Kalidasa: The Recognition of Sakuntala (4th-5th C. CE?)


The greatest of all ancient Indian playwrights is Kalidasa. His Abhijnanasakuntalam (The Recognition of Sakuntala) begins with the encounter between a great king and the miraculously beautiful Sakuntala when he is hunting in the woods occupied by her stepfather's hermitage. They fall passionately in love, almost instantly. Keep in mind that women were expected to be shy and reticent with men. The audience would recognize from the way she is described that she has developed almost instantly an overwhelming passion for the king, despite the fact that she seems to reject him. In this scene he happens upon Sakuntala and her friends as they water plants near the hermitage, and observes them from hiding.

In what ways are Sakuntala and the King compared to objects or phenomena in nature? What does the bee buzzing around Sakuntala's lips symbolize? What examples can you find of symbols for Sakuntala's "ripeness" for marriage? What evidence is there that the gods have destined this meeting between the two?

Note: in this instance the selection displayed here is somewhat longer than the selection actually printed in the reader.

Act One

Scene: The forests in the foothills of the Himalayas.

King Dushyanta, armed with a bow and arrow, enters on a chariot. Accompanied by his charioteer, the King now desperately pursues a deer.

SUTA (gazing at the deer and the King):

When I cast my eye on the deer
That flees in fear, and when I look at you
With your bow and arrow, I seem to see none
But the great Pinaki in human form
Descending on earth to chase the deer.

KING: Following the deer, Suta, we've come a long way. It's high time that we find him now.

Curving his neck gently, gracefully,
He glances back at the chasing chariot.
And dreading the fall of the dart,
He bends his slender frame; the path he takes
Is strewn with tender grass half-chewed,
And fallen from his wide-gaping mouth,
As he races and pants. Look, with his leaps
Bounding high, he does not run, but fly!

What's wrong? Despite our desperate pursuit, we find him nowhere else!

SUTA: Sir, finding the ground uneven, I had to pull back on the reins and slacken the speed of the chariot, so the deer was able to race along faster than we did. But now that you are pursuing him on level ground, you should have no difficulty in finding him soon.

KING: Well, race your chariot, Suta.

SUTA: Yes, Sir (he drives the chariot faster than before).

My king!

Look again, as I loosen the reins,
The horses leap and leap forward,
Surpassing even the swirl of dust
Their feet themselves have raised;
With ears erect and plumes stilled,
The horses do not gallop, but float.

KING (joyously): Indeed, the horses seem
To outstrip Indra's steeds and the sun's.
What was small only a moment ago,
Quickly looms so large! What was split into parts
Suddenly assumes a unified whole!
What was undulating in its shape
Streams into a line so straight to my gaze!
The speed now makes the distant near
And the near distant, all in a flash!

Suta, you'll now see how I am going to kill the deer.

( A voice off-stage) : O King, for God's sake, hold--hold your arrow, and do not kill the deer, for it is a holy deer of the hermitage.

SUTA (listens and looks around): Sir, I can see some sages standing in front of the deer, so how can you possibly shoot your arrow?

KING (urgently): Stop the chariot!

SUTA: Yes, Sir. (He stops) Enter a sage accompanied by a number of disciples.

SAGE (lifting his right hand): This is a holy place, King.
And the deer is a holy one; it belongs to the hermitage.
Never, never shoot your arrow at him.
Let not your arrow pierce his tender body
Like tongues of flames into flowers. Oh, how fragile
Is his body, and how cruel is your arrow!
Please put the arrow back in your quiver;
It should only defend the distressed,
Not assail the innocent!

KING (with a bow): Well, then, let me withdraw my arrow (he puts it back in his quiver).

SAGE (pleased): Nobly done, Sir. You have justly behaved like a Puru.

Indeed your action befits your race.
O dear King! Let me bless you:
May you have a worthy son able to
Rule everything in heaven and earth.

