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Tellings and Texts

 | 
Francesca Orsini
, 
Katherine Butler Schofield

II. Books and Performances, Books for Performance

7. Did Surdas Perform the Bhāgavata-purāṇa?

John Stratton Hawley

Texte intégral

  • 1 Most recently, The Memory of Love: Sūrdās Sings to Krishna (New York: University Press, 2009), pp (...)

1An old and very rusty saw in the scholarly literature on Surdas is the notion that Sur translated the Bhāgavata-purāṇa from Sanskrit into Hindi. It is easy to take potshots at this idea, and I have done so quite a bit myself.1 Instead of adding to that fusillade here, however, I suggest that we frame the issue somewhat differently and see if that might open the door to a more interesting answer. Is it possible that Sur was not translating the Bhāgavata, but performing it?

  • 2 I am deeply grateful to Vidvan Samba Dikshita for granting me interviews on 23 and 25 December 200 (...)

2What does it mean to perform the Bhāgavata? Several years ago I travelled to the ancient Shaiva pilgrimage town of Gokarn, on the banks of the Arabian Sea. There I had a chance to talk with an octogenarian Agnihotri Brahman named Samba Dikshita, who told me he had been performing the Bhāgavata-purāṇa all his life and that his family had been doing so for seven generations before him.2 For seven days in the month of karttik every year (now his nephew has taken over the job), Samba Dikshita would recite a portion of the section mandated by tradition. As much as he could: he didn’t have the command of the text that his father did, he explained. His father knew the text so perfectly, so inside out, that he was able to recite the entire Purana in the course of seven days, as mandated by the text that celebrates this very practice, the Bhāgavata māhātmya. But Samba Dikshita did something his father had not always done. After performing the Purana in the morning at the pathshala just down the street, he would convene another gathering towards evening, in which he returned to the “portion” for the day, this time selecting from it and developing his own exposition in Kannada. For people who did not care about the Sanskrit text in the same way he did — perhaps because of their linguistic limitations or other commitments — this was a significant occasion. Samba Dikshita mentioned women particularly as belonging to this group. Maybe some children came too. And yes, there were also the men.

  • 3 Several years ago I heard a paper from a retired member of the medical faculty at University descr (...)
  • 4 See J. S. Hawley, ‘The Bhāgavata Māhātmya in Context’, in Patronage and Popularisation, Pilgrim (...)

3Samba Dikshita explained that his family had initiated their practice of performing the Bhāgavata those many generations ago because they knew the efficacy of the text. His ancestor had been unable to produce a son and therefore keep the line alive — keep the fire, quite literally, burning. The Bhāgavata worked its magic and there was Samba Dikshita to prove it, eight generations later.3 By my estimate, this crucial event might have transpired sometime around the turn of the eighteenth century, and it was precisely then, so far as we can tell, that manuscripts of the Bhāgavata māhātmya first appeared, detailing in its sixth and final chapter the exact conditions under which the Bhāgavata-purāṇa ought to be performed and describing its benefits.4

4I have sometimes wondered just what led to the production of this interesting text, the Bhāgavata māhātmya, at just this point in time, and I’ve considered whether it might have happened because there had come to be too many of Samba Dikshita’s afternoons, so to speak, in relation to his mornings — too much else happening in the name of the Bhāgavata and too little in the way of its actual, proper performance from a certain conservative Brahmin point of view. Anyone who has recently travelled in North India will know the kind of thing I have in mind. In Brindavan, for example, numerous billboards trumpet this or that worldfamous acharya performing shrimad bhagavat saptah. These aren’t just seven-day performances as mandated in the Bhāgavata māhātmya, though certainly the authorisation of that number by that text is basic. They are not primarily recitations — Samba Dikshita’s “mornings”— but rather expositions, primarily vernacular expositions involving sermon and song. And they are not just saptahs or kathas, if the signs are to be believed, but yajnas — in fact, mahayajnas, “great sacrifices”.

  • 5 I follow the text given in the Gita Press edition: Śrīmad Bhāgavata Mahāpurāṇa (with Sanskrit T (...)

5I wonder whether a similar proliferation of forms and formats claiming the Bhāgavata as their end and origin in late seventeenth-century North India might have led to the articulation of the stringent set of performance standards that appears in the Bhāgavata māhātmya. These focus on an expositor of great intelligence who is a Brahmin householder capable of teaching the Vedas and is surrounded by other Brahmins; who is purified by an early morning toilet, a bath, and the shaving of his head and chin, etc. The audience, similarly, must be comprised of men who have vowed sexual abstinence for the duration of the performance; who pledge to sleep on the ground, survive on milk and ghi if at all possible, eschew anger and other untoward forms of behaviour; and who will refrain from speaking with a menstruating woman, mlecchas and shudras (i. e. impure foreigners and low castes), and so forth.5

  • 6 Norvin Hein, The Miracle Plays of Mathurā (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), pp. 223-30.

6As to the performative environment that might have been sought to be disciplined by this set of prescriptions, one has a great deal to choose from in the records that have come down to us from sixteenth-and seventeenth-century North India. In Braj, a man named Ghamandi — or alternatively, Narayan Bhatt — is said to have created something like the kernel of the ras lilas we recognise today — or perhaps they were already there before these South Indian aficionados arrived.6 Guru Nanak knows about enacted Krishna stories like this, and he does not like them one bit:

  • 7 Gurū Granth, āsā dī vār, p. 464 in the standard edition. The translation is that of (1972), p. (...)

ketīāṃ kanna kahāṇīāṃ kete beda bīcāra
kete nacahi maṅgate giḍi muḍi pūrahi tāla
bājārī bājāra mahi āi karḍhahi bājāra
How many Krishna-tales there are, how many opinions on the Vedas!
How many beggars dance and, twisting and falling,
beat time with their hands!
The mercenary fellows go into the market-place and draw out
the market crowd.7

  • 8 Francesca Orsini, ‘Inflected Kathas: Sufis and Krishna Bhaktas in Awadh’, in Religious Interaction (...)
  • 9 Lālacdās-racit Avadhī-kāvya Haricarit, ed. by Acharya Nalinavilocana Sharma Shriramanarayan Sha (...)

7Then there are the Ahirs whose performances of the Krishna story fascinated Malik Muhammad Jayasi, as he tells us in his Kanhāvat of 1540; he is eager to elevate such performances to a level where they have a chance of capturing the attention of more refined audiences.8 A decade before Jayasi, Lalachdas “Halvai” had been active in a place he called Hastigram, near Rae Bareilly, creating his own Avadhi shortening of the tenth book of the Bhāgavata.9 Before the end of the century (1595), there appeared a vernacular commentary on the eleventh book by Chaturdas, and let us remember that when Eknath produced his famous Marathi treatment of the eleventh book in the sixteenth century, he was sitting in Banaras.

  • 10 Heidi Pauwels, Kṛṣṇa’s Round Dance Reconsidered (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1996); R. S. McGregor, (...)
  • 11 Nanddas says he is conveying the luminosity of the Bhāgavata into bhasha: Nandadās Granthāvalī, (...)

