"Valmiki, Vyasa and Kalidasa are the essence of the history of ancient India", said Sri Aurobindo, "if all else were lost, they would still be its sole and sufficient cultural history." Yet, of the life of these three great poets we know very little. And the three plays and four poems of Kalidasa tell us nothing directly about himself. Even Mallinatha, the great commentator of Kalidasa, who lived in the XIVth century AD is silent about his life. As there was more than one author bearing the name of Kalidasa, the facts about one got mixed with that of the others creating confusing myths about his life story.
It is generally believed that Kalidasa was a native of Malava (ancient Avanti) and that he lived in its capital Ujjain (in today's Madhya Pradesh). It appears certain that Kalidasa knew Ujjain well and described the beauty of the city including its river, Kshipra. Yet Kalidasa's works show such a wealth of knowledge about the fauna and flora of different regions that many parts of India, including Bihar, Varanasi, Bengal, Kashmir and Vidarbha have laid claim to the honour of being the birth-place of the poet. For instance an author could remark that Kalidasa, being able to describe a flower of saffron, must have lived in Kashmir. Others said that his description of the Ganges prove that he was a native of Bengal, etc.
The date of Kalidasa's birth is also a subject of great debate. The Indian tradition regards Kalidasa as one of the nine ratnas (gems) that adorned the King Vikramaditya's court in Ujjain. But various kings in the history of ancient India called themselves by that title, Vikramaditya meaning "Sun of valour". Some scholars identify this Vikramaditya with the King who defeated the Shakas and established the Samvat era in 57 BC in Ujjain. Some others claim that the Vikramaditya in question is Chandragupta II (c. AD 375-414) of the Gupta dynasty. Various other dates have been proposed, so much so that a book like Kalidasa and His Times could present no less that five different theories, along with their arguments and counter-
arguments. In any case, it seems certain that the earliest limit would be the second century BC (as one of Kalidasa's plays Malavikagnimitra mentions some historical events of the Shunga period), and the latest limit would be the seventh century AD (as the name of Kalidasa was found in the Aihole inscription dated AD 634, and also in the Harshacharita of Bana, a court poet of emperor Harsha of Kanauj who reigned from AD 606 to 647). Indian scholarship tends to place Kalidasa earlier in history than Western scholarship.
Around this uncertainty, and probably because of it, a number of anecdotes, fanciful stories and legends have grown. Some belong to the Indian tradition, some to the Tibetan, and some to the Ceylonese tradition. It seems that anecdotes and folklores about Kalidasa began to emanate from the sixteenth century onwards.
According to some accounts, particularly the Tibetan tradition, Kalidasa was born to Brahmin parents and was orphaned soon after his birth. He was brought up by a cowherd and was so dumb that he would sit on the upper end of a branch of a tree and cut the lower part of it with an axe, the perfect example of an idiot. A wicked man, having been refused by the learned Vasanti, daughter of the king of Varanasi, wanted to take his revenge. He managed through some tricks to have her marry the young boy. After a few days, Vasanti discovered that her husband was an idiot and she ordered him out of the house. According to some stories, Kalidasa then undertook a tapasya and prayed to the goddess Kali. That is how he took the name of Kalidasa, the servant of Kali. The goddess was pleased and conferred on him high poetic genius. Then, a transformed man, he came back to the house. The door was closed. Kalidasa called his wife in Sanskrit: "anaavritakapaatam divaaram dehi" ("open the door") His learned wife was surprised to hear him speak in Sanskrit. She asked : "asti kashchit vaagvisheshah", that is to say: "Has some quality come into your speech?" Then Kalidasa is said to have taken the three words uttered by his wife, respectively asti, kashchit, and vaag, and written three poems, each one starting with one of these words. From asti came Kumarasambhava. From kashchit, Meghaduta and from vaag, Raghuvamsha.
We can find stories about Kalidasa in the tradition of Sri Lanka also. A Ceylonese work Parakramabahucharita which is five hundred years-old speak of Kalidasa's friendship with Kumaradasa, ruler of Ceylon, who was himself a good poet. Kalidasa is said to have lived in Ceylon and to have been murdered there by a courtesan. It
Shiva by Nandalal Bose. Courtesy: National Gallery of Modem Arts, Delhi
is recounted that when the body of Kalidasa was cremated, the King was so overwhelmed by grief that he leapt into the flames.