ALL SAGES: O King, we have come out to gather sticks for the sacrificial fire. There, on the left bank of the Malini, you can see the asrama of our guru Kanva. If you have no urgent duties to perform now, please accept our invitation. Besides,

When you watch the holy rites
Of a sage performed without hindrance,
You can realize how strongly your arm
Scarred by the bowstring protects.

KING: Is Sage Kanva at home now?

SAGE: No. He is away on a pilgrimage to Somatirtha to ward off an evil spell that has been cast on his daughter Sakuntala.

KING: Well, I'd like to meet her, and request her to convey my profound regards to Sage Kanva.

ALL SAGES: Good. We will meet you there. (Exit all sages).

KING: Suta, race, race as fast as you can. For we must take this opportunity of purifying ourselves with the sight of the holy asrama.

SUTA: Yes, your Majesty (he clucks to the horses)..

KING (looks around): Though none has told me where the holy grove is, I can see that we have reached the grove now.

SUTRA: How can you see that, Sir?

KING: Well, just take a look--

Look, look, how those grains of wild rice
Have dropped from the beaks of parrots
Strewing the path that runs under the tree.
Look there! The stones, still glistening with oil,
Have been used for bruising the fruits of ingudi.
See, so safe and secure do the deer feel here
That no sounds, not even our chariot's, and no
Human voices can ever startle or scare them.
And there, drops of water dripping off the edges
Of garments the sages wear mark a path to the pool.

Moreover,

With ripples raised by the fingers of the wind,
Waters in deep canals flow to wash the roots of trees.
The glossy verdure of those sprouting leaves
Is only dimmed by the dusky smoke swirling upward
From the jaws of the sacred fire. See, how fearlessly
Do fawns graze leisurely in meadows there, where
The sharp darbha-shoots have been mown!

SUTA: Yes, Sir, now I can see what you say.

They advance a little further.

KING: Suta, we should by no means disturb the peace of the grove. Stop the chariot and let me alight.

SUTA: I've reined in, Sir. Your Majesty may dismount now.

KING (alighting): One should enter the holy grove in humble attire. So, let me hand over my insignia and bow to you, Suta. Well, now that I am visiting this hermitage, wash the backs of the horses in a nearby pond.

SUTRA: Yes, I'll do so, your Majesty. (Exits)


Selection printed in reader begins here
KING (walks about and looks): So, here is the gate to the asrama! Let me enter. (enters and indicates an omen)

How serene and profoundly peaceful is this hermitage!
Yet my arm trembles! Oh, what does it augur for me?
Who knows fate may open its door anywhere, any time!

A VOICE OFF-STAGE: O dear friends, let us go then...

KING (listening): Ah, I hear voices to the right of the grove. I'll go and see (walks about and looks). I see! They are the hermit-maidens coming this way, carrying pitchers proportionate to their strength and size; perhaps they will water the shrubs here.

When such beauty, rare even in the palace,
Dwells in the heart of a grove, then who would
Deny that wild woodland vines far outshine
The cultivated ones in our orchards?
Let me conceal myself behind these trees,
And watch a beauty to my heart's content.

Enter Sakuntala, accompanied by her two friends--Anasuya and Priyamvada.

ANASUYA: O dear Sakuntala, it is evident that Father Kanva loves these trees far more than he loves you. Indeed, it pains me to have to see that he has engaged a girl like you, as soft and delicate as a newly bloomed jasmine, in watering these plants. Such a hard task simply does not suit you, Sakuntala.

SAKUNTALA: But, dear Anasuya, I don't consider it merely as a task imposed by Father Kanva, for I love these trees like my own sister (she begins to water the trees).

PRIYAMVADA: Dear Sakuntala, now that we have watered all summer-blooming trees, let us turn to new-grown ones, and earn merit for our selfless devotion.

KING (whispering to himself): What! Is she Sakuntala, the daughter of Sage Kanva? (surprised) How utterly deficient in judgement is the Sage to lock up such a lovely, delicate beauty in this asrama! Oh, how terribly she is imprisoned in her bark-garment!

It's a pity! It's a pity!
While trying to train her
In ascetic austerity,
The Sage only attempts
To cut an acacia wood
With the soft edge
Of a blue lotus-leaf.