8The Bhāgavata’s tenth book, the famous dashama skandha, must have risen to almost canonical status at that point — particularly the five “core” chapters describing the ras lila — since just about then Hariramvyas, in Brindavan, was shaping his Rāsapancādhyayī, to be followed not long afterward (c. 1560-1570) by a similar composition written by Nanddas.10 Nanddas also produced what one might call an actual “translation” of the tenth book of the Bhāgavata, his Bhāṣā dasamskandh, which he seems to have abandoned after he completed the twenty-eighth chapter. Or perhaps he did not stop but rather changed gears. After all, chapter twenty-nine brought him to the section of the text that had the most obvious dramatic possibilities — the section in which the ras lila was portrayed. Hariramvyas had already celebrated it, as we have seen. It may be that Nanddas simply skipped the rails at this point, moving from the simpler chaupai-doha diction of the Bhāṣā dasamskandh into the more distinctive rola register of his Rāsapancādhyayī, which may have seemed more suitable for a fully literary rendition. He never returned to his earlier task.11

  • 12 Grahame Nieman, ‘The Bhāgavat Daśam Skandh of Bhūpati’, IAVRI Bulletin 8, 3-8 Nieman, ‘Bhūpati’s B (...)

9It seems to have been a whole century, until 1687, before we got a complete and in this sense “faithful” bhasha version of the tenth book of the Sanskrit original — this at the hand of Bhupati, who declares at the beginning of this document that he is producing it in Brajbhasha.12 Bhupati’s Dasamskandh was widely copied and widely known, yet it was not the only text of its ilk that began circulating at just this moment in time.

  • 13 W.G. Archer, Central Indian Painting (London: Faber & Faber, 1958), p. 12. The colophon page is no (...)
  • 14 See Daniel J. Ehnbom, ‘An Analysis and Reconstruction of the Dispersed Purāṇa from the Caurapañcāś (...)

10Another Brajbhasha Dasamskandh, this one richly illustrated in the Malwa or Central Indian style, shows up in two parts in 1686 and 1688. The former gives us episodes from the first half of the tenth skandha; the latter, from the second. Intriguingly, however, these two dated manuscripts are not sufficiently compatible to be regarded as parts of a single project, and other undated versions of both parts also exist; copying is involved.13 Thus the whole cluster makes us vividly aware of a performative domain we have not yet mentioned, one in which the text of the Bhāgavata — or its bhasha equivalent — would be displayed simultaneously in words and pictures, whether for the pleasure of an individual reader or to provide the basis for a show-and-tell that would require the services of a professional reciter/raconteur. Illustrated Bhāgavatas that make use of the Sanskrit text date back to the first half of the sixteenth century in North India, and quite a number seem to emerge in the region bordered by Delhi and Agra — greater Braj, one might say.14 But what is interesting about our Malwa Dasamskandhs is that there, for the first time, the seemingly elite practice of manuscript illustration is clearly linked to a Brajbhasha version of the Bhāgavata text, not to its Sanskrit parent.

  • 15 Especially helpful for the subject as a whole is Bimanbehari Majumdar, ‘Bhāgavata Purāṇa and its I (...)
  • 16 The date specifically claimed in the Nepal manuscript upon which Subhadra Jha bases this assertion (...)

11Seen from a wider angle, this may come as no surprise. From the fifteenth century onward, numerous vernacular adaptations of the Bhāgavata had begun to appear in various regions of India, not just in Brajbhasha but in Kannada, Gujarati, Malayalam, Bengali, Orissi, and Assamese.15 Then there were more distant relatives. The Maithili poems of Vidyapati are hardly vernacular transcriptions of the Bhāgavata, but it does appear that the poet took the trouble to copy at least a portion of the text for his own use in the second or third decade of the fifteenth century.16

  • 17 Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the Gods and the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, Power in Premod (...)
  • 18 Sharma and Shastri (1966), pp. 7-9.

12Of course, there was also a long history of literary activity around the Bhāgavata in Sanskrit itself, as indicated, for example, by the digest of its contents that Vopadeva prepared way back in the thirteenth century — his Harilīlā — or the systematic marshalling of its bhakti-related passages that he provided in his Muktāphala. And by the seventeenth century we have various indications of Brahminical resistance to the production of written vernacular works that could, as Sheldon Pollock has said, threaten “an old economy of literary-cultural power based on Sanskrit and a whole class of bilingual intermediaries”.17 The enthusiastic reception of poets such as Nanddas and Bhupati may have caused certain groups of North Indian Brahmins to want to reign in this vernacular efflorescence by putting forth just the sort of performance prescriptions that we meet in the Bhāgavata māhātmya. There may also have been a caste dimension, not just a linguistic one. Bhupati, after all, was a Kayasth, and it was another Kayasth, a man by the name of Asanand, who took it upon himself to finish the Haricarit that Lalach had begun; he had made it to chapter 45 in 1614, when he stopped.18 Still another Kayasth, a Gujarati named Keshav Kayasth, had composed a Kṛṣṇakrīḍākāvya in the late fifteenth century. Against the polyglot, poly-caste backdrop that these texts suggest, did Brahmins want to reassert their own perspective — not just the power of the original text but the power conveyed by their own unique capacity to perform it?

  • 19 An indispensable treatment of the latter subject can be found in Tony K. Stewart, The Final Word: (...)
  • 20 The Subodhinī is complete for skandhas 1-3 and 10, incomplete for skandhas 4 and 11 and lacking fo (...)

13We will be trying to figure out where Surdas stands in this complicated terrain in a moment, but let me mention a few more players on the scene before we do. Consider, for example, the Gaudiya community, so firmly entrenched in Braj by the latter half of the sixteenth century. Not only did their leading theologians — Sanatana, Rupa, and Jiva Gosvami — create an impressive set of new commentaries on the Bhāgavata, the community also pioneered a genre in which the ever more elaborately articulated lila format that was seen to structure Krishna’s life served as the basis for various mappings of the life of his avatar Chaitanya.19 Think also of the more conservative theologian Vallabhacharya, who was based in Arail just across the sangam from Allahabad. Vallabha launched into a massive new commentary on the Bhāgavata — his Subodhinī — which he was unable to complete, but he did succeed in finishing book ten.20

  • 21 Just because it is hard to accept the historicity of this account, that is no reason to underestim (...)

14Vallabha’s life, in turn, became the seed for the genre known as varta — literally, “conversation”— which sometimes made reference to his commentarial effort (as in the varta on Surdas), but was not actually structured along the lines of the Bhāgavata in the way that happened with the Chaitanyites. Yet that did not mean the lila idea could not be enacted elsewhere in the Vallabhite theological imagination. The author of the Vallabhite Caurāsī vaiṣṇavan kī vārtā depicts Surdas’s life in just those terms. He tells us that at end of his life, Sur disappeared into the nitya lila that brought him into the direct presence of Radha and Krishna. This was possible because the poet had been initiated into a consciousness of that realm when Vallabha whispered to him, in mantraic form, the entirety of his Subodhinī commentary at the outset of his life as a religious poet — according to Vallabhite standards, that is. His conversion from being a poet of “simpering”, someone who sang laments and petitions, into someone who worked out of a Krishnaite framework was accomplished by means of his initiation, when Vallabha vouchsafed to him the true and entire meaning of the Bhāgavata.21

  • 22 Sushil Kumar De, Early History of the Vaiṣṇava Faith and Movement in Bengal (Firma K. L. Mukhopadh (...)
  • 23 Caitanya Caritāmṛta of Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja: A Translation and Commentary, ed. by C. Dimock, Jr. (...)
  • 24 Thanks to Shrivatsa Goswami for clarifying this matter to me. Gadadhar Bhatt’vow has been carried (...)
  • 25 Heidi R. M. Pauwels, In Praise of Holy Men: Hagiographic Poems by and about Harirām Vyās (Gronin (...)
  • 26 Chaurasi Baithak: Eightyfour Seats of Shri Vallabhacharya, trans. by Sham Das (Baroda, Shri Vallab (...)

