Dushyanta and Shakuntla
The most famous descendent of Puru is Bharata, from whom India gets its ancient name of BharathVarsha (Land of Bharata). the story of whose father Dushyanta and mother Shakuntala is chronicled in the epic Sanskrit poem Shakuntalam by the poet Kalidasa.
King Dushyanta was a great warrior, very handsome and of excellent character. One day when he was hunting in the forest, he came across a beautiful garden. All the animals were at peace in this garden and there was an atmosphere of great tranquility. The air was full of an intoxicating fragrance. Upon seeing this garden, the king was struck with wonder, and became curious as to who owned this garden. As he wandered about this heavenly garden, he came across a maiden. This maiden, whose beauty rivalled of that of the Apsaras (divine nymphs), was the adopted daughter of the sage Kanva. The story of her birth is rather peculiar.
The sage Vishwamitra, who used to be a king before he renounced his kingdom and took to up his present calling, was once indulging in particularly severe penances. Indra, the king of heavens was troubled on beholding this. He felt that Vishwamitra was plotting some act that would be detrimental to the Devas. He called the most beautiful of his Apsaras, Menaka, and bade her to proceed to the sage’s hermitage and use any means at her disposal to disrupt his penances.
Obeying the order of her king, the nymph went to the earth, to the spot where Vishwamitra was performing his penance. She took the help of Kama, the god of love, and created a beautiful garden and an atmosphere of spring around the hermitage. After this, she began dancing, and divine music accompanied her. After a while, this music started to seep into the consciousness of the sage. He was filled with a strange desire and could no longer concentrate upon his penance. He opened his eyes and beheld a vision in red, Menaka dancing sensuously, to a heavenly tune. At once passion started burning in his mind, and he desired this woman as he had never desired anything in his life before. Indra’s ploy had succeeded, the penance of Vishwamitra was disrupted.
The sage and the nymph spent many a month together, indulging in their desires. In course of time, a beautiful daughter was born to her. They named the child Shakuntala. Both parents had grown restless.Menaka wanted to return to her rightful place in Indra’s court and the sage wanted to resume his interrupted austerities. Around this time, the sage Kanva visited the hermitage. Shakuntala was left with him to be brought up as his daughter and her parents left to continue their duties.
Such was the story of how Shakuntala came to be in sage Kanva’s hermitage. She inherited the intelligence of her father and the beauty of her divine mother. It was no wonder that Dushyanta fell in love with her instantly upon beholding her. Once Dushyanta came to know who she was, he began addressing her thus, “O Maiden. Your beauty shines like that of Chandra on full moon day. If it is even possible, you are even more beautiful than your mother. I have fallen desperately in love with you. Please consent to be my wife.”
Shakuntala was filled with admiration for this King, for it is to be remembered that Dushyanta was a handsome warrior. However, she would not consent to be his wife immediately. She said, “O King. At this moment my father Kanva is away from this hermitage. He will not return here for many months. Before proposing marriage to a girl, the consent of her guardian is essential. Therefore, do not press me to return an answer to your proposal now. Come back later, and ask my father’s consent to address me.”
Dushyanta could not bear the thought of waiting for so long before marrying her. He had never been accustomed to wait for anything in his life. He attempted to persuade her to an instant marriage. He said, “O Shakuntala, it is true that the common practice is to seek the consent of guardians before marriage, however, under extraordinary circumstances the scriptures allow a Gandharva Vivaha (marriage incognito), wherein two people in love marry with only each other as witnesses. Such a practice has been often resorted to in cases where the guardians cannot be reached immediately to ascertain their opinion. Please do not torment me any longer, let us marry immediately, for I cannot think of a life without you.”
So Shakuntala allowed herself to be persuaded to marry the king immediately, very much against her better judgment. Ardent love must be her only excuse, as nothing much would have been lost by waiting for a few months for her father to return and the marriage to take place according to the common mode. They married each other, with only the woodland creatures as witnesses. The King and Shakuntala spent a very pleasant month there in the hermitage. It was high time Dushyanta returned to his kingdom, as he had not left any word as to where he could be found. He wanted to take his wife along with him to the Kingdom.
