July 1, 2023

Shakuntala As Perceived in Mythology and in Drama

Indigenous Art & Culture

Swanupama Sen Gupta

Research Scholar, M. Phil

Rabindra Bharati University

March 15, 2023

Shakuntala was first mentioned in the preface of the Indian Mythology – Mahabharata. This

character is still known as the Shakuntala of the Myth. Kalidasa gave this mythical character the

entity of a conventional figure through his play – Abhigyanam Shakuntalam.

The journey of Shakuntala from being in mythology to becoming a household name, has seen

transcendence in time, thought, and evolution of her character in various manner. Gradually,

Among various other characters, Shakuntala and her crisis became the center of Kalidasa’s focus.

There are subtle, yet noticeable, differences between the two Shakuntalas.

The conventional Shakuntala was not opinionated. She believed in fate and in the idea of purity

within a woman. Kalidasa’s Shakuntala was shy, timid, and never had a voice in matters. Even

though he allowed her to choose her own husband in her early life, she was not allowed to be

independent of her duties and responsibilities of being a woman or a wife. Even after being

rejected by her husband, she did not have the opportunity to seek out her own life alone but

rather stayed with the same man, expecting to be accepted someday.

The mythical Shakuntala also chose her own partner; however, she was bold enough to put

forward her own demands before her husband. Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, on the other hand, was the

victim of an unconditional relationship.

Shakuntala was a mythical character who was recreated in the vision of Kalidasa. Being said

that, both the women shared some similarities; however, they also questioned each other’s

essential attributes.

From the age of Mahabharata to that of Kalidasa, change has been unavoidable. The change in

thought processes, culture, politics, and education are vividly understood through the character of

Shakuntala that we see in Abhigyanam Shakuntalam, as compared to the one we have seen in the

Mahabharata. The philosophy of the two characters varies greatly and along with that varies the

nature of their resistance and their methods of protesting.

Key words:

Indian Mythology, Theatre, Vyas, Kalidas, Shakuntala


The Indian Mythology Mahabharata means Maha (enormous) and Bharata (India), i.e., it denotes

Great India. Be it Dharmasastra, Arthasastra, Kamasastra or Muktisastra, if it is there is

Mahabharata, then it is everywhere and whatever is not there is Mahabharata can’t be found

anywhere else. Mahabharata is a mythology that is considered to be India’s most soulful

history because each and every Mythology is the very first, oldest, and most elaborate form of

the story of any existing community. We can also say that Mythology is a documentation made

over time by different authors, who have penned down the history of common people of that

community in an exaggerated manner; even though these mythologies, more than often, house

different aspects of supernaturalism. These exaggerated and unexplainable forms of stories that

have been told and heard over the generations build up the most ancient mythology. These stories

were deeply rooted in religion and these imaginative stories give us a glimpse of the love

between a man and a woman, their passion between the two genders along with the various

forms of discrimination amongst them. In these ancient stories, we find a woman in the character

of a Goddess, a ruler, a desperate beloved, a mother blindly in love with her children, or a

cunning diplomat. Even after displaying all the different kinds of traits, a woman, in the end, was

considered to be existing for the sole purpose of pleasing a man. We may witness a handful of

women, tirelessly fighting for the sake of their respect and existence. Most of these stories, in

any mythology, were an effort to keep society disciplined through the ideologies of politics

and religion.

Shakuntala was first mentioned in the preface of the Indian Mythology – Mahabharata. This

character is still known as the Shakuntala of the Myth. The Shakuntala we know or we have

learned about is vastly different from the Mahabharata’s Shakuntala. The Shakuntala of the

Mahabharata Mythology is not the obedient Shakuntala that people talk about. She is not only

the opposite of that but also stands against those ideologies and she only exists in the pages of

the Mythology. Society has cornered her.

Ved Vyas, the author of Mahabharata, has given Shakuntala the most amazing personality. It can

be seen in the preface that King Dushyanta, once, got away from his subjects. Exhausted and

tired, he ends up in the drama of a saint. It was the scene to behold. There was a cool breeze

blowing, birds chirping and the trees were covered with flowers. This filled the king’s heart with

joy. He realized that this is the home of Saint Kanva, resting on the bank of river Malini. Curious,

he entered the asrama and he heard the chanting of Veda. Wanting to meet the saint, he arrived at

Saint Kanva’s gate.

