1. Greatness of Kalidasa

Kalidasa has been universally acknowledged as the highest star in the firmament of Indian Poetry. Tenderness in the expression of feeling and richness of creative fancy has assigned to him a lofty place among the poets of all nations. Sir Monier Willaims says ‘Of all Indian dramatists and indeed of all Indian poets the most celebrated is Kaladasa, the poetical merit of whose ‘Sakoontala’ is so universally admitted that any remarks on this head would be superfluous’.

That Kalidasa is the foremost of all poets is vividly brought out in the following oft-quoted sloka:

 पुरा कवीनां गणनाप्रसंगे कनिष्ठिकाधिष्ठित कालिदासाः ।
अद्याऽपि तत्तुल्यकवेरभावात् अनामिका सार्थवती बभूव ॥

Puraa kaveenaam gananaa prasamge kanishthhikaadhishthtita Kaalidaasah
Adyaapi tattulya kaverabhaavaat anaamikaa saarthhavatee babhoova

In the Oriental method of counting, kanishthhikaa or the little finger comes first, then anaamikaa the ring finger and so on. In an assembly of learned men every one counted Kalidasa on the little finger. No name was forthcoming for the next finger. Therefore its name anaamikaa became literally true because there was no name to assign to the ring finger. ( This, of course, is a poet’s liberty to fancy a situation which will bring out, in a telling way, the greatness of Kalidasa.)

2. Source of the plot of Sakuntala

The source of the plot is the Sakuntalopaakhyaana in Maha Bharata, Adi Parva, Sambhava parva., Adhyaayaas 68 to 74.
The outline of the story is something like this. King Dushyanta of Puru’s race goes on a hunting expedition to the forests with a large army. Tired of hunting and overcome by hunger and thirst, he reaches a cool tapovan where there are plenty of fruit-bearing tress and sweet water. Having quenched his thirst and satisfied his hunger, he goes alone into the hermitage of sage Kanva to pay his respects. The sage had gone out to gather flowers and fruits. His foster-daughter Sakuntala receives him with courtesy. The king is captivated by the simple rustic loveliness of her personality. From Sakuntala he understands that she was born to Vishwamitra and Menaka; Sage Kanva was her foster father. The King proposes to wed her under gaandharva vivaha legally sanctioned for a kshatriya. Sakuntala consents on condition that the son born of her shall succeed to the throne. All this happened in the interval when Sage Kanva was away. When the sage returned, he knew by his spiritual insight that Sakuntala and Dusyanta were united by gandharva vivaaha and his daughter was pregnant. The sage puts his seal approval on the marriage as divinely ordained and, in due course, Sakuntala is delivered of a male child. When the child was six years old, the sage sent Sakuntala and the boy, under escort, to her husband’s city. Dushyanta refuses to take Sakuntala as his wife, in spite of her entreaties, pretending that he had not met her at all. Sakuntala condemns the king for his treachery and prepares to leave. At that instant a voice from the sky (ashareeri) declares that Sakuntala is the lawfully wedded wife of the king and the boy is his son. Now that the marriage has been testified to by divine agency to the satisfaction of his ministers and subjects, the king gladly accepts her as his wife and her boy as his son.

This skeleton of a Puranic unromantic story has been transformed into one of the most beautiful plays in classical Sanskrit by the poetic genius of Kalidasa. The poet has invented dramatic situations and characters that captivate the hearts and appeal to finer emotions of the readers. Durvasa’s curse followed by the loss of the ring is the pivotal point around which the theme has been made to turn by the genius of Kalidasa. Though the story is recorded in the Epic, the plot is the poet’s own. The two female friends of Sakuntala, the two pupil-sages who escort Sakuntala to the king’s palace, the fisherman’s scene, the king’s sojourn in heaven at the request of Indra, Sage Maaricha and the King’s reunion with Sakuntala under his blessings are all some of the characters and situations which are the exclusive creations of the poet’s imagination. The narration about the birth of Sakuntala by her female friends to the king instead of by herself is certainly an improvement calculated to enhance the dramatic effect and is more in accordance with decorum. The absence of Kanva on a long pilgrimage when the king first comes to the hermitage, instead of the short absence set out in the Maha Bharata story, conduces to the gradual growth of love between the lovers leading to a consummation in due course. Durvasa’s curse conceived by the poet is a dramatic necessity for ennobling the character of the hero. Also, when Sakuntala is sent to the palace of Dushyanta she is still pregnant and not having a son of six years as in the original narration in Mahabharata.

3. Criticism of the Play Abhijaanashaakuntalam

The greatness of this play in the whole range of Sanskrit literature is emphatically set out in the following oft-quoted stanza of criticism:

काव्येषु नाटकं रम्यं तत्र रम्या शकुंतला
तत्रापि च चतुर्थोऽङ्क: तत्र श्लोकचतुष्टयम्
(तत्रापि यास्यत्यद्येति श्लोकः अतीव मनोहरः )

Kaavyeshu naatakam ramyam tatra ramya shankutalaa
Tatraapi chaturthhongkah tatra shloka chatushtayam
(Tatraapi yaasyatyadyeti sloko ateeva manoharah)

Of all poetry, drama is the most delightful, of all drama Shakuntala, of Shakuntala the Fourth Act and of the Fourth Act the four slokas (Of the four slokas the one beginning with ‘yasyatyadya’ is the most beautiful one which captivates your heart. )

The appreciation of Shankutalaa by the great German poet Goethe is embodied in the oft-quoted translation of his words which runs as follows:

Would’st thou the young year’s blossoms
and the fruits of its decline,
And all by which the soul is charmed,
nraptured, feasted, fed.