15This great Sanskrit text is strikingly ubiquitous in the recollections of sixteenth-century Braj that have come down to us. (We cannot be sure Sur lived there, but he clearly worked in its linguistic medium.) It seems Rupa Gosvami had turned his attentions to producing a Sanskrit Uddhavasaṅdeśa even before he met Chaitanya.22 His guru-brother Raghunath Bhatt is remembered as having recited a portion of the Bhāgavata-purāṇa itself on a daily basis “at the assembly of Rupa Gosvami”, as the Caitanya caritāmṛta puts it, probably at the temple of Govindadev.23 The Chaitanyite leader Gadadhar Bhatt made a similar commitment, not only to Govindadev but to Radharaman, Gopinath, and Madanmohan.24 Elsewhere in the sampradayik spectrum, the Vallabhite writer known as Gadadhar Bhatt Dvivedi remarks that Keshav Kashmiri, the leader of the Nimbarka community in sixteenth-century Brindavan, was known for his sevenday Bhāgavata performances. Hariramvyas, who also lived in Brindavan in the latter half of the sixteenth century, appreciated the importance of “Bhakti and the Bhāgavata”, but he hated that pandits recited it for money.25 The presence of the Bhāgavata is frequently felt in various vignettes that appear in the Caurāsī vaiṣṇavan kī vartā, a seventeenth-century text, but we must wait until the eighteenth century before we meet the idea that Vallabhacharya, like Keshav Bhatt Kashmiri, was known for reciting the great text over the course of a seven-day period, as is prescribed in the Bhāgavata māhātmya. This we learn in the Caurāsī baiṭhak caritra, a treatise that celebrates Vallabha’s travels and worldwide fame.26

16So I repeat our initial question: Should we also be making a place for Surdas on this already crowded stage?

  • 27 Surdas, Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition, ed. by Kenneth E. Bryant, trans. John Stratto (...)
  • 28 Hawley (1984), p. 39. The oldest manuscripts I have seen that adopt this scheme are Nagariprachari (...)
  • 29 The abbreviation NPS designates the Nagaripracharini Sabha edition of the Sūrsāgar, a critical ed (...)

17First of all, we must disabuse ourselves of any notion that Surdas ever made an attempt to answer this question himself. There is plenty in the Surdas tradition that tries to do it for him, but that is all after the fact. The Surdas about whom I wish to speak in this essay is the Surdas who lived in the sixteenth century — the real Surdas, if I may put it that boldly. While it is certainly true that there is no way in principle to separate him from the poets who contributed literally thousands of poems to the Surdas corpus after his death, I am convinced that beneath this pile of other Surdases also stood a single renowned poet who lived in the sixteenth century itself. Poems that we can trace to that century, thanks to manuscript evidence and the exacting critical edition prepared by Kenneth Bryant, are notably tighter, more difficult, and more elegant than the more recent ones.27 Using the name Surdas (admittedly, somewhat loosely) to designate this sixteenth-century corpus of poems, we can see clearly that nowhere does Surdas come out and say that he is either translating or performing the Bhāgavata. No poem that we can be sure circulated in the sixteenth century even mentions the Bhāgavata, as a certain number of later ones do. No one has yet come along and organised Surdas padas so that they appear to replicate the skandha-by-skandha organisation of the Bhāgavata — that would not happen until almost the turn of the nineteenth century28 — and certainly no one has composed a poem anything like the following (NPS 225):29

śrīmukha cāri sloka dae brahmā kauṃ samujhāi
brahmā nārada sauṅ kahe nārada byāsa sunāi
byāsa kahe sukadeva sauṃ dvādasa skandha banāi
suradāsa soī kahe pada bhāṣā kari gāi Vishnu, from his sacred mouth, explained four ślokas to Brahma;
Brahma told them to Narad, and Narad to Vyas in turn;
Vyas told them to Shukdev, setting them out in twelve books,
And these Surdas told as songs sung in the common tongue.

  • 30 E. g., Jiva Goswami, Tattvasandarbha 19, 22a, and 24, as given in Stuart Elkman, Jīva Gosvāmin’s (...)

18All of this is late, late, late. Nonetheless, it is important. It reveals the desire of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century editors to make plain a perceived link between the great Sanskrit Purana and this prestigious vernacular text. The Sursāgar was indeed perceived — at least by some — as a text by that point in time, and someone felt it was essential that it be construed in relation to the Bhāgavata-purāṇa, which was in its turn regarded by many as the definitive commentary on and sum of all Vedic knowledge. That claim was already being made in the sixteenth century.30

19But the absence of this external scaffolding doesn’t mean that the poet himself was either ignorant of or indifferent to the Bhāgavata. This, I think, was not so. But how, precisely, was Sur sensitive to the Bhāgavata? And how did he perform it?

20It would certainly be wrong to suggest that every poem circulating in Surdas’s name in the sixteenth century can be regarded as in some sense a performance of the Bhāgavata-purāṇa, though the themes and narrative episodes in the poetry do often match those in the great Sanskrit text. Occasionally, however, we find ourselves faced with a much more direct connection between the Bhāgavata and the words of Surdas. Let us consider two such poems — poems that also relate to one another, in that they share a common phrase. Here is the first:

  • 31 The symbol § marks the position of this poem in the Bryant edition. I am grateful to Ken Bryant fo (...)

1 mādhau kopi cakra kara līnau (Bryant § 356, NPS 273)31 2 chāḍi beda bānī apanau panu jana kauṅ bhāyau kīnau
3 ratha te uteri avani ātura hvai leta carana ati dhāi
4 sahi na sakati bhū bhāra bhīta hvai capala bhaī akulāī
5 kachuka aṅga kachu adhara upara paṭu unati bāhu bisāla
6 sveda sroṇi sobhā ati tana mai ghana baraṣyau mani lāla
7 sura subhaṭṭa sameta sudarasana deṣi birañci bhramyau
8 mānahu āna sŗṣṭi karibe koṅ ambuja nābhi jamyau
1 Madhav, in anger, took the wheel in his hand.
2 Abandoning the word of the Veda, his own promise,
he did what would please his devotee.
3 He stepped from his chariot to earth, all astir,
and the moment his foot touched the ground he ran.
4 The earth could not endure the weight
and shuddered fearfully, as if deranged.
5 His upper garment slipped down his limbs
and as he lifted his vast, strong arm
6 It revealed a torso radiant with sweat and blood —
a thundercloud raining pearls and rubies.
7 Sur says, when Brahma saw that fine warrior
and the discus he held, called Fine Vision,
8 He fell into confusion, as if this were a new creation
and he a baby lotus-born upon an umbilical stem.