An Indian poet, Ballala of the sixteenth century AD also collected anecdotes about Kalidasa in his Bhojaprabandha, the life of king Bhoja, who reigned at Dhara in the Xth century. He speaks of Kalidasa's remarkable skill in rendering poems extempore composing a stanza on the spur of the moment with only a single line given to him.
Many anecdotes seem fanciful. But the facts that such legends abound testify to the immense popularity of Kalidasa. "Not only these, while travelling in trains and villages of India we find innumerable stories, very amusing and interesting regarding Kalidasa. All these show that Kalidasa does not live only among the scholars of India and abroad but he is equally one of the most beloved and dearest poets even among those who are not all acquainted with his works or who do not even know how to write and read. And Kalidasa perhaps lives as dearly and as lovingly among them as he does in the minds of the erudite scholars."*
What seems certain at any rate since it comes from a study of Kalidasa's writings themselves is that the extent of his knowledge was prodigious. He knew the Vedas, the Upanishads, the different Shastras, the epics. He must have travelled extensively in Northern India as he described the different kingdoms with their particular customs, manners and products, their geography, their streams and mountains and valleys. He described the trees, flowers, fruits of many regions. He portrayed the beauty of the Himalayas and the Ganges. He gave precise and minute descriptions of all kinds of birds. He possessed a great knowledge of music both vocal and instrumental. He was expert in three ragas of Indian music. He was familiar with the various strata of Indian society. His keen observation surveyed all sorts and conditions of men, princes and peasants, wise and worldly Brahmanas, fishermen and policemen. In fact his knowledge seems so extensive that some authors saw it fit to give him the title of Sarvajna: the all-knowing.**
*Kalpika Mukherjee, "Kalidasa in Legends" in Kalidasa: Afresh, (Delhi:
Nag Publishers, 1997), p. 4.
**N. Gangadharan, "Kalidasa as a Sarvajna" in Kalidasa: Afresh, (Delhi;
Nag Publishers, 1997), p. 50.
Parvati. Bronze, Tanjavur
Seven works are attributed to Kalidasa. Out of them, three are plays: Malavikagnimitra, Vikramorvashiya, Abhijnanashakuntalam, and four are poems, Ritusamhara (a descriptive poem), Meghaduta (a khandakavya)Raghuvamsha, and Kumarasambhava (two mahakavya or epic poems). There is no external evidence to ascertain the chronology of Kalidasa's works. However, judged on the base of internal evidence, a few remarks have been made, for instance that Ritusamhara seems to be an early work, and that of the three plays Malavikagnimitra must have been the first and Shakuntala the last.
Period in India's development
It is the work of scholars and historians to debate about the possible date of birth of Kalidasa. However what is important for a layman is not so much to know the precise dates of the poet's life as to under- stand how to situate Kalidasa in the history of the development of India.
The first period of the ancient history of India is supposed to have extended from an uncertain date up to the birth of Buddha, i.e 550 or 560 BC. It is also called the Vedic age or age of intuition. The Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads correspond to that age.
The second period is the age of Reason. The great epic literature (mainly the Ramayana and Mahabharata), great philosophical systems, codes and ethics, codes of statecraft, as also great sciences and arts, began to develop during this period. Valmiki and Vyasa are the great representatives of that period. Then,
Many centuries after these poets, perhaps a thousand years or even more, came the third embodiment of the national consciousness, Kalidasa.... There was everywhere noticeable a petrifying of the national temperament, visible to us in the tendency to codification; philosophy was being codified, morals were being codified, knowledge of any and every sort was being codified; it was on one side of its nature an age of scholars, legislators, dialecticians, philosophical formalisers. On the other side, the creative and aesthetic enthusiasm of the nation was pouring itself into things material, into the life of the senses, into the pride of life and beauty. ... I do not think, indeed, it can be maintained that this period, call it classical or material or what one will, was marked off from its predecessor by any clear division: such a partition would be contrary to the law of human development. Almost all the concrete features of the age may be found as separate facts in ancient India:
codes existed from old time; art and drama were of fairly ancient origin, to whatever date we may assign their development; physical Yoga processes existed almost from the first, and the material development portrayed in the Ramayana and Mahabharata is hardly less splendid than that of which the Raghuvamsha is so brilliant a picture.
