Book Review- ‘Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition’ By John Stratton Howley

“Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition” is a book which has serious shortcomings.

“Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition” is a volume in the controversial series Murty Classical Library of India. This translation of Sūradās’s great Hindi volume ‘Sūrasāgara’ from the 15th century is by John Stratton Hawley.

I must begin by saying that I have difficulty with the mindless application of fashionable Western theories such as hermeneutics to non-Western literatures. The European methodological framework of knowledge investigation, and the claim of the universality of their arbitrarily chosen categories, is being increasingly denied by post-colonial scholars. Some of these terms that serve well in European context turn out to be ill-suited to non-Western contexts. This is glaringly obvious in use of wrong cognitive categories in translation.

Returning to the concept of hermeneutics, which is of a theological and legal origin, I wish to mention that the so-called science of interpretation has only smothered the creativity of the interpreted by constraining his creativity through rules and frames. Bharat has its own tradition of literary analysis which doesn’t fit into the factory-made tools of post-industrial Western methodologies.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the linguistic philosopher speaks of “stage settings” and he provides excellent insight in the importance of the context or background of a given phenomenon. Ignoring the “stage settings”, i.e. estranging a phenomenon to some isolation, may destroy and devastate both reality and truth.

The famous Hindi text Sūrasāgara was originally written in Brajabhāshā, the language Bhagavan Shri Krishna is supposed to have spoken at the geographical context of Gokul and Mathurā. The language of Braj is spiritual and heavily value loaded. The concept of the text of Sūrasāgara is one that of a holy offering or naivédya. The poet Sūradāsa is making an offering to Shri Krishna through this poetical composition of Sūrasāgara. In Sanskrit as well as in Hindi, one of the meanings of “Sāgara” is “Ocean” and here the word connotes the intense devotion of the poet to Shri Krishna, and not a physical ocean.

It must be remembered that ecstatic spirituality is a phenomenon associated with the Vaishnava Tradition, and this is apart from music, songs and dance. The Sūrasāgara carries impeccable Krishna Bhakti in the typical context of Brajbhūmi, Braj Sanskriti and it is also presented in Brajbhāshā.

There are six schools of Bhāratīya Kāvyashāstra (Indian Poetics) namely;

  1. Rasa Siddhānt (Rasa theory from ‘Nāţyashāstra’ of Bharat Muni)
  2. Alaṅkāra Siddhānt (Āchārya Mammaṭ)
  3. Rīti Siddhānt (Āchārya Vāman)
  4. Dhvani Siddhānt (Āchārya Ānandavardhana)
  5. Vakrokti Siddhānt (Āchārya Kuntak)
  6. Auċitya Siddhānt (Āchārya Kṣemendra)

An authentic understanding of Indian Poetry requires a proper knowledge of these six schools of Bhāratiya Kāvyashāstra. Hawley’s translation shows that he fails this test of understanding.

The problems of translation are not unknown to scholars across the globe. While entering into the uneven dense forest of the translation one must take into account the social and cultural background of the source language and literature. The very first look at Hawley’s ‘Sur’s Ocean’ is annoying for he has translated the title in a manner that destroys all sense of aesthetics, ethics and epistemology to create a paradigm of bitter and senseless contradiction.

There are many instances where the title of a book must not be translated. Over the period of time readers will forget Sūrasāgara, which is original name of the compositions by Sūradāsa, and they will remember only ‘Sur’s Ocean’, for ‘Sūrasāgara’ is nowhere written on the cover page. Any word when used in the specific context goes with the cultural references. Has Sūradāsa ever thought of the word Ocean? Does the title ‘Sur’s Ocean’ give the same meaning as ‘Sūrasāgara’? Sūradāsa sung his padas in Brajabhāshā that were later compiled under the title ‘Sūrasāgara’. As example, when W. B. Yeats translated Gītāñjali, he didn’t translate the title, and similarly‘Ŗgveda’, ‘Sāmaveda’, ‘Yajurveda’, ‘Atharvaveda’ have been translated with the title unchanged. See how ridiculous it sounds to translate the title of Premchand’s famous Hindi novel Godan into Cow Donation. The title is the identity of a text, just like the name of a person. I strictly object to its translation.