21The first task that faces the audience of most Surdas padas is to identify the narrative moment to which the poem refers. This poem is a good example of the audience’s quandary, but the poet makes their task easier than he sometimes does: he announces the episode in his title line rather than challenging his listeners to deduce it on their own. On the basis of what he says, knowledgeable members of his audience will recognise immediately that Sur is referring to events that transpired on the third day of the great Bharata war (Mbh 6.55.83ff.). But more is involved. The way Sur approaches his subject shows that he assumes at least on his own part, if not also on the part of his audience as a whole, a knowledge of the manner in which that story is reported in the Bhāgavata-purāṇa (especially BhP 1.9.37-39). Bhishma, the aged but ever-agile commander of the Kaurav army, was the staunchest devotee (jana, v. 2) of Krishna, who had joined the forces of the opposite side as Arjun’s charioteer but had vowed never to take an active role in the fighting. It was Bhishma’s fondest wish to see Krishna arrayed against him in battle, however, and he attempted to provoke Krishna to fight him by raining countless arrows upon Krishna and Arjun, both of whom sustained multiple wounds. When Krishna sensed in Arjun a residual unwillingness to retaliate against Bhishma, who was his own elder and preceptor, he feared for Arjun’s safety and sprang into the fray himself, thus fulfilling Bhishma’s wish. In doing so, he broke his earlier oath, “the word of the Veda” (beda bānī, v. 2), but all in the cause of making a countervailing vow come true — the vow of his devotee. Bhishma had vowed that he would cause Krishna to take up a weapon in the Bharata war, and when Krishna reached for the wheel, that vow was complete.

22The Mahābhārata is content to present this about-face in its own terms, but the Bhāgavata is more guarded. Rather than have Krishna simply attack with his own weapon, the sudarśan discus (cf. Mbh 6.55.83-86), it depicts him as having been unarmed. Krishna therefore has to reach for the wheel of the chariot he was driving (dhṛtarathacaraṇo, BhP 1.9.37) and use that as if it were his accustomed discus. Surdas does not definitively commit himself to the latter position, in that he designates the weapon with the word chakra (v. 1), which can mean either “wheel” or “discus”, but the fact that Krishna “takes it in his hand” (kara līnau, v. 1) does seem to lean in the direction of the Bhāgavata. The “fine vision” (sudarśan > sudarasana, v. 7) that Bhishma then saw was at once the gorgeously bloody sight of Krishna that Surdas conjures up in verses 5-6 and the disc of that name, whether in function (if it was the chariot wheel) or in essence (if the discus itself).

23The pun on sudarshan guides the poem to its completion and introduces another startling juxtaposition. It is this. Clearly the person who sees this vision is Bhishma, who bows before Krishna and, according to the Bhāgavata, delivers an extended hymn of praise describing what he sees (BhP 1.9.32-36). Bhishma is the devotee, servant, or subject (jana, v. 2) to whom reference is made near the beginning of the poem. Yet when the vision has been described and the poet uses his signature to indicate that he is about to conclude, he suddenly changes perspective by naming the beholder of the vision not as Bhishma but as Brahma (birañci, v. 7). The gods are often thought of as witnessing momentous events in the life of Krishna, so Brahma’s presence makes sense to that degree, but there is a more particular stimulus for the confused manner in which Brahma reacts to seeing Krishna. He is disoriented by the affinity between the sight of Krishna raising the wheel or discus on his arm and the image of a lotus emerging from the dark waters of a lake on its stem. He finds himself in a powerful time-warp, since he himself was emitted from the navel of Vishnu on an umbilical lotus at the beginning of time. Considering the vast power of Krishna’s discus for destruction, this vision of a return to creation is a stark event, perhaps foreshadowing the new age that will emerge from the global carnage of the great Bharata war as a whole.

24In the Mahābhārata (6.55.89-90), the simile of the primeval lotus is used to describe the appearance of Krishna’s arm and weapon at this moment, but it is apparently Sur’s own invention to bring Brahma himself on the scene. Once again I think it is likely that his impetus for doing so came from the Bhāgavata-purāṇa. Although the Bhāgavata makes no mention of Brahma, the personal deity, it does feature his antetype, the impersonal Brahman, at just this point in the story. The Mahābhārata goes on to describe a series of further confrontations before Bhishma actually expires, and makes it clear that Arjun was the one who killed him. But it is the Bhāgavata that focuses its account of Bhishma’s death on the encounter with Krishna himself. It says this caused Bhishma to arrest his own breathing and merge into Brahman (brahmaṇi niṣkale, BhP 1.9.44).

25Where is Surdas between these two master narratives? Somewhere in the middle. He seems to personify Brahman and thereby arrive at a new perspective on the Mahābhārata’s navel-lotus simile, while at the same time suggesting a close identification between the aged warriorsage Bhishma and the aged god Brahma. These two are made to share a common vision, though with very different reactions. Bhishma’s calm is Brahma’s disquietude, and Bhishma’s death is Brahma’s birth.

26It is a remarkable ending, I think, a remarkable way of re-envisioning a moment absolutely pivotal to the way in which the great Bharata battle will unfold. This recasting is very much in the spirit with which the Bhāgavata tells the story, yet with a spicing — or rather, to follow the metaphor of soup, a stock — that takes us back to the Epic. Sur seems to invite his hearers to recall that there are distinctive disparities between the ways in which these two great authorities treat this tale, but his mode of displaying this is not to point it out in the fashion of a commentator. Rather, he performs his way through to a new solution. In doing so, is he performing the Bhāgavata more than the Mahābhārata? No, in the case of this poem I don’t think we want to be forced into making that decision. In fact, it would be precisely false to do so.

27Now let us take a look at a second performance of this same episode — an encore, so to speak, though most likely it was originally performed independently of the composition we have just studied. Intriguingly, though, one verbal sequence that it contains — the first half of verse 3 — actually repeats what we have already heard in “Madhav, in anger, took the wheel in his hand”. Here is our second poem:

1 vā paṭa pīta kī phaharāni (Bryant edition § 357, NPS 279)
2 kara dhari cakra carana kī dhāvani nahi bisarati vaha bāni
3 ratha te uteri avani ātura hvai kaca raja kī lapaṭāni
4 mānahu siṅgha saila te nikase mahā matta gaja jāni
5 jihi gupāla merau panu rāṣyau meṭi beda kī kāni
6 soi ba sura sahāi hamārai nikaṭa bhae prabhu āni
1 The way his yellow garments fluttered,
2 The wheel in his hand, how swiftly he ran —
I’ll never forget how he appeared
3 When he stepped from his chariot to earth, all astir.
With bits of dust smeared through his hair he seemed
4 Like a lion emerging from a mountain lair
on sensing some great, mad elephant.
5 The same Gopal who fulfilled my vow,
who brushed aside the Vedic sense of right —
6 This is the one who’s coming to my aid:
such a Lord, says Sur, and yet so near.

28This time we quickly recognise the moment. But now we see events directly through Bhishma’s eyes; it is he who speaks. In consequence, the principal metaphor he offers for what he sees — that Krishna’s wild hair looks like the dusty mane of a lion moving in for the kill (v. 4)— is more in keeping with his own dramatic situation. It is martial rather than cosmological.

29The individual elements of this image are put forward when the Bhāgavata-purāṇa (BhP 1.9.32-42) recounts the battle of Krishna and Bhishma, and there too Bhishma is the narrator. In the Bhāgavata, however, the description of Krishna’s hair being suffused with dust that horses had kicked up (BhP 1.9.34) is at several verses’remove from the brief reference to his acting as ferocious as a lion faced with an elephant (BhP 1.9.37), which also occurs in the Mahābhārata. Sur displays his originality by drawing these two into direct proximity with one another.

