100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 23


Kalidasa’s Shakuntala



In 1789 Sir William Jones opened his career as one of the greatest of Indologists by translating Kalidasa’s Shakuntala; this translation, re-rendered into German in 1791, profoundly affected Herder and Goethe, and—through the Schlegels—the entire Romantic Movement, which hoped to find in the East all the mysticism and mystery that seemed to have died on the approach of science and Enlightenment in the West. Jones startled the world of scholarship by declaring that Sanskrit was cousin to all the languages of Europe, and an indication of our racial kinship with the Vedic Hindus; these announcements almost created modem philology and ethnology.

    Since time is more plentiful in the East, where nearly all work is done by human hands, than in the West, where there are so many labor-saving devices, Hindu plays are twice as long as the European dramas of our day. The acts vary from five to ten, and each act is unobtrusively divided into scenes by the exit of one character and the entrance of another. There are no unities of time or place, and no limits to imagination. Scenery is scanty, but costumes are colorful. Sometimes living animals enliven the play, and for a moment redeem the artificial with the natural. The performance begins with a prologue, in which an actor or the manager discusses the play; Goethe seems to have taken from Kalidasa the idea of a prologue for Faust. The prologue concludes by introducing the first character, who marches into the middle of things. Coincidences are innumerable, and supernatural influences often determine the course of events. A love story is indispensable; so is a jester. There is no tragedy in the Indian theatre; happy endings are unavoidable; faithful love must always triumph, virtue must always be rewarded, if only to balance reality. Philosophical discourse, which obtrudes so often into Hindu poetry, is excluded from Hindu drama; drama, like life, must teach only by action, never by words.* Lyric poetry alternates with prose according to the dignity of the topic, the character, and the action. Sanskrit is spoken by the upper castes in the play, Prakrit by the women and the lower castes. Descriptive passages excel, character delineation is poor. The actors—who include women—do their work well, with no Occidental haste, and with no Far-Eastern fustian. The play ends with an epilogue, in which the favorite god of the author or the locality is importuned to bring prosperity to India.

    Ever since Sir William Jones translated it and Goethe praised it, the most famous of Hindu dramas has been the Shakuntala of Kalidasa. Nevertheless, we know Kalidasa only through three plays, and through the legends that pious memory has hung upon his name. Apparently he was one of the “Nine Gems”—poets, artists and philosophers—who were cherished by King Vikramaditya (380-413) in the Gupta capital at Ujjain.

    Shakuntala is in seven acts, written partly in prose, partly in vivid verse. After a prologue in which the manager invites the audience to consider the beauties of nature, the play opens upon a forest glade in which a hermit dwells with his foster daughter Shakuntala. The peace of the scene is disturbed by the noise of a chariot; its occupant, King Dushyanta, appears, and falls in love with Shakuntala with literary speed. He marries her in the first act, but is suddenly called back to his capital; he leaves her with the usual promises to return at his earliest convenience. An ascetic tells the sorrowing girl that the King will remember her as long as she keeps the ring Dushyanta has given her; but she loses the ring while bathing. About to become a mother, she journeys to the court, only to discover that the King has forgotten her after the manner of men to whom women have been generous. She tries to refresh his memory.


Shakuntala. Do you not remember in the jasmine-bower,

One day, how you had poured the rain-water

That a lotus had collected in its cup

Into the hollow of your hand?

King.                                            Tell on,

I am listening.

Shakuntala. Just then my adopted child,

The little fawn, ran up with long, soft eyes,

And you, before you quenched your own thirst, gave

To the little creature, saying, “Drink you first,

Gentle fawn!” But she would not from strange hands.

And yet, immediately after, when

I took some water in my hand, she drank,

Absolute in her trust. Then, with a smile,

You said: “Each creature has faith in its own kind.

You are children both of the same wild wood, and each

Confides in the other, knowing where its trust is.”

King. Sweet, fair and false! Such women entice fools. . . .

The female gift of cunning may be marked

In creatures of all kinds; in women most.

The cuckoo leaves her eggs for dupes to hatch,

Then flies away secure and triumphing.


    Shakuntala, spurned and despondent, is miraculously lifted into the air and carried off to another forest, where she bears her child—that great Bharata whose progeny must fight all the battles of the Mahabharata. Meanwhile a fisherman has found the ring, and seeing the King’s seal on it, has brought it to Dushyanta. His memory of Shakuntala is restored, and he seeks her everywhere. Traveling in his airplane over the Himalayas, he alights by dramatic providence at the very hermitage where Shakuntala is pining away. He sees the boy Bharata playing before the cottage, and envies his parents:


“Ah, happy father, happy mother, who,

Carrying their little son, are soiled with dust

Rubbed from his body; it nestles with fond faith

Into their lap, the refuge that he craves—

The white buds of his teeth just visible

When he breaks out into a causeless smile,

And he attempts sweet wordless sounds, . . .

Melting the heart more than any word.”


Shakuntala appears, the King begs her forgiveness, receives it, and makes her his queen. The play ends with a strange but typical invocation:


“May kings reign only for their subjects’ weal!

May the divine Sarasvati, the source

Of speech, and goddess of dramatic art,

Be ever honored by the great and wise!

And may the purple, self-existent god,

Whose vital energy pervades all space,

From future transmigrations save my soul!”


    Drama did not decline after Kalidasa, but it did not again produce a Shakuntala or a Clay Cart. King Harsha, if we may believe a possibly inspired tradition, wrote three plays, which held the stage for centuries. A hundred years after him Bhavabhuti, a Brahman of Berar, wrote three romantic dramas which are ranked second only to Kalidasa’s in the history of the Indian stage. His style, however, was so elaborate and obscure that he had to be—and of course protested that he was—content with a narrow audience. “How little do they know,” he wrote, “who speak of us with censure. The entertainment is not for them. Possibly some one exists or will exist, of similar tastes with myself; for time is boundless, and the world is wide.”

    We cannot rank the dramatic literature of India on a plane with that of Greece or Elizabethan England; but it compares favorably with the theatre of China or Japan. Nor need we look to India for the sophistication that marks the modern stage; that is an accident of time rather than an eternal verity, and may pass away—even into its opposite. The supernatural agencies of Indian drama are as alien to our taste as the deus ex machina of the enlightened Euripides; but this, too, is a fashion of history. The weaknesses of Hindu drama (if they may be listed diffidently by an alien) are artificial diction disfigured with alliteration and verbal conceits, monochromatic characterization in which each person is thoroughly good or thoroughly bad, improbable plots turning upon unbelievable coincidences, and an excess of description and discourse over that action which is, almost by definition, the specific medium by which drama conveys significance. Its virtues are its creative fancy, its tender sentiment, its sensitive poetry, and its sympathetic evocation of nature’s beauty and terror. About national types of art there can be no disputation; we can judge them only from the provincial standpoint of our own, and mostly through the prism of translation. It is enough that Goethe, ablest of all Europeans to transcend provincial and national barriers, found the reading of Shakuntala among the profound experiences of his life, and wrote of it gratefully:


Wouldst thou the young year’s blossoms, and the fruits of its decline,

And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed;

Wouldst thou the Earth and Heaven itself in one sole name combine?

I name thee, O Shakuntala! and all at once is said.


* The great Hindu theorist of the drama, Dhanamjaya (c. 1000), writes: “As for any simple man of little intelligence who says that from dramas, which distil joy, the gain is knowledge only—homage to him, for he has averted his face from what is delightful.”