By Raseswari Samal (Krishnaa), BA History honours I year.
Literature is rooted in a personal base as well as in a particular social context; the literature of a society speaks of the norms, realities, and aspirations of that society. Therefore, how a particular theme is treated is reflective of the social milieu of that time.
This particularly is true when we talk of Shakuntala. Shakuntala is one of the most celebrated nayikas (female protagonists) in the Indian literary and dramatic tradition. The origins of this nayika can be traced well back to the Satpatha Brahmana, a later Vedic text. The Satpatha Brahmana links her to the clan of the Bharatas, an eminent Rig vedic clan. It states that apsara Shakuntala conceived the great king Bharata at Nadapita- this becomes the site for rsi Kanva’s asrama in a much later text. It must be said that Bharata, according to Satpatha Brahmana, was a world conqueror who brought more than a thousand horses for Indra’s sacrifice, and thus the mother of such a hero must have been very special.
The Adi Parvan of Mahabharata ( c. 4th century BCE to c. 4th century AD), dwells with this theme in a chapter called Shakuntalopakhyana, in Sambhavaparvan section. This section traces the lineage of the Purus. Both the Pandavas and Kurus belonged to the Puru lineage. They were one branch of the Chandravamsha which in itself was traced back to Bharata, Yayati, and Ila. . In a lineage-based society, birth and genealogy were important legitimising factors for the right to rule. Perhaps those who wrote (and added to) the epic were attempting to legitimise both the Pandavas as well as the Kauravas by linking them to King Bharata.
Being the mother of the first-born son in this society bestowed the ultimate status upon a woman. Therefore, the Mahabharata’s treatment of Shakuntala is an important illustration of how a woman can negotiate different roles and power relations.
Chapters 62-69 of the Shakuntalopakhyana are related in the Adi Parvan. The story goes thus: Indra sent Menaka, an apsara, to distract rishi Vishvamitra from his tapasya. Menaka, with her great beauty and youth, succeeds in seducing the sage. This liaison begot Shakuntala who was abandoned by her mother on the banks of river Malini. It is said that Shakunta birds, seeing the abandoned baby, raised her until she was found and adopted by rishi Kanva. Thus, the abandoned baby, thereafter called Shakuntala, was raised in Kanva’s asrama as his own daughter in a middle of a beautiful forest. As a young maiden, one day, she encountered king Dushanta who had visited the ashrama while on a hunt. Smitten by her beauty and story, the king asked for her hand in marriage. However, Shakuntala asked Dushanta to wait for Kanva’s return (and consent), but an insistent king spoke of Gandharva marriage. Shankunta agreed to the marriage on the condition that son born of her womb would succeed the king.
Dushanta returned to his capital after the consummation of the marriage, bidding her adieu with the promise of making her his queen. Shakuntala bore a son named Bharata after a gestation period of three years. The boy grew up with superhuman abilities and was sent away to his father’s capital, along with his mother, when deemed fit to claim his right by Kanva.
However, Dushanta, upon seeing Shakuntala, refused to recognise her, inciting her fury, which, as the scriptures say, she controlled. She instead pleaded with him to be true to his word and accept his son. This plea however, was met with scorn. Dushanta retorted that women were liars and hence Shakuntala was not trustworthy; he deemed her a whore, whom he didn’t know, while ordering her to go away. A furious Shakuntala reminded the king that Truth was the Supreme Brahman and the sovereign convenant; she deemed the kings unworthy and walked away, saying that her son would achieve great things nevertheless. But at this very moment, to stop this disaster there was an akashvani that testified in favour of Shakuntala, which compelled the king to accept his son, along with his wife.
The Mahabharata version of the story gives us many contrasting themes and ideas. The ferocity of the hunt is contrasted by the serenity of the hermitage. It is the cradle of nature, the aranya; it is in accordance with the Vedic way of pada patha and krama patha. Alternatively, it can be read as a description of forest-dwelling lifestyles which were in contrast to the life of the ‘court’. Romila Thapar suggests that this can be a reflection of friction between the society of the hero and that of the nayika.