Well, let me remain hidden in the trees, and watch her without raising anyone's suspicions.

SAKUNTALA: Dear Anasuya, Priyamvada has drawn my garment too tightly. Would you please loosen it a little? (Anusuya loosens it)

PRIYAMVADA (spreading a smile over her face): Oh, is it Priyamvada who has tied your dress too tightly? Or is it the budding youth of your body?

KING (again whispering to himself): She has observed justly!
Her bark-dress conceals the splendid orbs
Of her breasts, and reveals not their beauty
And brilliance; it seems that a sallow leaf
Has barely imprisoned a bud in the morning.

Yet her bark-garment, howsoever restrictive,
Radiates with its own brightness, as an ornament does.
Even hidden in the duckweed, the lotus glows,
And dusky scars in the face of the moon
Only heighten its radiance; thus, Sakuntala's
Beauty is only revealed by what her bark
Conceals: her dress makes her far more attractive,
For, indeed, beauty lies in concealing beauty.

SAKUNTALA (curiously glancing at one of the trees): O dear, look there! It seems that the Kesara tree is fluttering his fingers of young shoots, calling me to converse with him. And how can I ignore his call? (she walks over to the tree)

PRIYAMVADA: O dear Sakuntala, pause there for a moment.

SAKUNTALA: But why?

PRIYAMVADA: As you are standing beside the tree, it seems that the tree has found a lover in a flowering creeper.

SAKUNTALA: O Priyamvada, you really are what your "name" means--a "flatterer!"

KING (once again whispering to himself):
Yes, what Priyamvada says is sweet and flattering,
But also true.

Her lips are like red, red shoots of a vine,
Her arms are as delicate as its winding stems,
Her limbs are lovely noonday flowers
Glittering with the glory of charming youth.

ANASUYA: Mark, Sakuntala, the fresh jasmine-flower whom you call by the name of Vana-jyostna--the "Moonlight-of-the-Grove"--seems to have chosen the mango as her bridegroom.

Sakuntala approaches the vine and gazes at it with immense delight.

SAKUNTALA: And indeed it is a splendid wedding in a delightful season. Look, the jasmine has produced fresh blossoms, while the mango tree is vibrant with its youthfulness, with its joy of bearing new fruits (she stands gazing at the flower).

PRIYAMVADA: Anasuya, do you know why Sakuntala gazes so intently at the Moonlight-of-the-Grove?

ANASUYA: No, I don't. But why don't you tell me?

PRIYAMVADA: Well, gazing at the flower, what our dear Sakuntala thinks is simply this: "As the jasmine has found its husband in the tree, so, may I also find one worthy of me."

SAKUNTALA: Oh, thus you only speak of your own heart's desire, Priyamvada (Sakuntala waters the flower).

ANASUYA: Dear Sakuntala, why don't you take a look at the bush here--the Madhabi bush that Father Kanva has perhaps nursed more lovingly than he has nursed you. Have you forgotten her?

SAKUNTALA: I might as well forget myself (approaches the bush and shouts in joy). Oh, here is a great surprise, Priyamvada! Now I'll tell you something that you'll love to hear.

PRIYAMVADA: O dear Sakuntala, please tell me what it is.

SAKUNTALA: See, what a wonderful thing has happened to our Madhavi! It's covered with buds, down to its root, though this is not the season for its blooming.

BOTH (in great excitement): Is it true, Sakuntala?

SAKUNTALA: Of course, it is. Why don't you come here and see it with your own eyes?

PRIYAMVADA: I see! Well, now it is my turn to tell you something that you'll love to hear, Sakuntala. You'll get married soon.

SAKUNTALA (crossly): Once again you're expressing your own heart's desire, Priyamvada.

PRIYAMVADA: Oh, this is no joke, dear. I've heard Father Kanva himself say that this would be an omen for your marriage.

ANASUYA: So, this is the reason why Sakuntala so lovingly nurses Madhavi.

