How does Shakuntala represent the feminine ideal of Indian women in Mahabharata, and when does she fall short of that ideal?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are two characteristics of Shakuntala and her story which render it all but inevitable that she should represent the ideal of Indian womanhood. The first is the significant role she plays in India's greatest epic, the Mahabharata. The importance of the Mahabharata in Hindu religion and culture makes...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

There are two characteristics of Shakuntala and her story which render it all but inevitable that she should represent the ideal of Indian womanhood. The first is the significant role she plays in India's greatest epic, the Mahabharata. The importance of the Mahabharata in Hindu religion and culture makes it only natural that any heroic figure who features in it should serve as an archetype and a pattern. However, Shakuntala also appears in the works of many later Indian writers, the most celebrated being Kalidasa's play The Sign of Shakuntala. Although Shakuntala is very much the heroine of the play and is intended to be a focus for admiration and even veneration, Kalidasa altered her character considerably, focusing on her loyalty and gentleness rather than her strong will. The two versions of her character have different virtues and can therefore serve as models for differing ideals of Indian womanhood.

The Shakuntala of the Mahabharata is notable for her pride and strength of character. When Dushyanta falls in love with her and rather abruptly asks for her hand in marriage, she tells him to wait. She then agrees to marry him only on the condition that their first-born son will be his heir. Later, when he attempts to break his word, she confronts him angrily, saying:

My birth is higher than yours, Dushyanta! You walk on earth, great king, but I fly the skies.

In Kalidasa's version, Shakuntala is a sweet, innocent, pious girl who is not nearly so robust in standing up for her rights. She is shy and deferential in dealing with Dushyanta, seeking help from her mother, the nymph Menaka, rather than confronting the king directly. This means that whether your ideal of Indian womanhood is strong and confident or gentle and yielding, there is a version of Shakuntala which represents that ideal and another that falls short of it.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Shakuntala represents the Indian ideal of womanhood by her caring nature. When Dushyanta, the king of Hastinapur, shoots Shakuntala's pet deer in the forest, she immediately comforts the injured animal. For good measure, she asks the king to stay in the forest for a few days to tend to the wounded deer. Not many people would have the courage to make such a request of a king, but then not many people are as caring as Shakuntala.

It is while Dushyanta is staying in the forest that Shakuntala falls head-over-heels in love with him. Indeed, so smitten is the young maiden with the king that she almost turns into a different person—and not necessarily a better person, either.

We can see this when the wise man Durwasa comes to Shakuntala's door. The sage repeatedly asks for water, but because Shakuntala is so preoccupied with thoughts of King Dushyanta, she pays him no attention. Ordinarily, Shakuntala wouldn't have hesitated to give water to the wise man. But now that she's so deeply in love with Dushyanta, it seems that nothing else matters.

This brief departure from Shakuntala's normally caring nature leads to serious consequences. Durwasa, angry at being ignored, puts a curse on Shakuntala, saying that whomever she's thinking about—which in this case happens to be Dushyanta—will forget all about her. The curse will only be broken if Shakuntala can show Dushyanta something he's given her.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Before we discuss Shakuntala as "the feminine ideal of Indian women," it is important to know that there is a difference between Shakuntala of Mahabharata and her character depicted in Kalidasa's play.

In Vyasa’s version of the epic Mahabharata, written 2000 years ago, King Dushyanta meets Shakuntala in a forest. They fall in love and marry in the Gandharva tradition (a form of marriage that does not need social sanction). She seeks a promise that their son should be the heir to the throne. Dushyanta returns to his kingdom and forgets his promise. Shakuntala gives birth to a baby in the forest. When the boy grows up, he wonders who his father is. The bold and feisty woman travels to Dushyanta's kingdom and demands that the king recognize their son as his heir. When Dushyanta refuses to acknowledge her and their son, Shakuntala stands with her head held high. As the gods speak on her behalf, the king is compelled to accept her.

Kalidasa’s version, written 500 years later, introduces the concept of the ring and the curse. When the king does not return to the forest, a pregnant Shakuntala travels to meet her husband. Dushyanta, who is under the influence of a curse, has forgotten her. A heart-broken Shakuntala leaves the palace. The family reunites after years of longing and separation.

Kalidasa's Shakuntala is crafted as an epitome of virtue, modesty, subservience, and sacrifice. These characteristics are meant to conform to the perception of "the feminine ideal of Indian women" in a patriarchal culture. The Shakuntala of Mahabharata is a remarkable woman who does not conform to the dictates of a patriarchal society. She belongs to the fifth century, and yet she represents the contemporary "feminine ideal of Indian women." Perhaps she is timeless.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I would say that Shakuntala represents the feminine ideal of the Indian woman in a few ways.  On one hand, she has much in way of loyalty to Dushyanta.  Even after he cannot recognize her, Shakuntala does not seek the comfort of another man.  She is completely devoted to him and when she is hurt by his inability to recognize her, she tends to her son and remains on her own, maintaining her high sense of virtue and loyalty to her one and true love. In this light, she suffers for her love, which makes her representative of much of the feminine tradition in Indian Literature.  It is difficult to identify where she would fall short of the measurement of what literature defines as an "ideal" woman.  Perhaps, a small argument can be made that when she fails to greet the sage properly and act in accordance to the manner that a guest deserves, one could suggest that this is where she falls short of this supposed ideal.  Yet, all of this presupposes an external standard that has been defined through the literature.  As a character, I find more powerful and redemptive in the Shakuntala narrative than anything else.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team