But whereas before, these were subordinated to more lofty ideals, now they prevailed and became supreme, occupying the best energies of the race and stamping themselves on its life and consciousness. In obedience to this impulse the centuries between the rise of Buddhism and the advent of Shankaracharya became — though not agnostic and sceptical, for they rejected violently the doctrines of Charvak — yet profoundly scientific and outward-going even in their spiritualism. It was therefore the great age of for- malised metaphysics, science, law, art and the sensuous luxury which accompanies the arts.
Nearer the beginning than the end of this period, when India was systematising her philosophies and developing her arts and sciences, turning from Upanishad to Purana, from the high rarefied peaks of early Vedanta and Sankhya with their inspiring sublimities and bracing keenness to physical methods of ascetic Yoga and the dry intellectual- ism of metaphysical logic or else to the warm sensuous humanism of emotional religion, before its full tendencies had asserted themselves, in some spheres before it had taken the steps its attitude portended, Kalidasa arose in Ujjayini and gathered up in himself its present tendencies while he foreshadowed many of its future developments.*
*Sri Aurobindo, "The Age of Kalidasa", in Centenary Edition, Vol III, (Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972) p 221-222.
The Birth of Kumara
Although it is believed by most critics that only the first eight cantos are from Kalidasa, the poem contains seventeen cantos and describes the birth of Kumara (also named Karttikeya) and his fight against the asuras. We give here a summary of the last nine cantos, so that the reader gets a glimpse of the totality of the story.
Canto 9: While Shiva was savouring the pleasures of love, a pigeon who was no other than Agni entered the chamber and sought on behalf of Indra and the gods a commander to lead the godly hosts against the demon Taraka. Shiva deposited his semen in Fire.
Canto 10. Then Agni bearing Shiva's semen approached Indra and was advised to cast it in the Ganges, who would receive it. The seed of Shiva passed from Agni to the Ganges, and it emerged pure from her. The Krittikas (the stars of the Pleiades) went to the Ganges for bathing and received the semen. The Krittikas, unable to bear it, cast it in a forest of reeds and from it was born, with immeasurable splendour, a child with six mouths.
Canto 11. There was a great dispute between the Ganges, the Krittikas and Agni as to who would take the divine child. Shiva and Parvati came to that place and Parvati was told by Shiva that it was her own son. Parvati then took hold of the child. The child attained on his sixth day fresh youth and talents and he became a master of all weapons.
Canto 12. Indra came with all the gods to Shiva's palace. Shiva appointed his son to the command of the divine armies. Kumara accepted the command of his father and Indra was overjoyed.
Canto 13. Kumara followed by the gods, traversed the path of stars and reached heaven. Kashyapa and the mother of the gods blessed him and the gods and Kumara marched forth to fight against Taraka.
Canto 14. The army marched on and rent the skies with their war-cries.
Canto 15. The great demons trembled with fear. Evil portents appeared before them. But they marched forth.
Canto 16. A great battle was fought in which the two armies clashed violently together. Taraka advanced to Indra and the other gods to fight against them.
Canto 17. Kumara killed Taraka, chopping off his head. Indra and the gods praised the might of their leader.
Kumarasambhava and the Puranas
The legend is an ancient one in Hindu mythology. The story of the conception of Kumara is found in the two epics (Ramayana, Balakanda, chap. 36-37 and Mahabharata, Vanaparva, chap 223-231). The marriage of Shiva and Parvati is related in a few Puranas, particularly in the Brahma-Purana, the Skanda-Purana and in the Shiva- Purana. The version in the Shiva-Purana is quite detailed: its Parvati- khanda starts with the marriage of Himavan and ends with Shiva and Parvati's marriage. However it is not certain that Kalidasa borrowed from the Puranas. It is more likely that the Shiva-Purana was the borrower. As to Kalidasa's specific sources they are unknown.