Amidst the pomp, King Dushyanta, the hero was destined to meet the heroine of this story. He

was asking around, when a woman, dressed as the apsaras, comes out of the cottage. Shakuntala

welcomed the king by providing him water to clean his feet, offered him an asana to seat and

welcomed him in her clear and beautiful voice. On being asked about the whereabouts of the

saint, Shakuntala answered that the saint has gone to the forest to collect flowers; however, he

may wait till his return if he likes. Dushyanta looked at Shakuntala with awe. He asked about

Shakuntala’s identity. Shakuntala answered the king by providing him with the details of her

parents – Vishwamitra and Menoka. Dushyanta was attracted to Shakuntala, listening to the

amazing story of her parents, and put forward the wish to marry her. Shakuntala asked the king to

make this wish in front of the saint when he returns but the king did not want to wait. The king

wanted to engage in the wedding ceremony following Gandharvamata. Shakuntala did not reject

the proposal; however, she put forward her own demand which said that the son born out of this

marriage will be the heir to the throne of Kurubangsha. The king, filled with lust, agreed to this

condition, and the marriage was completed. After their companionship, the kind hurriedly left,

promising Shakuntala, that he would soon send his subjects for Shakuntala, to take her to his

kingdom. Saying this he left the ashram and went back to his home.

The power and knowledge, acquired through years of meditation, made the saint aware that

something must have taken place between Shakuntala and the king. Returning home, the saint

blessed Shakuntala with the boon that her son will be extremely powerful and nobody will be

able to defeat him ever. After 6 long years, Shakuntala along with her son, visits the king. In

these 6 years the king did not bother to acknowledge the state of Shakuntala and his son.

Shakuntala requested the king to accept his son but the king refused to identify Shakuntala.

Enraged, Shakuntala screams at the king that he, in his heart, knew the truth and yet he was

lying. The king insults Shakuntala by calling her the daughter of a whore, in front of all the

people present in his court. Shakuntala did not deter from her ground and she claimed that since

the king has denied his own son, she shall make sure that her son would one day rule the entire

Bharat and that too without the king’s help. Saying this, she turned her back to leave the court;

however, there was a dwaivyavani (a voice from the sky) who claimed that Shakuntala was indeed

telling the truth and that the son was of the king’s own blood. Listening to this the king accepted the

child as his own and Shakuntala was given the position of his queen. Even though the existence

of Shakuntala, in Mahabharata, was short-lived but Ved Vyas gave Shakuntala an individuality.

Her entire existence was not for the sake of a man’s pleasure. She was bold and brave enough to

make her demands and voice what was right.

We shall now enter the world of Abhigyanam Shakuntalam. Historians still argue over the period

in which Kalidas existed. Many historians have tried to place him over different periods of time,

mostly placing him as the poet of one of the Gupta Kings. This era stretched from 300-650 AD.

This is some time after Mahabharata and society has undergone some changes. It is said that

Kalidas’ most prized possession was his book – Abhigyanam Shakuntalam.

The foundation of Abhigyanam Shakuntalam is believed to be in the preface of Mahabharata.

Among the thousands of characters, Shakuntala becomes the prime character for Kalidas. She is

the driving force of the entire story. Shakuntala’s personal attributes of lust, love, sacrifice,

relationship, and so on have put this drama on a pedestal. Kalidas’ Shakuntala is considered to be

timeless and appropriate for every period but the story of Shakuntala changes in the hands of her

creator. In this drama, even the forests are given a new identity. The reader witnesses the 7 acts

of the drama in front of their eyes. In the first act, the readers are excited about the meeting

between the king and Shakuntala. In the second, the Bidushak character provides some comic

relief. He provides the opportunity for the king to marry Shakuntala. In the third act, the readers

witness the courtship between the two, the King’s return to his kingdom and Shakuntala’s

waiting for the king. In the fourth act, Shakuntala leaves her asrama to visit the king in his

palace. This act is considered to be the most important. In the fifth act, the supernatural event

takes place where an apsara emerges and then disappears with Shakuntala. In the sixth act, they

see the king mourning Shakuntala’s departure. He finds a long-forgotten ring that reminds him

of Shakuntala, his son and he grieves the loss of his wife. In the last act, Shakuntala is reunited

with the king. Remembering his past, the king accepts Shakuntala, his son, and the drama ends

with the king and Shakuntala re-married and together.

