Saturday, February 5, 2011

Love in the Wood (Shakuntala Part II)

...Continued from last blog post... Love in the Woods (Shakuntala, Part I)...

The King departs for the city, leaving Shakuntala behind with the promise that he will send for her.  Before he leaves, she also makes him promise that the child born of their union would be granted full rights to the Kingdom as his heir (she must have been psychic or sumtin’).  He agrees.  And leaving his ring with royal insignia as a troth of his love, he tells her he will send a royal escort to bring her to his palace soon.  Trustingly, she obeys his decision and agrees to wait.  Here, Shakuntala strikes me as amazingly cooperative, or just plain naive.  Nevertheless, the Hindu epic lauds her for having trust in her hubby and for maintaining her blissful obedience.  There are clearly gendered normsbeing taught here in this famous epic!
2009 Comic Book of Shakuntala by Sayantan Halder

Shortly after Shakuntala’s adoptive father, the sage, returns.  He is, surprisingly, quite okay with the Ghandarva marriage arrangement his daughter has entered into during his week long absence. Some sources say he predicted the conjugal union, and thus he accepted it as Destiny.

Despite his discomfort at his daughter’s growing belly -- she is a single mom, after all - Kanva blesses his sweet daughter and his grandchild to be.  Time passes and no word comes from the King.  Shakuntala spends many hours and many days daydreaming of her beloved and imagining their reunion…

Shakuntala dreaming of her man, hanging out with friends in forest

Writing love poems on leaves,  R.R. Varma

Shakuntala waiting & dreaming, by Raja Ravi Varma

One day, while lost in the revelry of her love-thoughts, she fails to notice the arrival of a much revered holy man who comes from afar to stay at the ashram.  The rishi, Durvasha, is famous for being a hot headed hermit.  When Shakuntala fails to perform her duties as hostess and greet the man with water and food, the holy man explodes into a fury and castes a curse on her.  The curse, meant to punish her for daydreaming instead of doing her duty, is pretty mean (especially coming from a Saint's lips!) :

He of whom you are thinking, he for whose sake you have forgotten the most elementary laws of hospitality, he will forget you.  Like a drunk man, who can no longer remember what he has said, or done, he will ransack his brain, but to no avail, he will no longer remember you!”

The Curse!

The angry sage turns to leave; Shakuntala is paralyzed by her shock.  Her best friend, Priyamvada, runs and prostrates herself before the holy man. She implores him to forgive her love-lorn friend.  Please, she pleads, Shakuntala is an innocent who has never offended anyone before.  Seeing this friend's devotion, he softens a bit but refused to remove the curse, completely.  Instead, he adds a condition the curse (a codicil if you will).  He promises that the effect of the curse will cease the moment someone presents the man in question with a small token of remembrance.  Feeling proud of his compassion, the hot headed hermit stomps off.

More days passed and still no one from the palace came to fetch Shakuntala, who is growing more and more round with child.  Her father, at long last concerned about the family honor, decides he will send her to the court to reunite her with her husband.  Shakuntala is, again, obedient and agrees to leave her family. She is also delighted that she will be reunited with her true love.  All the ladies of the ashram gather to decorate her in the finest clothes that these simple folk can muster.  They bedeck her with garlands of flowers from the forest.  They remind her to take the King’s ring with her and slip it upon her finger.  She bids farewell to her woodland friends and the sages of the ashram as she preparea for the long, arduous journey to the big city.

Kalidasa’s prose (adapted in my Auroville version) about the young bride’s departure are so poetic and potent.  They remind me of the many tear filled departures I’ve read about in Indian wedding stories when a young woman leaves her parents to join her husband’s family. I am also struck, again, by the importance of the forest and the trees in this tear-jerking scene. Shakuntala must not only leave her adoptive father and her maiden friends, but she must also leave behind her extended family, the forest, which causes her much heartache:

“You were ready to leave… Priyamvada had dressed you in a large silk robe, pale white and soft as the moon.  Then Old Gautami, whom everyone in the ashram called Mother, had placed resplendent bracelets on your arms.  No one in the ashram had ever seen such precious ornaments and it was whispered that they had been given as an offering to the sage by certain mysterious inhabitants of the forest.  Dawn broke.  When Kanva returned from the river after his daily ablutions, he had blessed you, and the child you were carrying… Then followed by all the sages he walked you to the very limits of the sanctuary.  What an escort, Shakuntala!