30The vow mentioned in verse 5 refers to Bhishma’s pledge to see Krishna standing before him as a warrior before he dies. To fulfill this wish, Krishna must abrogate his own pledge, his Vedic oath (beda kī kāni, “the Vedic sense of right”, v. 5) not to step upon the field of battle and take sides in the Bharat war (BhP 1.9.37). Like the author of the Bhāgavata, Sur depicts Krishna as a person who places the honour and desire of those devoted to him above any other morality, even when the latter is thought of as being sanctioned by the Veda as in the case of a promise that ought to be kept. In both texts — the Bhāgavata and the Sursāgar — the lesson is that with Krishna the religion of bhakti is victorious over its predecessor, the religion of royal and martial dharma.

31The poet’s use of the title Gopal (gupāla, v. 5) seems intended to contribute to this shift of emphasis. As the darling of the cowherds and protector of cattle, Gopal is not strictly speaking a figure who belongs in the epic milieu where this poem is set. But once again there is a precedent in the Bhāgavata, which allows Bhishma, in the course of a long encomium to Krishna, to mix in a reference to the lad who had such a profound effect on the cowherd women of Braj (gopavadhvaḥ, BhP 1.9.40). As in the case of the lion metaphor, however, Sur achieves a sharper juxtaposition, and one can say the same for the note on which he concludes. When Krishna comes to Bhishma’s aid, drawing near to fulfill his vow, everyone in the audience knows what form this help will take: death!

32Here we do seem to have left the Mahābhārata behind in favour of the Bhāgavata’ s telling of the tale. But does that alter the balance sufficiently that we can now be convinced we ought to think of Sur as specifically “performing the Bhāgavata”, given the evidence that these two poems provide us? Obviously not in the sense that might be expected on the basis of the roster of Bhāgavata performers with which we began. Sur is far too independent a poet to allow for such a characterisation. He not only presents what he has received; he kneads it, he contests it. One might even say he twists it.

33This is hardly the only occasion on which we can see such a process at work. The most famous is undoubtedly presented by Sur’s bhramargit poems, where the gopis of Braj are visited by Uddhav, the messenger Krishna has sent to console them after he has departed for Mathura. As the Bhāgavata reports this moment, the gopis receive Uddhav’s advaita sermon about how Krishna is always with them despite his seeming absence with a measure of equanimity, even satisfaction. When Surdas approaches this theme, by contrast, the gopis reject Uddhav’s message altogether. In the Bhāgavata both they and Uddhav get a chance to say their piece; in the Sursāgar Uddhav is practically reduced to silence.

  • 32 Bryant § 268.3. The Nagaripracharini Sabha edition, which follows a more recent manuscript traditi (...)

34One might think that this disparity merely reflects two storytelling traditions that have moved apart from one another as independent performative genres, and there must surely be an element of that. But every so often we can see that the Bhāgavata is specifically on Sur’s mind — or at least that certain of its distinctive phrases echo in his consciousness. Consider, for example, the bhramargit poem in which Sur’s gopis say they are suspicious of the message Uddhav brings because the very form of its delivery — by a messenger they perceive as a “bee”— shows Krishna has been consorting with a species famous for “cheating hearts” (kaitava cita).32 In putting things this way, Sur does not repeat or “translate” the Bhāgavata, but, rather, turns it on its head. At the appropriate point in the Bhāgavata’s narration it is Uddhav, not Krishna, who is excoriated for being “the friend of a cheat” (kitavabandho, BhP 10.47.12), while in the words of Surdas that allegation, made with exactly the same term (Skt. kitava > Brj. kaitava), is leveled against Krishna instead. Knowledgeable members of Sur’s audience would surely have appreciated the reference and understood its ironic relation to the poem they were hearing.

  • 33 I have argued this point in several places, most recently Hawley (2005), p. 190, and (2009), pp. 2 (...)
  • 34 I reproduce the text from the edition of Parameshvari Lal Gupta along with Aditya Behl’s translati (...)

35Given all this, it is perhaps fitting that we do not really know — contrary to what we are told by the Caurāsī vaiṣṇavan kī vārtā — just what Sur’s performative circumstances might have been. This Vallabhite text wants him to be a straightforward temple musician, serving Krishna in kirtan at the great shrine atop Mount Govardhan or serenading him in the mandir of Navanitapriyaji in Gokul. Yet there is actually no reason to believe that these temples — or any temples — were his exclusive métier. Certainly there is no reason to believe he was a Vallabhite. Sur may indeed have performed in temples, but it is also possible to envision him singing his poetry in homes, in satsangs, in what Anantadas calls mahotsavs, in salons, or in courts. And which court, if so? It seems to me unlikely that the Surdas Abu’l Fazl mentions was the same as “our” Surdas,33 so I like the fact that Muhammad Kabir, the author of the Afsānah-i shāhān, written early in the seventeenth century, wants to argue instead for the court of Islam Shah, his Afghan forebear.34 But there too we encounter a record that can hardly be taken at historical face value.

  • 35 Sahasarasa: Nāyak Bakhśu ke dhrupadoṅ kā saṅgrah, ed. by Prem Lata Sharma (New Delhi Sangeet Nat (...)
  • 36 See Hawley, Introduction, part 2, section 5, “Performance, Past and Present”, in Into Sūr’s Ocean: (...)
  • 37 Françoise “Nalini” Delvoye, “The Verbal Content of Dhrupad Songs from the Earliest Collections”, D (...)

36We also do not know what Sur’s musical situation was, except that to characterise it as dhrupad, as is often done, skirts a number of difficulties attending that characterisation. The most striking of these is that poems attributed to Surdas in the sixteenth century show no preference for the four-verse pattern that seems to have been considered to be one of the great hallmarks of classical dhrupad practice.35 In fact, such poems are rare. Eight-verse padas, which could also be performed on a four-part scheme, are much more numerous, but no more so than poems that contain six verses instead; other lengths are also possible. In all this one sees that the contrast between Surdas and Tansen or Haridas, true exemplars of the dhrupad style, is marked.36 For Sur, the term vishnupad/bishnupad, invoked for example in ‘Abd al-Hamid Lahori’s Pādshāhnāma (1627-1647), may be more accurate, but we do not know exactly what it connoted — if indeed the connotation was exact.37

  • 38 Here the classic analysis has been provided by Kenneth E. Bryant, Poems to the God: Structures and (...)

37There are also problems with raga. Early manuscripts of the Sursāgar often associate quite different ragas with a given pada. Luckily the distance between shabd and svar or alternatively matu and dhatu — between verbal text and musical rendition — is sufficiently great in the genre of the pada that we can discern something of the poet’s performative sensibility even without knowing how it might have been expressed musically on any particular occasion (cf. d’Hubert and Miner in this volume). As can be judged from the Bhishma poems we have considered, the verbal logic of these early Surdas padas is often sufficiently rigorous and tight that their force can be appreciated without actually hearing them sung.38 Similarly, we do not have to know where Sur himself performed or where other early singers sang “his” padas to sense at least something of the impact that might have been felt when sixteenth-century audiences encountered them.

  • 39 See Bryant (1978), especially pp. 26-39, 134-41.

