Saints and Gurus
Sant Surdas – The Devotee of Shri Krishna
– Subhamoy Das
Surdas, the 15th century sightless saint, poet and musician, is known for his devotional songs dedicated to Lord Krishna. Surdas is said to have written and composed a hundred thousand songs in his magnum opus the ‘Sur Sagar’ (Ocean of Melody), out of which only about 8,000 are extant. He is considered a saint and so also known as Sant Surdas, a name which literally means the “slave of melody”.
Early Life of Sant Surdas
The time of Surdas’s birth and death are uncertain and suggest that he lived over a hundred years, which make the facts even murkier. Some say, he was born blind in 1479 in Siri village near Delhi. Many others believe, Surdas was born in Braj, a holy place in northern Indian district of Mathura, associated with the exploits of Lord Krishna. His family was too poor to take good care of him, which led the blind boy to leave home at the tender age of 6 to join a wondering group of religious musicians. According to one legend, one night he dreamt of Krishna, who asked him to go to Vrindavan, and dedicate his life to the praise of the Lord.
Surdas’s Guru – Shri Vallabharachary
A chance meeting with the saint Vallabharacharya at Gau Ghat by the river Yamuna in his teens transformed his life. Shri Vallabhacharya taught Surdas lessons in Hindu philosophy and meditation and put him in the path of spirituality. Since Surdas could recite the entire Srimad Bhagavatam and was musically inclined, his guru advised him to sing the ‘Bhagavad Lila’ – devotional lyrical ballads in praise of Lord Krishna and Radha. Surdas lived in Vrindavan with his guru, who initiated him to his own religious order, and later appointed him as the resident singer at Srinath temple in Govardhan.
Surdas Attains Fame
Surdas’ lilting music and fine poetry attracted many laurels. As his fame spread far and wide, the Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605) became his patron. Surdas spent the last years of his life in Braj, the place of his birth and lived on the donations, which he received in return of hisBhajan singing and lecturing on religious topics, until he died in c. 1586.
Philosophy of Surdas
Surdas was profoundly influenced by the Bhakti movement – a religious movement which focused on deep devotion, or ‘bhakti’, for a specific Hindu deity, such as Krishna, Vishnu orShiva that was prevalent in Indian between c 800-1700 AD, and propagated Vaishnavism. Surdas’s compositions also found place in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs.
The Poetical Works of Surdas
Although Surdas is known for his greatest work – theSur Sagar, he also wrote Sur-Saravali, which is based on the theory of genesis and the festival of Holi, andSahitya-Lahiri, devotional lyrics dedicated to the Supreme Absolute. As if Surdas attained a mystical union with Lord Krishna, which enabled him to compose the verse about Krishna’s romance with Radha almost as he was an eyewitness. Surdas’ verse is also credited as one that lifted the literary value of the Hindi language, transforming it from a crude to a pleasing tongue.
A Lyric by Surdas: ‘The Deeds Of Krishna’
There is no end to the deeds of Krishna:
true to his promise, he tended the cows in Gokula;
Lord of the gods and compassionate to his devotees,
he came as Nrisingha
and tore apart Hiranyakashipa.
When Bali spread his dominion
over the three worlds,
he begged three paces of land from him
to uphold the majesty of the gods,
and stepped over his entire domain:
here too he rescued the captive elephant.
Countless such deeds figure in the Vedas and the Puranas,
hearing which Suradasa
humbly bows before that Lord.
Acharya Charaka – Father of Medicine
Referred to as the Father of Medicine, Charaka was born around 300 BC and was the court physician of the Buddhist King Kanishka.His renowned work, the “Charak Samhita”, is considered as an encyclopedia of Ayurveda.
His principles, diagnoses, and cures retain their potency and truth even after a couple of millenia. When the science of anatomy was confused with different theories in Europe, Acharya Charak revealed through his innate genius and enquiries the facts on human anatomy, embryology, pharmacology, blood circulation and diseases like diabetes, tuberculosis, heart disease, etc.In the “Charak Samhita” he has described the medicinal qualities and functions of 100,000 herbal plants.
