Surdas, like Homer, was born blind. He was chief among the eight poets, who were considered to be truly cast as 'reprints' in the mould of their master, Vallabhacharya. Hence the name 'ashtachhapa kavis' of the Vallabha Sampradaya. The padas composed by the eight poets are sung during darshan of Shrinathji, a form of Krishna, at Nathdvara in modern-day Rajasthan. Krishna is always shown as a seven-year-old boy. Surdas was specially commissioned by Vallabhacharya to celebrate Krishna’s lila in song. To compose these was a Herculean task and Surdas carried out the assignment in all humility. Before starting, Surdas submitted to the acharya that he was not aware of Krishna’s lila, so how was he to carry out his command. Surdas was already versed in the Bhagavata Puran and other shastras. Vallabhacharya enlightened him on Hindu philosophy and God’s lila through discourses. Vallabhacharya administered diksha to Surdas and made him his disciple. The Vallabha Sampradaya, also called Pushti Marga, believes in a personal God and the need to win his grace (pushti). The gopis of Vrindavan are held as an example of this grace. They looked upon Krishna as everything and saw everything in him; whereas jnanis (men of knowledge) see everything in Brahman. The gopis loved Krishna more than anyone else. They left their homes on hearing the melody of his flute; setting aside everything else. This type of devotion is called madhurya bhakti. This is considered to be the highest form of bhakti. One need not be learned in the Vedic lore to acquire this form of devotion. Devotion is everything if one wants to attain the Divine. Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita, “If one offers me a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water with devotion, I will accept it.’’
The Vallabha Sampradaya does not subscribe to the theory that the jivas and the world are illusory. Its door is open to all, irrespective of caste, creed and gender.
Surdas had a melodious voice. After composing a bhajan each day he would sing it before the murti of Krishna at a mandir in Vrindavan. He is reputed to have composed many thousands of bhajans; only 8,000 of them have come down to us. He wrote the Sur Sagar ('Ocean of Melody'), which depicts the childhood pranks and exploits of Krishna.
Surdas’s standing among the poets of the Vallabha Sampradaya was such that the founding acharya called him the ‘Ocean of Devotion’ and his son, Vitthalnathji, named him the ‘Ship of Pushti Marga’. Before meeting the acharya, Surdas used to sing devotional songs on Gau Ghat. He had also spent some time in the company of sadhus in Runakta but found it distracting as it was interfering with his devotion.
Surdas means ‘Humble Servant of Melody’. He was born in Sihi, near Delhi, in 1479 in a poor Brahmin family in modern-day Haryana and spent most of his life in Braj bhoomi (Mathura-Vrindavan). Because of his blindness, the saint was neglected from childhood by his father and other members of the family. This attitude had sown in his mind a feeling of detachment. One day, he left home and began to live under a pipal tree outside his village Sihi. Surdas was six years old when he left home.