The story of Shakuntala is among the most celebrated in South Asian history. This account forms a part of the preface to the epic poem Mahabharata, which in turn inspired Kalidasa’s most esteemed play, Abigyanashakuntalam or “The Recognizing of Shakuntala”. Kalidasa’s telling of this story is one of tragedy, romance and intrigue. It evokes in its readers the pain of injustice, unfairness and misfortune, and the longing to see things set right.
This is a brief summary of the Kashmiri telling of Kalidasa’s play. King Dushyant comes upon a hermitage while hunting in the forest. He sees Shakuntala, who is very beautiful, and is intrigued by her. Dushyant is urged by sages to stay and fight off demonic monsters in the area. He stays and sends his generals and hunting party back to the capital. Dushyant and Shakuntala develop deep feelings of affection for each other and get married. Having dealt with the demonic monsters, the king heads to the capital. Before he leaves, he gives Shakuntala his ring, promising a suitable escort for Shakuntala to arrive shortly. Later, Shakuntala, deep in a romantic reverie, ignores an important guest to the hermitage. The angry visitor curses Shakuntala that her lover will forget her; a curse that can only be broken if the lover sees an ornament he has given Shakuntala. A faintly pregnant Shakuntala travels to the capital with her companions. When Shakuntala enters the court, Dushyant notices Shakuntala and recognizes her as very beautiful. Yet, when Shakuntala is introduced as his wife, the king strongly denies marrying any such woman. Shakuntala is distraught. In her distress, she reaches for the king’s ring and finds the ring missing. Shakuntala is abandoned in the capital by her companions, and put in the care of a priest. While walking from the court to the priest’s residence, suddenly, a figure of light from the heavens encircles her and takes her away. A fisherman holding a ring is brought into the king’s court; the very ring given to Shakuntala is handed over to the king and he remembers Shakuntala. Dushyant is remorseful and repents of his misguided actions. Sometime later, the king is invited by a heavenly army general to fight a dreaded demonic monster. After a successful battle, the king is taken on a tour of the heavens. Dushyant sees a regal looking boy and surmises that this is his son. Shakuntala enters the scene and the king falls to his knees, and asks for her forgiveness. They have an emotional reconciliation. Seeing this, an arch-deity, familiar with the situation, blesses the couple, foretells greatness over their child and his reign, and renames the boy Bharata.
Throughout this play, we see the theme of recognition, and of the lacking of recognition. From the very beginning of the play, King Dushyant is shown to be uncommonly observant and astute; he is seen observing and interpreting minute details that others do not pick up on.
KING: (looking around) Charioteer! Even without being told,
it is evident that these are the outskirts of a penance grove.
CHARIOTEER: How so?
KING: Can you not see? For here,
Beneath the trees are grains of wild rice,
dropped from tree hollows harboring parrots,
elsewhere one sees stones,
oily from crushing ingudi fruits;
the fawns are so trusting
they will tolerate speech without stopping
in their tracks,
the paths to the ponds are marked by lines
of water drops from the corners
of bark-garments. [Act 1 line 55]
There are also several striking poetic images used throughout to illustrate the nature of recognition and the lack of recognition. Examples include the phrasing of the curse placed on Shakuntala,
[THE VISITOR]: he will not remember you even if reminded,
just as a drunkard does not recall
what was just said. [Act 4 line 16]
Similarly, we hear King Dushyant’s repentant words to Shukuntala, distinctly describing his lack of recognition
KING: A blind man shakes off even a garland
cast upon his head fearing it to be a serpent;
those in deep darkness act like this
even towards auspicious things. [Act 7 Line 140]
A third, is Dushyant impressionistically recalling, to some heavenly beings, his earlier failure to recognize Shakuntala.
KING: This appears strange to me.
It is as if one were to deny an elephant
visibly before one,
then doubt once it has gone,
but seeing its footprints one perceives it,
—such was the aberration of my mind. [Act 7 Line 177]
Recognizing, and failing to recognize, is a theme that runs throughout this play.
Perhaps the most climactic and heartrendingly tragic moment in the narrative is when, in the court scene, King Dushyant simultaneously accomplishes a meticulous, perceptive recognition, and suffers an impervious, unseeing lack-of-recognition concerning Shakuntala. In this scene, Dushyant discerningly recognizes and affirms Shakuntala as beautiful, as having a quick wit, and even as one who has grown up in the forest.
