(This is the second of the Introductions to the Mahabharata Katha Series of Padma Shri Professor P. Lal published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata. Pages 322-368, sections 69-74 of The Complete Adi Parva)
The story of Dushyanta-Shakuntala, immortalized by Kalidasa in terms of an exquisitely romantic love-episode, hardly occupies the place of importance in the epic which a reader, approaching the Mahabharata through the Abhijñana Shakuntalam, would expect. Vaishampayana begins the Sambhavasub-parva of the Book of Beginnings with it in response to Janamejaya’s insistence that the glory of the kingly ancestors of the Kurus be recounted. Since they trace their ancestry to the famous Bharata, he naturally devotes some space to his origin. Vaishampayana styles Dushyanta the founder of the Paurava dynasty, which is a misnomer since he has not gone back to Puru, a mistake that will be remedied in the subsequent sections dealing with Yayati and his successors. Section 68 is the only place where we find some details about this king as a person. He appears to be physically enormously strong (68.12), an all-round warrior, having mastered all four types of mace fighting, adept at elephant and horse riding. His prowess as a ruler is stressed by his command over the far-off mlechchhas (barbarians). Such details concerning the precise type of weaponry in which the king is adept and his qualities as a rider (it is significant that the chariot is not mentioned; possibly during his time this was not in vogue) are rare indeed in the epic. We hardly come across a single person famed as a fencer other than Sahadeva. The club or mace is quite a favorite weapon (Bhima, Duryodhana, Shalya, Jarasandha, Balarama) but it is archery that comes to occupy the pre-eminent place in the epic war, along with the javelin (shakti).
Dushyanta, like his successors, engages in a massive hunt that seems to be an organized expedition to clear a wilderness of fierce beasts. It looks forward to the hunts that the Mongol Khans organized periodically that were veritable holocausts. In hunting, he uses arrows, javelins, scimitar and club (69.23). Following the holocaust, Dushyanta reaches the hermitage of Kanva, described in terms almost identical to the description of the Edenesque snake-isle of the Astika parva.
In the meeting between Dushyanta and Shakuntala, it is peculiar that at no stage do we find him introducing himself. In the Bengal recension we find part of a shloka in-between shlokas 6 and 7 of section 71 where the king introduces himself as the son of the royal sage Ilina, who, in terms of the highly confused genealogy in the epic, is a grandson of Matinara (section 94), also called Ilina. It is interesting how Vyasa hints at the playboy in the king (71.12).
The Bengal recension immediately makes him propose to her, justifying himself with the argument that she cannot be a Brahmin’s offspring because he is self-disciplined and can be attracted only to a Kshatriya woman. Vishvamitra, of course, was a Kshatriya who successfully fought a protracted battle with the gods and the sages to be recognized as a Brahmin seer. Shakuntala was born to him from Menaka, the celestial courtesan who, in response to Indra’s request to seduce the sage, narrates some of Vishvamitra’s famous exploits that require annotation. The first reference is to his causing the death of Vashishtha’s sons, which will be narrated in detail later in the epic. It was on the banks of a river called Kaushiki after him that he achieved Brahminhood, as we shall find in the Vana parva. He named the river ‘Para’ because his wife had safely crossed twelve years of famine, thanks to the efforts of the ostracized prince Trishanku, also called Matanga, living as a hunter in the forest. While looking after her, he butchered Vashishtha’s cow to provide food to Vishvamitra’s wife and children, thereby incurring the third sin (the two earlier ones being adultery and his father’s wrath) because of which he was named Trishanku. In gratitude, Vishvamitra became his priest when everyone else refused and forced the gods to accept the offerings. For him the seer created a parallel galaxy “beginning with Shravana” (71.40)—referring to a new era with the year starting in Shravana instead of Agrahayana/Mrigasira—when the gods cast Trishanku down during his attempt to reach heaven in his earthly body. This led to Indra quickly giving the king a seat in heaven to make Vishvamitra desist from creating a parallel pantheon.
Menaka makes an extremely powerful plea for exemption, listing the awesome prowess of the royal sage (71.35), yet the only assistance she seeks from Indra is that the wind should lend a hand in simulating a realistic striptease! There is, surely, implied sarcasm in this conjunction of the mighty rage of the sage and his complete enslavement through the most simply arranged artfully artless disrobing. In the tradition of these Apsaras, like Adrika with Uparichara and Urvashi with Pururava, Menaka also leaves the sage after delivering a child. Like Satyavati, Shakuntala is a fruit of lust and this double taint from both sides of the family marks the Pandavas and the Kauravas like a dynastic nemesis of Greek myth, leading to their doom.
