The Recognition of Shakuntala, the greatest work by classical Indian playwright Kalidasa and perhaps the most renowned Sanskrit play, is a very lush work. The setting is marked by the beauties of the forested Himalayan foothills, where the young hermitage-dwelling girl, Shakuntala, falls in love with King Dusyanta. As the action develops—Shakuntala and the King falling in love, being separated by a curse, and ultimately reuniting, after years of grief-filled waiting, in a celestial hermitage—the play develops a connection between the external appearances and deeper inner truths: first, the natural world reflects the interior state of the main characters, and then similarly, the bodies of these characters manifest the condition of their hearts. As the play goes on, this connection continues, but becomes less straightforward: youthful physical beauty gives way to a more subdued spiritual vibrancy by the final act. Through this progression, Kalidasa argues that the highest manifestation of beauty is actually that which has been developed through suffering, because it reveals a deeper spiritual refinement.
The natural world of the play reflects human romantic desire, especially in Shakuntala’s case, because her years of devotion to the hermitage trees have created such a strong bond between her and the natural world. This bond establishes a basic correspondence in the play between the natural world and human emotional/spiritual states. Shakuntala’s beloved jasmine tree, Light of the Forest, whom she says she would only forget to water “when I forget myself,” is a symbol of her own impending union with King Dusyanta. In a suggestive passage hinting that she herself is ripe for romance, Shakuntala dreamily remarks, “[T]he union of this tree and this jasmine has taken place at the most wonderful time—the jasmine is a young plant, covered in fresh blossoms, the mango has soft buds, and is ready for enjoyment…”
When Shakuntala confides in her friend Priyamvada about her love for King Dusyanta, Priyamvada affirms that Shakuntala’s attraction to a king is only natural: “My dear, how lucky, then, that your desire’s at one with nature. Where should a great river wend, if not to the sea? What plant’s lush enough for the jasmine to entwine, if not the mango?”
After marrying King Dusyanta in secret, when Shakuntala departs from the forest to join her husband in the capital, the trees themselves bless her: “It was a tree itself spun this moon-white cloth, / And a tree that oozed lac to redden her feet, / And gods of the trees that conjured these jewels, / Hands sprouting from branches like fresh green shoots.” A voice in the forest air even speaks a blessing for Shakuntala’s auspicious journey into married life.
Shakuntala is so closely associated with the natural habitat of her youth that her desires are expressed in terms of the beauty and fecundity of the forest. But in the play this association between inner human feelings and outer realities isn’t entirely unique to her. Emotional states like love and grief manifest in the characters’ bodies as well. As the play goes on, their physical states reflect their feelings just as the natural world reflects Shakuntala’s. For instance, in the world of the play, lovesickness isn’t a metaphor, but a real physical malady that reveals the state of characters’ hearts. In Act III, when Dusyanta is in doubt about Shakuntala’s love for him, her physical state makes it plain: “Now, is it the heat, or is it the heart […]? / Her breasts are smeared with lotus balm, / Her fiber bracelet slips her wrist, / Her body’s wracked—and lovely still, / The summer sears her—but so does love, / And love with greater skill.” In other words, her pining for Dusyanta manifests in symptoms even more blatant than those of heatstroke.
The king also suffers in harmony with his beloved: “My golden bracelet […] / […] shuttles up and down my arm, made slim / By love’s cruel wastage of my bow-scarred limbs.” In other words, the bodies of both characters are fundamentally connected to and affected by their inner emotional conditions. While their physical lovesickness doesn’t obscure their natural attractiveness, it demands healing that can only be achieved through marital union.
Similarly, late in the play, the physical suffering caused by lovesickness is echoed by that caused by remorse and grief. Here, however, physical decline—though it doesn’t look as vibrant as youthful longing and lovesickness do—reveals a more refined spiritual beauty than even early romance could create. In Act VI, after the curse has been broken and the king has remembered Shakuntala, he dresses as a penitent and appears “wasted with remorse.” His chamberlain observes: “Instead of jewels, / [Dusyanta] wears a single band / Above his left-hand wrist; his lips are cracked / By sighs; brooding all night has drained his eyes / Of lustre; yet, just as grinding reveals / A gem, his austerity lays bare / An inner brilliance and an ideal form.” Like when he was newly in love, Dusyanta is thin, sleepless, and faded, but now his condition “lays bare” the spiritual solidity beneath.