KING: (seeing Shakuntala) Then this lady— Who might be this veiled lady,
the beauty of her body not quite revealed, in the midst of those rich in penitence, like a fresh bud among pale leaves? [Act 5 lines 56-57]
KING: (smiling) This must be what is called the ready wit that is the dowry of women. [Act 5 line 107]
KING: (to himself) On the other hand, the lady’s unfeigned anger appears to be that of one raised in the forest. [Act 5 line 118]
However, despite these clever and accurate recognitions of Shakuntala, King Dushyant fails to rightly recognize what was most significant about Shakuntala. The king’s astute assessment of Shakuntala was wholly accurate and yet it was entirely pointless and altogether trivial. Dushyant noted everything about her, but grasped none of the significance of who Shakuntala truly was with respect to him— that she was his beloved wife.
King Dushyant’s blindness was indifferent to knowledge and persuasion; what was lacking was not facts and reasoning in itself; of that, he had plenty of earfuls from Shakuntala and her travel companions. This blindness to Shakuntala needed to be overcome with something other than reasoning, pleading and stating truth.
The German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in prison shortly before his execution concerning his friends and parish, who became Nazis despite his mentoring, theologizing, reasoning and pleading. He affirmed that what his misled compatriots lacked was not knowledge. Rather, he affirms that “only an act of liberation, not instruction” could free them from their blindness. Keeping in mind the situation of his friends and parish, Bonhoeffer notes that,
“In most cases a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it. Until then we must abandon all attempts to convince the [afflicted] person”
What was needed for the king was not knowledge but liberation, the lifting of the curse. The cause of the curse’s lifting lay neither within King Dushyant nor within Shakuntala– but outside them.
In the case of Bonhoeffer’s friends and congregants, liberation arose with the defeat of Hitler in the Second World War and the ideology of the Nazis falling from its place of political (and spiritual) power. In the case of the tragic mis-recognizing of Shakuntala, the king’s seeing arose from his looking upon the ring, which allowed him to rightly look upon and recognize Shakuntala.
A second parallel to King Dushyant’s situation is seen in the Gospels. The Gospels record various instances of blindness towards Jesus, of the Pharisees and the crowds accurately mis-recognizing Jesus, that is, recognizing what was immediately true about Jesus and not recognizing what was intimately significant. The most common of these is the address of Jesus as “Good Teacher,” portraying Jesus as a wise teacher of good morals, even a master of spiritual insight, and a worker of great miracles.
A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18)
So, [those sent by the Pharisees] asked him, “Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. (Luke 20:21)
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.” (John 3:1-2)
This line of approach to Jesus is not unique to the Pharisees. Praising Jesus’ teaching, affirming his spiritual insight, and attempting to emulate his moral life, can be seen across eras and cultures. Two examples that readily come to mind are Thomas Jefferson, a “Founding Father” of the United States, and Mahatma Gandhi, India’s “Father of the Nation.” Both affirmed the enriching significance of Jesus’ life and lauded the depth of his moral and spiritual insight. Even today, spiritual and moral teachers, gurus and activists point to Jesus’ life and teachings as an exemplar to glean from. Yet, without recognizing Jesus as one who is, in fact, far more personally and intimately significant to them than all this praise can express.
As with King Dushyant’s unwitting, yet charmingly playful reprimand of his confidant’s obliviousness, foreshadowing his own mis-recognizing of Shakuntala
KING: Friend Madhavya! You have not attained the fruit of sight, for you have not beheld that which is truly worth seeing! [Act 2 Line 50]
So too can even the most astute of observers and seekers, though aware, cautious and critical of blindness, unsuspectingly miss out on that which is of true significance.
Yet, as Shakuntala in the heavens awaits the day that King Dushyant will finally be able to recognize her, so does the Lord Jesus wait, with longing, for his beloved to come into an intimate, reconciliatory and relational knowledge of who he truly is. This sort of knowing simply cannot be forced, debated, coaxed or persuaded into reality. Rather this is the sort of knowing that comes from new sight — arising from encounter, from revelation, even from political and spiritual shifts in the ordering of power in the high places. This is the knowing King Dushyant once lacked, the same knowing that Pastor Bonhoeffer’s friends and congregants needed, a knowing that the Pharisees did not even think possible— a knowing that, in each case, comes from liberation, and brings with it blessing to all around, blessing to the whole world.
Kalidasa, The Recognition of Shakuntala, trans. Somadeva Vasudeva, 1st Edition (New York: Clay Sanskrit, New York University Press, 2006).
—An excellent, well-received translation from Sanskrit, of the previously untranslated Kashmiri recension of the play.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, After Ten Years, in Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Isabel Best et al., 1st Edition, vol. 8, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010).
—The first unabridged compendium of Bonhoeffer’s letters and writings from 1943–1945, translates material from his pre-execution internment at Flossenbürg concentration camp; notably includes his prison poems.
Society of Biblical Literature, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition, 1st edition (Friendship Press, 2021).
—A promising, recent update to the well-established New Revised Standard Version.