Sunday, October 16, 2011

Goethe on Shakuntala

Abhigyanshakuntalam is a seven act play written by the renowned Sanskrit poet and dramatist Kalidas (around 4 CE). It is based on the story of King Dushyanta and Shakuntala, foster daughter of sage Kanva. It deviates from the original story mentioned in the epic Mahabharat in two aspects.

One - in the original story Dushyant is ashamed of his jungle escapade with the hermit girl Shakuntala and refuses to accept her as his pregnant wife (despite their marriage in the forest according to the Gandharva ceremony) when he gets back to the city. Kalidas introduces the curse of irascible sage Durvasa in his play, thus softening and building up Dushyanta's character. Durvasa's curse on Shakuntala does not exist in the original texts of Mahabharat in this regard.

Two - Kalidas has also tempered down Shakuntala's characterisation by presenting her as a shy, demure, compassionate and fatalist possesing heavenly beauty. This is quite contrary to the bold and outrightly strightforward Shakuntala of Mahabharat who agrees to marry Dushyanta only on the precondition that the son he has from her would be the future king, no one else. She also doesn't hesitate to the narrate herself, the story of her birth as a result of the union of sage Vishwamitr and heavenly nymph Menaka out of wedlock.

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, German poet, dramatist, biologist, theoretical physicist and polymath expressed his admiration in 1792 for Shakulntala as:

Willst du die Blüthe des frühen, die Früchte des späteren Jahres,
Willst du, was reizt und entzückt, willst du was sättigt und nährt,
Willst du den Himmel, die Erde, mit Einem Namen begreifen;
Nenn’ ich, Sakuntala, Dich, and so ist Alles gesagt.

Wouldst thou the young year's blossoms and the fruits of its decline
And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed,
Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine?
I name thee, O Sakuntala! and all at once is said.
—translation by E.B. Eastwick 

It means - If you wish to see the young flowers of Spring and the ready to pluck fruits of Summer at once; or if you wish to see that object which pleases, hypnotises, delights and quenches you at once; or if you wish to see the earth and heaven in one look; I invoke the name of Shakuntala and all quests are answered at once.

Heinrich Heine's posthumus work in 1869 brings to our notice an important fact. In the chapter 'Thoughts & Ideas' he wrote "Goethe made use of Sakontala at the beginning of Faust". Goethe's 'Vorspiel auf dem Theater' (Prologue to the Theater) of Faust is inspired from Shakuntala where an actor/director comes on stage and flatters the audience of their wisdom and cultured disposition to seek their blessings and patronage (though the audiences were quite different in both eras).


  1. Actually I have to thank Google.It is great. I had heard Goethe's above lines from our teacher in 1960. Just now I remembered him and wanted to check on those lines of the verse. Lo! Google promptly delivered it! Google is simply great.

  2. Thanks to Google and your comment I am also revisiting my page after so long. It refreshed the memory of time - a few years back - when I was binge reading Kalidas :)
    Thank you for your comment.


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