Shakuntala, too, is withered by six years of sadness from the effects of the curse: “Her robes are dusky, drab, / Her hair a single braid, / Her cheeks drawn in by penance.” Yet when they meet, Dusyanta instantly recognizes her, as he failed to do when she appeared in her maiden brightness in the capital. The implication is that her beauty doesn’t shine forth in spite of her physical decline, but rather that her decline makes her underlying beauty all the more compelling.
The play’s treatment of beauty makes even more sense when considered in relation to the play’s religious context—in the culturally Hindu world of the play, signs of physical renunciation are understood to reflect detachment from the world, and thus greater closeness with the world of the gods. Shakuntala’s and Dusyanta’s progression over the course of the play—from youthful ardor reflected in the natural world, through suffering and separation, to mature union—could be thought of as a version of this detachment, but a form of it that’s attainable to those who don’t spend their entire lives practicing spiritual austerities—which, of course, includes most of the play’s likely audience.
The Natural World, The Body, and Spiritual Beauty ThemeTracker
The Natural World, The Body, and Spiritual Beauty Quotes in Shakuntala
VAIKHANASA. King, this is a hermitage deer. You should not—you must not kill it!
Indeed, indeed, no missile should be shot,
Scorching, like a flame through velvet petals,
This young fawn’s tender head.
Alas, what is the filigree life
In this poor animal’s frame,
Beside the adamantine rain
ANASUYA. Dear Shakuntala, here’s that jasmine you call Light of the Forest. She’s chosen the fragrant mango as her bridegroom. You’ve forgotten her.
SHAKUNTALA. Only when I forget myself. [Approaches the jasmine and gazes at it] The union of this tree and this jasmine has taken place at the most wonderful time—the jasmine is a young plant, covered in fresh blossoms, the mango has soft buds, and is ready for enjoyment…
KING. […] Because I’m so eager to hear about the lives of the virtuous, there is another question I should like to ask.
PRIYAMVADA. Don’t hesitate, my lord—there are no bars to what you may ask an ascetic.
KING. Then tell me this about your friend:
How long will she keep her love-starved hermit vows—
Till she changes them for the marriage kind?
Or will she live forever among these hinds,
Doe-eyed among her beloved does?
SHAKUNTALA. Anasuya! I’ve spiked my foot on a blade of grass . . . And now my blouse is snagged on a branch. Wait while I free myself!
[Using this pretense to remain gazing at the king, SHAKUNTALA finally leaves with her friends]
KING. Suddenly, the city doesn’t seem so attractive. I’ll link up with my followers and camp just outside this sacred grove. The truth is, I can’t get Shakuntala out of my head.
My body forges on, my restless mind streams back—
A silken banner borne against the wind.
KING. Shakuntala seems to be very ill. [Pondering] Now, is it the heat, or is it the heart, as it is with me? [Gazing with longing] But there’s really no question:
Her breasts are smeared with lotus balm,
Her fibre bracelet slips her wrist,
Her body’s racked—and lovely still,
The summer sears her—but so does love,
And love with greater skill.
I cannot say I know your mind,
But day and night the god of love
Injects that pain through all my limbs,
Which you prepared—ah sweet unkind—
I cannot say I know your mind.
KING [revealing himself suddenly].
Slender lady, you should know
That same love which tortures you
Consumes me quite—
The sun, that merely dulls the lotus’ glow,
Engulfs the moon in azure light.
KING. Timid fawn—don't worry about your elders! The father of your family knows the law, and he shall find no fault in what you've done. Besides:
You wouldn't be the first royal sage's daughter
To take a prince for love—
And receive her father's blessings later.
SHAKUNTALA. Let me go now. I need to ask my friends’ advice.
