Kālidāsa Composes Sanskrit Poetry and Plays Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Considered by Indian scholars to be the greatest of Sanskrit poets, Kālidāsa is best known today for his dramas, which capture the essence of aristocratic society in the golden age of the Gupta Dynasty in India.

Summary of Event

The death of Kālidāsa marks a literary end to the golden age of the Gupta Dynasty (c. 321-c. 550 c.e.), which occurred during the reign of Chandragupta II (c. 380-c. 415), according to Sanskrit scholar K. Krishnamoorthy. His epic, lyric, and dramatic poetry captures the aristocratic culture of that era, a high point in artistic and literary development in India, that resulted from nearly a century of relative peace, stability, and prosperity. Because the Gupta kings taxed imports and exports rather than their people and maintained roads connecting India with Byzantium and Persia to the west and China to the east, trade thrived, producing a leisure class that supported scientific, mathematical, and artistic development. This period of intellectual achievement continued until the invasion of the Huns in the latter part of the fifth century c.e. The foremost literary figure of this Gupta renaissance was Kālidāsa. Kālidāsa

Although Kālidāsa’s works reflect his time and class, they are not parochial. They embody the ideals of his age but not necessarily the people. Rather, his characters are almost exclusively chosen from the classical Sanskrit epics Rāmāyaṇa (c. 550 b.c.e.; English translation, 1870-1889) and Mahābhārata (c. 400 b.c.e.-400 c.e.; The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 1887-1896), and express the religious and cultural themes of those works: love, honor, duty, and right action—universal human concepts that speak to all nations and times.

Because almost nothing is known of Kālidāsa outside of his works and his works contain no contemporary references, there is no sure way of determining the order of their composition. Nevertheless, it is almost universally conceded that the lyric poem Ṛtusaṁhāra (c. 75 b.c.e. or c. 365 c.e.; English translation, 1867) is his earliest surviving work because of relative infelicities of style noticeable only by comparison with his presumably more mature works. Ṛtusaṁhāra is a lyric description of the six seasons identified by the Indian calendar: summer, rains, autumn, prewinter, winter, and spring. The description in the poem is simultaneously internal and external, interweaving physical description of each season with its corresponding emotional effect.

Kālidāsa’s other known lyric poem, Meghadūta (c. 65 b.c.e. or c. 375 c.e.; The Cloud Messenger, 1813), is generally considered his masterpiece. Though lyric in nature, it has a narrative frame involving an exiled yaksa (demigod) who, unable to return to his grieving wife, begs a cloud to carry his message of comfort to her. The first half is a stirring description of his Himalayan home, artfully disguised as the yaksa’s directions to the cloud messenger. The second half is the yaksa’s moving message to his wife.

Kālidāsa also attempted two epic poems in the style of the Rāmāyaṇa: Kumārasambhava (4th century c.e.; The Birth of the War-God, 1853) and Raghuvamśa (c. 50 b.c.e. or c. 390 c.e.; The Dynasty of Raghu, 1872-1895). The Birth of the War-God details an intricate conflict between destiny and religious devotion. The world is urgently in need of deliverance from the terrible demon Taraka, who can be defeated only by a hero born of the god Śiva and his wife. The first impediment, his wife’s death, is overcome by her reincarnation as Pārvati. However, on her death Śiva had sworn celibacy. Śiva thwarts the attempts of the love god Kama to overcome his vows of celibacy and destroys Kama. Yet Pārvati’s own spiritual self-control captivates Śiva, and he re-marries her and begets the needed hero.

The Dynasty of Raghu, the second epic, involves political rather than mythological matter, though it continues the theme of self-control explored in The Birth of the War-God (generally considered the earlier of Kālidāsa’s two epics). This time, the virtue of self-control is emphasized by its absence in the corrupt King Agnivarna, whose degeneracy brings an end to the Raghu line (hence the title). What makes Agnivarna’s corruption all the more reprehensible is the fact, reflected throughout the poem, that the king is the unworthy descendent of the great Rama, hero of the Sanskrit epic that bears his name.

Three dramas by Kālidāsa survive: Abhijñānaśākuntala (c. 45 b.c.e. or c. 395 c.e.; Śkuntala: Or, The Lost Ring, 1789), Mālavikāgnimitra (c. 70 b.c.e. or c. 370 c.e.; English translation, 1875), and Vikramorvaśīya (c. 56 b.c.e. or c. 384 c.e.; Vikrama and Urvaśī, 1851). All exhibit similar plots, starting with the love at first sight of a king for a simple maiden. Śākuntala, Kālidāsa’s best drama and probably his best-known work, takes its plot from an incident in the Sanskrit classical epic The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa. King Dusyanta falls in love with Śākuntala, daughter of a remote Himalayan hermit, and secretly marries her. An evil curse causes Dusyanta to forget Śākuntala until he sees the ring he has given her. A poignant scene of renunciation under the curse is followed by an equally moving scene of reconciliation when the king’s memory returns and the lovers are reunited.