38The multiple ragas that could be assigned to a given Surdas poem in early manuscripts suggest a considerable malleability, as does the range of performative circumstances that were imagined for them early on, ranging from temple to court. And yet, the world in which we may envision this poet flourishing is not infinitely diverse. If we miss the fact that sometimes he is positioning himself in relationship to the Bhāgavata — not just the way in which it tells the story of Krishna, but even its actual words — we miss something quite important about the world out of which Surdas comes and to which he sees himself as contributing. He may not require each of his listeners to command a close knowledge of the Sanskrit text of either the Mahābhārata or the Bhāgavata-purāṇa, but I would argue that if they do, they are “ideal listeners” at least for poems of the type on which we have been focusing. Not every pada that circulated in Surdas’s name in the sixteenth century was as closely calibrated to precedent as our two Bhishma poems seem to have been, but by contrast to the general run of padas that appear in standard editions of the Sursāgar today, the proportion of such poems is surprisingly high. In poems like these, the singer expected his hearers not just to experience a familiar telling of a familiar tale but to reframe what they thought they knew, to see it all again. Clearly, it was the function of the best performances to make that possible, and in this regard Sur was often a master performer.39

39We learn from the Bhāgavata māhātmya that when its adored parent text is properly performed, the hearers come to life. In the frame story, Bhakti, who has been restored to radiant youth in Brindavan, is burdened by her two bedraggled sons Jnana and Vairagya: knowledge, that is, and the sort of religious discipline that implies detachment from the workaday world. The Bhāgavata māhātmya achieves its climax when, in its last chapter, Jnana and Vairagya join their mother in hearing a seven-day performance of the Bhāgavata-purāṇa at Haridwar. The result: they spring back to life. Sur’s performance of the Bhāgavata-purāṇa is obviously very different. It does not rigorously repeat — it rigorously unsettles and recovers — and in that way it seems to do just the opposite of what the Bhāgavata māhātmya prescribes. But note the similarity as well. Unlike what has so often been said about the excellence of these poems, they appeal not just to bhakti but to knowledge and discipline — a knowledge of the tradition out of which they come, and the discipline that makes it possible, with discrimination, to enter it all over again.

  • 40 To a lesser extent the same must have been true for the Mahābhārata, as well. Sheldon Pollock ha (...)

40Was Surdas performing the Bhāgavata-purāṇa? Certainly not as the Bhāgavata māhātmya leads us either to expect or to desire. Nor after the manner of poets like Lalachdas or, in certain of their works, Hariramvyas or Nanddas. Sur’s relation to the Bhāgavata-purāṇa is far more independent. It may sometimes be his subject, but it is never his master. Does this make Surdas less a performer of the Bhāgavata than these quite explicit Bhāgavata poets? In a certain sense, obviously, yes. But if we can be more expansive in our view, if we can let Sur engage the Bhāgavata in his own way — inventive, ironic, sometimes even contrary — then it makes sense to say that Sur often performs the Bhāgavata even better than they do. In imagining such a possibility, it may be helpful to think of Sur enunciating the Bhāgavata not just in relation to a “parent text”, something learned in the course of a decent Vaishnava education and held in memory thereafter, but in relation to the several genres of live Bhāgavata performance with which he was probably surrounded.40 If so, he would evidently have been reacting to — and contributing to — this range of performative possibility from roughly the opposite point of view than comes forward from the author of the Bhāgavata māhātmya a century or so later. Sur was crafting, nuancing, expanding the boundaries of the text; the Māhātmya was trying to standardise and clamp down.

  • 41 Dinadayalu Gupta, Aṣṭachāp aur Vallabh-sampradāy, 2nd edn (Allahabad: Sahitya Sammelan, 1970), V (...)

41A lovely window onto the sort of tensions that may have emerged as various performers of the Bhāgavata reacted to each other in early modern, Brajbhasha-speaking North India comes to us from an unexpected source. It is once again the varta literature of the Vallabha sampraday, but this time not the original collection of eighty-four such vartas attributed to Gokulnāth, the Caurāsī vaiṣṇavan kī vārtā, but the subsequent 252 vartas that emerged from the hand of his nephew Hariray, Do sau bāvan vaiṣṇavan kī vārtā. In one of these vartas we hear that the Chaube Brahmins of Mathura didn’t like the idea that Nanddas, the major Pushtimargi poet to whom we have already referred, had set about to render the entirety of the Bhāgavata’s tenth book into bhasha. They were sure it was going to cut into their own storytellers’(kathavachak) business, and they appealed to Nanddas’s guru, Vitthalnath, to make his pupil stop. We are told that Vitthalnath obliged.41

  • 42 Stuart McGregor comments on the manifest improbability of such a relationship, observing among oth (...)

42How is this story to be received? Does the author expect us to smile at the self-serving anxieties of Mathura’s famously irascible old guard, or should we be recalling that actually Vitthalnath had good reason to try to keep the peace with these Chaubes? After all, by the time this account was being written his sampraday was making substantial inroads into Mathura society. Whichever the more likely scenario, it is doubtful we should take the Do sau bāvan vaiṣṇavan kī vārtā’s story at face value, any more than we should accept its claim, offered in the preceding prasang, that Nanddas was the younger brother of Tulsidas.42 As suggested earlier, I find it far easier to believe that Nanddas abandoned his Bhāṣā dasamskandh for his own reasons. After he had ratcheted up his performative gears to meet the demands of the Bhāgavata’s celebrated chapters on the ras, as he did in his Rāsapancādhyāyī, he may have found it unappealing to return to the straightforward task of translation that he had earlier begun. This seems natural enough if we think of the career of the poet himself, but the idea of such a lapsed project on the part of one of the sampraday’s most famous figures might well have seemed embarrassing to Hariray later on, given his systematic temperament and devotedly sectarian point of view. So he blamed the work-stoppage on others — the famously recalcitrant Chaubes — while at the same time preserving the sampraday’s own claim to agency by invoking the compassionate largess of Vitthalnath.

43To Vallabhite eyes, at least in the mid-to late seventeenth century, Nanddas and Surdas were guru-brothers. These two were very likely the most luminous among the “eight seals” (ashtachhap) that the Pushtimargi community claimed as its own, even if in point of historical fact Surdas was not bound to Vallabha in the same way that Nanddas revered Vitthalnath. Never mind. The Pushtimarg leaders felt they had to claim Sur, and their efforts have borne impressive historical fruit: contrary to fact though it is, few people today doubt that Sur’s inspiration came from Vallabha. As the Vallabhites asserted their own Bhāgavata credentials, adding to Vallabha’s foundational commentary a performance milieu that pivoted on the ashtachhap, they crossed the boundary from Sanskrit to the vernacular. They played an important part in baptising Brajbhasha as a language of refinement, a “Sanskrit” of its own.

44It is amusing to see the Chaubes deployed against Nanddas. If indeed these local Brahmins stood for older modes of Braj religiosity and textual accreditation — a Bhāgavat kathā tradition in which only the original Sanskrit text had the right to be inscribed on the page — they ought to have felt less anxiety in relation to Nanddas than in relation to his fictive ashtachhap brother, Sur. Nanddas and his Vallabhite community were a threat to the older Chaube networks, for sure, but an even greater threat to any text-reciting expertise on the part of the Chaubes would have come from Brajbhasha poets and kathavachaks who were uninterested in being anchored to this or that sectarian lineage. No other poet stands more powerfully for the independence of Brajbhasha than Surdas. In this respect he even more than Nanddas stands as a fitting symbol for the liberal thrust of Bhāgavata performance that the Bhāgavata māhātmya seems so eager to discipline and cap.

