Great Sanskrit Poet - Mahakavi Kalidasa

Written by S.Radha Prathi on 30 November 2017

Great Sanskrit Poet - Mahakavi Kalidasa

If one hopes to travel the globe, delve deeply into the psyche of fellow human beings and derive an understanding of history, tradition, culture and civilization one lifetime will prove to be insufficient. Yet if one seeks the solution in the world of literature one is seldom disappointed for literature holds a mirror to life.

II Kavyeshu natakam ramyam, tatra ramya Shakuntala

Tatrapi chaturthaha ankaha tatra shlokaha chatushtayam. II

Drama is the most charming form of literature. Shakuntala is the most charming play. The fourth act of the play happens to be the best while the fourth shloka takes the cake.

Those of you who are familiar with the lines will realise that I am speaking of our greatest poet Mahakavi Kalidasa who is also toted as Kavi Kula Guru. The high praise allocated to the fourth stanza of the fourth act of the play lies in the fact that Kalidasa was subtly breaking news to Kanva maharishi about the pregnancy of his adopted daughter Shakuntala. She had married king Dushyanta in the Gandharva style during his absence. Kanva is informed of the same through an invisible aerial voice. The ability to tactfully render sensitive information about an unconventional situation to a person who was detached from family life forms the climax of the play. The story culminates with the union of the estranged couple after a dramatic course of events. Kalidasa manages to do the needful aesthetically through a mere couplet. This is perhaps one of the reasons why he is considered to be the greatest litterateurs of all times. One Subhashita says,


II Pura kaveenaam gananaa prasange kanishtika adhish titha Kalidasa

Adhyaapi tat tulya kavehe abhavaath anaamika sa arthavathi babhoova II

“Once upon a time when great poets were counted, the little finger was raised first and the name of Kalidasa was counted. The ring finger which is the next in sequence is called anaamika which means nameless in the Sanskrit language. It remains in the same nameless status to this day, because there is not another poet who has measured up to the greatest poet, namely Kalidasa".

Though Kalidasa’s play Abhijnana Shakuntalam has been evaluated as his magnum opus by Von Goethe the greatest poet of Germany who was also his sincere critic and fan, one cannot really discount the other works of the great poet. In his play Malavikagnimitram, Kalidasa chronicled portions of contemporary history by giving an account of the political relationship between the ancient countries of Vidisha and Vidarbha by weaving a romantic theme. The twice married king Agnimitra of Vidisha falls in love with the princess of Vidarbha called Malavika by merely looking at her portrait. Later on Malavika happens to enter his principal wife Dharini’s entourage. Then, over a course of events punctuated with steady humour the affair is solemnized into a marriage of love and political convenience.

Kalidasa’s other popular play is Vikramorvashiyam. It is believed to celebrate his contemporary Gupta king Vikramaditya. The poet improvises on a love story found in the Puranas between the mortal king Pururavas and the celestial nymph Urvashi. Gods, demigods and mortals who populate the story with a romantic theme not only captures varied human emotions but also acts as a guidebook to the flora and fauna in the Himalayan slopes.

Besides being a playwright, he authored two of the most brilliant Mahakavyas or epic poems Raghuvamsham and KumaraSambhavam. In Raghuvamsham the Mahakavi traces the lives, times and values of the kings of the solar dynasty over nineteen cantos. It begins with Vivaswat, Manu, Dilipa, Raghu, Aja, Dasharatha, Rama, Kusha et al all the way up to Agnivarna through magnificent couplets.

Kumara Sambhavam revolves round the life of lord Shiva, who went on to become a recluse after his beloved wife Dakshayini jumped into the sacrificial fire unable to digest the insults heaped on her by her father. Dakshayini reincarnates as Parvathi at the behest of the Gods. She woos Shiva and begets a son who kills Tarakasura who was terrorizing the three worlds. Kalidasa indulges in some of his very best word painting in this epic poem.