The Shakuntala of the epic is introduced as an eloquent and confident woman, who hosts the wandering king without any hesitation. These qualities perhaps facilitated the strong confrontation later in the the narrative. Her birth, however, cannot be seen as extraordinary, given the other clandestine liaisons resulting in procreation within the epic itself. However, it can be said that her birth and her parentage provide further legitimacy to Bharata, and therefore might have been pivotal.
Dushanta, enthralled by her beauty, tries to woo her with clothes, jewels, gems, and even royalty, but Shakuntala marries on her own terms. The decision of marriage is hers alone, and is only later supported by Kanva. The long gestation period and upbringing in the ashrama sets Bharata apart.
The exchange that unfolds in the Puru court shows the grit of the nayika’s character. She, even when abused by the king is dignified and articulate in her retorts. She is more than willing to go back to the forest, but she is adamant on the rights of her son and her pre-nuptial condition. One can see that the main concern here is the paternity of Bharata and not the validation of the marriage itself. Evidently, Bharata’s right to rule is not dependent on the validity (or otherwise) of his parents’ marriage, but on the recognition of his paternity, which Shakuntala, in having borne a son (despite her unmarried status in mainstream society’s eyes), is empowered to negotiate.
What is interesting here is that the akashvani throws open Dushanta’s morality for debate and criticism. Shakuntala of the epic is a vanavasini, her true parentage kept secret, and this very fact, in her case, overturns all the societal norms of marriage. She is not a submissive subject; she comes from a society that was perhaps more egalitarian than Dushanta’s. She considers herself to be a man’s equal. Though she speaks of the virtues of a wife, she refers to the wife as the eternal companion of the man, his better half. The epic uses two entities- Shakuntala and the akashvani- that lie outside the framework (and therefore the jurisdiction) of court society to criticise Dushant’s morals and actions, thereby refusing to absolve the ‘hero’ of blame in the manner of patriarchal traditions.
Shakuntala then becomes the muse of Kalidasa. Kalidasa adapts the story of Shakuntala in his celebrated play ‘Abhijnanashakuntalam’. It must be noted that Kalidasa is thought to have lived around the 4th century AD; it is possible that the akhyana predated the play, or that both were contemporary and evolved differently.
The play in itself opens with the hunt, wherein the hero, King Dushyanta, hunts a fawn through the forest to rishi Kanva’s ashrama. At the ashrama, he meets Shakuntala. She is dressed as an ascetic. Her cloths get entangled in the shrubs; this prolongs the meeting between the two. She is shy, gentle, and speaks indirectly through her companions, Priyamvada and Anasuya.
Struck by love at first sight, Dushyanta proposes marriage in the manner of the Gandharvas. Shakuntala agrees to the proposal after initial hesitation. She does not make the union conditional as in the epic. In Kalidasa’s play, an akashvani informs Kanva of the marriage and adds that the progeny of the couple would be the greatest king of Jambudveepa (India).
As in the epic, Dushyanta leaves the ashrama for his capital but in the play, he presents Shakuntala with a signet ring as a symbol of his word to make her his queen. Days go by, Shakuntala spends her time in her father’s ashrama and subsequently conceives. Ill fate, however strikes her. Lost in memories, she once forgets to host rishi Durvasa, inciting his fury. Durvasa consumed by anger, curses her, saying that the person she was thinking about (ie, Dushyanta) would not remember her. Upon her companions’ entreaty, he relents and declares that the king would remember her upon seeing the object (the ring) that he had given her.
The pregnant Shakuntala is bidden farewell by Kanva and his students and sent to Dushyanta’s court along with her companions. Along the way, while worshipping the goddess Sachi in a river, the ring slips off her finger without her noticing. In the court, she is met with rejection and scorn from Dushyanta, which incite her anger. Her anger, however, is subdued by the embarrassment of having lost the ring. Helpless, she calls upon mother earth to engulf her, upon which Menaka appears and takes her to rishi Maricha’s ashrama. Here, she gives birth to Bharata.