They were all there for you, Shakuntala, to surround you, carry you, uplift and cradle you one last time.  The great sage while walking cast his deep gaze on each tree. Oh! His eyes Shakuntala!  It was by plunging into their depths that you had learnt what immensity was, you had never seen the ocean.  His gaze traveled from tree to tree, addressing each of them silently, with a sweetness that had overwhelmed you.  For you understood that secret language and knew that he was asking them to accept and bless your departure…

And it seemed that you had all been moving forward to the rhythm of a sacred chant and that the whole forest was resonating with the sage’s powerful voice.  Then abruptly, as if in response, a long flute-like note of a bird was heard.  Consent had been granted.  Something in you bowed down.

You stopped briefly, one last time to caress the small tree that you had baptized Light of the Forest (jasmine) and gave it over to the care of your two friends.

It did not take long to reach the limits of the hermitage.  The sage led you quietly into the shade of a Kshira (medicinal fig) tree.  There you fell at his feet.  The story you had been told of the transplanted sandalwood tree came to your mind.  Deprived of the native soil of its sweet-smelling hill it had perished in a foreign land.  You now understood what an uprooting was.

The time had come to leave.  You plunged your gaze one last time into the eyes of the sage, like a traveler about to cross the desert, drinking one last time at a well…” pp 38-40

On a ferry ride crossing the river on her way to the palace, Shakuntala was seduced by the deep blue waters.  She reached down to caress the beguiling waters and the King’s ring fell off into the murky depths below where a large fish gulped it down in one glorious chomp.  She was none the wiser.

Shakuntala arrived at the King’s palace and was given an audience with the King, who claimed that he had no memory of this young girl whatsoever.  Shakuntala was hurt and surprised by the King’s denial of their love and their marriage.   In her despair and anger, she says to King Dushyanta:

“My Lord, why have you deceived me?”

The King replies, “How can I ever accept her when she is carrying another rman’s child? May the Lord protect me from committing the crime of desiring another man’s wife.”

Shakuntala insists that she is carrying his child and reminds him of their union in the forest.

The King, at this point, makes the famous pronouncement thatFalsehood is natural to all members of the other sex!

And Shakuntala, not to be one-upped by this toad, replies, “Vile Man! You resemble a well-hidden pit covered by rank grass into which the unwary traveler falls!”


Things descend into realms far more nasty after this, and in some accounts of this scene the King goes so far as to call her a whore.  She hoped that having his ring would help her prove the King’s promise to her and to her son. She reaches for the royal ring, ready to offer proof of her story but the ring is not on her finger.

Indignant and bereaved, Shakuntala walks out of the palace.  Now she is alone, pregnant and homeless.  She knows she cannot return to the ashram and dishonor her family there.  Even today, many Indian girls in the rural areas are not accepted back into their natal home after they've married and left to be with their husband and his family, it is just bad form.  Shakuntala also refuses to beg for a single crumb from the King’s table despite carrying the Prince.  So, she returns to a lonely place in the forest, there to give birth to her son and raise him among the wild animals of the wood.

The King, quite upset himself after this encounter, is at a loss.  Struck by the intensity of this woman’s feelings and pronouncements, but unable to find the least hint of recollection, he enters a serious depression and retires to his chambers.  There is hole in his heart and he knows not why, but he feels that he is only half of the man he should be.  He longs for someone but knows not who.  He falls into a grief that swallows his hope.

Shakuntala’s son grows healthy in the forest without any human company other than his mother.

 "All around in the jungle he encountered wild animals, plants and trees. He developed into a fearless, strong, and active child. Lions and tigers were his friends, and he used to ride them as we ride horses! The mother taught him, as a prince should be taught, skills in archery, and use of other weapons; as also acquainted him with Scriptures: Vedas and Upanishads. Bharata soon grew up as a handsome, intelligent and fearless youth - a prince in exile!

But the story doesn't end here! Thank the gods!

A few years later, a fisherman arrives in the royal court begging an audience with the King to tell him about a special fish he caught in his nets – a fish whose belly held a golden ring with royal insignia upon it!  Hoping for a small reward, the fisherman hands the ring over to King Dushyant and the King lets out a shout as he takes the ring into his hand.  It is as if he has experienced a sharp pain deep inside; an explosion of release. Immediately the veil of forgetfulness is torn away from the King’s mind and he remembers everything.