As the reader might be interested to have a taste of the narration in the Puranas, we present here a short extract of Shiva-Purana describing Parvati's tapasya.
29. Discarding all the fine clothes of her taste, she wore tree- barks and the fine girdle of Munja grass.
30. She eschewed necklace and wore the pure deerskin. She arrived at Gangavatarana* for performing penance.**
31. The Gangavatarana was in the Himalayan ridge where Kama was burnt by Siva who was performing meditation.
32. Oh dear, that Himalayan ridge devoid of Siva was painfully seen by Parvati, the mother of the universe, the daughter of the mountain.
33. She stood for a while in the place where formerly Siva had performed penance and became dispirited by the pangs of separation.
34. Crying aloud "Alas 0 Siva", she, the daughter of the mountain,
* It is a sacred place celebrated in the Matsya and Vayu Puranas where the river Ganga emerges from the Bindu Sarovara through visible outlets and subterranean channels.
* The reader will note with dismay that fifty years after independence, when Indian scholarship should have abandoned the misconceptions of Western critics, the word tapasya. is still translated by "penance".
lamented sorrowfully and anxiously.
35. Suppressing the delusion with fortitude after a long time Parvati, the daughter of Himavat, got herself initiated for the observance of ritualistic activities.
36. She performed penance in the excellent holy centre Srngitirtha which (later) acquired the title "Gauri-Sikhara" due to her performance of penance thereon.
37. 0 sage, many beautiful holy plants were laid there by Parvati for testing the fruitfulness of her penance.
38. Neatly cleaning the ground, the beautiful lady built the altar. Then the penance, difficult to be performed even by the sages, was begun.
39. Suppressing her sense-organs with her mind, she started the great penance in a place within the proximity.
40. In the summer she kept a perpetually blazing fire all round and remaining within continued muttering the mantra.
41. In the rainy season she continuously remained sitting on the bare ground on the rock and got herself drenched by the downpour of rain.
42. During the winter, with great devotion she remained in water throughout. During snowfall and in the nights too she performed her penance observing fast.
43. Performing such austerities and engrossed in the muttering of the five-syllabled mantra, Parvati meditated on Siva, the bestower of fruits of our cherished desires.
44. Everyday during leisure time she used to water the trees planted by her along with her maids and extended acts of hospitality.
45. Chill gusts of wind, cool showers, and unbearable heat she bore with equanimity.
46. Different sorts of worries she did not mind at all. 0 sage, fixing her mind in Siva alone she remained firm and steady.
47. The first year she spent in taking fruits, the second in taking leaves, m the course of her penance. She spent many years thus.
48. Then Shiva, the daughter of Himavat, eschewed even the leaves. She did not take any food. She was engrossed in the performance of penance.
49. Since she, the daughter of Himavat, eschewed leaves from her diet, she was called Aparna by the gods.
50. Then Parvati performed great penance standing on one leg
and remembering Siva, she continued muttering the five-syllabled mantra.
51. Clad in barks of trees, wearing matted hair and eager in the meditation of Siva, she surpassed even sages by her penance.
52. Parvati thus spent three thousand years in the penance-grove performing penance and meditating on lord Siva.
53. Remaining for a short while in the place where Siva had performed penance for sixty thousand years, Parvati thought like this:
54. Does not the Supreme lord know me observing these ritualistic activities now? Wherefore am I not followed by him though engaged in penance?
55. In the Sastras and the Vedas, lord Siva is always sung in praise by the sages as the bestower of welfare, omniscient, all-pervading and all-seer.
56. The lord is the bestower of all riches, the moulder of fine emotions, the bestower of the desires of devotees and the remover of their distress.
57. If I am devoted to the bull-bannered lord, discarding all desires, may He be pleased with me.
58. If the mantra of the Narada Tantra, consisting of five syllables has been continuously repeated by me with great devotion may He be pleased with me.
