From a historical perspective, we know almost nothing of Kalidasa. There are no records that tell us accurately where he lived and when. It is by speculating around secondary evidence that his time can be established.
Because the Sunga King Agnimitra is the hero of one of Kalidasa’s plays, it can be safely assumed that his time cannot be earlier than the 1st century BCE. And because he is praised by Banabhatta and in the Aihole inscription of Ravikirti, his time cannot be later than 7th century CE. Today, it is largely agreed that he must have lived sometime between the 4th and 5th century CE, during the Gupta Golden Age.
It is possible that he was patronized by either Samudragupta or Chandragupta-II or both. His works show his great love for the city of Ujjain, which was the second capital of the Guptas. Many scholars also think that it was the hometown of Kalidasa.
His works prove that Lord Shiva was his personal god. All his major works barring KumArasambhavam(which is a tribute to Lord Shiva in its entirety) and RtusamhAram start with an invocation to Lord Shiva. His works also prove that he had extensive and intimate knowledge of the geography, flora and fauna of the Indian subcontinent. It is also evident that he was well-versed in the Vedic lore as well as fine arts. All these, along with his indubitable natural talent, have contributed to make him the ultimate master of classical Indian literature. We can delve deeper into his works and experience the joy for ourselves.
WORKS OF KALIDASA
There are several works in Sanskrit whose authorship is attributed to Kalidasa. However, after years of critical analysis, discussion and debate, scholars are now unanimous in crediting seven works to Kalidasa. We can take a brief look at each one of them.
This is a small work describing the six seasons – grIShma(summer), varshA(rainy), sharat(autumn), hemanta(winter), shishira(fall) and vasanta(spring). The features of each of the seasons are described in detail along with their impact on the dress and lifestyle of the people. It is believed to be the earliest among all of his works.
This is rightly considered to be a literary masterpiece. The subject of this work is a yaksha, a superhuman, whose superhuman powers are snatched away by his master Kubera and is banished to earth for a year.
The yakshais consigned to spend thisduration in the mountains and hermitages of Ramagiri pining for his beloved wife. There, on the first day of AshADha, he sees a cloud looming. He imagines it to be a messenger that can deliver a message to his wife when it reaches alakApurI, the town of the yakshas in the lap of the Himalayas.
The message and the route to be taken to deliver it forms the subject of mEghadUtam.
In this work of about 115 verses, Kalidasa has created a world fit for the gods. He describes everything in the path of the cloud – rivers, trees, flowers, cities, temple towns and relates each of them to the cloud in an intimate manner.
The rivers in the path of the cloud become the heroines waiting for their hero, the cloud. The mountains in the path become the friends inviting the cloud to take a day’s rest. The high-flying rAjahamsas become the companions of the cloud. The lightning of the cloud becomes a source of light for ladies venturing out in the night to meet their lovers. The thunder becomes the ceremonial drum in the evening Pooja of Lord Mahakala at Ujjain.
The cloud, upon entering the province of Kailasa in the Himalayas, changes shape to serve as steps for the cosmic couple, Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. And finally, the cloud will reach alakA and deliver the message to his sister-in-law, the Yaksha’s wife.
We are not told whether the cloud does indeed reach there or whether it actually delivers the message.
Essentially, meghadUtam is a work symbolic of our desires taking wings and going on a dream journey. The great commentator, Mallinathasuri exclaimed that his life was spent in understanding and appreciating meghadUtam.
The Indian literary tradition recognizes this as the greatest work of Kalidasa. It is the most voluminous of Kalidasa’s works and has 19 sargas(chapters). It deals with the kings of the solar race and the way they lived.
Through the many kings of this race, Kalidasa expounds his lofty and beautiful ideas. The most famous king of this race was Lord Rama.Hence, the Ramayana becomes the centre of the epic.
Kalidasa acknowledges this with great reverence in the early portion of the work. Even in the later portions, he pays glowing tributes to Valmiki Maharishi for being The Poet.
However, Kalidasa is clever enough not to get into too much detail about Ramayana. Instead, he employs his creativity in describing the forefathers and successors of Rama. Since the foremost among Rama’s forefathers was King Raghu, this illustrious race also came to be known as ‘Raghuvamsham’ or ‘The Race of Raghu’.
The Raghuvamshamepic begins with King Dilipa, the father of Raghu followed by Raghu, Aja, Dasharatha and Rama himself. The epic then treats Rama’s son Kusha and his son Atithi. A number of less important kings get a passing mention. The last great king described is Sudarshana.
After him, the glory of the race is destroyed by Agnivarna, the irresponsible and immoral son of Sudarshana. Thus ends the great race which boasted of people like Raghu and Rama.