However, Shakuntala could not consent to this. She said, “My father would be returning very soon. If I am not at the hermitage to welcome him, he will be very worried. Since our marriage was very simply performed, it is but proper that you arrive in form, accompanied by your retinue, to take your bride to your home. Return to your kingdom now, but come back soon, and take me to your kingdom.”
Dushyanta agreed that this was a good plan and he went back to his country. Before going, he gave her his signet ring, as a token of his affection. In the meantime, Shakuntala could not put the King out of her mind. She spent all her time brooding, waiting for the time when Dushyanta would come back and take her to his kingdom. She was so absent minded, that she even stopped tending to her favorite garden, where she had met the King for the first time. While she was in this frame of mind, the sage Durvasacame to visit her father. He did not find anyone in the hermitage, as Shakuntala had taken to roaming in the forest all day. The sage finally found her lost deep in thought, under a banyan tree. He knew who she was, as this was not his first visit to the hermitage. He enquired her as to where Kanva was. So great wasShakuntala’s abstraction in her own affairs, that she did not even notice that the sage was talking to her. In fact, she did not even notice his presence. After repeating his questions many times, Durvasa became very angry. He was a rather short tempered sage, notorious for his curses uttered in anger. He cursedShakuntala thus, “Since you are so abstracted in your thoughts, may the one that you are thinking about, forget your very existence!”.
His booming voice as he uttered the curse, shook Shakuntala out of her abstraction. She humbly begged his pardon, and requested him to rescind the curse. She pleaded tearfully that she had not noticed his arrival as she had been thinking about her husband. At last the sage relented. He could not completely annul the curse, and amended it so that Dushyanta would not permanently forget her, but only temporarily. After this, the sage took his leave. Sometime after this, sage Kanva returned to his hermitage. Shakuntala related to him the all the incidents that had happened during his absence, including her marriage to Dushyanta and Durvasa’s curse. Kanva was concerned about the curse, but consoled himself with the reflection that it was only temporary.
A few months passed, and Shakuntala discovered that she was pregnant. Kanva decided that it was time for her to go to her husband’s kingdom, as the heir to the throne should be be born in his father’s country. He found a group of Brahmanas who were planning to visit Dushyanta’s kingdom. He asked them to escort his adopted daughter to her husband. The whole party set forth on their journey. Shakuntalaalways wore the signet ring given to her by Dushyanta on her ring finger. While traveling, they were bathing in a river, and as fate would have it, her ring slipped from her finger and was washed away in the river. She was very much upset, as it was the only thing that she had in her husband’s memory. She had not accepted any other gifts from him.
The Brahmanas escorted her to the court of Dushyanta. Of course, the curse of Durvasa had taken effect by then and he did not recognize her at all. He said to her “O Fair maiden, who are you? What is that you seek from me? Have you suffered any injustice in my realm? If so, I shall see to it that justice shall be served.”
Shakuntala was very much surprised. “O King, Do you not recognize me? I have not changed all that much in these six months that we have been apart. Seven months ago, you met me in the forest, near the hermitage of Sage Kanva. You spoke words of endearment to me and asked me to be your wife. In spite of me asking you to wait till my father returned, you persuaded me to marry you immediately. We were married according to the rights of the Gandharva Vivaha. You went back to your kingdom, promising to return soon and take me to my rightful place as your queen. Now you don’t even recognize me? Is this the practice of Kings? Accept me as your wife, your queen.”
Of course, Dushyanta did not remember any of this. He thought she was an imposter, and he became very angry. “O Maiden. Your fair form does not match the cunning of your mind. I have never even met you before today. Your audacity in claiming that I married you is unparalleled. Your ploy will not succeed. I can see that you are with child. You are trying to impose on me, after having lost your virtue to someone else. Begone from my presence, before I change my mind to execute you for your unfounded allegations!”
