« In a gloomy closed room I sit alone
And read the Megaduta.
My mind leaves the room…”
What great secret lies in the Megaduta that it has the power to make a man like Rabindranath Tagore lose his mind? In the surrounding darkness of a closed room, the Indian poet unfolds the swirling syllables of another poet, having lived many centuries before him, with revered piety. When Gitanjali meets Shakuntala, when Chitra beholds Sita, when the modern mystic embraces ancient deities, bewilderment is bound to arise. Kalidasa’s poetry has burnt cultural frontiers, shattered occidental certainties and unlocked the mysteries beneath Sanskrit language. Many have experienced the dissolution of their minds upon reading Kalidasa. Goethe affirmed that Kalidasa partakes of the triple genius of Homer, Theocritus and Du Tasse. Alphonse de Lamartine spoke of the epic and dramatic sanskrit masterpieces as a blending of the Bible’s pastoral beauty, of Eschyle’s pathos and Racine’s passion. Theophile Gautier directed a ballet called Sacountala in 1858 in Paris. Camille Claudel worked during two years on a sculpture which depicted the fiery embrace of two beings, locked in burning passion and named it Shakuntala.
In 1814, Antoine-Léonard Chézy, who occupied the first academic chair for Sanskrit language and literature at the College de France admitted that his interest for one of the oldest languages of humanity, stemmed out from his mistrust towards William Jones’ translation of Abhijnanashakuntalam in 1789: “Is all this really in the original Indian version?”. Overwhelmed by such poetic wonders, in quest of truth, he thus decided to study the language first so that he could verify the authenticity of Jones’ translation. In The Book of Love, Rumi once said: “There are thousands of wines that can take over our minds”. Such respected recognition from so many brilliant minds proves how profound and potent Kalidasa’s wine of poetry really is.
Some say he concealed the different names of God in each of his poetical verses. Others say he is the Shakespeare of India. From the thwarted love between a king and a servant in Malavikagnimitram to the fiery passion between a lord and a celestial nymph in Vikramorvasiyam, from the strong lineage of the Raghus in Raghuvamsam to the fiery war of Kumara in Kumarasambhavam, from the singing spirits in The recognition of Shakuntala to the enchanting cloud-messenger in Megaduta, Kalidasa’s refined Sanskrit takes us at the doorstep of mythical worlds, where tradition and rituals all tend to sustain certain spiritual ideologies.
“Eight forms has Shiva, Lord of all and king.
And these are water, first created thing;
And fire, which speeds the sacrifice begun;
The priest; and time’s dividers, moon and sun;
The all-embracing ether, path of sound;
The earth, wherein all seeds of life are found;
And air, the breath of life: may he draw near,
Revealed in these, and bless those gathered here”.
Thus begins the prologue which acted as a benediction upon the audience, in The recognition of Shakuntala. Like an evanescent mist in the literary scenery of ancient India, Kalidasa’s life lies buried in the hidden recesses of the legendary past. Not much is known about him. It is of common agreement that he must have written his works between the 4th and the 5th century AD. That India, at that time, already had such a talented poet in its midst, familiar with theatrical antics, devoted to philosophy, is a marvel which shows how advanced the civilisation was at that time. Shakuntala is more than the mere story of a repudiated forest girl who is entangled in a web of tormented love, divine intrusions and harsh curses. Raghuvamsam is not only the chronological depiction of the Raghu lineage and Kumarasambhavam seemingly follows the evolution of Kumara but is wrought with many deep subtleties. While recounting the apparently tranquil voyage of a cloud to a forlorn lady, Megaduta abounds in spiritual knowledge. From carnal love to spiritual love, from rich kingdoms to forest retreats, Kalidasa’s characters evolve on the paths of artha (wealth) and kama (passion) in the hope of perpetuating dharma (righteousness) to attain moksha (liberation). In Kumarasambhavam, he praises Brahma. In Raghuvamsam, he glorifies Vaishnavism by establishing the lineage of Rama. In later works, Shiva is presented as the main deity who presides over the narrative plots. This plurality has led to many questionings about Kalidasa’s spiritual affiliations. Many would say that he portrays all these divinities and paths to show that these manifestations are but reflections of a core principle, a unique entity. That is why Kalidasa has often been viewed as a Vedantin.