Would’st thou the Earth and Heaven itself
in one sole name combine?
I name thee, O Sankuntala! and all at once is
said – Goethe

Our great modern poet-critic sees in the above lines not a mere eulogy of poetic rapture but the deliberate judgment of a true critic. Goethe’s words have a special meaning for Tagore. They suggest that Sakuntala contains the history of a development – the development of flower into fruit, of earth into heaven, of matter into spirit. Tagore says,“ There are two unions in Sakuntala and the motif of the play is the progress from the earlier union of the First Act with its earthly unstable beauty and romance to the higher union in the heavenly hermitage of eternal bliss described in the last Act. Love is elevated from the sphere of physical beauty to the eternal heaven of moral beauty. He then refers to the ease with which Kalidasa has effected this junction of earth with heaven. The simplicity of Sakuntala which leads her to a fall into the earthly love and Dusyanta’s conquest of her equally of the earth are naturally drawn. No restraints are sought to be imposed on Nature’s impulses by either of the lovers, and yet Sakuntala develops in her a devoted wife leading a life of rigid religious discipline. Freedom and restraint are marvelously blended in her, and the consequential joys and sorrows find a meeting point in her. Trustfulness was firmly enthroned in her heart, and though for a moment it caused her fall, it also redeemed her for ever.

“In this drama Kalidasa has extinguished the volcanic fire of Dusyanta’s tumultuous passion by means of the tears of the penitent heart.’ The introduction of the curse of Durvasas takes away the extremely cruel and pathetic nature of his desertion of Sakuntala. From the Fourth Act to the Fifth Act there is a sudden change of atmosphere. The ideal world of the hermitage makes way for the royal court with its hard hearts. Then the repudiation comes. Sakuntala is once for all torn away from the simple and beauteous environments of hermitage life and is cast upon the world helpless. ‘With rare poetic insight Kalidasa has declined to restore Sakuntala to Kanva’s hermitage”. The deep silence worthy of the mighty grief of the mourner is not disturbed by the poet by an exposition of the austere life of sorrows led by Sakuntala under new environments in the hermitage of Maricha in the celestial regions to which she has been transported. Now comes the turn of Dushyanta to be stricken with remorse. This remorse itself is tapasya, which purges him of all his sins of the past. ‘So long as Sakuntala was not won by means of this repentance, there was no glory in winning her. One sudden gust of youthful impulse had in a moment given her up to Dushyanta, but that was not the true, the full winning of her. The best means of winning is by devotion, by tapasya. What is easily gained is as easily lost. Therefore, the poet has made the two lovers undergo a long and austere tapasya that they may gain each other truly eternally’ . Fate now plunged Dusyanta into deep grief and thus made him worthy of true love. ‘ Thus has Kalidasa burnt away vice in the eternal fire of the sinner’s heart.’ “ He has made the physical union of Dushyanta and Shakuntala tread the path of sorrow and thereby chastened and sublimated it into a moral union.” ‘Truly in Sakuntala there is one Paradise Lost and another Paradise Regained”

4. The Four slokas:

There is some difference of opinion about the four most beautiful and appealing slokas mentioned in 3.1. Acording to South Indian school of pundits these slokas are 6,9,17 and 18 of Acct IV. According to Kale the four best slokas are 6, 18,19 and 20of the same Act. As per commentator Satavadhana the slokas 17,18,19,20 of the same Act are the best.

The beauty of expression and of meaning cannot be brought out in a translation, however good, that too in a foreign language with a completely different cultural background. However, the text of all the above slokas are reproduced here in Devanagari and Roman scripts with their free rendering in English.

यास्यत्यद्य शकुंतलेति हृदयं संस्पृष्टमुत्कंठया
कंठ: स्तम्भित बाष्पवृत्तिकलुषः चिन्ताजडं दर्शनम् ।
वैक्लव्यं मम तावदीदृशमहो स्नेहादरण्यौकसः
पीड्यन्ते गृहिणः कथं नु तनया विश्लेष दु:खैर्नवैः ॥।

Yaasyatyadya shakuntaleti hridayam samsprishtam utkanthhayaa
Kanthhah stambhita baashpavrittikalushah chintaajadam darshanam
Vaiklayam mama taavadeedrishamaho snehaat aranyaukasah
Peedyante grihinah katham nu tanayaa vishlesha dukhairnavaih IV -6

The sage Kanva describes his emotions when Sakuntala is being sent to her husband’s place. He says:
“The very thought of separation from Sakumtala fills my heart with grief. My throat is choked by the tears I try to hold back. My eyes have become inert as I am deep in thought. If this is the depth of sorrow of a forest-dweller like me because of my attachment, then how much will be the mental agony of those householders at the prospect of separation from their newly wed daughters.?”

