The Reading Room
Kalidasa and The Good Life
The Sanskrit poet Kalidasa lived and wrote in northern India during the Gupta dynasty (319-467 C.E.). Generally regarded as India’s greatest author, sometimes called the “Indian Shakespeare,” his work is known not only for its mastery of the Sanskrit language and the forms of classical Indian poetry and theater, but also for his penetrating and sensitive portrayals of his characters, and his beautiful and moving descriptions of nature.
While numerous works have been attributed to him, he has been definitively credited with six, The Dynasty of Raghu, The Recognition of Shakuntalā, The Birth of Kumara, Urvashi Won by Valor, The Cloud Messenger, and Malavika and Agnimitra.
Unfortunately, almost nothing is known about Kalidasa’s life. His works hint (though never state explicitly) that he was a Brahman. His name, literally “Servant of Kali,” indicate that he was a Shaivite (a devotee of Shiva, whose consort was Kali). There are no agreed upon dates for his life or even where he lived. Some legends even place him in Sri Lanka. Most modern scholars agree that he probably lived during the Gupta dynasty and might have spent at least some time at the court of the great Gupta king Chandragupta II Vikramditya (r.380-415 C.E.) in Ujjain, in the modern Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
Much of Kalidasa’s work draws on stories and legends that would have been familiar to his aristocratic audience. The Recognition of Shakuntala, for example, is based on a story in the ancient Mahabharata, while The Dynasty of Raghu tells the story of the so-called “Solar Dynasty.” In his treatment of these stories, Kalidasa elaborates on the characters and their actions, and embellishes the settings. Ethically or philosophically, these works explore the idea of “The Good Life” as it was understood in classical Indian philosophy. Kalidasa seemed to suggest through his plays and poems that the maintenance of “The Good Life” depended on the observance and fulfillment of various duties and responsibilities, not only to other people but, crucially, to ourselves, as well as to animals and even plants. In the High Culture of the Gupta period, these duties were usually conceived of as the four Human Ends (purusharthas), each of which focused on one aspect of The Good Life. They were: Dharma (law), Artha (material profit and wealth), Kama (pleasure), and Moksha (spiritual enlightenment). This latter term is especially problematical, because it also encompasses the idea of liberation. Importantly, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly to a Westerner, these “duties” included not only the duty to dharma and moksha but also towards the “duties” of physical (especially sexual) pleasure and material enrichment. Hindu philosophers of the period were divided about whether these Human Ends were to be pursued all at once, or in some sort of progression through a person’s life (culminating in moksha). In Kalidasa’s work, he seemed to express the idea that these Ends or duties were to be pursued all at the same time, in balance and harmony, and that the failure to balance these duties and responsibilities properly leads to personal and societal disaster. Conversely, the liberation that accompanies spiritual enlightenment(moksha) and The Good Life, results from a balanced observation of these duties.
The stories in both The Dynasty of Raghu and The Recognition of Shakuntala reflect this worldview. In the former, the great King Rama is engaged in an epic battle against demonic giants. In the process, his wife Sita is kidnaped by them and imprisoned in their castle. Rama eventually defeats the giants and frees Sita, but all is not well. His subjects spread the story that Sita betrayed her husband while with the giants and is impure. This is false, but the continued murmuring threatens the stability of the kingdom. To restore order, Rama reluctantly banishes Sita to the forest, and Sita, doing her duty, tearfully complies. She is eventually exonerated and her reputation is restored.
The story of Rama and Sita and their devotion to duty, no matter how draconian its requirements, contrasts with the last king mentioned in the poem, Agnivarna. Unlike Rama and Sita, Agnivarna is completely given over to sensual pleasure, kama. He neglects his royal duties and spends his days in dissipation, with the result that he becomes sick and dies.
In The Recognition of Shakuntala, the King Dushyanta falls madly in love with a young woman, Shakuntala who has been raised by hermits in the forest. Their overwhelming passion for each other leads each of them to neglect their duties, their particular dharmas. In the king’s case, this meant his royal duties, especially his duty to protect the forest hermits, while Shakuntala’s corresponding ardor for him causes her to neglect her duties toward taking care of the sages. This results in one of the forest hermits, an especially irascible sage named Durvasas, to curse Dushyanta so that he no longer recognizes his new wife. Only later through a series of fortuitous events does his memory return and they are reunited. In the meantime, she bears Dushyanta’s child.
One way of interpreting this story philosophically, in terms of the purusharthas, is that the initial tragedy of the curse resulted from the imbalance of the pursuit of these life goals. King Dushyanta and Shakuntala were overwhelmed with their pursuit of (sexual) pleasure (kama) which led them to neglect their respective duties, their dharmas. The curse’s resolution is accompanied by Dushyanta and Shakuntala’s reunion as parents to their child; that is, the foundation of a stable household, thus balancing dharma and kama.
In both the play about Dushyanta and Shakuntala, and the stories of Rama, Sita, and Agnivarna in the epic poem about the Solar Dynasty, Kalidasa presents a view of the universe in which the different ends of human life, the purusharthas, need to be balanced, leading to The Good Life.