Kalidas is widely acclaimed as the greatest poet and dramatist in classical Sanskrit literature. The biographical details of his life are shrouded in mystery, but popular legend as well as the odd clue from his poems hints to us that he lived in the Gupta Era, and may have enjoyed the patronage of Vikramaditya (Chandragupta II), who is renowned as the greatest of the Gupta Kings. This is partly due to Kalidas’s beautiful and emotion-stirring depictions of Ujjayini, a city (in today’s Madhya Pradesh) which Vikramaditya established as his capital, in his poems and plays. However, this is only in the realm of speculation.
There are numerous works that are attributed to him, but only seven of which can be said to have been authored by his hand with a degree of reliability. These include: two long epic poems, the Kumaarasambhava (‘Birth of Kumaara’) and the Raghuvamsha (‘Dynasty of Raghu’); two lyrical poems, Rtusamharam (‘The Gathering of the Seasons’), Meghadutam (‘The Cloud Messenger’); and three plays Malavikaagnimitra (Malavikaa and Agnimitra), Vikramorvashiiya (Urvashii Won through valour) and Abhijnanasakuntalam (‘The Recognition of Shakuntala’). The latter is the most famous of his works. It is based on a sub-story from the Mahabharata, about the beautiful forest dwelling girl Shakuntala, adopted daughter of the famous Rishi Kanva (her actual father was Vishwamitra). The great king of the realm, Dushyanta, accidentally meets Shakuntala, and falls in love with her. She was reluctant to respond to his advances, but he eventually manages to win her heart. He marries her in secret, and spends several days with her, without anybody’s knowledge, except for two of Shakuntala’s friends. Dushyanta then returns to his kingdom, assuring her that he will send for her shortly. As time passes by, he forgets everything that happened, under the influence of a curse. When Shakuntala turns up at her kingdom, with a son, he turns her away. Shakuntala is very upright and brave and chastises him in the court, but Dushyanta was not moved. It is only some time later that he realises his mistake and longs for Shakuntala and was eventually reunited with her. Their son, Bharata became the illustrious monarch after whom India is named!
His works portray all aspects of India’s vibrant life in their full vividness. Sri Aurobindo describes this wonderfully:
“India, her great mountains and forests and plains and their peoples, her men and women and the circumstances of their life, her animals, her cities and villages, her hermitages, rivers, gardens and tilled lands are the background of narrative and drama and love poem. He has seen it all and filled his mind with it and never fails to bring it before us vivid with all the wealth of description of which he is capable. Her ethical and domestic ideals, the life of the ascetic in the forest or engaged in meditation and austerity upon the mountains and the life of the householder, her familiar customs and social standards and observances, her religious notions, cult, symbols give the rest of the surroundings and the atmosphere. The high actions of gods and kings, the nobler or the more delicate human sentiments, the charm and beauty of women, the sensuous passion of lovers, the procession of the seasons and the scenes of Nature, these are his favourite subjects.”
There is no such thing as a wasted word in Kalidas’s work. An examination of his work reveals many meanings and significances in the smallest of details. The rhythms of nature, spirit, mind, society are brought out even in aspects of the plays and poems that one would tend to overlook as relatively unimportant, such as the colours, the ordering of trivial events, the absence and presence of companions on certain occasions. He had great understanding and sympathy of emotions and feelings of all the characters he portrayed and yet kept a transcendental and spiritual vision, and one can discern many larger significances and messages.
It is strongly recommended that any of you (readers of this article) who have a special interest in poetic and dramatically literature should read and make a study of Kalidas’s works. Us Hindus are currently in a stage where we are mostly ignorant of the richness of our heritage, not just in religion but in all aspects of life’s noblest endeavours. In the words of David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri):
“This may be a great loss not only for Hindus, but for the whole world. There are enough people in the world exploring mass media culture, writing superficially about political affairs or common human emotions. There are enough students studying Western philosophy and art. How many educated Hindus know Shakespeare and how many know great Hindu poets like Kalidas and Bhartrihari, Hindu poets and men of spiritual realization whose knowledge of consciousness dwarfed not only that of Shakespeare but that of Einstein ? Why aren’t there Kalidas festivals in India comparable to the Shakespeare festivals in England and other English speaking countries ? Why should the Hindu youth focus their studies on Western thinkers while much greater figures in the culture of India are ignored throughout the world? Why should they emulate such thinkers as Marx, Kant or Freud, when they have those from Shankara to Sri Aurobindo, who could contain the entire minds of all these Western thinkers in one corner of their much vaster awareness? India’s place is to pour forth the glory of the spirit through every cultural form. It should not merely conserve but also renew and expand its great spiritual cultural heritage, and allow the rest of the world to benefit from it.”