59. If I am a devotee without aberrations of Siva, the lord of all, may He be extremely pleased with me.
60. Pondering frequently like this incessantly, she performed penance for a long time, with her face turned downwards, her apparel of bark and mind without aberrations.
61. She performed penance difficult to be performed even by the sages, so much so that people were struck with surprise.
62. All of them came there to witness her penance. Considering themselves blessed, they proclaimed thus approvingly.
63. "To follow the standard of the virtuous personages is declared to be conducive to greatness. There is no delimitation in penance. Virtue shall be honoured by the wise always.
64. "After seeing or hearing about the penance of this lady what penance will be pursued by a man? A penance greater than this has never been before, nor will it ever be."
65. Saying thus, they praised the penance of Parvati and joyously returned to their abodes. Even persons of sturdy countenance praised her penance.
Parvati - Kailashnath temple (photo: O. Barot)
66. 0 sage, listen to another surprising influence of the penance of Parvati, the mother of the universe.
67. Even the inimical beings in and around her hermitage became free from animosity due to her power.
68. Lions and cows prone to the passions of love, hatred, etc., ceased to harass one another, thanks to her greatness.
69. 0 excellent sage, creatures like cats, mice, etc., who are born enemies to one another did not exhibit any bad characteristics there.
70. 0 excellent sage, trees bore fruits, grasses grew in plenty and flowers of variegated nature and colour blossomed there.
71. The entire forest became comparable to Kailasa as it were the achievement of her penance.
Taken from: The Siva-Purana translated by a board of scholars, Part II, Rudreshvara Samhita, Parvatikhanda, chapter 22, verse 29-71, (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1997), p. 556-559.
"Scholarly translations of Kalidasa into English have generally been of poor literary quality": such is the opinion of H. Heifetz who himself translated Kumarasambhava. Heifetz's main concern was to underline the correspondence between emotion and rhythm. How could a translator render the emotional content of the different rhythms used by the poet? For no less that eight different meters are used in the Kumarasambhava, and each canto is composed in a specific meter, with a change in the final stanza or last two stanzas. As Heifetz says, "The best Sanskrit poetry links the emotional possibilities of each fixed meter with a great range of meaning and sound to produce effects matched in the West perhaps only by the great Latin poets." Obviously a great challenge for the translator is to recreate, if at all possible, some of these effects in another language.
Another difficulty lies in translating words which have no equivalent in English or which, even when translatable, do not at all convey the same association to a person not familiar with Sanskrit. As Sri Aurobindo remarks, "The life and surroundings in which Indian poetry moves cannot be rendered in the terms of English poetry". A literal translation would be abstruse and bad poetry. And
Sri Aurobindo adds, "the business of poetical translation is to reproduce not the exact words, but the exact image, associations and poetical beauty and flavour of the original."
As an example, we reproduce here the first four stanzas of Kumarasambhava. This is but a short extract of the first canto, which opens on a description of Himalaya, seen at the same time as a god, as a mountain and as a living being. The reader will find side by side the Sanskrit text and two different renderings by Sri Aurobindo.
अस्त्युित्तरस्यां दिशि देवतात्मा हिमालयो नाम नगाधिराजः ।
पूर्वापरौ तोयनिधि वगाह्य स्थितः पृथिव्या इव मानदण्डः ।।1।।
यं सर्वशैलाः परिकल्प वत्सं मेरौ स्थिते दोग्धरि दोहदक्षे ।
भास्वन्ति रत्नानि महौषधीश्च पृथूपदिष्टां दुदुहुर्धरित्रीम् ।।2।।
अनन्तरत्नप्रभवस्य यस्य हिमं न सौभाग्यविलोपि जातम् ।
एको हि दोषो गुणसंनिपाते निमज्जतीन्दोः किरणेष्वङ्कः || 3 ||
यश्चाप्सरोविभ्रममण्डनानां संपादयित्रीं शिखरैर्बिभति ।
वलाहंकच्छेदविभक्तराहाामकालसंध्यामिव धातुमत्ताम् | | 4 | |
First rendering by Sri Aurobindo:
A God mid hills northern Himaloy rears
His snow-piled summits' dizzy majesties And in the eastern and the western seas
He bathes his giant sides; lain down appears
Measures the dreaming earth in an enormous ease.