Even though his plays are reminiscent of desire and love between powerful kings and long-forgotten princesses, ambitious courtesans and poor servants, there are secret regions within his poetry that reveal a complexity beyond words, beyond mind, as Tagore would say. He compared the “stanzas” of Kalidasa to “dark layered sonorous clouds”. By her birth itself, Shakuntala does not belong to the earthly realm as her mother Menaka is a celestial nymph and her father Vishwamitra is the most powerful sage of all times. Born out of a desire which has been willed by the gods to tamper the powers of Vishwamitra, she is the child of the disturbed penance of a sage and the cunning feminine seduction of a nymph. Dangling between humanity and divinity, she is prey to a long-lasting curse and is unable to cross the threshold between the forest girl that she is and the queen that she should be. After being afflicted by the tortuous pangs of separation, the lovers meet again but not on an earthly abode. Rebuked by the king, she was taken to a hermitage, situated in a realm beyond the world of mortals and it is there that they are reunited after so many years.
That unknown realm, between earth and the universe can only be attained by going through the cycles of loss and grief first. Awakening can arise after having passed through the fire of time, the alleviation of carnal love and the promulgation of detachment. Being denied of royal robes, Shakuntala wears the “hermit’s dress of bark”. Upon beholding the pains that love incurs, Sharngarava, a disciple of sage Kanva, says: “Thus does unbridled levity burn, be slow to love but yet more slow with secret mate”. Kalidasa’s philosophy is anchored in the clown’s final wise words: “A good man never lets grief get the upper hand. The mountains are calm even in a tempest”. Shakuntala might be seen as a tale of gradual enlightenment where the “thing feared as fire” and felt to be the “jewel of desire” is tamed, where the “struggling fancies like silken banners borne against the wind” are subdued, where the “wreath of wild flowers” on the king’s head dwindles away. Kanva’s wisdom still resounds from afar: “Do not weep my child. Be brave. Look at the path before you. True wisdom gives insight into everything”. After the ordeals, comes light in the form of the Bharata, the son of Shakuntala, the one who is the founder of the illustrious Indian lineage.
This passage to deeper spiritual abodes can also be seen in Megaduta. The voyage of the cloud-messenger symbolises the unveiling of higher truths. The travelling from Vaishnavite to Saivite sanctuaries reveals a religious evolution. The forlorn husband regresses back to Ramgiri after being the object of a curse while the lamenting wife pines in the Himalayas, where “Ganga comes thundering down, tugging at Shiva with a thousand foamy arms” amidst “distant ice shrouded peaks, lost in silent eternal meditation”, “pearly peaks” which look like “a frozen pageant of Shiva’s laughter”. Ramgiri is filled with “sunbaked flanks” and the yaksha, the celestial being who is deprived of his wife, begs the cloud to “turn his face” “to the distant north peaks”. Has Kalidasa willingly confronted the Vaishnavite and the Saivite traditions to highlight diverging ideologies?
The spiritual Vedic heritage can also be perceived in the beauteous powers of Nature. The higher gods of the Rigveda are depicted as manifestations of natural phenomena such as dawn, fire, wind. Everything in the world seems to be impregnated with divine scents, secret symbols which open gateways to higher levels of consciousness. The horses “leave the rising dust behind, they seem to float upon the wind”. Upon approaching the hermitage, the king exclaims: “Things at my side in an instant appear distant, and things in the distance, near”. The inextricable link between animality, humanity and divinity is wonderfully highlighted in the exhortation of the hermit to the king, pertaining to the chase of a deer: “Why should his tender form expire, as blossoms perish in the fire? How could that gentle life endure the deadly arrow, sharp and sure? To you, were weapons lent, the broken-hearted to deliver, not strike the innocent”.
Kalidasa’s poetical legacy reconciles us with ancient Vedic philosophy which teaches us how to “view the worldly crew as in a house all lapped about with flames” and how to stay detached from the whirlpools of emotions and the ceaseless rantings of the mind. The “recognition” of the “ring” of Shakuntala is the realisation of the cyclic nature of impermanent phenomenons. As Jules Lemaître once said: “The ring of Shakuntala signifies the quick and clear revelation of our superior destinies”. To such state reaches the supreme Raghu in Raghuvamsam who reaches that sacred stage where a clod of earth and a piece of gold mean the same thing… Kalidasa’s name itself holds the potent metamorphosis of the self through the corridors of the ages and multiple births. Just as Kali unearths the various layers of her Self through her erratic dance and frenzied destruction, Kalidasa touches the poetic portals of such deep metamorphosis through the Sanskrit language. Kalidasa or the servant of Kali, servant of the Self, servant of the Supreme…