The Sikh Religion/Volume 6/Sur Das


The Sur Das, one of whose hymns is found in the Granth Sahib, must not be confounded with Sur Das, a blind poet famous in the north of India as the author of the Sur Sagar. The Sur Das with whom we are concerned was a Brahman born A.D. 1528. On account of his beauty he was surnamed Madan Mohan, an epithet which means that he bewitched Cupid himself, and it was said that his external and internal eyes bloomed like the lotus flower. He became highly proficient in music, poetry, and kindred arts, and at the same time possessed all the joy, comfort and pleasure to be obtained from esoteric divine knowledge. He sang of love, the first and greatest of the divine passions which form the proper subjects of poetry. As soon as a verse issued from his mouth it became celebrated. It is said that, even in that age of bad roads and slow locomotion, it would reach four hundred miles in a day as if it had acquired wings for flight.

The Emperor Akbar, who admired poetical talents, appointed Sur Das governor of the province of Sandila. Its capital is in the present district of Hardoi in Oudh. His administration appears to have been by no means successful. The ordinary land revenue of Sandila was thirteen lakhs of rupees per year, but it was all spent by Sur Das in feeding holy men. When he heard of a contemplated inspection of his province and the collection of its revenue, he fled to avoid the consequences of his too profuse generosity. When the officials arrived to take the revenue, they found stones in the sealed treasure-chests instead of money. Each chest was labelled with a slip containing these lines:

Sandila yields its thirteen lakhs;
They're eaten up by men who pray:
So Sur Das Madan Mohan now
At dead of night hath run away.

The Emperor on reading these verses said that eating was an excellent thing, but absconding was not a course to be commended. He was even pleased to learn Sur Das's generosity and service to saints, and accordingly wrote an order pardoning his offence and expressing satisfaction at his devotion to holy men, but at the same time requesting him to appear before him. Sur Das said that it was a thousand times better to wipe the shoes of holy men than be governor and revenue collector of a province, and he refused to appear before Akbar. Todar Mai, Akbar's Prime Minister, could tolerate it no longer. He said to the Emperor, 'If such people can with impunity spend the money which belongs to the state and then abscond, there will be an end to all government.' Under the circumstances Akbar altered his resolution and ordered that Sur Das should be imprisoned. The poet's jailor was named Timir Das. The word timir means night or darkness; and the word das, if pronounced with a short vowel, means ten. From his prison the poet sent the Emperor the following couplet, which in the original contains a pun on the name of the jailor.

One night brings darkness which a small lamp lights;
O may the sun king Akbar save me from Ten Nights!

Sur Das was immediately released from prison and the governor of the jail obtained the sobriquet of Ten Nights from the pun on his name.

Sur Das subsequently wrote a stanza in which he prayed that the title of shoe-holder to the saints of God might be conferred on him. A holy man, to put him to the test, told him he was going to see the great lord Madan Mohan, also an epithet of Krishan, and asked him to keep watch over his shoes till he returned. Sur Das with great pleasure took up the saint's shoes and said, Up to the present my wishes have only been expressed, but now they are fulfilled.' The high priest in collusion with the saint several times sent a man to call Sur Das while holding the shoes. He refused to come until he had completed the menial service he had undertaken. The high priest and the saint were both highly pleased with Sur Das's devotion.

Sur Das passed the remainder of his life in forest tracts in the worship and contemplation of God in the society of holy men. His shrine is near Banaras.

The following hymn of Sur Das in the Sarang measure on the happiness of communion with God is found in the Granth Sahib.

The people of God dwell with God.
They dedicate unto Him their bodies and souls; all they possess they dedicate unto Him. While voicing His name they become intoxicated[1] with divine pleasure.
On beholding Him men become free from sin, and obtain all things.
After gazing on His beautiful face, there needs nothing else.
He who forsaketh God and desireth any one else, is like a leech on a leprous body.
Sur Das, God hath taken my soul into His keeping and granted me deliverance[2] in exchange.

In the Granth Sahib of Bhai Banno, the following hymn of Sur Das in the same measure is also found. The ordinary Granth Sahib only contains the first line. The hymn was originally copied into the Granth Sahib of Kartarpur, but a pen was subsequently drawn through it and sulphate of arsenic rubbed over it for more complete erasure. The reason for its erasure has not been explained. The subject of the hymn is the old one—Evil communications corrupt good manners—as stated by the old Greek poet Menander.

O man, abandon the society of those who turn away from God;
In association with them evil desires are produced, and devotion is interrupted.
What availeth it to give milk to a serpent to drink? It will not part with its poison.
What availeth it to bathe an elephant in the river? He will soil his body as before.[3]
What availeth it to a crow to peck at camphor, or to a dog to bathe in the Ganges?
What availeth it to a donkey to be smeared with fragrant aloes, or to a monkey to wear jewels on his body?
Sinners are like stones; the arrows of divine knowledge pierce them not, even though a quiverful be discharged.
Saith Sur Das, O God, this black blanket cannot be dyed another colour.[4]

  1. Jhok, the falling of the head in deep thought or absorption.
  2. Ih parlok, the next world, by which is understood the joy of the next world, that is, absorption in God and deliverance from transmigration.
  3. This verse is omitted in some recensions of Bhāi Banno's Granth Sahib.
  4. A blanket made of natural black wool cannot be dyed. The meaning is that the man who turns away from God cannot be regenerated.

Grant to Thy Sikhs the gift of Sikhism, the gift of the Guru's instruction, the gift of faith, the gift of confidence in Thee, and the gift of reading and understanding the holy Granth Sahib.