Deciphering Shakuntala: Mahabharata v/s Kalidasa

This article unfolds the legendary tale of the elegant yet free-spirited and tenacious Shakuntala, who was the daughter of sage Vishwamitra and the beautiful Apsara, Menaka. This primeval saga prevails in Vyasa’s Mahabharata, from which Kalidasa took his inspiration. Interestingly, the Kalidasa version is more popular worldwide than the original one, and surprisingly, Vyasa’s Shakuntala is drastically different from that of Kalidasa.

Shakuntala
Shakuntala Patra Lekhan by THL India

Mahabharata's Strong, Independent and Fearless Shakuntala

In the epic, the founder of the Puru dynasty and the noble King of Hastinapur- King Dushyanta, first encounters Shakuntala while hunting in the forest with his army, chasing a deer injured by his arrow. On his pursuit, he spots a hermitage and finds the stag being nursed by a beguiling maiden. On seeing him, she introduces herself as Shakuntala, daughter of sage Kanva. On Dushyanta's astonishment about her being the daughter of the great ascetic Kanva, Shakuntala tells how Kanva became her foster father after her parents abandoned her in the forest. While revealing her birth identity, Shakuntala shows no hint of discomfort. Smitten by her alluring beauty and endearment, Dushyanta immediately makes a marriage proposal to her. Shakuntala reciprocates his feelings but wishes to wait for her adoptive father to return. However, Dushyanta convinces her to marry him according to Gandharva tradition, which is purely based on love and mutual consent. Shakuntala agrees to it only if he promises that the son born from their union will be the heir to his throne. Here we can see the sensible and practical side of Shakuntala, who commands a significant pledge from the King. After their wedding, Dushyanta leaves for the kingdom to fulfill his duties promising her to return.


Soon, Shakuntala gives birth to a boy named Bharata. As the years pass, Dushyanta makes no move to claim his wife and son. So Kanva sends them to the court to remind him of his promise and duty towards his family. In the court, the King pretends to have met Shakuntala for the first time and questions her character on the basis of her parentage. He insults her, saying that her father, Sage Vishwamitra was a failed ascetic who couldn't control his desires when encountering the beautiful heavenly nymph, Menaka. He further says that women like her have a devious mind who perform cheap tricks to entangle men and thus, firmly refuses to accept her.


When Shakuntala realizes that Dushyanta has no intention of keeping his promise, she lashes out with controlled fury. She strongly rebukes him for abandoning his family. One can imagine Shakuntala with her head held high, and her eyes flashing when she answers the king's comments about her untrustworthy character and her parentage. She says that her birth is far superior to his since kings walk on the earth, but she, with celestial blood in her veins, can wander through the sky. There is a great deal of scorn in her words when she tells the King that he sees the faults of others that are as tiny as mustard seeds while he is blind to his mistakes that are as big as bilva fruits. She even goes to the extent of threatening Dushyanta that no matter what happens, her son shall occupy his throne.

Finally, as Shakuntala is about to storm out of the court, a heavenly voice commands Dushyanta to accept her and Bharata because she had spoken the truth and even the Gods could not ignore her words. Now, Dushyanta cobfesses that he had indeed recognized Shakuntala but was afraid that society would be suspicious of Bharata’s claim on the throne. Thus, in his defense, he had no option but to abandon them. Dushyanta then honors Shakuntala and Bharat and also forgives his wife for her "terrible comments".


In the epic, Shakuntala is depicted as a strong, confident, and independent woman capable of defending herself. She is fearless enough to demand a secure future for herself and her child even before she commits herself to the eternal bond of marriage. Dushyanta’s cynical attitude towards Shakuntala in his court proves that he was a selfish man. Though the claims of societal pressure seem to be the explanation of why he never sent for Shakuntala in the first place, we see that the great King Dushyanta was humanly flawed. He didn’t even think once before tearing apart the reputation and character of his wife in front of his courtiers. However, Mahabharata’s Shakuntala proved to be self-sufficient in protecting her and her son’s identity. Her strong statements about the future repercussions of the King’s actions not only shook the entire court but the heavens as well. Thus, Shakuntala single-handedly claimed what was rightfully hers.


