Kālidāsa Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Indian poet and dramatist{$I[g]India and Sri Lanka;Kālidāsa[Kalidasa]} Recognized as the author of no more than three plays and four poems, which fuse together themes of nature and love within the framework of Hinduism, Kālidāsa is generally regarded as India’s greatest poet and dramatist.

Early Life

The play Mālavikāgnimitra (c. 370 c.e.; English translation, 1875) by Kālidāsa (KAL-ee-DAS-uh) has as its hero Agnimitra, a historical king of the Śunga Dynasty who reigned from 151 to 143 b.c.e. In addition, inscriptions found in the Deccan at Mandasor (dated 473 c.e.) and Aihole (dated 634 c.e.) quote from Kālidāsa’s poetry and laud his genius. These firm evidences are all that establish a chronological range for Kālidāsa’s life. The rest is conjecture. Though the Śunga was an important successor to the great Maurya Dynasty and led a cultural revival, opinion holds that Hindu culture had not sufficiently developed and the times were too disturbed to accommodate a talent such as that of Kālidāsa. Thus scholars suggest that the Gupta Dynasty (c. 321-c. 550 c.e.), the golden age of India, marked by serenity and sophistication, was more in line with the spirit and style of Kālidāsa. It is quite possible that Kālidāsa flourished during the reign of Chandragupta II (r. c. 380-413), with whom a congenial relation of court poet to patron can be readily conceived. Still, students of Kālidāsa tend to attach two date ranges to his works to acknowledge the uncertainty.

Just as little is known of his dates, little is known of Kālidāsa’s life—except by inference from his writings and the legends concerning him. Identified in various stories as an orphan, idiot, laborer, and shepherd, Kālidāsa may have had a difficult early life. His knowledge of religion, philosophy, the sciences, and Sanskrit probably marks him as a Brahman and a devotee of the cult of Śiva. (Indeed, his name means “servant of Kali,” one of the consorts of that god.) His aristocratic sensitivity, grasp of court etiquette, and familiarity with Indian geography suggest that he was not only a court poet to Vikramāditya I, his patron at Ujjain, but also a traveler and an ambassador (possibly to Kuntala, a kingdom inland from the Malabar coast). The erotic overtones in his works make it easy to accept the legend of a princess as his lover and spouse. It is not difficult to believe that his life ended, at sixty or eighty years of age, by foul play at the hands of a courtesan in Sri Lanka, as another legend would have it.

The order of his works (rejecting the twenty or so spurious works sometimes attributed to him) is unknown. Hypothetical reconstructions have been made, even to the degree of correlating the writings to his biography, but the writings are too impersonal to do this with any accuracy. Perhaps the two lyrics are early, the two epics somewhat later, while the plays are scattered at different phases of his life—Abhijñãānaśākuntala (c. 395 c.e.; Śakuntalā: Or, The Lost Ring, 1789) being the product of maturity.

Life’s Work

Nearly all Kālidāsa’s works were written in Sanskrit, a highly inflected language learned by an aristocratic elite—the word literally means “perfected.” Sanskrit was written as poetry (kavya), either lyric or epic, according to precise rules of grammar. The poetry, combined with other factors, created the visual immediacy of drama. Kālidāsa, using twenty-six different meters, was the king of similes, drawing from religion and nature in a style distinguished by a grace and economy that made music.

The Rtusamhāra (c. 365 c.e.; English translation, 1867) is a pastoral poem mirroring a newly married man’s joy of nature during the six Indian seasons (summer, the rains, autumn, early winter, winter, and spring); it is composed of 140 stanzas divided into six cantos. Though popular with the young, it is regarded as a piece of juvenilia, generally neglected by the literary critics. Yet this “lover’s calendar,” because of its romance, may have been innovative at its first appearance.

