A poet and dramatist who flourished in the fifth century A.D., Kalidasa, who wrote in Sanskrit, was a master of several genres and possibly India's greatest writer. Other than legends concerning the sources of his wisdom and his origins, however, little is known about his life except that he was very likely a part of the court of Chandragupta II (also King Vikramaditya, 375-413?) and a member of the Brahman (priestly) class.
Kalidasa is among the most widely read writers in India, and his works formed part of the influx of Eastern writers who influenced late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European literature. Kalidasa's work is noted for its portrayal of the unity of duty to one's family, religion, and society and the normative role of nature in the human world. His characters constantly make choices to uphold obligations to the institutions of faith, kin, and country in the face of terrible ethical dilemmas, thereby illustrating the ideal of virtue.
In regard to the natural (nonhuman) world, Kalidasa assumed the fundamental unity of all life and recognized the dignity and value of nonhuman life. Images of the majesty and beauty of nature are central to his style, and he used natural imagery to illuminate human virtues. In The Dynasty of Raghu, for instance, Prince Raghu must exile his wife (to maintain his rule) after she is accused of infidelity by the people. She accepts her fate dutifully:
Trees shed their flowers, the peacock-dances ended,
The grasses dropped from mouths of feeding deer,
As if the universal forest blended
Its tears with hers, and shared her woeful fear.
Later, she is given the chance to demonstrate her purity:
The faithful wife no sooner spoke
Than earth divided, and there broke
From deep within a flashing light
That flamed like lightning, blinding-bright.1
In addition to the rich imagery, the gods appear in animal form and animals become examples of human virtue. Finally, as demonstrated by the case of King Dilipia, humans are punished for their treatment of animals. King Dilipia remains childless because of his offenses against the divine cow Fragrant. The king comes to recognize the worth of all creation after spending twenty-one days wandering with the cow's daughter and protecting her from an attacking lion.
 Kalidasa, "The Dynasty of Raghu," from Kalidasa: Translations of Shakuntala and Other Works (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1920), pp. 144-45.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.
Last modified April 10, 2014