A rush of memories floods over the King as he recalls his love for Shakuntala.  The aching emptiness he has felt since her visit to his Court is replaced, filled with joyful remembrance.  The moments together in the forest, the promises he had made, the dreams he had once savored of a future together with his beloved wife, now all wash over him and he is once again made whole.

The King orders his chariot and gallops full throttle to the forest.  In the Kalidasa version of the story, the god of War, Indira, intercepts Dushyant on his way and requires him to wage battle against some trouble-making heavenly hordes before reuniting him with Shakuntala.  This symbolic battle with the enemies of the gods (Titans?) may have been injected by Kalidasa as a form of penance for the King's mistreatment of the saintly Shakuntala, some scholars suggest.  Kalidasa's version definitely tries to soften the story, the cruelty of the king and the suffering, overall.  

Once the King has defeated the ‘demon armies of darkness’ the gods reward the King with a radiant chariot that flies through the air and is fitted with a celestial GPS system to find Shakuntala.

Dushyant zeroes in on the secret, sacred grove where his beloved and his son abide.  There he finds the young, precocious Bharata toddling among tigers, opening their mouths, counting their teeth and giggling all the while.  The proud father is amazed by his son’s fearlessness and strength.  He tries to engage the little chap in conversation but the boy is not used to strangers.

Bharata among the lions of the forest (Raja Ravi Varma, late 19th century)

Dushyant tells the boy that he is his father, the King, and the disbelieving boy takes him by the hand to meet his mother so she can settle the matter.  When Shakuntala sees her hubby she is not bitter at all.  She smiles.  At this point, we receive evidence from Kalidasa's version of the tale that Dushyant has wised up quite a bit.  He falls to Shakuntala’s feet (good move, I think) and begs her pardon. She lets him stay there a little bit, groveling, before offering full forgiveness.

He spoke of the power of illusion (maya), of how his soul had been a prisoner of the shadows…” 

Then she calmly says, “Rise, my Lord” and with a few tears on her 'delicately curved lashes' she reaches out to him and takes his ringed hand.  Of course she recognizes that gold ring.  He offers to take it off and put it on her finger but, smiling, she shakes her head, refusing to place her faith in that ring again.  She says it is for the King to wear and from it never again to part. "After all, and here in indefinable glimmer crossed her eyes, the ring was too big for her." (p.76)

A.H. Muller (1878-1952), ‘Dushyant & Shakuntala,’ oil on canvas, 36 1/2 inches x 49 3/4 inches. Estimate: $ 19,600-$26,100. Image courtesy of Bid & Hammer.

In some versions of the tale, the family returns to the ashram to get the blessings of the sage (better late than never).  In other endings, the family takes the heavenly taxi back up and into the skies and there reside for awhile before coming back to earth to reign in their golden years.  I like the Kalidasa ending, where they go back to the palace, raise their son to be a good and righteous king, and live happily ever after.

The sage (to the king). My son, enter with child and wife the chariot of your friend Indra, and set out for your capital.

King. Yes, holy one.

Sage. For now
May Indra send abundant rain,
Repaid by sacrificial gain;
With aid long mutually given,
Rule you on earth, and he in heaven.

King. Holy one, I will do my best.

Sage. What more, my son, shall I do for you?

King. Can there be more than this? Yet may this prayer be fulfilled.
May kingship benefit the land,
And wisdom grow in scholars' band;
May Shiva see my faith on earth
And make me free of all rebirth.

And so it is...

Bharata, of course, inherits his father's kingdom and becomes the king of all of ancient India. He is known as a holy and humble king.  Righteousness and justice prevailed everywhere under his rule. There was no want, no misery, nor any disease in his kingdom. Since then India is also known as Bharatavarsha - the Land of Bharata.

 Bharata would father the famous line of men who would become the Kauravas and Pandavas, whose epic bloody battles would fill the rest of the Mahabharata.  It was from his lineage that Arjuna, the greatest warrior that ever lived, would descend.  Arjuna would become famous as the hero of the 
Bhagavad Gita (The Song of God)  and as the pupil of Lord Krishna, his teacher and charioteer. On the battleground, Krishna would teach young Arjuna the supreme lesson of dharma (universal harmony and duty).  The text of the Gita is revered most among all Hindu scriptures and, nearly two thousand years later is, today, remembered as one of the most important lessons to all of humanity...

But that story will have to wait for another day…

1 comment:

  1. Mike had that last picture as a poster on his bedroom wall when he was a teenager.