Shakuntala – The Woman Wronged

Shakuntala is a well-known character made famous by the Sanskrit play Abhijnanashakuntalam by Mahakavi Kalidasa, written between the 1st century BCE and 4th century BCE. Abhijnanashakuntalam has been studied and analyzed by many authors and playwrights and has been one of the most successful and renowned plays of India.

Abhijnanashakuntalam has been translated into various Indian and international languages. Englishman William Jones translated it into English in 1789. Soon, Jones’s version was translated in many other European languages. Among the translators, Goethe was one who was deeply influenced by the play and is supposed to have written in a letter:

The first time I came across this inexhaustible work it aroused such enthusiasm in me and so held me that I could not stop studying it. I even felt impelled to make the impossible attempt to bring it in some form to the German stage. These efforts were fruitless but they made me so thoroughly acquainted with this most valuable work, it represented such an epoch in my life, I was so absorbed in it, that for thirty years I did not look at either the English or the German version. […] It is only now that I understand the enormous impression that work made on me at an earlier age.

No wonder he modeled the jester in the prologue of Faust (1797) on the vidusaka in Abhijnanashakuntalam, as noted by Heinrich Heine. Goethe’s friend Schiller wrote of the play, ‘In the whole world of Greek antiquity there is no poetical representation of beautiful love which approaches even afar.’

However, what is lesser known is that Shakuntala is one of the first female characters to appear in the epic Mahabharata written by Maharishi Ved Vyasa. Shakuntala’s story is told in the Sambhava Parva part of the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata. The story is recited by Vaishampayana to Janamejeya. This tale from the Mahabharata was taken by Kalidasa and recreated in his own way into one of the most romantic plays of all times. Many of his other plays were also based on mythology, like Kumarasambhava, Raghuvamsham, Meghaduta, etc.

However, there is a big difference in the original characterization of Shakuntala by Vyasa and the dramatic representation by Kalidasa.

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