Monday, June 11, 2012

Surdas - An Indian Oedipus

Recently my mother told me the story of Surdas which struck me as another variation of the Oedipus theme and therefore, I feel, it deserves a place in a psychoanalytic blog like this.

Surdas, who lived in the fifteenth century,  is one of the most revered figures of India, and reputed to be one of the two or three of its greatest composers.  If one subtracts the Indian penchant for hyperbole, he is reputed to have composed 100 thousand verses, majority of them in praise of Lord Krishna. 

There are many legends as to what brought his extraordinary talents to fruition.  One of them being that he was born blind and therefore his whole natural talents got concentrated upon the sense of sound. Another being that he was so frustrated by his inability to concentrate all his faculties upon mastering his craft that he blinded himself in order to not be distracted by the pleasures of vision.

But the story my mother told me is far more interesting. 

Apparently Surdas was a rake and a great seducer in his youth and would find entry into genteel homes because of his religious credentials - he was a sadhu (wandering monk) - and his incredible voice.   

And one day he found his way into a household where the dowager of the house was hypnotized by his singing.  She could not be more thankful for gracing their abode by his presence and could see the ray of  divine in his eyes and voice. Full of gratitude she asked him as to what  dakshina (religious offering) he would like. 

"What can you offer me?" Surdas asked, knowing what exactly he wanted. 

"Whatever the sadhu wishes," the devout mother said. 

Surdas said, "If you saw divine in my eyes, those eyes seek your daughter-in-law."

The mother was stunned and could not believe what she was hearing but being Vaishnavi  she could not refuse giving the dakshina that she had promised.

She told her son as to what she had done and the dutiful son said that if you have promised him such then you must keep your promise. 

At the behest of the mother the daughter-in-law went to the Sadhu's chamber that night and asked Surdas as to what he wanted. But when Surdas saw her beautiful face, so pure and sacred he was immediately filled with self loathing for having such lustful intentions towards such a devi (divine) like woman. He saw in the fullness of her beauty Radha Rani (Queen Radha - Krishna's consort)  and  he asked her, who now personified mother to him, to bring him two knitting needles.

The daughter-in-law was surprised at the request, but once asked had no choice but to follow the command and went and told her mother-in-law as to what the sadhu was requesting. She said whatever he wishes we should give him for we are bound by our  promise.

The daughter-in-law returned with the needles and handed them to Surdas who said, " I cannot believe that I was going to destroy such a devout, kind and generous family all because of these lustful eyes of mine that will stop at nothing in its pursuit of pleasure." And he blinded himself with those needles. 

Once his physical eyes were destroyed he saw only the image of Krishna. The physical attraction of others gave way to the attraction for their real self, their real beauty. 

From then on he composed endless number of verses glorifying the love of child Krishna for his mother Yashodha. 

In the beginning his verses were mostly begging for forgiveness from Krishna for his  transgressions and endless declarations as to how his mind finds pleasure in no other place but in returning to Krishna over and over again. However, once chided by his guru Vallabhacharya to stop being so pathetically abject and grovelling towards Krishna out of fear that his soul will not survive without such self effacement, he started writing verses that were much more versatile and dealt with far greater range of themes.  

Surdas's blinding of his eyes for remorse over having sexual desire towards a beautiful woman who was somebody else's wife, and who when she became available to him, reminded him of Radha (Krishna's consort) and his blinding himself as a penitence for such evil designs is remarkably similar to the legend of Oedipus. 

I was also struck by the fact that Surdas could find no lust for the daughter-in-law when she did come to offer herself because it meant destruction of that sacred and immaculate beauty is similar to how Freud described Leonardo Da Vinci's inability to love women, for making love to them would tantamount to destroying their beauty. Under the spell of the beauty of his mother, whom he loved so passionately, Da Vinci could only love and admire beauty and paint it, never subject it to sexual passions. Surdas also fled from the idea of having sex with that beautiful woman in favor of singing songs of Krishna's and his mother's love for each other. 


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