Dushyanta himself is moved purely by lust. When Shakuntala, worldly-wise with an innate maturity, demands that her son alone must inherit the crown, as the Dasa-chief will insist later for Satyavati, Dushyanta immediately agrees (73.17). He refuses to recognise her when she arrives with her son Sarvadamana at his court because, having taken his pleasure with her, he is not in the least interested in keeping his word. As we shall find elsewhere in the epic, a lie told while making love is said to be excusable. Strangely enough, he is quite unconcerned about possible repercussions from the offended foster-father Kanva. Vyasa does not whitewash the king at all by inserting any such excuse as Durvasa’s curse and the lost signet ring. Kanva himself does not consider such a marriage of convenience, held for persuading the girl to satisfy the king’s lust, improper between willing parties if both are Kshatriyas, as is the case here.
A valuable portion of Dushyanta’s speech is devoted to the eight types of marriage sanctioned in the scriptures: brahmya, daiva, arsha, prajapatya, asura, gandharva, rakshasa, paishacha. There is some contradiction here because Dushyanta says that the first six, including asura, are ordained for Kshatriyas (73.9) but in the next verse he says that the asura form is for Vaishyas and Madras, and even equates it with thepaishacha as not to be practiced (73.11). He replaces the asura with the rakshasafor Kshatriyas. Bhishma recounts these in section 102 before abducting Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, but drops the prajapatya and gandharva forms, introducingsvayamvara (self-choice) as another accepted form of marriage.
An important indication of Shakuntala’s extremely realistic and unromantic response to Dushyanta’s solicitation occurs in shloka 16 where she sets out the pre-condition for indulging in sangama (coitus). Evidently not seduced into starry-eyed sentimentality by his flattery, she treats him as an equal, not a superior. Her independence and strength of character come out even more fully in the confrontation with the king in his court. She does not argue concerning the scriptures when Dushyanta narrates the reasons for the gandharva rite being blameless, but simply says that if the scriptures truly sanction self-choice, she will accept him provided he accepts her pre-condition.
Here is a nubile maiden of great foresight, quickly seizing the sudden opportunity to carve out a kingdom for herself through her yet-to-be-engendered son. Like the older Devayani, she is mature enough not to fall into the common trap of being overcome by her suitor’s royalty into becoming his mistress for an instant and then tearfully sighing over what-might-have-been. She ensures that his momentary weakness is turned into a life-long relationship for her and her child on the most legitimate basis. This orphan is extremely careful of her position and will not be deluded by the unctuous flattery of a royal playboy. There is none of the mushy sentimentality of Kalidasa, with Shakuntala lost in sighing over memories of a faithless lover-husband. Curiously, their son is born three years after this encounter. It remains unexplained why Shakuntala did not approach the king during this protracted period.
Vyasa categorically states that when Shakuntala faces the king with their son, “He remembered all” (74.20) yet denied her. Shakuntala, her eyes “flaming like copper”, now launches a frontal attack on him and through her mouth we hear some of the most direct statements regarding the status of wives in the ancient Indian ethos (74.40, 42, 43, 47, 50-51). Well versed in the scriptural texts, she repeats a doctrine of theAitereya Upanishad, chapter 2: “when he casts it (the seed) into the woman, `tis himself he begets…She the cherisher must be cherished.” 1
The next phase of her attack concerns the benefit and delight of having a son, quoting in shloka 62 from the Parashara Grihyasutra (1.18.2), ‘When he sees his son he murmurs, “From each limb hast thou come forth, thou art born from my heart, thou art myself with the name of son, live thou a hundred autumns.”’ There are a number of extremely touching verses here (74.52, 55, 60, 74).
Now there is a welcome shift to personal note of anguish, lamenting how she was deserted by her parents and is now being rejected by her husband. The woman in her finally emerges in her plea that the son be accepted even if she has to go back. Shakuntala referred to Menaka in shloka 73 as born of Brahma and as the loveliestApsara, which Dushyanta now callously flings back, branding her a lying slut in defaming the first of the Apsaras and the finest among rishis in this manner and bids her leave. Put on her mettle, Shakuntala’s approach changes and we thrill to a splendid burst of flaming pride. She holds up a mirror to him, virtually calling him a swine; then reels off a string of homilies differentiating the good man from the wicked, effectively classing him among the latter. Launching into another series of homilies, each urging against rejection of a son, and advising him to adhere to Truth that is the highest dharma, she ends with a calm prophecy of her son’s inevitable succession to his throne, even without his help.