Turning the pages, the introduction starts with a very famous dohā* (written in two lines and also called mukta Chhanda and popular with other poets such as Kabīr, Rahīm, Tulsī and Jāyasī) that speaks of the importance of Sūradāsa in the firmament of Hindi poetry. The introduction reads, “Surdas is the poet regarded as the epitome of the literary artist in Brajbhasha. His name means literally “servant of the sun”. (Page vii)

*सूर – सूर  तुलसी – ससी,   उडुगन केसवदास.

अब के कवि खद्योत सम, जहँ तहँ करत प्रकास.

One of the six schools of Bharatiya Kavyashastra is ‘Alaṅkāra Siddhānt’. There are more than hundred alaṅkāras, one of which is rūpaka. The meaning of the given dohā with this rūpaka is – ‘Sūradāsa is the sun of the sky poetry, Tulasī is the moon, Kéśavadāsa is the stars and today’s poets are like fireflies glitter here and there. This dohā actually tells of the importance of Sūradāsa among other poets.

Hawley translates the name of Sūradāsa as ‘Servant of the Sun (Sūrya)’. According to a legend Sūradāsa was blind, and one Hindi word for blind is ‘Sūr’. It is also said that his name was Sūrajdās but as he was a blind bhakt (devotee) of Shri Krishna, people called him Sūrdās. Therefore, he was not ‘Servant of the Sun’; rather, he was the ‘Servant (Bhakt) of Bhagavan Shri Krishna’; blind servant, so Sūrdāsa.

Translation is not an easy task. If one is translating a text and at the same time doing transliteration, needs to be very careful of the grammar (vyākaraņa) and the language. Hindi is phonetic in nature and it has different signs used for different sounds. It is written as it is spoken. Hawley fails to follow the phonics of the source language many times. He spells Kaǹs as Kams. The nasal sound of Kaǹs is ‘n’ and not ‘m’. People not acquainted with the character may read it as – ‘काम्स, कम्स’etc. but not surely ‘कंस’.  The name is the identity of a person and so it needs careful transliteration. Although, the letter ‘m’ is used for the sound ‘n’ in some transliteration schemes, it is wrong according to Hindi pronunciation.

India has a centuries-long tradition of translation in the form of ‘Tīka’ or ‘Bhāshya’. In this tradition one does not do a literal translation but rather interprets verses. It is true that there is in fact no original ‘Sūrsāgara’. It is to be reconstructed (page xxvii) as suggested by Kenneth E. Bryant. As we know in India literature was generally transmitted orally. This was true not only of the Vedas but also of the folk literature. In this oral transmission words may be substituted with their synonyms, so long as the meaning is not altered.

Sūradāsa used to sing poems called pada every day in Krishna Temple. Later those padas were scribed and compiled by others. Manuscripts then got copied to make more copies. In the process of first transmitting through oral tradition and then making more copies of manuscripts a few words may have changed, but one can assume that the meaning remained substantially the same.

The compilation of the book, the searching for the manuscripts, the reading and editing shows much effort on the part of Hawley and team. There is problem of the bimba (literal) translation whereas the syllables, mātrās or beats have been understood and interpreted correctly.

A few examples of the errors:

1. Idioms and phrases:



यह अचंभौ देषि पसुपालक, फूले अंग न मात, देषौ.(‘Pada’ no. 13, page 26)

‘फूले न समाना’is an idiom in Hindi, it means ‘to be extremely happy’. It has been translated as ‘burst into flowers, burst bodies too small’, looks so ridiculous.

The last line of the same pada – ‘ब्रज बनिता पहरे उर हार’means जो ब्रज की स्त्रियों के हृदय का हार है. ‘हृदय का हार होना’is an idiom in Hindi which means ‘very dear to heart’. Hawley has translated the idiom word for word. In Indian tradition of poetics there are three ways of interpreting meaning through śabda–śakti, which are abhidhā, vyañjana and lakṣana. To translate the correct meaning and to reach to the essence of the poetry one should know which śabda–śakti is working where (Dhvani Siddhānta).

2. Translation of synonymous :



In the same pada – ‘सुंदर बदन देषि मोहन कौ/ नंद निरखि मुसकात’has been translated as ‘Nanda, beholding Mohan’s lovely face, gazing on it, yielded to smile.’ Hawley uses the term ‘beholding’ and ‘gazing’ for ‘देषि’and ‘निरखि’ even though the words stand for gazing and looking.

