What is the difference between the Shakuntala episode in the Mahabharata and in Kalidasa’s play?

What is the difference between the Shakuntala episode in the Mahabharata and in Kalidasa’s play?

Abhijnana Shakuntala is one of the most well-known plays by Kalidasa. As most of the Sanskrit dramas of his time, Kalidasa wrote in a mixture of both classical Sanskrit - spoken by the royals, courtly figures, upper caste figures and Prakrit, consisting of different types of vernaculars - spoken by the common people including women and children.

What is the difference between the Shakuntala episode in the Mahabharata and in Kalidasa’s play?

At first before answering need to understand Dramatic art in ancient India held an appeal as no other art form did. Recitations of folk tales and epics gradually came to include enactments. The form of drama in Sanskrit literature particularly included aspects of dance, music and acting. It was performative in an inclusive sense as it freely used gestures, mimes and dance postures. Dance and drama during the period were not viewed as distinct forms. What is the difference between the Shakuntala episode in the Mahabharata and in Kalidasa’s play?

The title of the play Abhijnana Shakuntala can be translated as The Recognition of Shakuntala. The play, as stated in the earlier unit, is an extension of an episode from the Mahabharata. Kalidasa’s prowess as an exemplary dramatist can be seen in way he has lent complexity to the characters - to Shakuntala and Duhsanta, adding innovative elements such as the curse and the ring to enhance the rasa of kama /love as well as, making Duhsanta’s character more appealing to the audience.

    Furthermore, the ultimate union of the hero and the heroine does not occur in the royal Palace of the King but in the heavenly hermitage of Marica and Aditi, years after the birth of their son. Thus, his retelling of Shakuntala is significantly different from its original source.

Kalidasa creates a heroic drama of a romantic nature, endearing it to the audience of his day and now readers beyond his time and place. The longing and aches of first love; the trials of love thwarted; the happiness at being reunited; are emotions and feelings that everyone can identify with. However, one cannot deny how the drama is a reflection of particular socio-political and cultural ethos of his time. The very rejection of Shakuntala because of the loss of the token makes us question the position of women in his time (notwithstanding the loss of memory).

What is the difference between the Shakuntala episode in the Mahabharata and in Kalidasa’s play?

Duhsanta’s unhappiness at his inability to have a son is a telling portrayal of the importance of sons in carrying the name of the family forward. Even in the depiction of the fisherman who finds the lost ring, Kalidasa shows the corrupt and brutal nature of the guards/ soldiers/ law enforcers who treat him unfairly and assume his guilt without any proof. Such details help us to imagine the world of Shakuntala and Duhsanta with a clarity and nuance not available in the epic.

    A similar episode is changed by Kalidasa. In his rendition, Shakuntala is depicted as the encapsulation of excellence, persistence, and righteousness, who continually needs others to safeguard and protect her. He took the essential framework of Vyasa's Shakuntala and added weighty dosages of sentimentalism to the story.

What is the difference between the Shakuntala episode in the Mahabharata and in Kalidasa’s play?

In Kalidasa's play, Dushyanta first sees Shakuntala touching her pet deer that Dushyanta had shot. The sympathy with which she nurture the creature contacts Dushyanta's heart, and he succumbs to her. In Kanva's withdrawal, he is educated about the whole story regarding Shakuntala's introduction to the world by her dear companions. Progressively, the people in love get hitched with the consent of Sage Kanva (rather than the Gandharva marriage in Mahabharata). Prior to leaving Shakuntala, Dushyanta gives her his ring and vows to return.

    After Dushyanta leaves Shakuntala, she longs for him day in and day out. Charmed in his viewpoints, she neglects to respect sage Durvasa, who visits the seclusion. The irritable sage feels offended and reviles Shakuntala that the individual she is considering will fail to remember her. Individuals in the ashram hear his horrendous words and mediate for her sake. In spite of the fact that Durvasa couldn't reclaim the revile, he changes it by conceding that when Shakuntala shows a keepsake, Dushyanta will perceive her.

What is the difference between the Shakuntala episode in the Mahabharata and in Kalidasa’s play?

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.

The Original Story of Shakuntala from the Epic Mahabharata

Kalidasa takes up the story from the Mahabharata, works on it, fleshes it out and makes it into a play. The basic difference is that the form of the legend is different. In the Mahabharata, the story is narrated in an epic fashion, and in the play the plot is laid out for use on the stage. As we read the play, we recognise, that there is a basic difference in ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ in the two forms respectively.

