Kalidasa and The Recognition of Sakuntala  

Shakuntala writes to Dushyanta. Painting by Raja Ravi Varma. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Kalidasa is considered India’s most important playwright and The Recognition of Sakuntala is the best-known and finest of all his Sanskrit dramas. Little is known about his life. Scholars believe he lived some time during the Gupta period, between 300-500CE. What comes down to us about him is mostly legend. Supposedly, he was a beautiful man who attracted the attention of an empress who took him into her home. However, the empress was soon offended by his lack of refinement and learning and lost interest in him. Kalidasa found his wife’s disgust and infidelity unbearable. He turned to the goddess Kali (from whose name he derives his own) while contemplating suicide. As a result of his devotion, Kali blessed him with wit and literary ability by which he regained favor at another court. His poetry and dramas derive mostly from Hindu mythology. The Recognition of Sakuntala is based on a romantic episode from one of the major Hindu religious epics, the Mahabharata (Bk. I, Ch. 62-69)

The title of the play, The Recognition of Sakuntala, is slightly misleading in the English translation. While its exact meaning in Sanskrit is still a subject of debate, the word “Recognition” actually refers to a part of the episode that Kalidasa added to the original story rendering it more morally palatable. The drama recounts the discovery of a beautiful country maiden, Sakuntala, upon whom a king wandering in the forest on a hunting trip spies. “Recognition” implies a remembrance of a token of betrothal, a ring, the king gives to Sakuntala. The play is interesting as a specimen of courtship in ancient India and how it highlights the factors of class, beauty, gender and propriety that regulated and influenced behavior between lovers. Furthermore, the well-developed personalities of the dramatis personae offer readers privileged entrance into the minds of characters as they move through their passions and predicaments.

To read an English translation of the text, click here.

Further reading: 
* Kalidasa.  The Recognition of Śakuntal-a: Śakuntal-a in the Mah-abh-arata.  Ed. W. J. Johnson.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. 


Jakata Tales

Bhutanese painted thangka of the Jatakas, 18th-19th Century, Phajoding Gonpa, Thimphu, Bhutan. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Jataka Tales are a collection of 547 verses and accompanying folk tales and commentaries about the many incarnations of the Buddha compiled between 300-400BCE. Only the last 50 verses were intended to be intelligible without commentary. These tales reflect the cultural and linguistic diversity present in India during classical times. Instead of the use of Sanskrit, scribes used Pali in these tales, another ancient literary language, derived from a different Middle Indic dialect. Furthermore, instead of narrating the lives of the incarnations of Hindu deities (e.g. Ramayana), these tales combine ancient folk legends with beliefs surrounding the Buddha and his teachings.

As a canonical Theravada text, an orthodox branch of Buddhism that permeated all of South and Southeast Asia, the collection was translated and transformed in a number of other languages including Malay, Lao, Burmese, Khmer and Tibetan. The Jataka Tales formed an important role in moral instruction in antiquity and were frequently the subjects of art and architecture. They are still referred to today, being performed theatrically and ritually throughout Asia. 

To read an English translation of the text, click here.

Further reading:
* Francis, Henry Thomas and Edward Joseph Thomas, eds.  Jataka Tales.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1916.

Valmiki and the Ramayana 

The Battle at Lanka, Ramayana, by Sahibdin. It depicts the monkey army of the protagonist Rama (top left, blue figure) fighting Ravana—the demon-king of the Lanka—to save Rama’s kidnapped wife, Sita. The painting depicts multiple events in the battle against the three-headed demon general Trisiras, in bottom left. Trisiras is beheaded by Hanuman, the monkey-companion of Rama. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Ramayana is one of India’s greatest epic tales recounting the adventures and misfortunes of Lord Rama (an incarnation of the Hindu supreme god Vishnu) and his faithful wife Sita (an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi). It was written down between 400-200BCE during the Magadha or Maurya dynasties by the famed poet Valmiki. Alongside the Mahabarata (the history of a classical war), the Ramayana, or Journey of Rama, forms an integral part of the Hindu canon. Because of the epic’s impact, actual cults have formed around the author and the incarnation of Rama he animated in the text. The work’s great influence has also spread beyond the borders of India into other parts of South and Southeast Asia to inspire native Thai, Laotian, Malay and Cambodian renditions of the tale. 

The epic is written in a 32 syllable meter called anustubh and comprises 7 books, 500 cantos, and 24,000 verses, enough to recount almost the entire life of Rama from birth through his reign as King of Ayodhya. The seven chapter divisions of the epic provide a synopsis of the grand scope of the tale: 

(1) Book of the Childhood: The birth and training of Rama and his marriage to Sita, binding the two kingdoms of Janaka and Kosala together. 
(2) Book of Ayodhya: Rama’slife in Ayodhya, capital of Kosala, as a prince after marriage to Sita. 
(3) Book of the Forest: Because of palace intrigue, Rama and his wife are exiled and lead an eremetic life in the jungle for 17 years. Sita is captured by demons and Rama pursues them across India. 
(4) Book of Kishkindha: Rama and his faithful servant, Lakshman, pursue Sita and enter the kingdom of the monkeys. 
(5) Book of Auspiciousness: Hanuman’s, the monkey king, journey to (Sri) Lanka where he finds Sita in the fortress of demons. 
(6) Book of the War: A battle between Rama’s armies and the armies of the demon Ravana. 
(7) Book of the Afterword: an epilogue narrating Rama’s life after returning to Ayodhya and the subsequent trials and assumption of Sita. 

The epic, apart from its entertaining, episodic aspects, has for centuries been used as a source for the study of important religious doctrines and social norms and behaviors. It is a literary manual for how to act within Hindu society. The main characters, many of whom are incarnations of Hindu gods, are considered paragons of their social stations: Rama, the ideal husband and leader; Sita, the ideal wife; Lakshman, the ideal friend and servant, etc. Because of this, while enjoying the mythology of India we also gain special insight into a script for ancient Indian society. 

To read an English translation of the text, click here.

Further reading:
* Valmiki.  TheRāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki: an Epic of Ancient India.  Ed. Robert P. Goldman.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.