He has emphasized the influence of diet and activity on mind and body. He has proved the correlation of spirituality and physical health contributed greatly to diagnostic and curative sciences. He has also prescribed and ethical charter for medical practitioners two centuries prior to the Hippocratic oath. Through his genius and intuition, Acharya Charak made landmark contributions to Ayurveda. He forever remains etched in the annals of history as one of the greatest and noblest of rishi-scientists.
Sage Charaka is one of the renowned and revered sages of India, known for his distinctive service in the field of Ayurveda. He is highly revered as the “Indian father of medicine”. An alternative system of medicine like Siddha, Ayurveda is highly prominent in India, where the roots of this process had started since the time immemorial. The process of healing and curing has taken the world by storm, where a lot of people from other parts of the world showed interest to learn, and excel in the process. Along with several other sciences, curing, operating and several other therapies were highly famous, where one could claim the Indian system of medicine as the pioneers of Medicine. Needless to say, it was the immense gift of several Rishis, Saints and another learned man, who had sacrificed their lives, and showed immense dedication, to help mankind.
Birth of Sage Charaka:
Sage Charaka was born in 300 BC. It is believed that the Sage lived in Haraka and was the resident of Kapisthal. It is now called Jalandhar. It is located between Iravati or Ravi River and the river Chandrabagha, which is now called River Chenab, which flows in rivers in Panchanada or Punjab. The city of Panchanada had a special mention in the great epic Mahabharatha. He is referred to as a wandering saint, where he used to travel from place to place to cure the ailments of many people.
Contributions of Sage Charaka:
The word Charaka refers to wandering scholars or wandering physicians. His book “Charak Samhita“ is called the encyclopedia of Ayurveda. His works are highly relevant even today, where he used his acumen to find solutions to many underlying problems of the body. He had made extensive research on various human anatomy, embryology, pharmacology, blood circulation. He has also found an innumerable cure for diseases like tuberculosis, diabetes, and heart disease, etc.
He was able to classify the medicinal uses of many herbs such as 10,000. His emphasis on using the herbs along with food has significant health benefits. He also suggests that “Food is Medicine”, where all the aliments could be curbed with the appropriate use of proper medicine. He has proposed the correlation between the mind, body, and soul where a lot of healing takes place through the sound mind.
He has proposed the fundamental principle agreement for medical practitioners even two centuries before the Sage Hippocrates proposed his idea. It is evident that many people across several countries used his ideas, and developed the system of medicine.
Sage Charakya and Ayurveda:
He fundamentally classified the system of medicine into seven branches, which are:
- Kaaya Chikitsa- Mental Health
- Kaumarbhrtya Chikitsa- Pediatrics
- Aganda Tantra- Toxicology
- Shailya Chikitsa- Surgery
- Shaakalya Chikitsa- Head, eye and throat medicine
- Raasayana Tantra- Pharmacology
- Vaajikarana Tantra- Reproductive Medicine
Sage Punarvasu, a renowned sage was the Guru and Tutor of Sage Charakya. He was the physician of King king Nagnajit belonging to the Ghandhara Kingdom. There are three treatises, which are Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, and Ashtanga Sangraha, among them Sage Charakya had gained a lot of popularity in Charaka Samhita.
Saints and Gurus
Maharshi Veda Vyasa – Guru of Gurus
Vyasa is perhaps the greatest sage in the history of Hindu religion. He edited the four Vedas, wrote the 18 Puranas, the epic Mahabharata and the Srimad Bhagavata and even taught Dattatreya, who is regarded as the ‘Guru of Gurus.’
Vyasa’s Luminary Lineage
Hinduism mentions as many as 28 Vyasas before Maharshi Veda Vyasa was born at the end of Dvapara Yuga. Also known as Krishna Dvaipayana, Vyasa was born of Sage Parashara and mother Satyavati Devi under wonderful circumstances. Parashara was one of the supreme authorities on astrology and his bookParashara Hora is a textbook on astrology even in the modern age. He has also written a scripture known as Parashara Smriti which is held in such high esteem that it is quoted even by modern scholars on sociology and ethics.