Him, it is told, the living mountains made
A mighty calf of earth, the mother large, When Meru of that milking had the charge
By Prithu bid, and jewels brilliant-rayed
Were brightly born and herbs on every mountain marge.
So is he in his infinite riches dressed
Not all his snows can slay that opulence.
As drowned in luminous floods the mark though dense
On the moon's argent disc; so faints oppressed
One fault mid crowding virtues fading from our sense.
Brightness of minerals on his peaks outspread
In their love-sports and in their dances gives
To heavenly nymphs adornment, which when drive
The split clouds across, those broken hues displayed
Like an untimely sunset's magic glories live.
Another rendering of the same passage by Sri Aurobindo:
A god concealed in mountain majesty,
Embodied to our cloudy physical sight
In snowy summits and green-gloried slopes,
To northward of the many-rivered land,
Measuring the earth in an enormous ease, .
Immense Himaloy dwells and in the moan
Of eastern ocean and in western floods
Plunges his giant sides. Him once the hills
Imagined as the mighty calf of Earth
When the wideness milked her udders; gems brilliant-rayed
Were born and herbs on every mountain marge.
So in his infinite riches is he dressed,
Not all his snows can slay his opulence,
And though they chill the feet of heaven, her sons
Forget that fault mid all his crowding gifts,
As faints in luminous floods the gloomy mark
On the moon's argent disc; they choose his vales
For playground, his hill-peaks for divine homes.
Brightness of minerals on his rocks is spread
Which to the Apsaras give adorning hues
In their love-sports and in their dances; flung
On the split clouds in their brilliant colours ranged,
Like an untimely sunset's glories live.
1) on Kumarasambhava
— Sri Aurobindo. Kalidasa, The Birth of the War-God, three renderings. Centenary Edition, vol. VIII, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo
— Sri Aurobindo. Notes on the Kumarasambhavam. Centenary Edition, Vol III, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972.
— Heifetz, Hank. The Origin of the Young God, Kalidasa's Kumarasambhava, Translated with Annotation and an Introduction. Delhi:
Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1990.
— Kalidasa. Kalidasa's Kumarasambhava, Cantos I-VIII. Edited with the commentary of Mallinatha, a Literal English Translation, Notes and Introduction by
M.R. Kale. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1981.
— Kalidasa. Kumarasambhavam of Kalidasa, Fifth Canto. Text and English Translation, Edited by Dr Rabindra Kumar Panda, with Introduction, Text, English
and Hindi translations and Notes. Delhi: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, 1999.
— Suryakanta. Kalidasa's vision of Kumarasambhava. New Delhi:
Meharchand Lachhmandas Publications, 1963.
2) on Kalidasa and his other works
— Aggarwal, Vinod. The Imagery of Kalidasa. Delhi: Eastern Book Linkers, 1985.
— Sri Aurobindo. Kalidasa. Centenary Edition, Vol III, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972.
— Sri Aurobindo. The Foundations of Indian Culture. Centenary Edition, Vol. XIV, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972.
— Bhatt, H.D. "Shailesh". The Story of Kalidas. New Delhi:
Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt of India, 1992.
— Devadhar, C.R. Works of Kalidasa. Edited by with an exhaustive Introduction, Translation and Critical and Explanatory Notes (Two volumes). Delhi:
Motilal Banarsidass, 1986.
— Jain, K.C. Kalidasa and his Times. Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan,
1990. — Kalidasa. Kalidasa, The Loom of Time, Translated from Sanskrit
and Prakrit with an Introduction by Chandra Rajan. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1989.
—Kalidasa. The Plays of Kalidasa, Theater of Memory, Edited by Barbara Stoler Miller. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1999.
— Krishnamoorthy, K. Kalidasa. New Delhi: Sahitya Academi, 1994.
— Kalidasa: Afresh (Prof. S.N. Rath Felicitation Volume) Nag Publisher, Delhi 1997.
Shiva and Parvati in one body:
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