“I can see that you’ve turned the penance-grove into a pleasure-garden!”
March is a strange month in Oregon. It is appropriately Lenten: overrun with tedious rain, dismally gray—but also a prelude to Easter, a doorway to spring. Daffodils break through first, while the grass is still crusty with morning frost, and now that the days have turned balmy, cherry blossoms are popping. The trees are suddenly pink, and when I bike underneath them on my daily commute, I am thrust momentarily into an intoxicating, invisible cloud. Ah! I think, as my baseline March malaise is disrupted for an instant—how delicious!
This mood—melancholia mingling with the sensual blooms of spring—mirrors the mood of Kālidāsa’s 4th century Sanskrit drama, The Recognition of Śakuntalā, which I just finished reading.
In many ways, Śakuntalā unfolds like a typical Western romance. There’s a dashing royal hero with a trusty bow—okay, so he has multiple wives back at his palace, but let’s not dwell on that—who stumbles upon a beautiful young woman in a lush, Edenic hermitage, and they are consumed with passion for one another as soon as they meet.
Enter various minor obstacles: they are from a different class! She’s super shy! She needs her foster father’s blessing! But these are quickly overcome: wait, they are actually from the same class! Passion wins! And they can contract a secret but legally binding love marriage through consensual sex!
Then the real obstacle comes along, in the form of a curse; because of a grave lapse in hospitality on the part of love-addled and now-pregnant Śakuntalā, her bridegroom has lost all memory of her and their secret marriage. She can only break this curse by revealing a magical ring to him, which of course is inconveniently lost.
After a series of mishaps, revealed in both delightfully comic and tragically poignant scenes, by the end of the play, the evil spell is broken and the couple is whisked into a happy ending. So far, with some cultural tweaking and historical updates—Śakuntalā is now a successful cosmopolitan career woman in NYC; Duṣyanta is lonely rich guy—this could be the plot of a contemporary rom-com.
But what makes this play intriguing, what keeps me mulling over it days after I’ve finished the last page, are its stark reversals from the typical romance—namely, the portrayal of passionate erotic desire as an illusory, fickle thing, a fire to be quenched before a deeper, calmer bond can take hold.
When the hero and heroine first meet in the ascetic hermitage in Act I, the reader is inundated with evocative, sensual natural imagery, which playfully mirrors the lovers’ attraction:
KING. […] Her lower lip’s as red as a fresh young bud,
Her arms are tender shoots, supple yet trim,
And like a longed-for blossom, gathering strength,
Youth pushes up through all her limbs.
ANASUYĀ. Dear Śakuntalā, here’s that jasmine you call Light of the Forest. She’s chosen the frangrant mango as her bridegroom. You’ve forgotten her.
ŚAKUNTALĀ. Only when I forget myself. [Approaches the jasmine and gazes at it] My dear friend, the union of this tree and this jasmine has taken place at the most wonderful time—the jasmine is a young plant, covered in fresh blossoms, the mango has soft buds, and is ready for enjoyment…
Their mutual passion leads both into conflict with dharma, their respective sacred duties. The King, who is supposed to be “the guardian of the sacred and social orders,” sends a buffoon to run his palace and lets his elephants run amok in the ascetic’s grove. Śakuntalā is distracted in her prayers and offerings, neglecting her obligations of hospitality to a powerful sage.
This distraction from duty is what leads to the sage’s curse in the first place, and after a hasty, secret marriage, the King returns to the city and promptly forgets about Śakuntalā, kicking her to the proverbial curb when she shows up pregnant in his court months later.
After years of long-suffering separation, with no promise of reconciliation—Śakuntalā has been secreted away by her nymph mother—a divine messenger appears to summon the King out of his grief and into a cosmic battle with some demons. His subsequent victory ushers him into a higher, holier realm—courtesy of a flying chariot!—where his “body, mind, and soul are calm” at last. In contrast to the first hermitage, where he was overcome with feverish passion, in this heavenly hermitage, the King feels as though he’s “floating in a pool of nectar.”
Here, in this tranquil, celestial realm, Duṣyanta finds his long-lost love and meets, for the first time, their son. After many pages marked by motifs of absence, illusion, and mirage, we arrive at the play’s climax, a moment of quiet anagnorisis:
KING. Beautiful lady,
Choked by tears, you couldn’t say it,
But the victory is mine—
For in looking on your pale
Unpainted lips, I have at last
Recalled your face.
Victory? But what has been conquered? The King’s demons and his inner turmoil, that consuming passion that both propelled him toward Śakuntalā and obscured his vision of her. This is a Lenten love story, a plot that progresses from pleasure into penance, culminating finally in fruitful communion.
The passion of Duṣyanta and Śakuntalā may have caught fire at first sight—but that glimpse was not able to produce recognition. Such recognition—that soul-deep seeing as knowing—is made possible not through fiery desire, but through a steady, quiet love that has been tempered by suffering, which provides the wedding bower under which desire and duty can meet.