‘दधि सुत जामैं नंद दुवार’ (‘Pada’ no. 14, page 28) is translated as ‘sons of the sea gather at Nanda’s door’ where he translates dadhi as sea.

3. Translating the names and distorting the identity:

The last line of the same pada uses the word ‘Dark One’ for ‘Śyāma’ and ‘Mind Beguiler’ for ‘Mohana’.‘Syāma’, ‘Mohana’, ‘Kānhā’ are the names used for Shri Krishna, that must not be translated. ‘Haldhar’ is another name of ‘Balram’, it can’t be translated as ‘Bearer of the plough’, it can be made to understand like this if required. Sometimes I call my ten years old son lovingly – ‘O mere lāl’, here ‘lāl’ stands for ‘son’. It is like translating the phrase ‘O mere lāl’ ridiculously as – ‘O my red.’

‘उठि चलि राधा स्याम बुलावहिं’has been translated as ‘Rādhā, rise and go. The dark One is calling’. It annoys the readers of Bhārat.

It seems as the intention of the translator is to demean the faith of Hindūs by calling their God with translated names. It also shows the study and knowledge of the translator – who presents himself as scholar of Bhakti poetry of India, is shallow.

Other examples: the sub-title ‘Bhramara gīt’ has been translated as ’The bee messenger’, ‘Śṛṅgāra ké Pada’ have been translated as ‘The Pangs and Politics of Love’. I would advise Dr Hawley to understand the ‘Śṛṅgār rasa’.

4. Mistake in reading the manuscripts :


Page 226, Pada133 reads, चितवति वैसी नितवनि पिय संग. That may read as चितवति वैसी चितवनि पिय संग.

5. Cultural References :

‘बासुदेव जादौ कुल दीपक’(Page 338-339, Pada 194) has been translated as ‘He is son of Vasudev now, light of Yadav clan.’ Kūl-Dīpak has a very deep cultural meaning in Bhārat. It is said that the son of the family keeps the name of the clan growing and going, and without son the family branch stops there. The path is dark from that point. Birth of a son brings light to the family and so called ‘Kūl-dīpak’. It doesn’t literally mean ‘Light’.

6. Poetics – Dhvani and Vakrokti:


‘कोउ ब्रज बाचत नाहीं पाती’ (Page 424-425, pada 249)

Translation: No one in Braj knows how to read a letter. (As if it has been translated with the prejudice that Indian folks are illiterate and uneducated and don’t know how to read a letter.)

Dhvani or suggestion of the line is – ‘No one reads your letter in Braj’ Here, ‘dhvani communicates meaning by suggestion indirectly’. (Kak, P.20)

7. Rasa :


One very important component of Indian poetics is ‘Rasa’ There are nine rasas, (Śṛngār, Vīr, Karuṇ etc..) According to Bharatamuni’s rasasūtra – ‘विभावानुभाव व्यभिचारि संयोगाद्रसनिष्पत्ति:’ Vibhāva, Anubhāva and vyabhiċari bhāv help in creating the rasa. ‘Māna’ is a vyabhiċari bhāv of Śŗngār rasa. Śŗngār rasa has two phases – Samyog and viyoga. ‘Māna’ may come in appearance in both the phases. Without understanding this phenomena translator has translated a line, which shows disrespect to the messenger.

Ex.: जाहु ब जाहु जाहु आगै तै (page 434, pada 255)

Translation – ‘Out! Out! Get out of here (page 435, pada 255)

This translation has missed the Dhvani of the sentiment. There is a respect in saying – ‘जाहु ब जाहु जाहु आगै तै’. It may be translated as ‘Go! Go! Please go from here!’

Concluding, the translation has serious shortcomings. The translated work is like the useless tea leaves after making and straining the tea. And if I borrow the words from Barth, it actually is a case of ‘Death of the Author’.

Works cited-

1. (Sūrasāgara),Sur’s Ocean, translated by John Stratton Hawley, Harvard University press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 2015

2. William J.DeAngelis,Ludwig Wittgenstein — A Cultural Point of View: Philosophy in the Darkness of this Time.Routledge, 2017.

3.Bālī Tāraknāth,  Bhāratīya Kāvyaśastra , Vāņī Prakāśan, New Delhi, 2010

4. Kak Subhash, The Circle of Memory, Mount Meru Publishing, Canada, 2016

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