The message of the epic is subtle yet powerful – great institutions built over generations can be destroyed by one irresponsible individual with great powers. If great power is not alloyed with great responsibility, it is sure to cause disasters. This is the reason why Kalidasa chose a lineage of kings to describe his lofty ideas. Any society derives its morals and mores by the kind of rulers governing it. If the rulers of the land set high standards, the people will automatically follow them. Thus, this work is at once entertaining and educating.
This is the reason that Raghuvamshamis the book of choice for beginners as well as accomplished scholars in Sanskrit.
This is probably the most unique mahAkAvya in all of Sanskrit literature. It has the style of a narrative poem but the pace of a movie. And, despite having the pace of a movie, every scene is precise and intricate as though it is a master painting. Thus, it is an intricate painting as well as an intense movie at the same time.
kumArasambhavamis probably the ideal that every literary work should aspire to reach. Ordinary mortals like us can only speculate and marvel at the great skill that made this work possible. That such great skill was employed to describe the marriage of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati is all the more elevating.
This work comprises eight sargas(chapters). It starts with the description of the Himalayas and moves on to describe the birth of Parvati and her evolution into a beautiful young woman. She aspires to win over Lord Shiva by her beauty.
Her father, the mountain-lord, Himalaya (Himavanta), also wants her daughter to marry the Lord. To this end, he appoints Parvati to assist Lord Shiva in his penance at his Himalayan abode. Parvatigoes there, anticipating Lord Shiva to get attracted to her. But mere physical beauty cannot win him over.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the universe, the gods (Devas) are oppressed by the demon Tarakasura and according to Lord Brahma, only the son of Lord Shiva shall be able to kill the demon. Indra, the King of Devas decides to distract Lord Shiva from his penance, towards the beauty of Parvati. He employs the god of love, Kama, to do this.
Kama, accompanied by his friend Vasanta try to induce love in Lord Shiva at an opportune time. However, Lord Shiva, despite getting distracted for a fraction, regains his composure and burns Kama to ashes, and leaves his Himalayan abode without giving any attention whatsoever to Parvati.
A distraught Parvati decides to take the way of penance to win over Lord Shiva. After months of hard penance, Lord Shiva is impressed by her penance and visits her Ashrama in the guise of a young vaTu or brahmacArin. He tests the love of Parvati in several ways.
Later, the marriage of Lord Shiva with Parvati is formally handled on behalf of Lord Shiva by the saptarishis (seven sages) along with Arundhati, Sage Vasishta’s wife. The marriage of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvatiis celebrated according to the prescribed rituals with Lord Brahma himself serving as the preceptor(purohita).
Kumarasambhavamends with Parvati bearing Shiva’s child in her womb. The message of the work is that true love transcends mere physical beauty. Instead, it is a happy situation where two individuals discover that they share and are united in the same lofty ideals. Therefore, Lord Shiva, who performs penance despite having everything (केनापि कामेन तपश्चचार), marries Parvati, who has renounced everything she hasin order to undertake penance.
KumArasambhavamis the work that probably elevates Lord Shiva to the same pedestal that Lord Rama and Lord Krishna were elevated to by the great sages Valimiki and Vyasa respectively.
This is probably the first drama of Kalidasa. The first few verses in this drama, where he salutes earlier poets and humbly draws the attention of the audience to himself, proves this.
The story is quite simple. The princess of Vidarbha, Malavika, while on her way to meet King Agnimitra, gets lost in the forest due to an accident. The chief of the forest outpost finds her and assigns her to the services of the queen’s palace.
When King Agnimitra sees her in a painting of the queen’s retinue, he becomes incurably attracted to her. All efforts of his queens Dharini and Iravati to dissuade him fail. Agnimitra’s pursuit of Malavika is aided by his friend Vidushaka. Finally, queen Dharini decides to present Malavika to the king. By that time, Malavika’s party reach the palace and her true identity as the princess of Vidarbha is revealed. She is then ceremoniously married to Agnimitra.
This plot became so attractive to later poets that they produced numerous imitations of it. The most notable examples are Priyadarshikaand ratnAvaLi of King Sri Harsha. All in all, it is an entertaining drama with considerable levels of skill exhibited in the evolution of the plot.
This is an adaptation of a Vedic story of the King Pururavas of the Lunar Race and Urvashi, the great apsara of the heavens. King Pururavas, a forefather of the Kauravas and Pandavas, happens to rescue Urvashi from the demons who had abducted her. They fall in love with each other immediately.
After some initial protests, the king’s wife Aushinari also agrees to their marriage. In the meanwhile, Urvashi gets banished from the heaven by sage Bharata for not concentrating on her role in a dance drama in heaven.