45Given all this, it was only a matter of time until some editor cast a glance at the Sursāgar, saw a text that had burgeoned with the compositions of performers who took Sur’s seal as their own, and determined that it should be aligned with the Bhāgavata-purāṇa rather than developing in some protean fashion of its own. This moment occurred in the late eighteenth century, a century or so after the Bhāgavata māhātmya seems to have been composed. The editor in question grouped the Sur padas before him in such a way that they seemed to correspond to the twelve skandha template by means of which the Bhāgavata itself is organised. Some skandhas could claim very few Surdas poems, which may have meant he had to commission several new padas to make his efforts seem plausible. Is this enterprise to be interpreted as a stern exercise in Sanskritic discipline or as an exuberant celebration of what vernacular performance could achieve — a Bhāgavata of its own, one truly based on the rhythms and practices of Brajbhasha? To me, both estimations seem possible. Personally, I like the second.

Notes

1 Most recently, The Memory of Love: Sūrdās Sings to Krishna (New York: University Press, 2009), pp. 15-18.

2 I am deeply grateful to Vidvan Samba Dikshita for granting me interviews on 23 and 25 December 2007, and to his son Gajanan Dikshita for a supplementary conversation on 25 December 2007.

3 Several years ago I heard a paper from a retired member of the medical faculty at University describing the Bhāgavata’s expertise in the field of embryology: Padmakar Vishnu Vartak, ‘Embryology and Chromosomes from Śrīmad Bhāgavatam’, National Seminar on “Śrīmad Bhāgavatam: Its Philosophical, Religious, and Social Themes”, Ananthacharya Indological Research Institute (Mumbai, 28 March 2009).

4 See J. S. Hawley, ‘The Bhāgavata Māhātmya in Context’, in Patronage and Popularisation, Pilgrimage and Procession: Channels of Transcultural Translation and Transmission in Early Modern South Asia; Papers in Honour of Monika Horstmann, ed. by Heidi R. M. Pauwels (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2009), pp. 81-100.

5 I follow the text given in the Gita Press edition: Śrīmad Bhāgavata Mahāpurāṇa (with Sanskrit Text and English Translation), trans. by C. L. Goswami (Gorakhpur: Gita Press, 1995 [orig., 1971]), 6.20-50, pp. 38-42.

6 Norvin Hein, The Miracle Plays of Mathurā (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), pp. 223-30.

7 Gurū Granth, āsā dī vār, p. 464 in the standard edition. The translation is that of (1972), p. 116. See also Norvin Hein, ‘Guru Nanak’s Comment on the Vaishnava Lila’, in Perspectives on Guru Nanak, ed. by Harbans Singh (Patiala: Punjabi University, 1969), pp. 493-501. I am grateful to Gurinder Singh Mann for drawing the latter to my attention and for checking the Gurmukhi original.

8 Francesca Orsini, ‘Inflected Kathas: Sufis and Krishna Bhaktas in Awadh’, in Religious Interactions in Mughal India, ed. by Vasudha Dalmia and Munis Faruqui (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014b), pp. 195-232.

9 Lālacdās-racit Avadhī-kāvya Haricarit, ed. by Acharya Nalinavilocana Sharma Shriramanarayan Shastri (Patna: Bihar-Rashtrabhasha Parishad, 1963), Vol. 1. See also R. S. McGregor, Hindi Literature from its Beginnings to the Nineteenth Century (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1984), p. 96. McGregor’s treatment of related works is valuable for the subject as a whole (pp. 96-101, 156ff.). Orsini (2014b) also discusses the Haricarit of Lalachdas.

10 Heidi Pauwels, Kṛṣṇa’s Round Dance Reconsidered (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1996); R. S. McGregor, Nanddas: The Round Dance of Krishna and Uddhav’s Message (London: Luzac, 1973).

11 Nanddas says he is conveying the luminosity of the Bhāgavata into bhasha: Nandadās Granthāvalī, ed. by Vrajaratnadas (Banaras: Nagari Pracharini Sabha, 1949), 1:14-16, Vol. 2, p. 2. On the shift from the Bhāṣā dasamskandh to the Rāsapancādhyayī, see also McGregor (1973), p. 35. Note also that the status of the 29th chapter of the Bhāṣā dasamskandh is not entirely clear: it is absent from the 1757 VS manuscript that otherwise forms the principal basis for the text that appears in the Nandadās granthāvalī, as well as in a similar manuscript that forms a part of the Kankarauli collection, and is therefore described in Vrajaratnadas’s edition as an appendix (1949, pariśiṣṭ, Vol. 2, p. 272; cf. Vol. 1, pp. 51-52).

12 Grahame Nieman, ‘The Bhāgavat Daśam Skandh of Bhūpati’, IAVRI Bulletin 8, 3-8 Nieman, ‘Bhūpati’s Bhāgavat and the Hindi Bhāgavat Genre’, in Bhakti in Current Research, 1979-1982, ed. by Monika Hostmann (Berlin: Dietrich Weimer Verlag, 1983), pp. 257-67.

13 W.G. Archer, Central Indian Painting (London: Faber & Faber, 1958), p. 12. The colophon page is now damaged. On the 1688 Kanoria Bhagavata and its copies, see Neeraja Poddar, ‘Krishna in his Myriad Forms: Narration, Translation, and Variation in Illustrated Manuscripts of the Latter Half of the Tenth Book of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa’ (PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 2014).

14 See Daniel J. Ehnbom, ‘An Analysis and Reconstruction of the Dispersed Purāṇa from the Caurapañcāśikā Group’(PhD dissertation, University of Chicago, 1984), pp. 25-42; and Harsha V. Dehejia, Celebrating Krishna: Sacred Words and Sensuous Images: The Tenth Book of the Bhagavata Purana (Ahmedabad: Mapin, 2005), pp. 54-55, 122-23, 164-67, 172-77.

15 Especially helpful for the subject as a whole is Bimanbehari Majumdar, ‘Bhāgavata Purāṇa and its Influence in the Sixteenth Century’, Journal of the Bihar Research Society 47.1-4 (1961), 381-93. The range Majumdar describes is impressive, and his perspectives are helpful as well. I know from his treatment of Surdas, however, that one would need to evaluate some of his conclusions on the basis of further manuscript work.

16 The date specifically claimed in the Nepal manuscript upon which Subhadra Jha bases this assertion is lakṣmaṇ samvat 309, but there are debates about exactly when this occurred. See Jha, Vidyāpati-Gīt-Saṅgrah or The Songs of Vidyāpati (Banaras: Motilal Banarsidas, 1954), p. 57.

17 Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the Gods and the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, Power in Premodern India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), p. 312. Cf. William L. Smith, ‘The Turkish Conquest and the Dark Age of Bengali Literature’, in Ludwik Sternbach Felicitation Volume, ed. by J. P. Sinha (Lucknow: Akhila Bharatiya Sanskrit Parishad, 1979), Vol. 2, pp. 709-11.

18 Sharma and Shastri (1966), pp. 7-9.

19 An indispensable treatment of the latter subject can be found in Tony K. Stewart, The Final Word: The Caitanya Caritāmṛta and the Grammar of Religious Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

20 The Subodhinī is complete for skandhas 1-3 and 10, incomplete for skandhas 4 and 11 and lacking for the remainder of the Bhāgavata.

21 Just because it is hard to accept the historicity of this account, that is no reason to underestimate the importance of the sentiment it expresses — not in regard to Surdas but in relation to the period (mid-seventeenth century?) and sampradaya context associated with the writing of the text where the story appears. I discuss historical difficulties associated with this and related varta passages in Sūr Dās: Poet, Singer, Saint (Seattle: University of Washington Press and Delhi; Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 14-22. On the varta ’s view of the Bhāgavata as a template for the poetry of Surdas, see also my Three Bhakti Voices: Mirabai, Kabir, and Surdas in Their Time and Ours (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 185-88.