पातुं न प्रथमं व्यवस्यति जलं युष्मास्वपीतेषु या
नादत्ते प्रियमण्डनापि भवतां स्नेहेन या पल्लवम् ।
आद्ये वः प्रथमप्रसूतिसमये यस्या भवत्युत्सवः
सेयम् याति शकुन्तला पतिगृहं सर्वैरनुज्ञाप्यताम् ॥

Paatum na prathhamam vyavasyati jalam yushmaaswapeeteshu yaa
Naadatte priyamandanaapi bhavataam snehena yaa pallavam
Aadye vah prathhama prasootisamaye yasyaa bhavatyutsavah
Seyam yaati shakuntalaa patigriham sarvairanujnaapyataam IV -9

Here Sage Kanva is addressing the trees, plants and creepers of the hermit in the following words:
“She who never wanted to drink water without watering you, she who had such love and affection for you that she never plucked your flowers or leaves though she was fond of adorning herself, she for whom your first flowering or bearing fruit was a celebration, that Sakuntala is going to her husband’s palace. May you all bid her farewell and good bye.”

अस्मान् साधु विचिन्त्य संयमधनानुच्चै: कुलं चात्मन-
स्त्वय्यस्या कथमप्यबान्धवकृताम् स्नेहप्रवृत्तिं च ताम् ।
सामान्यप्रतिपत्तिपूर्वकमियं दारेषु दृश्या त्वया
भाग्यायत्तमतःपरं न खलु तद्वाच्यं वधूबन्धुभिः ||

Asmaan saadhu vichintya samyamadhanaanuchchaih kulam chaatmana-
Stwayyasyaah kathamapyabaamdhava kritaam snehapravrittim cha taam
Saamaanyapratipattipoorvakamiyam daareshu drishyaa twayaa
Bhaagyaayattamatah param na khalu tadvaachyam vadhoobandhubhih IV-17

This is the message of Kanva to Dushyanta concerning Sakuntala:
“Considering us hermits whose only wealth is tapasya , your own birth in a noble family, the love of Sakuntala for you in bringing about which her relatives had no role, you, as her husband, should give her an equal status and love among your wives. Anything beyond this will depend on her bhaagya or luck, the relatives of the bride have no say about that. “

शुश्रूषस्व गुरून् कुरु प्रियसखीवृत्तिं सपत्नीजने
भर्तुर्विप्रकृतापि रोषणतया मा स्म प्रतीपं गमः
भूयिष्ठं भव दक्षिणा परिजने भाग्येष्वनुत्सेकिनी
यान्त्येवं गृहिणीपदं युवतयः वामाः कुलस्याधयः

Shushrooshaswa guroon kuru priyasakheevrittim sapatnee jane
Bharturviprakrutaapi roshanatayaa maa sma prateepam gamah
Bhooyishtthham bhava dakshinaa parijane bhaagyeshwanutsekinee
Yaantyevam grihineepadam yuvatayah vaamaah kulasyaadhayah IV-18

This is the advice of Kanva to Sakuntala:
“Listen to your in-laws and elders and serve them, look upon the other wives of the King as your dear friends, even when you get angry with your husband keep your cool and do not act on impulse, be generous with your servants, do not be conceited about your good fortunes. By following these dictums you will acquire the status of a true housewife. Those who do the opposite cause great mental agony to the family.

अभिजनवतो भर्तुः श्लाघ्ये स्थिता गृहिणीपदे
विभवगुरुभिः कृत्यैस्तस्य प्रतिक्षणमाकुला ।
तनयमचिरात् प्राचीवार्कं प्रसूय च पावनं
मम विरहजां न त्वम् वत्से शुचं गणयिष्यसि ॥

Abhijanavato bhartuh shlaaghye sthhitaa grihineepade
Vibhavagurubhih krityaistasya pratikshanamaakulaa
Tanayamachiraat praacheevarkam prasooya cha paavanam
Mama virahajaam na twam vatse shucham ganayishyasi IV-19

Establishing yoursef as the laudable grihini (housewife) of your husband of noble birth, always being excited about the weighty matters of state in wich he is engaged and having given birth to a son before long like the Sun by the East, you shall not, my dear, worry about my pangs of separation from you.

भूत्वा चिराय चतुरन्त महीसपत्नी
दौष्यन्तिमप्रतिरथं तनयं निवेश्य
भर्त्रा तदर्पित कुटुंबभरेणसाकं
शान्ते करिष्यसि पदं पुनराश्र्मेऽस्मिन्

Bhootwaa chiraaya chaturantha mahee sapatnee
Daushyantimapratiratham tanayam niveshya
Bhartraa tadarpita kutmbabharena saardham
Shaante karishyasi padam punaraashramesmin IV-20

Remain long as the sapatnee (co-wife) of Mahee (the whole of earth personified, being figuratively another wife of the King). Give birth to Dushyanta’s son who will later become a king of unmatched valour. Vest in him the responsibilities of the family and the kingdom. Then will you again come back to this peaceful hermitage with your husband.