With Lord Indra’s consent and blessings, Urvashi marries Pururavas. However, Lord Indra tells her that the moment Pururavas sees their son, she would have to return. And so, Pururavas and Urvashi marry and spend many happy days in the Gandhamadana hills. There, Urvashi sees Pururavas looking at a girl on the river bank. She gets angry and runs away from him and then happens to enter Kumaravana, where women are barred from entering. For this offence, she is cursed to turn into a creeper.
Pururavas spends many days in a mad and passionate search for her. He finally gets divine help and comes in possession of sangamanIyamaNi or ‘the jewel of union’. He finally gets attracted to a creeper and encircles it imagining it to be Urvashi. At that moment, Urvashi’s curse is overcome by the sangamanIyamaNi and is reunited with Pururavas. They return to the city and live happily. One day, a vulture snatches the sangamanIyamaNi when it is being carried by a maid. The king sends forth his chamberlain to fetch it. He comes back and says that the bird was killed by someone and the jewel was easily recovered.
The name on the arrow discharged by the killer says Ayus, son of Pururavas and Urvashi. Just then, a tapasvini by the name of Satyavati comes in with Ayus and asks for Urvashi. She tells the king that Urvashi had entrusted her son Ayus to the Ashram of Rishi Chyavana. By killing a bird, Ayus had violated the rules of the Ashrama and hence the sage had instructed her to hand him over to Urvashi. The king sends for Urvashi. When Urvashi comes and sees Ayus, she embraces him with joy. At this moment, she recalls Lord Indra’s words and informs the king about her impending return.
The dejected king tells her that he would crown Ayus and retire to the forest. Just then, Lord Indra sends a message through sage Narada asking Pururavas to stay on in the kingdom with Urvashi till the end of his time. Urvashi and Pururavas live happily.
Although there is nothing spectacular about the plot, the intricate poetry makes this a pleasant and enjoyable read. Of particular interest are the sections where he searches for Urvashi among all the things in the forest.
This is the most celebrated among all of Kalidasa’s works in which the Kavikulaguru picks up a small incident in the Mahabharata turns it into a magnum opus.
King Dushyanta, while on a hunting expedition in the forest, happens to visit the ashram of Sage Kanva. However, Sage Kanvais away.
Dushyanata then happens to see Shakuntala, the foster-daughter of sage Kanva, and falls in love with her. Shakuntala also gets attracted to the king and they marry with mutual consent in the Gandharva style(where parents or guardians are not present). The king presents his royal ring to Shakuntala as proof of their union. Then, Dushyanta returns to his city after promising to send for Shakuntala as quickly as he can.
In the meanwhile, the hot-tempered sage durvAsa visits the ashram and Shakuntala, daydreaming about Dushyanta, fails to pay due respects to him. In his anger, the sage curses Shakuntala that she be forgotten by the person who had occupied her mind. Shakuntala does not hear the curse but her friends do. They seek forgiveness from the sage. He tempers the curse by saying that Shakuntala’s beloved will regain his memory upon seeing some object that he has presented to Shakuntala. And the sage walks away.
And so, because of the curse, Dushyanta forgets all about Shakuntala and immerses himself in his royal duties. On the other side, sage Kanva comes back and by his powers, knows about everything that has transpired in his Ashram. When Dushyanta does not send for Shakuntala, sage Kanva himself decides to present Shakuntala to the king. He duly sends her with some members of his Ashram for company.
However, while crossing a river, Shakuntala loses the royal ring given by the king. She does not realize the loss. And then, they all reach Dushyanta’spalace where they are received with the honour due to holy men. When Shakuntala’s companions request King Dushyanta to receive her, he fails to recognize her because of durvAsa’s curse. And, Shakuntala, having lost the ring, has no proof.
The members of the Ashrama advise her to stay in her husband’s place and leave for the forest. At this point, Menaka, the celestial mother of Shakuntala carries her away. Sometime later, a fisherman finds the royal ring inside a fish and duly brings it to the king’s notice.
Upon seeing the ring, the king remembers everything and repents at having failed to recognize Shakuntala and acknowledging her as his wife. In the meantime, Lord Indra seeks his help to fight the demons. Dushyanta obliges him and delivers victory for Lord Indra. He is suitably honoured by Indra and sent back to earth.
On his way back, Dushyanata happens to visit Hemakuta, the Ashrama of Rishi marIchi. There he happens to meet a young boy getting the better of a lion cub and counting its teeth. The king experiences a kindred emotion towards that boy and soon gets to know that the boy is his own son borne by Shakuntala.
Shakuntala and the baby boy Bharata are then duly assigned to Dushyanta by Sage Maricha. The poet does not make a grand spectacle of the reunion. This is because the anticipation and excitement has by now dissipated in Shakuntala and she now retains only a sense of duty towards her family. The wonderful conversations and brilliant poetry in this drama make this a timeless classic.
Continued in the next part
The author is an Information Technology professional and a student and practitioner of Sanskrit poetry.