We do not know how this king would have reacted to this explosion of injured merit and the calm conviction in her son’s right, for the deus-ex-machina of a celestial proclamation resolves the problem. Much like Rama in his rejection of Sita twice over, Dushyanta points out that he had decided against accepting Shakuntala and her son because his subjects would have been critical. He further explains to Shakuntala that he was apprehensive of the legitimacy of their son being suspect because there were no witnesses to their marriage. Finally, with the arrogant face-saving typifying the male chauvinist, he forgives her all the plain speaking, but does not apologize for the abuse he showered on her. The Bengal recension, however, carries a verse aftershloka 123 where he asks her to forgive his harsh words, as is expected of a wife devoted to her husband. It also has eight verses after shloka 124 where Dushyanta presents Shakuntala to his mother Rathantarya who foretells Bharata’s splendid career.
This brings us to the end of section 74, after which another genealogical account begins. By itself, the story of Shakuntala has little bearing on Janamejaya’s desire to know the story of his ancestors, except in so far as it relates the prowess of Bharata, the eponymous ancestor of the Pauravas, who came to be known as the Bharatas after him, and later as the Kauravas after Kuru one of his famous descendants. Bharata remains extremely important not just because the country got named after him, but because he is the only emperor to disinherit all his sons, finding them unsuitable, and install a Brahmin (Bharadvaja) as his successor.
In the character of Shakuntala we have an extremely rare picture of a forest-dwelling orphan who is mature and self-assured enough to fight for her rights and plan out her future at the shortest notice, quick to seize Dame Fortune by the proverbial forelock. Devayani had done the same, but with her father’s help. Matsyagandha will go only part of the way, stopping short with ensuring boons for herself from Parashara, but not thinking about her offspring. Kunti will emulate Shakuntala, but unlike her will not have the courage to fight for her son’s legitimate inheritance. Dushyanta appears as an unmitigated opportunist always seizing the quickest and easiest way out of a situation. There is indeed, a vast difference from Kalidasa’s world., “But that”, as Prof. Lal points out, “is part of the difference between the epic, classical world and the more relaxed, post-classical, perhaps more refined but certainly more hedonistic world of the later dramatists (Kalidasa, Bhasa, Bhavabhuti, Harsha)!”
The Shakuntala episode, however, raises a serious genealogical problem. Vishvamitra is said to be her father, but this seems to be quite impossible because the Vishvamitra who fought with Vashishtha and gave up his kingdom to become a sage comes much later. According to the Puranas and the Harivamsa, Vishvamitra is one of the distant descendants of Dushyanta, instead of being his father-in-law. Acharya Chatursen holds that the puranik state¬ment about Vishvamitra being Shakuntala’s father is without foundation and is erroneous. Pargiter, in his Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, gets round the problem by positing more than one Vishvamitra, taking it as a gotra name and suggesting that it is the well-established tradition of Vishvamitra being Shakuntala’s father that is correct. Pargiter points out that Vishvamitra’s ancestor Jahnu belongs to the early period of the Haiheya, Aikshvaku and Paurava kings, much anterior to Bharata. Hence the Mahabharata account (Adi parva 94 andAnushasana parva 4) making Vishvamitra a descendant of Ajamidha, son of Suhotra and great-grandson of Bharata, is wrong. It clashes with the immediately succeeding section 95 of the Adi parva where Shakuntala is described as Vishvamitra’s daughter. Pargiter suggests that the error arose out of the Rig Veda, the Aitareya Brahmanaand the Sankhyayana Shrauta Sutra where Vishvamitra is termed ‘leader of the Bharatas’ as the priest of the Bharata king Sudasa of the North Panchala dynasty, who comes long after Bharata and Dushyanta. It is this Sudasa who drove Samvarana out of Hastinapura. His priest, carrying the gotra name of Vishvamitra, was possibly confused with the first Vishvamitra, father of Shakuntala, and therefore he and his ancestor Jahnu were arbitrarily inserted into the Ajamidha dynasty, making Jahnu one of his sons. Dr. S.N. Pradhan, however, rejects this theory and places Vishvamitra squarely as a Bharata on the basis of synchronisms worked out in great detail, showing the sage to have been a contemporary of Viduratha, whom he places fourth in descent after Kuru, son of Samvarana. The problem remains quite mind-boggling and unresolved.
1. Sri Aurobindo The Upanishad, p. 361, vol. 12, Centenary Edition
Image of Shakuntala from the artwork of Raja Ravi Verma