SAKUNTALA: Why shouldn't I? I love her like a sister (she begins to pour water from the pitcher).

KING: Ah, I wish she were the daughter of a Brahmin by a wife of the Kshatriya caste. But let me do away with doubts:

She is destined to become a warrior's bride,
For my heart and my being sincerely desire her.
In the face of doubt or confusion, nothing can be
A safer guide than the inner voice of the virtuous soul.
Yet I should try to find out more about her.

SAKUNTALA: O God, this bee is buzzing round my face...(she tries to drive it away)

KING (longingly):


O, those dark, lovely eyes keep following
The movement of the bee buzzing near her face,
As a lover's eyes follow the movement of her beloved
Though not in fear, but in love.

(annoyed)
Hey, you rascal thief! How fearlessly you rove
To steal the lustre from her sparkling eyes
As she darts a glance at you. And how closely
You hover by her ear, as if to whisper a secret!
As she waves her delicate hand to ward you off,
You only rush to drink the dense, sweet nectar
Of her ripe, lower lip--oh, how blessed you are, my rival!
While you drink ambrosia, I must stand here thirsting!

SAKUNTALA: O dear friends! Save me from this wicked bee.

BOTH FRIENDS (with a grin): Who are we to save you, Sakuntala? But why don't seek help from King Dushyanta who is responsible for protecting our asrama?

KING: I think this is the most opportune moment for me to reveal myself (the King, however, pauses for a moment). No, I should not appear in such a way that they would recognize me as the King. I should rather act like an ordinary visitor.

SHAKUNTALA: I think this rascal bee would not leave off. Scat! Shoo! No, he won't listen. I must leave the place. Oh, no! Help! Help!

KING (emerging from behind the trees):
Who dares disturb the peace
Of the hermit-maidens,
When the King of Puru's line
Still reigns supreme in the world?

As the King appears suddenly, the asrama girls stand confused.

ANASUYA: Honorable Sir, nothing serious has happened. (Pointing to Sakuntala) Our dear friend Sakuntala was being pursued by a large bee, and she was frightened.

KING: I am glad to know that you are not in a serious trouble. I trust all is well with the holy rites.

Sakuntala stands confused, silent.

ANASUYA: Indeed, all is well, Sir. And the noble presence of a distinguished guest like you further ensures our safety.

PRIYAMVADA: We welcome you to our asrama, Sir.

ANASUYA: Dear Sakuntala, go, and bring for our distinguished guest flowers, rice and fruits from the asrama. Meanwhile, let me wash his feet with the water that we have here.

KING: O ladies! Your gracious words have already sufficed to welcome and entertain me, and nothing more is needed.

PRIYAMVADA: But, Sir, you must sit under the cool shade of the Saptaparna tree and rest awhile.

KING: I think all of you must be tired after performing your holy duties. So, why don't we all sit down for a while?

ANASUYA (aside): Dear Sakuntala, propriety demands that we provide a hospitable company to our noble guest. Come, let's sit down.

They all sit down.

SAKUNTALA (whispering to herself): Oh, why do I feel so lost and shaken? Why does the sight of this man fill my heart with emotions clashing with my ascetic life?

KING (looking at them): I feel honored, ladies, by the charming company and warm hospitality of three beautiful girls of the same age.

PRIYAMVADA (aside to Anasuya): I wonder who this stranger could be! His manner is so dignified and majestic, yet he speaks so fluently and politely!

ANASUYA (aside): O Priyamvada, I, too, am curious to know who he is. Well, let me simply ask him. (aloud) Noble Sir, we feel encouraged by your gracious words to ask you a few questions which we hope will not offend you. Sir, what royal family do you descend from? Which country laments your absence? And what is it that brings a delicately nurtured young man like you to this grove of penance?

SAKUNTALA (whispering to herself): O heart, keep quiet! Anasuya is asking the same questions I've wanted to ask.

KING (aside): What should I do now? To reveal, or to conceal--that is the question. (thinking for a moment) Well, then, let me do it this way. (aloud) I am a person well-versed in the Vedas, and the Paurava King has entrusted me with the charge of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. I am, therefore, visiting this grove of penance only to see if the holy rites are being performed without impediments.