German poet and playwright Goethe declared that if heaven and earth combined in one name, the

the name would be Shakuntala.

The conventional Shakuntala that we know of is evidently not the one from the mythology but

the one from the drama. No matter, how much indebted Kalidas might be to Mahabharata, his

Shakuntala is as different from the mythological one as heaven and hell. These conventional

characters and their characteristics differ vastly from that of Mahabharata. Ved Vyas could

imagine the personality of a woman in ways Kalidas never could. Everyone in Mahabharata stands

true to who they are without shame and without fear. Kalidas’ Shakuntala and King Dushyanta

can be compared to the moon and the sun respectively, where the sun burns bright but the moon

glows only from the light of the sun or remains hidden in darkness. This Shakuntala never had

any privacy with her husband. Shakuntala has no voice in the entire of first act. She is unable

to express her joy. The only conversation the king had with her was through her handmaidens. In

Mahabharata, Shakuntala could tell him about the relationship between Vishwamitra and

Menoka, without hesitation; however, this Shakuntala was unable to tell her identity to the king.

It was her friends who gave the king all the details. In the third act, Shakuntala was silent about

the whole ordeal of her marriage; but we have seen Vyas’ Shakuntala took the opportunity to put

forward her own demand of making their son the king, prior to their marriage. Kalidas’

Shakuntala agreed to an unconditional marriage and when the king left, he only left behind a ring

bearing his name, in her possession. Shakuntala spent her days remembering the king as she

counted the flowers for her puja.

Romila Thapar notes that “Shakuntala has crowned the ideal of Indian womanhood, her

integrity and blamelessness going down as virtues to be emulated by every good daughter and


In the beginning, Kalidas gave Shakuntala the freedom to choose her own husband but by the

end of the last act, he successfully bounds Shakuntala within the lines of a wife’s duty and

responsibilities. Even after being rejected by the king, Shakuntala was not brave enough to let go

of her husband. The mythical Shakuntala was not like this. She, along with her son, went to the

king, asked him to accept his own son and asked him to keep his promise. Kalidas’ Shakuntala

was accompanied by other members of the asrama when she visited the king. The entire plot

witnesses a crisis when Shakuntala loses the ring that bore the king’s name. The ring plays an

important role in the drama from the fourth to the sixth act of the drama. The loss of the ring was

an effect of the curse of Muni Durbhasa, who claimed that Shakuntala’s husband will forget

about her.

Rabindranath said that Abhigyanam Shakuntalam is nothing but the journey of two stages of

companionship, an early stage when the king first married Shakuntala and the final stage when

the king accepts Shakuntala as his wife.

From Mahabharata’ to Kalidas’ Shakuntala, a significant amount of time passed and along with

that society, lifestyle, politics, and religion changed as well. Maybe that is why, the mythical

Shakuntala could demand the throne for her future, unborn son when the king proposed marriage

but the conventional Shakuntala makes no demand and when the king left her, all she did was

long for him and grieve his absence. The drama brings forth the condition of women. The

mythology reflects the condition of its own time and the newer generations learn about their

previous generations through these stories. Abhigyanam Shakuntalam shows us how the

mythical Shakuntala, over the ages transforms into a character tied within certain boundaries. The

mythical Shakuntala, among the other thousands of characters in Mahabharata, had her own

individuality and dignity.

Bibliography :

I. Vedvyaas, Krishna Dwaipayan. Mahabharata

II. Sinha, Kaliprasanna. Mahabharata

III. Kalidas. Abhigyanam Shakuntalam

IV. Shastri, Gourinath. Sanskrita Sahitya Sambhar. Nabapatra Prakasana Publications.

V. Tagore, Rabindranath. Prachin Sahitya.

VI. Bhaduri, Nrishingha Prasad. Mahabharater Ashtadoshi. Shakuntala. pg. #26 – #36.

VII. Bhoumik, Anshuman. Shakuntalar Bangabda O Selim Swaparja. Kali O Kalam.

VIII. Bhattacharya, Shubhodeep .Shakuntala Rup Theke Rupantor.