The love at first sight in Mālavikāgnimitra occurs not in a hermitage as in Śākuntala but in a harem. The king falls in love with Mālavikā after seeing her picture and arranges to meet her. His jealous queen imprisons Mālavikā, but when the girl causes the queen’s aśoka tree to blossom, she is forgiven and reunited with the king and elevated to the status of one of his wives.

The least successful of the three love plots, that of Vikrama and Urvaśī, goes through the same sequence of meeting, separation, and reunion—in fact, repeatedly—but the separations do not seem to arise from circumstance as in the other two but rather from whim. The story, adapted from the The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, involves Purūravas yearning for Urvaśī, who four times eludes him before the final obligatory reunion.

Significance

Kālidāsa’s genius was felt in his own era. No fewer than forty-five commentaries of his lyric masterpiece The Cloud Messenger survive from his century. His works became instant classics, standard reading in schools throughout medieval India. In the West, Kālidāsa’s dramas were among the first non-Western works translated in the romantic rediscovery of the East. The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) made the enthusiastic and seemingly extravagant claim that Kālidāsa’s masterpiece Śākuntala contains everything that charms the soul, and the first English translator of that classic, William Jones (1746-1794), called Kālidāsa the Shakespeare of India. Jones’s comparison is probably not fair to either poet, as Elizabethan and Sanskrit dramas differ widely in form and convention. However, as the twentieth century Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore asserted, Kālidāsa could match Shakespeare in emotional depth.

One of the reasons for Kālidāsa’s success at exploring human emotion is that such exploration is one of the central aims of the form in which his most famous works were written. Two of Kālidāsa’s surviving dramas are in the nāpaka form, a high dramatic genre depicting great events from Indian legend or history. What makes them effective emotional windows is that the form dictates that each scene be governed by a predominant rasa, or emotional mood. Hence the very success of the work depends on the extent to which it renders that emotion poetically.

In Śākuntala, for example, Kālidāsa explores the rasa of human love in such a way that it builds on Kālidāsa’s complex exploration in The Birth of the War-God of one of the central paradoxes of Hindu culture. In that epic, as in the drama Śākuntala, erotic desire leading to procreation is conflated with sensual renunciation leading to enlightenment. When the German romantics encountered Indian, especially Gupta, culture, this coincidence of opposites was puzzling. How could a highly-developed Hindu theology of renunciation and an equally highly developed erotic art both arise from the same source? An answer can be found in the work of Kālidāsa, which orchestrated the erotic and the spiritual into a pastiche of emotions that are proper to both.

A second aspect of the Gupta Dynasty that makes Kālidāsa virtually its spokesperson is its extraordinary religious tolerance. Chandragupta II, the emperor under whom Kālidāsa most likely wrote, worshiped Kriṣḥna, though his ministers were devotees, variously, of Buddha and Śiva, with no perceived conflict. Kālidāsa seems to honor all the Hindu gods equally, with perhaps a personal preference for Śiva. Yet even though the source material of his poetry dates from before Buddhist times, his Mālavikāgnimitra includes a sympathetic portrait of a Buddhist nun. Finally, Kālidāsa’s works offer insight into the Gupta era by reflecting the great variety of its dialects, departing from the classical language of the traditional epics to produce dialogue that, if not exactly colloquial, at least reflected the variety of class and character that was Gupta India.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krishnamoorthy, K. Kālidāsa. Boston: Twayne, 1972. Though dated, this volume in a standard series is still quoted and is the best starting point for studying Kālidāsa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mandal, Paresh Chandra. Kālidāsa as a Dramatist: A Study. Dhaka, India: University of Dhaka, 1986. Establishes the probable chronology of Kālidāsa’s dramas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shastri, Satya Vrat. Kālidāsa in Modern Sanskrit Literature. Columbia, Mo.: South Asian Books, 1992. Explores the influence of Kālidāsa on later writers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stoller-Miller, Barbara. The Plays of Kālidāsa: Theatre of Memory. Ottowa, Ont.: Laurier Books, 1999. A very readable modern translation, with a useful introduction and notes geared to the nonspecialist.
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