Shakuntala – The Woman Wronged

Vyasa’s Shakuntala is the precursor of many of his later heroines in the Mahabharata—strong, decisive and fiery. She had a mind of her own and could stand her ground against the mighty king of Hastinapur, King Dushyant. Also, Dushyant is a king of little character and displays rather loose morals in Vyasa’s Mahabharata, instead of someone who suffers from temporary amnesia as represented by Kalidasa in his version. The major difference, however, is the character of Sage Durvasa.

Sage Durvasa is an invention of Kalidasa, whose curse brings on the dramatic forgetfulness, leading to all the troubles in the life of Shakuntala. It also gives Dushyant the much-needed excuse to reject his wife, which, in the original version of Vyasa, is a breach of morality and a sign of his lusty escapade with Shakuntala.

Vyasa’s Shakuntala knew the background of her birth and understood its repercussions. She stood her moral ground when the king refused to recognize her and ensured that she won justice by the sheer ability of her reasoning and straightforwardness. Vyasa’s Shakuntala is not a damsel in distress shedding copious tears; she fights for her right and gets her way, and does not succumb to the man, irrespective of his position and stature. She was amongst the first women in the Mahabharata to fight for her rights in a man’s world and get her due.

There could have been several reasons that motivated Kalidasa to change the character. According to the tenets of Natyashastra by Sage Bharata, a hero cannot be guilty of moral turpitude. Kalidasa was a master of literature and language and probably sought to fully follow the tenets of Natyashastra, at the risk of ‘twisting’ the original tale from the epic Mahabharata. The curse by Rishi Durvasa could be one way to mask this moral turpitude. Another probable reason could have been that Kalidasa was a court poet during the golden period of the Guptas. As a court poet, it would not have been judicious to write a play which depicted the royalty in a bad light. To show a king as someone who does not epitomize high morals and ethics would be a huge disservice to royalty and thus, his Abhijnanashakuntalam resorts to the inclusion of Sage Durvasa as a creative indulgence, but stays with the dramatic elements which make the story so interesting.

Shakuntala: The Woman Wronged is a fictional narrative that represents the protagonist in the Vyasan mould of characterization of the heroine. In this, Shakuntala comes across as a smart individual like the later heroines of the epic, Satyavati and Kunti, and a fiery precursor to to the likes of Amba and Draupadi. The original thread is the same as that of the story in the Mahabharata by Sage Ved Vyasa. Some creative liberties have been taken in expressions and certain characterizations to highlight the personality of Shakuntala. Certain other myths have also been added to enable a discussion and debate of lesser-known or little-debated characters from mythology. Needless to say, the misunderstood characters are females, who have not been discussed openly for any number of reasons.

This work is not to be seen as anti-Kalidasa, as he was undoubtedly amongst the best poets or playwrights India has seen. This work is only to introduce to the readers the original Shakuntala as envisioned by Ved Vyasa. Mythology, like water, has the unique ability to take the form of its container. Kalidasa had his way of interpreting the tale and making it famous, while I am only trying to recreate the character as conceived by the original creator of Shakuntala. While Kalidasa’s Shakuntala made for a beautiful, lovelorn heroine inviting sympathy, Vyasa’s Shakuntala is more heroic and much closer to the modern-day woman. This work seeks to reiterate that image of a woman envisioned many centuries ago by Vyasa, who has given us some of the most powerful female characters in our epics.

Mythology has been a rich source of popular literature the world over, and more so in India. The beauty of mythology is that it is ageless and can be adapted and made contemporary at any point of time, and if not, it is definitely debatable at every stage of civilization. This work of fiction takes up many other myths that are well known and hopes to spark a debate on some of the issues they raise. They are intertwined with the character of Shakuntala because the author finds it both relevant and necessary to enable a divergent viewpoint from the oft-beaten path that the ‘popular’ myths have always traversed. The views expressed here are of the author, but hope to strike a balance and find an echo in the present world. One also hopes that the novel will hold a mirror to what society has done to the status of a woman, from what it was in the times when the epic was authored. This is a small effort to achieve that minor error-correction.

The novel is in three parts:

  1. The birth of Shakuntala—which deals with the relationship of Menaka and Vishwamitra and the early childhood of Shakuntala.
  2. The youth and marriage of Shakuntala—which represents the coming of age of Shakuntala and her relationship with Dushyant.
  3. Shakuntala at the court of Dushyant—which showcases her coming to terms with her status as a single mother and her final confrontation with Dushyant.

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