How Vyasa was Born
Vyasa’s father, Parashara came to know that a child, conceived at a particular moment of time, would be born as the greatest man of the age as a part of Lord Vishnu himself. On that eventful day, Parashara was travelling in a boat and he spoke to the boatman about the nearing of that auspicious time. The boatman had a daughter who was awaiting marriage. He was impressed with the sanctity and greatness of the sage and offered his daughter in marriage to Parashara. Vyasa was born of this union and his birth is said to be due to the wish of Lord Shiva, who blessed the birth the sage of the highest order.
The Life and Works of Vyasa
At a very tender age Vyasa revealed to his parents the purpose of his life — that he should go to the forest and practice ‘Akhanda Tapas’ or continuous penance. At first, his mother did not agree but later approved on one important condition that he should appear before her whenever she wished for his presence. According to the Puranas, Vyasa took initiation from his guru sage Vasudeva. He studied the Shastras or scriptures under the sages Sanaka and Sanandana and others. He arranged the Vedas for the good of mankind and wrote theBrahma Sutras for the quick and easy understanding of the Shrutis; he also wrote theMahabharata to enable common people to understand the highest knowledge in the easiest way. Vyasa wrote the 18 Puranas and established the system of teaching them through ‘Upakhyanas’ or discourses. In this way, he established the three paths of Karma, Upasana (devotion) and Jnana (knowledge). Vyasa’s last work was the Bhagavata which he undertook at the instigation of Devarshi Narada, the celestial sage, who once came to him and advised him to write it, without which, his goal in life would not be reached.
Significance of Vyasa Purnima
In ancient times, our forefathers in India, went to the forest to meditate during the four months or ‘Chaturmasa’ following Vyasa Purnima—a particular and important day in the Hindu calendar. On this auspicious day, Vyasa began to write his Brahma Sutras. This day is also known as Guru Purnima when, according to the scriptures, Hindus should worship Vyasa and the Brahmavidya Gurus and begin the study of the Brahma Sutras and other ancient books on ‘wisdom’.
Vyasa, Author of the Brahma Sutras
The Brahma Sutras, also known as the Vedanta Sutras is believed to have been written by Vyasa along with Badarayana. They are divided into four chapters, each chapter being subdivided again into four sections. It is interesting to note that they begin and end with Sutras which read together mean “the inquiry into the real nature of Brahman has no return”, pointing to “the way one reaches Immortality and no more returns to the world.” About the authorship of these Sutras, tradition attributes it to Vyasa. Sankaracharya refers to Vyasa as the author of the Gita and the Mahabharata, and to Badarayana as the author of the Brahma Sutras. His followers—Vachaspathi, Anandagiri and others—identify the two as one and the same person, while Ramanuja and others attribute the authorship of all three to Vyasa himself.
The Everlasting Influence of Vyasa
Vyasa is considered by all Hindus as Chiranjivi or immortal, one who is still living and walking the earth for the well-being of his devotees. It is said that he appears to the true and the faithful and that Adi Sankaracharya had his darshan as did many others as well. Vyasa’s life is a unique example of one born for the dissemination of spiritual knowledge. His writings inspire us and the whole world even to this day in innumerable ways.
Reference: This article is based on the writings of Swami Sivananda in the “Lives of Saints” (1941)
Saints and Gurus
Who was Mystical Saint-Poet Kabir?
The saint poet Kabir is one of the most interesting personalities in the history of Indian mysticism. Born near Benaras or Varanasi, of Muslim parents, in c.1440, he became in early life a disciple of the celebrated 15th century Hindu ascetic Ramananda, a great religious reformer and founder of a sect to which millions of Hindus still belong.
Kabir’s Early Life in Varanasi
Kabir’s story is surrounded by contradictory legends that emanate from both Hindu and Islamic sources, which claim him by turns as a Sufi and a Hindu saint. Undoubtedly, his name is of Islamic ancestry, and he is said to be the actual or adopted child of a Muslim weaver of Varanasi, the city in which the chief events of his life took place.
