A tale of devotion to remember for the ages
Kalidasa spoke to Ma Kali with such honesty and in such an earnest, funny way that she found him amusing. She took pity on him.
A very Happy New Year to you all. I would like to start the year by retelling a fascinating story, the legend of Mahakavi Kalidasa. We are taught to consider Kalidasa the finest Sanskrit playwright and poet, and this is a story that we would have probably heard in Class Eight or so if our school had taught us Sanskrit. But since it’s likely that many didn’t or wouldn’t, we could catch up with this uniquely Indian story now. In passing, I should say that my schools did not teach Sanskrit either. They were very Westernised, which is useful out in the larger world but leaves you trapped in the English language with a big, empty hole in your heart. Whereas, is it not the right of every Indian to know our own stories?
To resume, the legend of Kalidasa is the true stuff of literary romance. He is said to have lived in the fourth century CE in the holy city of Ujjain, a seat of learning and the site of the prime meridian of the ancient world. So we can say that time began in Ujjain. The Ujjain panchangam or calendar is still calculated to the tick of the dot and determines the course of millions of lives, their fasts, feasts and festivals. While we don’t really know Kalidasa’s history, his works remain a reality. Goddess Parvati is held to be the turning point in his life and he repaid her magnificently with his work Kumarasambhavam. She helped him save his marriage and he in turn retold the story of her wedding with divine inspiration, in divine language.
Kalidasa’s original name is lost to us but the story goes that he was an illiterate local youth who was picked up and married through a palace intrigue to the princess Vidyottama of Ujjain. Her name means ‘foremost among the learned’ and she was said to be so clever that some cunning courtiers were afraid of her and plotted to bring her down in case she became queen one day. After the wedding, the princess was terribly shocked to discover her husband’s complete lack of learning. He couldn’t even write his own name. The princess, who worshipped Goddess Parvati with total faith, now prayed desperately to her to save her from this shame and misery. She told her illiterate husband to pray to the goddess to help him get an education.
He went weeping to a temple nearby where Parvati was worshipped as Ma Kali, and spoke to her with such honesty and in such an earnest, funny way that she found him amusing. She took pity on him, and on the poor princess whose dignity was now so shatteringly at stake, and blessed him with instant wit, learning, and poetic skill. His mind suddenly lit up with wise, beautiful thoughts, with words and rhymes, with meters and metaphors. Some narratives say that she asked him to put out his tongue and wrote ‘Om’ on it with the tip of her trident. It is like the story of Arunagirinathar in 15th century Tamil Nadu who was similarly blessed by Murugan and composed the complex, powerful poem Mutthai tharu among other verses.
Meanwhile, encouraged by Kali, the newly literate poet went back bravely to the princess and told her that the goddess had blessed him, and that he wished to be called ‘Kalidasa’, the devotee of Ma Kali. To test him, the princess asked him a question in Sanskrit, “Asti kaschid vaagvishehah?” literally meaning, “Is there something unique to speech?” What she meant was “Have you anything special to say?”
Kalidasa smiled sunnily and told her to give him time to answer. He went to live near the Kali temple and wrote steadily every day, in between his prayers to the Divine Mother.
What I read is that his epic poem Kumarasambhavam, about the wedding of Shiva and Parvati, begins with the word ‘asti’. Another epic poem, Raghuvamsham or ‘The Lineage of Sri Rama’, begins with the word ‘vaak’. The word ‘kaschid’ occurs in the first stanza of Meghadootam or ‘The Cloud Messenger’—the lyric poem that vividly describes the beauty of the Indian landscape. Ujjain is the jewel in its crown, dedicated to Lord Shiva as Mahakaleshwar.
So Kalidasa arrived illiterate and came back as a great poet. I think it’s safe to say that he and Vidyottama lived happily ever after, don’t you? Maybe it was her question that inspired him to describe Shiva and Parvati as inseparable as ‘vaak’ and ‘arth’, as word and meaning. He wrote three plays and four long epic poems in Sanskrit.
The play that most of us have heard of is probably Abhignyana Shakuntalam or ‘The Recognition of Shakuntala’. It went West in a big way in the colonial period because of the British scholar Sir William Jones. He published his translation in 1789, which was a romance of discovery in itself. Quite by chance, his Indian clerk hesitantly showed him a crumbling document of the play. It was praised by the poet Goethe in a famous verse, and Thomas Jefferson owned a copy. The composer Schubert wrote an unfinished opera called Shakuntala.
‘Shakuntala’ means ‘sheltered by birds’. When Baby Shakuntala was abandoned by her parents, the seer Vishwamitra and the apsara Menaka, she was left exposed to the weather. Some shakun or birds took pity on her and spread their wings above her to shelter her from the sun. That is how her foster father Rishi Kanva found her and thereby named her ‘Shakuntala’.
While many of us can’t read Kalidasa’s plays in the original Sanskrit, we can, however, possess a real piece of him if we look on YouTube for the poem Shyamala Dandakam, chanted by a number of Carnatic vocalists with fervour and devotion. Praising the Devi as the giver of knowledge, the poem begins with the words “Manikya veenam upalalayantim”. It is said to be Kalidasa’s very first composition, a paean of thanks after the goddess blessed him with learning.