Kalidasa was an all-rounder in the world of literature. Historians believe that he must have authored at least forty works in the areas of poetry, drama, criticism and commentary. Meghadutam, Ritusamharam, Kali Stotram, Shyamala Dandakam, Chandikadandaka stotra, Kavya nataka alankaram among others, happen to be a few of his works that are available today.

The number of influences, adaptations and improvisations of classical literature is omnipresent in the works of the Mahakavi. The content of Kalidasa’s works have been invariably sourced from Vedas, Puranas and the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Yet one cannot accuse him of plagiarism because he uses the broad framework and storyline from the original and lends his own special touch to his works by taking ample poetic liberty. He mellowed and molded his characters in such a way that they appealed to ones finer sensibilities and went on to become popular and set new standards. His readers and viewers prefer his version and interpretation of characters as compared to the original.

Kalidasa was unique and second to none in terms of style and presentation. In fact the phrase upama kalidasasya speaks in volumes about his ability to use apt similes to make a point. It is astonishing to note we know very little about Kalidasa who achieved great feats in every conceivable field of Sanskrit literature. Not much is known about him beyond his pen name. Kalidasa just means, the servant or a follower of goddess Kali which is but a common nomenclature. Folklore believes that Kalidasa was an unlettered shepherd who was tricked into marrying an erudite princess. When she discovered his ignorance, she bid him to claim her only after acquiring some basic education. Accordingly, Kalidasa prayed to goddess Kali vehemently and became enlightened with her blessings. History spans the date of Kalidasa over six centuries based on internal references in his works, historical and critical, and from inscriptions and edicts. It is obvious that any mortal could not have lived over six hundred years. Yet the fact remains that he must have lived sometime during this time bracket. His nativity is ambiguous though it is believed that he must have spent a lot of time in Ujjain because he gives a very detailed description of the place. Critics are divided about his patrons too. While some deem him to be one of the nine gems in the court of King Vikramaditya Gupta there are others who think Raja Bhoja patronised him. Stories about his death also vary from being a victim of jealousy of king Bhoja, to the greed of a courtesan who sheltered him.

Though there is abundant folk lore attached to the poet’s time, life and social status none of them are validated with evidence. Most things that we know about his life, place, date and works are sourced from later references, inscriptions and a deeper understanding of their works identified by their unique patterns. Western and modern historians and critics attribute this drawback to the sloppiness of Indians, who did not believe in documenting events or maintaining chronological records. Just about every detail of his life dwells in the realms of speculation.

Today Kalidasa and his works have been limited to academicians and their students. Most prescribed textbooks give limited and selective biographical information about Kalidasa who was an author, poet, dramatist and critic. A student or reader of the Mahakavi has to realise that there is more to it than what meets the eye. The person may be very different from the persona. Hence it will be in the best interests of the literary works not to judge them at the elementary stage of reading. One would do well to read all the possible works of the writer and then read about the person. This measure will help students and the reader to draw a holistic and mature opinion of the litterateur instead of being led by the nose.

We must realise that Indian achievers of the past were sensible and self-effacing people who maintained a low profile. Kalidasa must have belonged to this group of accomplished people with sterling qualities, who dedicated his works to the immediate society he lived in. The fact that his works have stood the test of time and has been translated into many languages of the world and the people world over want to know more about him speaks in volumes of his caliber both at the personal and professional levels.

A connoisseur of art and literature is called a rasika in Sanskrit. It is said that a consistent rasika can turn into a sahridaya or a good hearted person over a period of time. A passionate student of Kalidasa will find that he or she who begins savouring the rasas which are a combination of thoughts feelings and emotions becomes a rasika and has actually signed up for a lifelong rendezvous with the subject. Reading will help them introspect, relate and act to make a difference to the world they live in the capacity of a sahridaya!

About the Author - S. Radha Prathi

Radha Prathi is a freelance journalist, author, professor of English and Sanskrit literature, teacher of Carnatic classical music and the instrument Veena, radio artist, voice over artist and script writer in Hindi, Kannada and English. Besides she paints using a lot of mediums and she is also into traditional crafts and recycled arts and crafts. Her hobbies are reading, knitting, gardening and reflecting on the philosophy of everyday life.