This narrative is focused on discovering who the Bharatas were. The answer is - they were descendants of Bharata, born of Shakuntala and Duhsanta (a Paurava king). The focus of the narrative is on Duhsanta and the significance of Shakuntala is limited to her son who would be the prospective heir to Duhsanta’s throne. In the epic, Duhsanta is projected as the “triumphant king” who is the “equal of Indra, slayer of foes, warder-off of enemy elephants, they thought of him as the Thunderbolt-Wielder himself” (Buitenen 57). The story in the epic goes as follows. King Duhsanta while pursuing a deer enters “the depths of forest” and chances upon a holy hermitage that appears to him as “Indira’s paradise”. Here “no tree lacked bloom or fruit” and “no tree was thorny”. The wilderness was an idyllic picture. Duhsanta reaches the sanctum of the ascetic Kanva Kasyapa to pay his respects. What is the difference between the Shakuntala episode in the Mahabharata and in Kalidasa’s play?

Shakuntala narrates the story of her birth as she heard it from Kanva once upon a time. She is the daughter of an apsara, Menaka and the austere ascetic Vishwamitra. On birth, Menaka abandons her and goes back to the realm of the gods, to Indra. Shakuntala according to her own narrative is then found by the saint Kanva. Having heard her tale King Duhsanta reaffirms that Shakuntala couldn’t have been an ordinary maiden. He coaxes her to enter into a Gandharva marriage with him, a marriage “done in secret” with rituals “between a loving man and a loving woman”. Shakuntala agrees on one condition—she asks the King to promise that the son that may be “born from me shall be Young King to succeed you, great King, declare this to me as the truth! If it is to be thus, Duhsanta, you may lie with me”.

He agrees and the two consummate their marriage. Thereafter, the king returns to court. Shakuntala in the following year gives birth to a son at saint Kanva’s hermitage. The child “radiant like a blazing fire” grows up in the hermitage for six years—he “would fetter lions and tigers” to the trees around the hermitage. Watching his “superhuman exploits” Kanva decides to send him to the King’s palace with Shakuntala. At the King’s palace, Duhsanta refuses to acknowledge Shakuntala, calling her an “evil ascetic”. Shakuntala “stunned with grief” pleads her case emphasising the importance of a son for the king – she says “a son is a putra because he saves his father from the hell named Put” and calls herself the dutiful wife, stating that “she is a wife who is handy in the house, she is a wife who bears children, she is a wife whose life is her husband” (167).

While changing the form/genre, Kalidasa retells the story differently with this, the emphases of his work changes. As he lays out the story from the Mahabharata for representation on stage, he assigns to it new parameters involving scenes, smallacts of individual characters, and the interplay of situations in the format of showing and representing. What does one mean by the playwright’s emphases here? It is those aspects in a text that receive special focus at the cost of those that are pushed into the background. The playwright consciously picks up a point for expansion and gives more space to it than others. Emphases are based on the playwright’s sympathies and preferences. Think of the title of the work, Abhijnana Shakuntalam i.e. “The Recognition of Shakuntala”. Kalidasa makes it clear where his sympathies lie and who the protagonist of the play will be. That a woman will be the hero of the story reveals the position of the playwright. In the Mahabharata, the section of “Shakuntala” comes under the head of “The Origins”. Even as the title of the section is “Shakuntala” in the Mahabharata, it is Shakuntala as the beautiful maiden and later Bharata’s mother that gets foregrounded. As a consequence, the king is at the centre, he is the active agent in the episode. That is not the case with Kalidasa’s Shakuntala.

What is the difference between the Shakuntala episode in the Mahabharata and in Kalidasa’s play?

Bharata’s Natyashastra

Natyashastra (the poetics of drama) is a treatise on the dramatic art that attempts to outline the aim, purpose and role of drama in ancient India. The treatise includes specific features and elements considered integral to Sanskrit drama. ‘Natya’ carries the root word ‘nat’ which means to act or emote. It may be applied to both drama and dance, as ‘natya’ is also the word for dancing or dramatic representation and ‘natak’ denotes a play. Natyashastra is the oldest text on the theory of drama that has survived for centuries. Bharata termed it the fifth Veda.

The Natyashastra provides ten different types of dramatic representations that are determined by factors of length of a play, theme, plot and characters. Nataka and Prakarna belong to the category of full length plays of five to ten acts that have as their subject plots taken from histories and fictional stories respectively. On the other hand, there are bhanas that are satirical monologues and dwell on superficial or less important themes. Between these extremes, the treatise fits in tragedies and comedies that may have one to four acts and the subject is of relative importance. 

    These include among others,samavakara and ihamrga (that have less than five acts but deal with divine themes); vyayog and anka (one act plays based on a single day’s event). The Natyashastra was meant to take elements from the first four Vedas and include these under one head. It ventured to draw from the Rigveda the “recitative” quality, from the Yajurveda “histrionic representation”, from the Atharvaveda “rituals and style” and from the Samaveda the “rasas”. Importantly, the Natyashastra is best known for expounding the theory of rasas which is particularly relevant for us in understanding the aesthetic sensibility of Kalidasa. The peculiar sensibility of Kalidasa will be focused in the next section. Let us first understand the theory of rasa. For Sheldon Pollock rasa is that which can be “savoured”.


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