Meanwhile, the signet ring is found by a group of fisherfolk in the belly of a fish. The fisherfolk bring the ring to the Puru court. The sight of the ring lifts the curse, and Dushyanta is filled with remorse. Divine intervention takes place in the final act, where Indra’s chariot takes Dushyanta to Maricha’s ashrama, and he readily accepts his wife and son.
The contrasting characterisation of Shakuntala in both the versions is notable. Prof. Kumkum Roy writes that romantic love is the catalyst of Kalidasa’s plays, where a number of devices can be identified as agents of plot progression. Kalidasa’s plays always involve a royal male protagonist , perhaps suggestive of the construction of royal identities in the early Christian era; certainly, they speak of the aristocratic audiences of his plays. He takes an already familiar narrative and incorporates many sub-plots, dramatic devices, as well as several societal norms of his times. This is particularly evident when he indirectly endorses the norms of the dharmashastras while describing the duties of a wife or the rajadharma. 4th century AD saw the emergence of several monarchical regimes which sought legitimacy from mythological/semi-mythological figures of the itihasa-purana tradition; this may be juxtaposed with earlier lineage-based ruling traditions. This is evident in the linkage of Dushyanta to Indra (the legitimising factor- evidence of Dushyanta’s greatness- is his friendship with Indra, not his descent).
The ferocity of the hunt is toned down to such an extent that at one point it only focuses on a fawn which is coincidently reared by Shakuntala. The fawn leads the hero to the ashrama, facilitating an encounter between the protagonists . Some scholars consider the fawn to be a symbol of Shakuntala: the fawn is gentle and innocent; moreover, it is an object of prey while the king is the hunter. This analogy is reiterated through the vidushaka (jester) later in the text. In the last act, which is set in another ashrama, the deer is absent from the surroundings; this is perhaps suggestive of the transformation of Shakuntala from a naive girl to an experienced woman.
It is noteworthy that the companions, Priyamvada and Anasuya, are not naive women beguiled by romance (as is the case with Shakuntala). They are worldly women who ask practical questions and voice their doubts. Their pragmatism balances the overall romance of the play.
The first two acts of the play have subtle erotic undertones which culminate in the marriage and consummation in Act III. This can be contrasted with the final union of the couple in Act VII, and the absence of sensuality therein. Some scholars read this as the transition from a free woman motivated by romantic love into the pativrata of Dharmashastric ideals.
The loss of the ring is indicative of Shakuntala’s vulnerable situation. Had she been given away to the king in kanyadana, she would not have needed the ring to prove the authenticity of her marriage. The curse acts as the playwright’s justification of the king’s rejection of the heroine, and thereby his morality, which was laid open for criticism by the akashvani of the epic. Overall regarding Abhijnanashakuntalam, we can see that Kalidasa circumvents the matter of justice and royal morality, which are freely discussed in the epic, with elaborate plot devices, while introducing his own or his patron’s values in the narrative.
It is interesting to note that Sharngarava (Kanva’s disciple) orders Shakuntala to remain at the king’s court despite his rejection. In the play, the nayika loses the liberty of returning to Kanva’s ashrama, which Shakuntala of the epic was able and willing to do.
When the family is united in the final Act, Dushyanta calls Shakuntala the ksetra (field) in which he planted his bija (seed). This analogy is contrasted with the analogy of the amniotic sac used in the epic. This can be read as being analogous to the role Shakuntala plays in each version. In the epic, she is an active participant in her marriage, negotiating with Dushanta to have her son’s paternity, and therefore his right to rule, legitismised. Just as the amniotic sac actively houses, nurtures, and protects the child, so too does Shakuntala actively argue to protect the rights due to her son, being Dushanta’s progeny. This is in stark contrast to the nayika of the play, who is passive in her roles as a wife and a mother, allowing Dushyanta to make the determining decisions of the play, and of hers and her son’s life. Thus, when Dushyanta refers to her as the ksetra in which he planted his bija, he implies that his is the active, determining role in their relationship, a fact amply brought out by the events of the play.