The Meghadūta (c. 375 c.e.; The Cloud Messenger, 1813), much adored by the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is an elegiac monody of 111 to 127 verses, according to various recensions; it is cast in a series of seventeen-syllable quatrains in a single meter. A yaksa, a sensual demigod, separated from his wife for a year by a curse, asks a rain cloud to transmit a love message to her. The first part of the poem contains a sweeping and detailed picture of the subcontinent via the hypostatized cloud; the second part focuses on its delivery to the wife in a celestial city of the Himalayas. The lyric plays on the pathos of love with full intensity of mood. The travels of the cloud and its detour over Ujjain lend credence to the idea of Kālidāsa as a traveler and diplomat. The poem is original and subjective; indeed, Kālidāsa pioneered a new genre. The traditional court epic (Mahākāvya) Kālidāsa found riddled with stereotype and convention. However, he was able to condense, deepen, and stylize his works into epics of aristocratic appeal, combining elevated themes with...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Unfortunately, nothing is known concerning Klidsa’s life. The folk stories about him that have survived are almost certainly fictitious, and recorded Indian history does not offer any verifiable accounts. Therefore, scholars turn to internal evidence and scattered references to Klidsa for clues to date him, but these, too, are often nebulous or ambiguous. Critical opinion has narrowed the plausible time frames for Klidsa to either the first century b.c.e. (the traditional view) or the fourth century c.e. (the modern hypothesis). The dates indicated in this essay come from K. Krishnamoorthy’s conjectural chronology, based on these two commonly held theories.

Reconstructions of Klidsa’s life are generally founded on the ancient legend that he was the court poet of King Vikramditya, a patron of the arts whose capital was Ujjain, in west-central India. The existence of such a king in the first century b.c.e. has never been confirmed historically, whereas it is known that the Gupta emperor Chandragupta II of the fourth century c.e. assumed the title Vikramditya (admittedly a common honorific) and cultivated artists at court. Whatever Klidsa’s period, it seems obvious that he served as a court poet. Moreover, his writing reveals a rigorous education in every conceivable field of study and a thorough knowledge of Indian geography that...

(The entire section is 433 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Legends concerning the life of the Indian poet and dramatist Klidsa (kahl-ee-DAWS-ah) abound, but almost no facts are known about him. Scholars have placed the date of his birth as early as the first century b.c.e. or as late as the fifth century c.e.; most theories seem to favor the later period. Even less is known about his place of birth. A long-popular legend made Klidsa one of the “nine gems,” or wise men, at the brilliant court of King Vikramditya I at Ujjain during the so-called Sanskrit Renaissance. No fewer than three Gupta monarchs assumed the title Vikramditya: Chandragupta II, Kumaragupta I, and Skandagupta. However, much linguistic and cultural evidence supports the traditional account of Klidsa as serving Chandragupta II, who from his capital of Ptaliputra ruled northern India from 375 to 415 c.e. Chandragupta’s daughter Prabhvatgupta married the crown prince of the neighboring state of Vkṭaka. The prince died shortly after ascending the throne, and Prabhvatgupta became their young son’s regent. Tradition has long claimed that Klidsa was appointed ambassador to the court of Chandragupta’s daughter. The extensive knowledge of geography, political administration, and court life Klidsa displays in his works suggests that his traditional account of his appointment may well be true.lid{amacr}sa[Kalidasa]}lid{amacr}sa[Kalidasa]}lid{amacr}sa[Kalidasa]}

The most famous writer of the post-Vedic period of Sanskrit literature, Klidsa produced seven works still extant: three plays, two epic poems, and two lyric poems. All his works are characterized by their delicate, lyrical quality and by a sensitivity both to human feelings and to the beauties of nature. The aesthetic distillation and evocation of powerful conflicting emotions and their resolution, known in Sanskrit poetic theory as rasa, mark all of Klidsa’s works.

Of the plays of Klidsa, akuntal—the story of the love between a king and a nymph-maiden who, after being separated by a series of violent and supernatural misfortunes, are happily reunited—is the most famous. Its prologue is said to have provided the inspiration for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s prologue to Faust. All three of Klidsa’s plays involve royal sages and goddesslike heroines, and they embody the conflict between desire and physical passion (kma) and self-control and duty (dharma). Their heroines are among the most appealing in all literature.