Kalidasa’s version of Shakuntala, on the contrary, is poles apart.


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Kalidasa's Naive and Innocent Shakuntala

King Dushyanta and Shakuntala
King Dushyanta and Shakuntala

The same episode is transformed by Kalidasa. In his version, Shakuntala is portrayed as the epitome of beauty, patience, and virtue, who constantly needs others to protect and defend her. He took the basic outline of Vyasa's Shakuntala and added heavy doses of romanticism to the tale.


In Kalidasa's play, Dushyanta first sees Shakuntala caressing her pet deer that Dushyanta had shot. The compassion with which she nurses the animal touches Dushyanta's heart, and he falls for her. In Kanva's hermitage, he is informed about the entire story of Shakuntala's birth by her dear friends. Gradually, the love birds get married with the permission of Sage Kanva (as opposed to the Gandharva marriage in Mahabharata). Before leaving Shakuntala, Dushyanta gives her his ring and promises to return.


After Dushyanta leaves Shakuntala, she pines for him all day. Engrossed in his thoughts, she forgets to honor sage Durvasa, who visits the hermitage. The short-tempered sage feels insulted and curses Shakuntala that the person she is thinking of will forget her. The people in the ashram hear his terrible words and intercede on her behalf. Although Durvasa could not take back the curse, he modifies it by granting that when Shakuntala shows a memento, Dushyanta will recognize her.

Soon Shakuntala realizes that she’ll soon become a mother and hence, decides to go to the capital to meet him with her father and other people of her hermitage. On the way, Shakuntala loses Dushyant's ring while crossing a river, and a fish swallows it. When Shakuntala arrives at the palace, the King does not recognize her and demands her to prove her identity. She reminds him about the time he had spent with her in the forest, but he couldn't remember anything. He does feel drawn towards her, but due to unnatural forces in play, he is helpless.


Ashamed to return to her father's ashram, Shakuntala starts living alone in another part of the forest where she gives birth to a son, Bharata. After a few years, a fisherman brings a royal ring to the king's palace and informs that he found it in the stomach of a fish. As soon as the king sees the ring, the curse gets broken, and he remembers Shakuntala. He hurries to the forest, where he finds Bharata and learns from him that he is indeed his son, and finally, the family reunites.


Kalidasa’s Shakuntala shares a strong resemblance with Ramayana’s Sita. He softened her character, where she rarely speaks for herself and humbly accepts the king’s rejection. Shakuntala is shown as a victim of the mysterious powers which govern the lives of the people. She has been used as a patsy to personify humanity as a whole which is subjected to the grand mechanism of this universe. In the play, nobody can be blamed for what happened, whereas, in the epic, Dushyanta appears to be the guilty one clearly.


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Shakuntala: More than just a Beauty

Shakuntala and her friends
Shakuntala and her friends. Chromolithograph by R. Varma.

In both versions, we see how women remain questionable for their actions and are character assassinated in society in general. They remain pivotal in maintaining family ties and unity at any personal cost whereas men rarely bear responsibility for their actions. While Mahabharat’s Shakuntala is strong enough to demand her right, Kalidasa’s Shakuntala fights her battle quietly and patiently, considering herself to be a toy in the hands of destiny. Both versions mirror contemporary society in their own way.


From this, we see, Shakuntala is not a mere beauty but a pillar of strength and patience also. I think, people of the modern generation after reading both Vyasa’s and Kalidasa’s Shakuntala will not only remember her for her beauty or submissiveness, but also for her strength in battling societal pressure. Shakuntala symbolizes a majority of modern Indian women and being a reader, you would have felt a strong connection with her persona.


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