How Kabir Became a Disciple of Ramananda
The boy Kabir, in whom the religious passion was innate, saw in Ramananda his destined teacher; but knew how slight were the chances that a Hindu guru would accept a Muslim as disciple. He therefore hid on the steps of the river Ganges, where Ramananda came to bathe often; with the result that the master, coming down to the water, trod upon his body unexpectedly, and exclaimed in his astonishment, “Ram! Ram!” – the name of the incarnation under which he worshipped God. Kabir then declared that he had received the mantra of initiation from Ramananda’s lips, and was by it admitted to discipleship. In spite of the protests of orthodox Brahmins and Muslims, both equally annoyed by this contempt of theological landmarks, he persisted in his claim.
Ramananda’s Influnce on Kabir’s Life and Works
Ramananda appears to have accepted Kabir, and though Muslim legends speak of the famous Sufi Pir, Takki of Jhansi, as Kabir’s master in later life, the Hindu saint is the only human teacher to whom in his songs he acknowledges indebtedness. Ramananda, Kabir’s guru, was a man of wide religious culture who dreamed of reconciling this intense and personal Mohammedan mysticism with the traditional theology of Brahmanism and even Christian faith: and it is one of the outstanding characteristics of Kabir’s genius that he was able in his poems to fuse these thoughts into one.
Was Kabir a Hindu or a Muslim?
Hindus called him Kabir Das, but it is impossible to say whether Kabir was Brahmin or Sufi, Vedantist or Vaishnavite. He is, as he says himself, “at once the child of Allah and of Ram.” Kabir was a hater of religious exclusivism, and seeking above all things to initiate human beings into the liberty of the children of God. Kabir remained for years the disciple of Ramananda, joining in the theological and philosophical arguments which his master held with all the great Mullahs and Brahmins of his day, which acquainted him to both Hindu and Sufi philosophy.
Kabir’s Songs are His Greatest Teachings
It is by his wonderful songs, the spontaneous expressions of his vision and his love, and not by the didactic teachings associated with his name, that he makes his immortal appeal to the heart. In these poems a wide range of mystical emotion is brought into play – expressed in homely metaphors and religious symbols drawn indifferently from Hindu and Islamic beliefs.
Kabir Lived a Simple Life
He may or may not have submitted to the traditional education of the Hindu or the Sufi contemplative and never adopted the life of an ascetic. Side by side with his interior life of adoration, its artistic expression in music and words, he lived the sane and diligent life of a craftsman. Kabir was a weaver, a simple and unlettered man, who earned his living at the loom. Like Paul the tentmaker, Boehme the cobbler, Bunyan the tinker, Tersteegen the ribbon-maker, he knew how to combine vision and industry. And it was from out of the heart of the common life of a married man and the father of a family that he sang his rapturous lyrics of divine love.
Kabir’s Mystical Poetry was Rooted in Life and Reality
Kabir’s works corroborate the traditional story of his life. Again and again he extols the life of home, the value and reality of diurnal existence, with its opportunities for love and renunciation. The “simple union” with Divine Reality was independent both of ritual and of bodily austerities; the God whom he proclaimed was “neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash.” Those who sought Him needed not to go far; for He awaited discovery everywhere, more accessible to “the washerwoman and the carpenter” than to the self-righteous holy man. Therefore the whole apparatus of piety, Hindu and Muslim alike – the temple and mosque, idol and holy water, scriptures and priests – were denounced by this inconveniently clear-sighted poet as mere substitutes for reality; as he said, “The Purana and the Koran are mere words.”
The Last Days of Kabir’s Life
Kabir’s Varansi was the very center of Hindu priestly influence, which made him subject to considerable persecution. There is a well-known legend about a beautiful courtesan, who was sent by Brahmins to tempt Kabir’s virtue. Another tale talks of Kabir being brought before the Emperor Sikandar Lodi, and charged with claiming the possession of divine powers. He was banished from Varanasi in 1495 when he was nearly 60 years old. Thereafter, he moved about throughout northern India with his disciples; continuing in exile a life of an apostle and a poet of love. Kabir died at Maghar near Gorakhpur in 1518.
~ Based on Evelyn Underhill’s introduction in Songs of Kabir translated by Rabindranath Tagore and published by The Macmillan Company, New York (1915)
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