Kumkum Roy has deduced that the affection/attention of the male (royal) protagonists was always contested by other agents; other wives, diplomatic matters etc. while the hero remains the sole object of the heroine’s affection/attention. Sanskrit verses are mostly assigned to the king and his crucial associates. Prakrit verses were mostly attributed to women (including the queens.) Shakuntala composes a verse of love in Prakrit. The conversation between the fisherfolk and the king also unfolds in Prakrit. Prakrit prose, on the other hand, was solely assigned to women characters; from goddesses to dasis, all spoke Prakrit prose. Shakuntala, in her contempt, uses Prakrit dialogues and terms for Dushyanta- ‘tinacchanna kuva’, a treacherous well under the garb of grass. It might suggest that while Sanskrit was limited to upper class male elite, Prakrit acted as the lingua franca of the different societal strata.
While the composition of the early Puranas was contemporary to Kalidasa, they catered to very different audiences. It seems that the Puranas were much closer to the epic than the play; out of all the references made in the Matsya Purana, Bhagavata Purana, and Padma Purana, only the latter is somewhat similar to the play. As with all the major literary works, the play has many recensions, as well as various literary commentaries.
In 1716, the then Mughal emperor bestowed the title of “Nawaz” on a particular noble, who then commissioned Kavesvara to render the classic play into what was called to be Braj-ki-bol. Kavesvara adapted the play into a katha in Braj bhasa. This katha was not only a translation but also a retelling, rendered according to the assumed Mughal sensibilities, as Romila Thapar has suggested.
In 1801, Mirza Qasim Ali was appointed to teach Urdu at Fort William College, Calcutta. He was asked to translate the Braj katha into Urdu, which was published in 1806. Ali’s version is in vernacular Urdu, meant for popular audience, while the literary meters and symbols used by Ali are similar to that of the Persian dastan. The gardens of the ashramas (as described in Ali’s work) are similar to the gardens of heaven, a common motif of Persian literature. Interestingly, the apsara Menaka is turned into a pari (fairy) and her seduction of Visvamitra becomes the loss of his punji in one breath. The Vidushaka is also omitted.
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the emergence of Orientalist historiography in India. In the wake of this oriental romanticism, Sir William Jones first translated Kalidasa’s play into Latin and then into English, in a book titled as ‘Sacontala’ or ‘The Fatal Ring’, in 1789. He toned down the eroticism to make it more palatable to the English psyche. This dilution is also seen in the translations of Monier Williams and Antoine-Léonard de Chézy as well as many others. Romantic conflict between the ‘nature’ and the ‘culture’ is also a focal point of these translations. Jones called Shakuntala ‘the rustic girl’, while Forster commented that the unadulterated relation of the Hindus with nature was lost in Europe. But mostly what attracted European Romanticism was Shakuntala’s own proximity with nature. She was epitomised as the ideal Indian woman, femininity personified. In the wake of Indian nationalism, Shakuntala became the ideal grihini, who was a devout daughter in law and wife. She was seen as the ‘Aryan woman’- modest and pativrata– the ideal woman.
Literature is a marker of the progression of a society, and we can see this very clearly in the evolution of Shakuntala. The journey of Shakuntala has been longer and more complex than that of the modest nayika of a 4th century play. As often happens with literature, her story has seen transformations and interpretations in accordance with the existing norms and the requirements of the socio-political climate. When presented to a conservative English public, the eroticism and romance were much diluted; in the freedom struggle and the creation of a nationalist iconography, she became the ideal Indian woman.
- See Romila Thapar, Sakuntala Texts, Readings, Histories, Kali for Women,New Delhi , 1999, pp- 53.
- Roy, Kumkum, The Power of Gender and the Gender of Power,Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010.
- Kosambi, D.D, Myth and Reality, Popular Prakashan Private Limited, New Delhi, 2005.
- Thapar, Romila, Sakuntala Texts, Readings, Histories, Kali for Women, New Delhi , 1999.