That’s Sakuntala, the heroine of the play named after her, up above.
Monday, October 24, 2011


Sakuntala is an Indian play from about the 5th century AD, (or CE if you prefer), by the playwright Kalidasa. While the foundational books of Hinduism, the Vedas, predate Greek civilization by a millennium or so, drama appears to have developed earlier in Greece (6th or 5th century BC) than in India (5th or 6th century AD). While the Homeric epics were frequently cited as sources of Greek religious thought, and to some extent praxis, the principal Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, appear to incorporate existing religious material into their texts. There is apparently a text called the Drama Manual that is somewhat analogous to Aristotle’s Poetics.

The original text was in Sanskrit, and in a variety of dialects that apparently descend from Sanskrit called Prakrits. I suppose, perhaps wrongly, that you could think of the relationship between Sanskrit and a Prakrit as being similar to that of Anglo-Saxon to a later regional English dialect, such as Yorkshire. The translator uses extensive diacritical marks instead of attempting to fully spell out the English equivalents of the Sanskrit or Prakrit. Rather than hunting for the keyboard equivalents I shall either type the word without the marks or give the spelled out English equivalent. For example Krsna=Krishna, and Krpa=Kripa.

The editor and translator of the edition that I used, the OWC text on the right, compares the play to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It’s been over 20 years since I read that play, so I won’t venture a comment about that. What I did find interesting is that Johnson emphasizes the gestural nature of performance in the drama. There is apparently a recognized set of gestures that are used to convey various moods, actions, movements, and so on. Unfortunately the stage directions provide no indication as to what those gestures are. When the stage direction says that Sakuntala displays the signs of “erotic attraction,” how are we to understand these gestures? A blush might work in the West, but it’s somewhat different from unqualified “erotic attraction.” The pornographic symbology of XXX-rated fare seems to be out as well. So it’s pretty much up to the Western director to find symbolic and gestural equivalents.

The play is based on an episode in the first book of the Mahabharata. In that section Sakuntala meets, falls in love with, and marries a king in what is called a gandharva marriage. This is more or less a secret marriage that is permitted to high caste people. Sakuntala is caught up in daydreaming about her husband, Dusyanta, and neglects a wandering ascetic, Durvasas. Durvasas curses Sakuntala so that her husband will forget that he is married to her. However, no one, outside of Durvasas, knows about the curse. In the epic there is no curse. The king simply goes away, and forgets the girl

The play diverges from the epic at this point. In the epic Sakuntala is pregnant for three years, and is separated from Dusyanta for an additional three years. In the play the pregnancy is the standard length. In the play the lovers are re-united through the intercession of the gods. In the epic Sakuntala has lost a ring given to her by the king, and it is found by a fisherman.

The most important thing in the epic is that Sakuntala asserts herself in a way that puts her in a superiorly ethical position when she confronts the king. I’ve written a paper on Asian rhetoric, that argues that Asian rhetoric is based on the ethical appeal. Western rhetoric tends to be directed towards winning at the expense of the opponent. Asian rhetoric tends to look for ways of negotiating a consensus. While the ethical appeal in Western rhetoric is to look at the goodness of the speaker as validating his position, the appeal is somewhat different in Asian rhetoric, or at least it’s different in appeal made in the episode of the Mahabharata from which Kalidasa took the main plot.

The king recognizes Sakuntala, but pretends that he doesn’t. She reproaches him, and reminds him of his duty. This will be paralleled later on when Krishna reminds Arjuna of his duty as a member of the warrior caste. Krishna’s long homily to Arjuna is frequently read separately from the epic as The Bhagavad-Gita. Sakuntala’s reproach is shorter than the Gita, but it makes an appeal to a pre-existing ethical code. She urges him to come up to that standard. He acknowledges her as his wife. He weasels a bit though, at least in the eyes of this Western barbarian, by saying that he did it because he thought the people would think she was a gold digger.

In both drama and epic the story of Sakuntala has a happy ending.

Next up, the tenth book of the Mahabharata has been translated as a separate story entitled Sauptikaparvan, in English The Massacre at Night.