22 Sushil Kumar De, Early History of the Vaiṣṇava Faith and Movement in Bengal (Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyaya, 1961), p. 646; see also McGregor (1973), p. 48.

23 Caitanya Caritāmṛta of Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja: A Translation and Commentary, ed. by C. Dimock, Jr. and Tony K. Stewart (Cambridge: Harvard Oriental Series, 1999), 3.125, p. 924.

24 Thanks to Shrivatsa Goswami for clarifying this matter to me. Gadadhar Bhatt’vow has been carried out by his descendents until the present day. See also Swapna Sharma, Gadādhar Bhaṭṭ: paramparā aur sāhitya (Vrindaban: Vrajagaurav Prakashan, [n. d.]), p. 31.

25 Heidi R. M. Pauwels, In Praise of Holy Men: Hagiographic Poems by and about Harirām Vyās (Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 2002), pp. 98-99.

26 Chaurasi Baithak: Eightyfour Seats of Shri Vallabhacharya, trans. by Sham Das (Baroda, Shri Vallabha Publications, 1985), 84, p. 83. The seventeenth-century figure Gokulnath is traditionally claimed to be the compiler of the Caurāsī baiṭhak caritra, but this seems impossible. See Alan W. Entwistle, Braj, Centre of Krishna Pilgrimage (Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1987), pp. 263-64. In an email communication of 9 April 2008, Shandip Saha points out that the Caurāsī vaiṣṇavan kī vārtā, which is almost certainly earlier than the Caurāsī baiṭhak caritra, makes no mention of Vallabha performing bhagavat saptah.

27 Surdas, Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition, ed. by Kenneth E. Bryant, trans. John Stratton Hawley (Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015). The materials, principles, and technology underlying this edition, which seeks to reconstruct the extant corpus of Surdas poems that can be shown to have circulated in the sixteenth century, are substantially different from any earlier edition of the Sūrsāgar.

28 Hawley (1984), p. 39. The oldest manuscripts I have seen that adopt this scheme are Nagaripracharini Sabha no. 496, dated 1847 VS = 1790 CE, and NPS no. 4469 (269/26), dated 1850 VS = 1793 CE.

29 The abbreviation NPS designates the Nagaripracharini Sabha edition of the Sūrsāgar, a critical edition that has served as the standard text of reference for the poetry of Surdas since its partial publication in 1936 and complete publication in 1948. The version currently available is Sūrsāgar, ed. by Jagannathdas “Ratnakar”, Nandadulare Vajpeyi et al., 2 vols (Varanasi: Kashi Nagaripracharini Sabha, 1972 and 1976). The critical apparatus appears only in the portion published in 1936.

30 E. g., Jiva Goswami, Tattvasandarbha 19, 22a, and 24, as given in Stuart Elkman, Jīva Gosvāmin’s Tattvasandarbha: A Study on the Philosophical and Sectarian Development of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava Movement (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986), pp. 91, 100-01, 111-12; see also De (1961), pp. 261-65.

31 The symbol § marks the position of this poem in the Bryant edition. I am grateful to Ken Bryant for permission to quote his reconstructions of §§ 356-357 in this essay. As previously stated, NPS refers to the standard Nagaripracharini Sabha edition of the Sūrsāgar . In the text that follows the abbreviation Mbh will refer to the Mahābhārata in the critical Pune edition, for which V. S. Sukthankar served as general editor. BhP denotes the Bhāgavata-purāṇa in the Gita Press edition.

32 Bryant § 268.3. The Nagaripracharini Sabha edition, which follows a more recent manuscript tradition, loses this meaning (kaisaiṅ cita, NPS 4211.3).

33 I have argued this point in several places, most recently Hawley (2005), p. 190, and (2009), pp. 21-23.

34 I reproduce the text from the edition of Parameshvari Lal Gupta along with Aditya Behl’s translation in Hawley (2005), pp. 191-92; see also Hawley (2009), p. 19. See also Gupta, Kutuban kṛt Mṛgāvatī (Varanasi: Vishvavidyalay Prakashan, 1967), p. 39; and Mīr Sayyid Mañjhan Shattārī Rājgīrī: Madhumālatī, An Indian Sufi Romance, trans. by Aditya Behl and Simon Weightman, with Shyam Manohar Pandey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. xii-xiii.

35 Sahasarasa: Nāyak Bakhśu ke dhrupadoṅ kā saṅgrah, ed. by Prem Lata Sharma (New Delhi Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1972); cf. Richard Widdess, ‘The Emergence of Dhrupad’, in Hindustani Music: Thirteenth to Twentieth Centuries, ed. by Joep Bor, Françoise “Nalini” Delvoye, Emmie te Nijenhuis, and Jane Harvey (New Delhi: Manohar, 2010), pp. 117-40.

36 See Hawley, Introduction, part 2, section 5, “Performance, Past and Present”, in Into Sūr’s Ocean: Poetry, Context, and Commentary (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Oriental Series, 2016).

37 Françoise “Nalini” Delvoye, “The Verbal Content of Dhrupad Songs from the Earliest Collections”, Dhrupad Annual 5 (1990), p. 98. The association between Sur and vishupad apparently remained strong enough in musical memory that N. Augustus Willard worked it into the taxonomy of vocal compositions he provided when writing his Treatise on the Music of Hindoostan at the court of Banda in 1834. See William Jones and N. August Willard, Music of India (Calcutta: Susil Gupta, 1962), p. 70.

38 Here the classic analysis has been provided by Kenneth E. Bryant, Poems to the God: Structures and Strategies in the Poetry of Sūrdās (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), even though he does not restrict himself to padas that can be traced to the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Bryant demonstrates how these poems developed in “real” time, as against being the more or less static statements that might be anticipated on the model of rasa theory (especially pp. 40-42). Richard Widdess has observed, in a intriguingly parallel way, that early musical treatises on prabandha relevant to a consideration of the historical meaning of the term dhrupad make a strong distinction between verbal content (bani, matu) and performance realisation (dhatu), being far more interested in the former than the latter. See Widdess (2010).

39 See Bryant (1978), especially pp. 26-39, 134-41.

40 To a lesser extent the same must have been true for the Mahābhārata, as well. Sheldon Pollock has drawn attention to “the continuing importance of the auditory experience” as hinted in the opening dohas of Vishnudās’s vernacular Mahābhārata, written at Gwalior in about 1435 (2006, p. 306 n43). And we know that the Mahābhārata was translated into Persian (as Razm-nāmā) at the court of Akbar during the early 1580s and, interestingly, that the Harivaṃśa, traditionally considered to be its appendix (khila), was included in the project. Both were handsomely illustrated; see Robert Skelton, ‘Mughal Paintings from the Harivaṃśa Manuscript’, Victoria and Albert Museum Yearbook 2 (1970), 41-54.

41 Dinadayalu Gupta, Aṣṭachāp aur Vallabh-sampradāy, 2nd edn (Allahabad: Sahitya Sammelan, 1970), Vol. 1, p. 146 (pp. 140-41). Sheldon Pollock has taken note of the significance of this passage (2006), p. 312.

42 Stuart McGregor comments on the manifest improbability of such a relationship, observing among other things that if these two poets had been brothers, that fact could hardly have gone unnoticed in the Bhaktamāl of Nabhadas (1973), pp. 33-34.

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