Read Full Epic Tale ‘Abhijñānaśākuntalam’ in English

This is a well-known story in India, occurring earlier in the Mahabharata, but immortalized by India’s most famous classical poet, Kalidasa.  In passing I wish to make the point that stories in India are always re-told, which makes no one version of them authoritative.  This story has also been retold many times—there are even studies about the implications of these retellings—but I think I would like to regard it as a story of India, of one of its originary myths, this story of Shakuntala and Dushyanta.  The first thing to remember is that above all, it is very much a love story, and it might be described as a story of found, lost and found love.  So the story of India is also a story of love.  Now why is this the story of India?  The conventional answer is that from the union of Dushyanta and Shakuntala is born the child, the boy Bharata, after whom—according to one of the theories—India got its pre-British and pre-Islamic name, Bharatavarsha.  Even today, the linguistic Hindi equivalent for constitutional appellation “Republic of India” is “Bharat Ganarajya.”

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Once that strong-armed king, with a mighty host of men and chariots, entered a thick wood. Then when the king had slain thousands of wild creatures, he entered another wood with his troops and his chariots, intent on pursuing a deer. And the king beheld a wonderful, beautiful hermit-age on the bank of the sacred river Malini; on its bank was the beautiful hermitage of blessed, high-souled Kanva, whither the great sages resorted. Then the king determined to enter, that he might see the great sage Kanva, rich in holiness. He laid aside the insignia of royalty and went on alone, but did not see the austere sage in the hermitage. Then, when he did not see the sage, and perceived that the hermitage was deserted, he cried aloud, “Who is here?” until the forest seemed to shriek. Hearing his cry, a maiden, lovely as Shri, came from the hermitage, wearing a hermit garb. “Welcome!” she said at once, greeting him, and smilingly added: “What may be done for you?” Then the king said to the sweet-voiced maid: “I have come to pay reverence to the holy sage Kanva. Where has the blessed one gone, sweet girl? Tell me this, lovely maid.”

Shakuntala said: “My blessèd father has gone from the hermitage to gather fruits. Wait a moment. You shall see him when he returns.”

The king did not see the sage, but when the lovely girl of the fair hips and charming smile spoke to him, he saw that

she was radiant in her beauty, yes, in her hard vows and self-restraint all youth and beauty, and he said to her:

“Who are you? Whose are you, lovely maiden? Why did you come to the forest? Whence are you, sweet girl, so lovely and so good? Your beauty stole my heart at the first glance. I wish to know you better. Answer me, sweet maid.”

The maiden laughed when thus questioned by the king in the hermitage, and the words she spoke were very sweet: “O Dushyanta, I am known as blessed Kanva’s daughter, and he is austere, steadfast, wise, and of a lofty soul.”

Dushyanta said: “But he is chaste, glorious maid, holy, honoured by the world. Though virtue should swerve from its course, he would not swerve from the hardness of his vow. How were you born his daughter, for you are beautiful? I am in great perplexity about this. Pray remove it.”

[Shakuntala here explains how she is the child of a sage and a nymph, deserted at birth, cared for by birds (shakuntas), found and reared by Kanva, who gave her the name Shakuntala.]

Dushyanta said: “You are clearly a king’s daughter, sweet maiden, as you say. Become my lovely wife. Tell me, what shall I do for you? Let all my kingdom be yours to-day. Become my wife, sweet maid.”

Shakuntala said: “Promise me truly what I say to you in secret. The son that is born to me must be your heir. If you promise, Dushyanta, I will marry you.”

“So be it,” said the king without thinking, and added: “I will bring you too to my city, sweet-smiling girl.”

So the king took the faultlessly graceful maiden by the hand and dwelt with her. And when he had bidden her be of good courage, he went forth, saying again and again: “I will send a complete army for you, and tell them to bring my sweet-smiling bride to my palace.” When he had made this promise, the king went thoughtfully to find Kanva. “What will he do when he hears it, this holy, austere man?” he wondered, and still thinking, he went back to his capital.

Now the moment he was gone, Kanva came to the hermit-age. And Shakuntala was ashamed and did not come to meet her father. But blessed, austere Kanva had divine discernment. He discovered her, and seeing the matter with celestial vision, he was pleased and said: “What you have done, dear, to-day, forgetting me and meeting a man, this does not break the law. A man who loves may marry secretly the woman who loves him without a ceremony; and Dushyanta is virtuous and noble, the best of men. Since you have found a loving husband, Shakuntala, a noble son shall be born to you, mighty in the world.”

Sweet Shakuntala gave birth to a boy of unmeasured prowess. His hands were marked with the wheel, and he quickly grew to be a glorious boy. As a six years’ child in Kanva’s hermitage he rode on the backs of lions, tigers, and boars near the hermitage, and tamed them, and ran about playing with them. Then those who lived in Kanva’s hermitage gave him a name. “Let him be called All-tamer,” they said: “for he tames everything.”

But when the sage saw the boy and his more than human deeds, he said to Shakuntala: “It is time for him to be anointed crown prince.” When he saw how strong the boy was, Kanva said to his pupils: “Quickly bring my Shakuntala and her son from my house to her husband’s palace. A long abiding with their relatives is not proper for married women. It destroys their reputation, and their character, and their virtue; so take her without delay.” “We will,” said all the mighty men, and they set out with Shakuntala and her son for Gajasahvaya.

When Shakuntala drew near, she was recognised and invited to enter, and she said to the king: “This is your son, O King. You must anoint him crown prince, just as you promised before, when we met.”

When the king heard her, although he remembered her, he said: “I do not remember. To whom do you belong, you wicked hermit-woman? I do not remember a union with you for virtue, love, and wealth. 1 Either go or stay, or do whatever you wish.”

When he said this, the sweet hermit-girl half fainted from shame and grief, and stood stiff as a pillar. Her eyes darkened with passionate indignation; her lips quivered; she seemed to consume the king as she gazed at him with sidelong glances. Concealing her feelings and nerved by anger, she held in check the magic power that her ascetic

life had given her. She seemed to meditate a moment, overcome by grief and anger. She gazed at her husband, then spoke passionately: “O shameless king, although you know, why do you say, ‘I do not know,’ like any other ordinary man?”

Dushyanta said: “I do not know the son born of you, Shakuntala. Women are liars. Who will believe what you say? Are you not ashamed to say these incredible things, especially in my presence? You wicked hermit-woman, go!”

Shakuntala said: “O King, sacred is holy God, and sacred is a holy promise. Do not break your promise, O King. Let your love be sacred. If you cling to a lie, and will not believe, alas! I must go away; there is no union with a man like you. For even without you, Dushyanta, my son shall rule this foursquare earth adorned with kingly mountains.”

When she had said so much to the king, Shakuntala started to go. But a bodiless voice from heaven said to Dushyanta: “Care for your son, Dushyanta. Do not despise Shakuntala. You are the boy’s father. Shakuntala tells the truth.”

When he heard the utterance of the gods, the king joyfully said to his chaplain and his ministers: “Hear the words of this heavenly messenger. If I had received my son simply because of her words, he would be suspected by the world, he would not be pure.”

Then the king received his son gladly and joyfully. He kissed his head and embraced him lovingly. His wife also Dushyanta honoured, as justice required. And the king soothed her, and said: “This union which I had with you was hidden from the world. Therefore I hesitated, O Queen, in order to save your reputation. And as for the cruel words you said to me in an excess of passion, these I pardon you, my beautiful, great-eyed darling, because you love me.”

Then King Dushyanta gave the name Bharata to Shakuntala’s son, and had him anointed crown prince.

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