reign of Akbar, a great saint, Surdas, was born. He was blind and was beyond the parochial religious beliefs. His loving description of Krishna’s life in a folk language, known as Brajbhasa, is still today a treasure of Krishna’s bhajans.
In the village of Sihi near Delhi, in the house of a poor Brahman, a child was born in the year 1478. He was born blind. He had three other brothers. He was so neglected by his neighbors and his own family that by the time he was three, everyone forgot his real name and he was called Sur, which means blind. He was later known as Surdas.
Surdas would often go hungry because his mother would not bother to feed him. His brothers would receive new clothes at Diwali time but not Surdas. Surdas’ parents thought he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway. It hurt his feelings.
Surdas’ outside world was not very kind either. His playmates enjoyed teasing him and when he came to his mother for sympathy, she scolded him for going out. So, unfortunate Surdas stayed on the porch most of the time.
One day, a group of singers passed by his house singing in praise of the Lord. Swept up by the joy the music brought forth in him, he forgot for a moment that he was blind.
“One day I will learn how to sing,” he told himself.
When Surdas joined his brothers to learn from their father how to read and write, his father said, “Go away. You are blind, you cannot read.” His brothers teased him as he sat and wept.
A few days later, another group of singers came by, passing through the village, begging for alms and singing in praise of the Lord. They passed by Surdas’ house. Surdas followed them. At night they stopped to cook and rest near a lake. One of them came to Surdas and asked, “Why are you following us?”
“I would like to learn to sing” answered Surdas.
They fed him that night but didn’t want to be burdened with the blind boy. In the morning they left without telling him.
Where could blind Surdas go? He sat under a tree and began singing the Lord’s praise. He had a good voice and his feelings were expressed with utmost sincerity. Villagers passing by gave him food and he survived. The lake was a popular resting spot for those travelling to Mathura and Vrindavan. From their conversation, Surdas learnt a lot about the outside world.
By the age of fourteen, Surdas developed a keen sixth sense and could predict many things. People were amazed and he was called “miracle boy.” If a villager lost an animal, Surdas could tell him where to find it. He was cosulted on the appropriate day to travel or to start any project. People from other villages travelled a long way to meet him and gave their offerings. One day, the landlord’s little toddler wandered off and could not be found. Surdas predicted where the boy was and the boy was found. The landlord was so pleased that he fell at Surdas’ feet and asked his men to build a cottage for him near the tree under which Surdas stayed. Shortly thereafter, people offered him a string instrument to accompany his singing. Some people became his disciples. They began to write the songs he composed. The disciples loved him and served him to the best of their ability.
One night, Surdas dreamt of Krishna and people praising Him through bhajans. Surdas woke up and was convinced that Krishna was calling to him. The next morning, he departed for Vrindavan. His disciples came running and were worried.
“Why are you leaving us? Are we at fault?”
Surdas consoled them and continued on his way to Vrindavan through the jungle. Wherever he went people wanted to listen to him sing and have him stay with them. They would beg him to stay in their village. They respected him, honored him and fed him. But Surdas kept moving.
“I am a traveling monk, I cannot stay at any one place,” Surdas said.
One day, while he was resting at the edge of a shallow abandoned well, he fell into the well. Blind and injured, he did not know how to get out.
Surdas stayed in the well for seven days praying for help. Suddenly he heard a child’s voice, “Hold my hands, I will take you out.”
Surdas came out of the well and the boy disappeared. He kept searching for the little boy who rescued him. In his imagination, the boy was none else but Gopal Krishna (Krishna’s childhood name). People thought he was crazy.
One day one of his disciples told Surdas that the great learned saint Swami Balabhachari was going to visit Vrindavan. Balabhachari was famous for his writings about Krishna. Surdas keenly wished to see him. While Surdas was making arrangements to cross the river to visit Balabhachari, Balabhachari himself arrived at Surdas’s residence. Surdas was overwhelmed with joy. He fell at Balabhachari’s feet and sought his blessing. Upon his request, Surdas sang a bhajan about Krishna. Balabhachari requested Surdas to dedicate his life to the praise of Lord Krishna.
Balabhachari stayed with Surdas for a few days and taught him about Krishna’s scriptures. Then he initiated Surdas to his own religious order. Surdas went to Vrindavan with his guru, Balabhachari. Balabhachari appointed Surdas as the chief singer of Srinath temple in Govardhan, near Vrindavan. Srinath is another name for Krishna.
Surdas’ reputation as a singer and devotee spread far and wide. One day in the court of the mogul emperor Akbar, the court singer Tansen, sang one of Surdas’ songs. Akbar was charmed. Tansen admitted that the tune and the lyrics were that of Surdas, the blind devotee of Krishna.
Akbar was a broadminded Muslim. He invited Surdas to his court. Surdas declined saying, “I am so very honored, but I sing only in the court of my beloved Krishna.”
When Akbar heard of this, he gladly came to Surdas and listened to his prayer songs in the temple. He was very pleased and asked Surdas to ask for anything he wanted.
Surdas said, “Just do not ask me to go to your court to sing.” Akbar agreed.
Surdas lived a long life and wrote many songs in praise of Krishna’s childhood days. Surdas’ songs are sung to this day.