ANASUYA: Indeed, Sir, we are happy to have a guardian like you.

Sakuntala's trembling lips, uneasy silence, and coyness look like signs of falling in love.

ANASUYA (noticing the behavior of both the King and Sakuntala, aside): Sakuntala, if only your father returns today. . .

SAKUNTALA (frowning, aside): So?

BOTH: He would then reward this guest in the most befitting manner by offering him the greatest treasure of his life.

SAKUNTALA (petulantly): Oh, you two with all your silly notions! Would you please stop prattling?

KING: Now if you permit, let me ask you something about your friend.

BOTH: We will feel honored to answer your question, Sir.

KING: So far as I know the holy Sage Kanva has hitherto observed celibacy. How, then, can your friend be his daughter?

ANASUYA: That's easy to answer, Sir. Have you heard of a royal sage called Kausika?

KING: Yes, I have.

ANASUYA: Yes, it is Kausika who is Sakuntala's real father. Father Kanva only adpoted and reared her after she was found abandoned.

KING: Abandoned? The word arouses my curiosity. Would you please relate the story from the beginning?

ANASUYA: Once, a long time ago, Sage Kausika was deeply immersed in meditation for many years. His unflinching devoutness made the gods jealous and nervous. So, they sent Menaka to tempt him.

KING: Yes, the gods are well-known for showing resentment of human accomplishments. But what happened then?

ANASUYA: It was spring then, and Menka's irresistible beauty. . .(she stops short, in embarrassment)

KING: I can guess what the rest was. So, your friend is Menaka's daughter?

ANASUYA: Yes, Sir.

KING: So, there is no incongruity. . .

Indeed, how could such a rare beauty be mortal?
Can the radiance of the tremulous lightening
Ever spring upward from the womb of the earth?

Sakuntala remains seated with her eyes downcast.

KING (whispering to himself):: Now my heart's longings have true scope for their indulgence.

PRIYAMVADA (looking with a smile at Sakuntala, and then turning to the King): Noble Sir, it seems that you want to say something.

Sakuntala makes a reproving gesture with her forefinger.

KING: Yes, yes, you have made a right guess. May I ask you yet another question?

PRIYAMVADA: Please feel free to ask, Sir. Asrama girls may be asked questions freely.

KING: What I wish to ask is this--

Should she observe, until betrothal,
Her ascetic vow that resists love and marriage,
Or is she condemned to living forever the life
Of a hermit in this Grove of Righteousness,
With those small antelopes so dear to her,
Whose lovely eyes only parallel the beauty
Of her own eyes.

PRIYAMVADA: True, Sir, she follows her father's instructions in religious duties. But I'm sure her father will love to see her happily married to a husband worthy of her.

KING (whispering to himself in delight):
O my heart, now harbor what is devoutly
To be wished, for all doubts are now dissolved.
What you feared might be a flame
Is now turned into a lovely gem,
Worthwhile to possess.

SAKUNTALA (pretending to be annoyed): Anasuya, I'm leaving now.

ANASUYA: But, dear Sakuntala, it is improper to desert a distinguished guest, neglecting the duties of hospitality.

KING (whispering to himself): Oh, is she leaving? No! (makes a move to restrain her, but instantly checks himself, aside): Ah, a lover's act reflects his feelings. . .

As I was about to stop her on the way
Decorum restrained my desire, all at once.
I did not leave my place at all,
Yet I seemed to rise and return.

PRIYAMVADA (holding Sakuntala back): Are you out of your senses, Sakuntala? You must not leave now.

SAKUNTALA: Why not?

PRIYAMVADA: Simply because you owe me your turn to water a couple of plants here. First, pay the debt, and then, leave (forces her back).

KING: Well, I can see that she is tired now.

Her shoulders droop, her palms glow red,
As she lifted up the heavy watering jar;
Her bosom heaves rapidly, while she breathes.
Rounded blobs of sweat glinting on her cheek
Only tend to catch the flower of her ear.
With her one hand, she restrains her lock
Dishevelled, almost falling.