KING. Yes. I shall release you—
When, like a bee, I kiss the bud of your unbruised lip
And flood my thirsting mouth with nectar.
[With these words, he tries to raise her face. SHAKUNTALA evades him with a dance]
OFF-STAGE VOICE. Red goose, take leave of your gander. Night is falling!
SHAKUNTALA [aside]. Anasuya, mark that! How the wild goose honks in anguish because her mate is hidden by lotus leaves . . . But my suffering is worse.
[ANASUYA] Don’t say that, my dear!
Though the night seems everlasting
Without her mate,
Hope lifts her—time burns,
And she’ll endure the weight
SHAKUNTALA [aside]. What's the use in reminding him, when passion can change so monstrously? But I owe it to myself to clear my name. [Aloud] Dear husband—[she breaks off in the middle]—no, my right to address you in that way has been cast into doubt. Puru King, then . . . It becomes you very well to disown a naive and innocent girl with meagre words, after you used them so richly to deceive me in the hermitage.
KING [covering his ears]. Enough of this wickedness!
What are you doing?
Like a torrent in spate,
Dissolving its banks,
Undercutting great trees,
You pollute yourself and your family's name
In your vile attempt to shame
And drag me down.
SHAKUNTALA. Very well! If you really think you're in danger of taking another man's wife, let me show you something that will refresh your memory.
KING. An excellent idea.
SHAKUNTALA [feeling her ring-finger]. No! It can’t be! The ring has gone from my finger!
CHAMBERLAIN [observing the KING]. Whatever the conditions, exceptional beauty always entrances us. Even though wasted with remorse, the king looks wonderful.
Instead of jewels, he wears a single band
Above his left-hand wrist; his lips are cracked
By sighs; brooding all night has drained his eyes
Of lustre; yet, just as grinding reveals
A gem, his austerity lays bare
An inner brilliance and an ideal form.
SAMUMATI [aside, staring at the KING]. I can see why Shakuntala goes on pining for him, even though he rejected and humiliated her.
KING [pacing about slowly, deep in thought].
Useless heart—buried in sleep
When my doe-eyed girl
Tried to wake it.
Now it beats in pain
To each pang of remorse,
And shall never sleep again.
KING. Indra honors me, indeed. But why this rough treatment of Madhavya?
MATALI. Quite simple. I saw you were depressed for one reason or another, and sought to rouse you by making you angry.
Stir the embers and the fire leaps up,
Threaten the snake and its hood expands—
Everything in nature, if provoked, responds.
KING [aside to the VIDUSAKA]. Friend, I cannot ignore the Lord of Heaven's command. Inform Minister Pisuna what's happened, and tell him this from me:
Concentrate your mind on protecting the realm:
My bow and I have godly business to perform.
MATALI [looking at the king]. Your Majesty could sit at the foot of this ashoka tree, while I find the right moment to announce your arrival to Indra’s father.
KING. Whatever you advise. [He sits.]
MATALI. I shall go now. [He exits.]
KING [sensing an omen].
My desire is hopeless, yet this vein
Throbs in my arm—
Once abandoned, fortune
Is incessant pain.
OFF-STAGE VOICE. Don’t act so rashly! How he reverts to his nature!
KING [listening]. This is no place for uncontrolled behavior. Who can they be reprimanding? [Looking in the direction of the voice, surprised] Ah! And what kind of child is this, guarded by two female ascetics, and so much stronger than his years? […] Why am I drawn to this child, as though to my own son?
KING [seeing Shakuntala]. Ah, it is the lady Shakuntala!
Her robes are dusky, drab,
Her hair a single braid,
Her cheeks drawn in by penance—
She’s been so pure and constant
In that vow of separation
I so callously began.
SHAKUNTALA [seeing the KING pale from suffering]. He doesn’t look like my husband. Who is this who dares to pollute my son with his touch, in spite of the amulet?
BOY [running to his mother]. Mamma, this stranger is calling me his son!
KING. My dear, that cruelty I practiced on you has come full circle, since now it is I who need to be recognized by you.