Hearing the harsh words spoken by the King, Shakuntala fainted. When she awoke from her swoon, burning with righteous anger, she said. “O King, You thought that when you made your promise, there were no witnesses other than our two selves. You forget that Mitra and Varuna and other Gods are always witnesses to a promise. For some reason best known to them the Devas are not coming to my rescue. You ought to have been struck down with their wrath, when you spoke those harsh words and broke your promise. The Gods shall always punish the breaker of oaths. I will not stay one instant in this place where I have been insulted thus.”
Hearing her words of wrath, Dushyanta was filled with wonder, however, he did not remember her at all, and was steadfast in his refusal. The Brahmanas who had accompanied Shakuntala consoled her and took her back to the hermitage of her father. Kanva saw that there was still a long time to go beforeDurvasa’s curse ran its course, consoled his daughter, advising her to accept her fate. He assured her that her future would be full of happiness, spent in the company of her husband and son, and that the present dark times would pass.
In due course of time, a male child was born to Shakuntala. He had inherited the beauty of his mother and his valor from his father. Kanva named him Bharata. Ten years went by, during which time the child grew into a boy. Kanva taught him the scriptures and Dharma (the the path of truth). In addition to this, as befitting a prince, he was taught the use of weapons, and he particularly excelled with the bow.
The signet ring that had been washed away in the river, lay at the bottom of the river for a long time. At last, it was swallowed by a fish. This fish was caught in the net of a fisherman in Dushyanta’s kingdom. When he cut open the fish to cook it, he found the ring inside it. He immediately recognized the signet ring of his king, and took it to the court. When Dushyanta saw it, the curse of Durvasa was lifted. He immediately remembered Shakuntala. He was very much grieved, for she had come to meet him, only to be insulted in his court. He resolved to seek her out and apologize for his conduct, and ask her to be his queen. He knew the forest in which he had met Shakuntala, but was not able to remember the exact location of the garden in which he met her. He went alone, without his retinue and spent many days in the forest, searching for Kanva’s hermitage.
He hunted for food in this forest. One day he saw a fat wild boar in the forest. He gave it a chase and finally managed to shoot it down with his arrows. At the same time, another hunter had also fired his arrows at the same boar. Both of them reached the boar at the same time. The King was very much surprised that the other hunter was a mere ten year old boy. Of course, this was none other than his son, but naturally the king did not recognize him. They both started arguing, claiming the boar as their kill. The argument became violent and the boy challenged the king to combat. The king hesitated, as it was not proper for such a renowned warrior to fight a mere child. However, when Bharata accused him of cowardice, he became very angry and accepted the challenge. Very quickly, once the battle commenced,Dushyanta became aware that although only ten years old, his opponent was a very accomplished warrior. The king was very hard pressed to counter the assault of the boy. The battle raged for hours, but in the end, the King was defeated and made prisoner. As per the rules of single combat of those times, he became a slave of the victor. The boy took him to his home, which was the hermitage of Kanva. There, the King met Shakuntala and was made aware that his conqueror was none other than his son. There was a very happy reunion, with the King begging the sage’s and his wife’s pardon for the events that had taken place in his court. They both forgave him immediately, as he was blameless in this matter,Durvasa’s curse being the cause of his behavior.
Dushyanta returned to his kingdom, accompanied by his wife and heir. In due course of time, he abdicated the throne in favor of his son. Bharata ruled for a long time. He conquered all the kings in the world and brought them all under his control. Unfortunately, although he had many sons, he did not find any of them worthy of ruling the kingdom after him. He performed a magnificent Yagna (sacrifice), and as a result of it an illustrious son named Bhumanyu was born to him. Once Bhumanyu came of age, Bharatacrowned him king and retired to the forest to spend the rest of his days in performing penances.