Let me free her of the debt she owes to you, if you please permit me (offers his ring).

The two friends take the ring, and reading the royal seal on it, stare at each other.

KING: O ladies, do not get confused by the royal seal on the ring. I received it as a gift from the King.

PRIYAMVADA: In that case, Sir, you should not part with such a precious gift. Your gracious words suffice enough to set her free.

ANASUYA: O dear Sakuntala, now that you are free by the grace of this noble man or of the King, shouldn't you leave?

SAKUNTALA (whispering to herself): Oh, what is this strange, anonymous power that has robbed me of all my movement?

PRIYAMVADA: Hey Sakuntala, why don't you leave now?

SAKUNTALA: Am I still bound to answer your question, Priyamvada? I will leave whenever I feel like doing so.

KING (looking closely at Sakuntala, aside): Is it likely that she feels in the same way I feel towards her? Oh, if it is so, my desire will be fulfilled. Yet I believe I have reasons to hope.

Even though she keeps her words hidden
Beneath her silences, she lends her ears
To whatever I say. And even though
She keeps her eyes downcast, she watches me
Only when I watch her not!

(A VOICE OFF-STAGE): Watch, all people of the hermitage! Get ready to save the creatures of the grove, for King Dushyanta who revels in hunting has entered our grove.

Swirls of thick dust, stirred up by the hoof-beats
Of wildly prancing horses, are falling on the branches
Of our trees like swarms of locusts, thus clouding
The afternoon sunglow and the immense azure
Of the grove. . .

KING (to himself): O, what a bad luck! I think my armed guards are rummaging through the grove in search of me.

(AGAIN A VOICE OFF-STAGE): Be careful, everybody! Here comes a wild elephant, chasing children, women, and men.

Frightened by the royal chariot
An elephant invades the grove,
Smashing tree-trunks, and chasing
And scattering antelope-herds.
With its sound and fury, the elephant
Also drags along the fetter of uprooted
Vines at its feet. All these, to our penance,
Are nothing but impediments incarnate.

All the girls now rise in alarm.

KING (quickly): Oh, what a mess! I have indeed greatly harmed the sages here. I must leave the place now.

FRIENDS: Noble Sir! The warning about the elephant makes us feel very nervous. If your good self permits us, we may return to our asrama.

ANASUYA(looking at Sakuntala): Dear Sakuntala, Mother Gautami must be worrying about us. Come, let us return as soon as we can.

SAKUNTALA (showing difficulty in walking): Oh God, I cannot walk, for a strange numbness pains my thighs.

KING: Take care, gracious ladies. I will try to protect the grove from any possible damage.

FRIENDS: Forgive this inadvertent interruption, my Lord! May we request you to visit us again so that we can compensate for the lack of our hospitality to you.

KING: O dear ladies, don't worry; what can be better hospitality than the lively company of three charming girls like you?

SAKUNTALA: Wait, Anasuya. My foot has been pricked by the pointed blade of the Kusa grass. . .and my dress is caught in an amaranth twig. Wait a little, and let me free myself.

Sakuntala follows her friends, but keeps looking back at the King.

KING (with a deep sigh): Oh, gone! Gone are all of them! Sakuntala has robbed me of all my desire to return to the capital. Well, I will set up a camp with my companions in the vicinity of this grove. Oh, how impossible it is to punctuate, even for a moment, the stream of my thoughts that flows towards only one destination it has known--Sakuntala. Oh, Sakuntala! Sakuntala!

My body has an apparent movement,
But my heart? Oh, it only turns back
Like a silken pennon, borne against
The gale.


Selection printed in reader ends here
End of Act One Entitled "The Chase"

Translated by Azfar Hussain


Back to table of contents



This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

Try Chambal:
http://www.chambal.com/csin/9780155674257/ (vol. 1)
http://www.chambal.com/csin/9780155128262/ (vol. 2)

This page has been accessed times since December 18, 1998.