Kālidāsa fl. c. 400
Indian poet and dramatist.
Acclaimed as the greatest of Sanskrit poets, Kalidasa is renowned for the descriptive beauty of his work. His sensitivity and eloquence in treating the themes of love and the sanctity of nature are best expressed in his lengthy lyric poem Meghaduta (The Cloud-Messenger) and in his drama Sakuntala. The latter work, considered the finest of the seven compositions attributed to him, was one of the first Sanskrit writings to be translated into modern European languages. The play was lauded as a masterpiece by the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and prompted William Jones's estimation of Kalidasa as "the Shakespeare of India." The Cloud-Messenger, especially well received by Kalidasa's contemporaries, garnered similar laurels upon its translation into Western European languages and remains Kalidasa's most popular poetic work.
Virtually nothing is known of Kalidasa's personal life. Various legend-based biographies of the poet exist, the most popular of these identifying him as one of the "nine gems," a group of first-century B.C. scientists and artists who resided at the court of King Vikramaditya of Ujjain, a legendary patron of the arts who may himself have been a mythical personage. More specifically, Kalidasa's play Malavikagnimitra (Malivika and Agnimitra), whose hero Agnimitra was the second king of the Sunga dynasty, indicates with certainty that the author lived sometime after about 150 B.C., the approximate date of Agnimitra's reign. The date of the Aihole inscription (634 A.D.), which contains a laudatory reference to the poet, has also been used as a chronological marker in placing Kalidasa. Furthermore, Kalidasa's works, according to K. Krishnamoorthy, indicate that he "lived in times of peace, when the leisured class would pursue the fine arts, free from threats of invasion from without or from conflicts within." Many scholars, including Krishnamoorthy, identify this golden age in which Kalidasa lived as the reign of Chandragupta II (c. 380-415), who ruled during the height of the Gupta dynasty, a period known for its achievements in art and literature. Various references in Kalidasa's works, distinctive of fourth-and fifth-century thought and practices, substantiate this conclusion, which has become the critical consensus.
Kalidasa is the earliest Sanskrit poet whose works have been preserved. In addition to The Cloud-Messenger,
Sakuntala, and Malavika and Agnimitra, the compositions most widely attributed to him include a second lyric poem, Rtusamhara (The Pageant of the Seasons); a third drama, Vikramorvasiya (Urvasi Won by Valor); and two epic poems, Kumarasambhava (The Birth of the War-God) and Raghuvamsa (The Dynasty of Raghu). Numerous reactions of these texts are extant, but scholars generally consider the Devanagari the purest version. The texts of Kalidasa's poetry have been especially well preserved; they have traditionally played an important part in the Indic school curriculum and have attracted much scholarly discussion since the poet's day. The Cloud-Messenger, for example, inspired forty-five commentaries from Kalidasa's contemporaries—more than any other Sanskrit composition. While the author's works went through numerous editions in India, they were not introduced to Western European audiences until William Jones translated Sakuntala in 1789. Subsequent translations, most notably those of H. H. Wilson (The Cloud-Messenger, 1813), R. T. H. Griffith (The Birth of the War-God, 1853), and Arthur W. Ryder (Shakuntala and Other Works, 1912), have fostered the growth of worldwide interest in Kalidasa's works.
The Pageant of the Seasons, a lyric poem of 140 stanzas, is generally considered Kalidasa's earliest work. Less polished in content and diction than the poet's later compositions, The Seasons has prompted a continuing critical debate regarding its authenticity. Most commentators concur, however, that the poem is simply a less mature expression of Kalidasa's characteristic thought and artistry. The Seasons examines in succession the six seasons of the Indian year—Summer, Rains, Autumn, Early Winter, Winter, and Spring—describing their effects on nature and on human emotions. Kalidasa's other lyric poem, The Cloud-Messenger, has been universally praised as one of the finest in its genre. The poem relates in two parts the story of an exiled demigod, or yaksa, who asks a thunder-cloud to convey a message of comfort to his sorrowing wife. The first part of The Cloud-Messenger features the yaksa 's brilliant description, in word-pictures, of the route his messenger should follow; the poem concludes with an imaginative depiction of the beauties of the god Kubera's divine city (the Yaksa's Himalayan home) and a moving account of the lonely wife's melancholy and despair.
The Birth of the War-God and The Dynasty of Raghu are epic poems presumably written by Kalidasa sometime after he completed The Cloud-Messenger. The Birth of the War-God, considered the earlier of the two, is comprised of seventeen cantos; the last nine of these, however, are generally regarded as spurious. The poem describes a threat posed by the powerful demon Taraka, who according to prophecy can be defeated only by a son born to a union of the great god Siva with his late wife, who has been reincarnated as Parvati, daughter of Mount Himalaya. Kama, the god of love, accompanies Parvati to Siva's Himalayan hermitage, where the celibate god is engaged in religious meditation. Kama's attempts to inflict Siva with an arrow of infatuation—while Parvati, as a handmaiden, attends to her former husband—are foiled by fire from Siva's third eye, and Kama is destroyed. Siva is impressed, however, with Parvati's subsequent religious austerities, and the final two cantos of the authentic portion of the epic describe the wedding and love-making of the divine couple. The Dynasty of Raghu treats similar themes of passion and the virtue of self-control. Essentially the story of the ancient Indian monarch Rama, eponymous hero of the epic Ramayana, the poem is framed by an account of the lives of Rama's progeny and forebears. The degenerate King Agnivarna, a distant descendant of Rama and the last of a host of monarchs sketched by Kalidasa in this work, graphically illustrates the author's concern for the dangers of moral decay in his own day. Neglecting public duty while indulging in the pleasures of his harem, Agnivarna dies of consumption, and the dynasty of Raghu comes to an end.
Kalidasa's style has been the subject of many twentieth-century critical studies. Scholars point out that Kalidasa, who wrote essentially for an aristocratic audience, sought to convey positive and noble aspects of Indic culture, limiting himself to lofty themes and subjects. T. G. Mainkar has described the author's style as a form of "aristocratic romanticism," adding: "Images, events, persons, expression—all these are in [Kalidasa's] eyes subordinate to artistic considerations." Commentators have noted that Kalidasa also advocates an ideal to be pursued in his portrayal of the god Siva in The Cloud-Messenger. Siva embodies a perfect blend of dharma (righteousness), moksa (enlightenment), and santa (tranquillity), as well as a perfect balancing of passion and restraint; each of these virtues were championed in Kalidasa's day by the Gupta regime, whose cultural values and enthusiasm for life found their best expression in the poet's works.
Some critics have asserted that Kalidasa's achievement was limited by the narrow focus of his works. A. Berriedale Keith, for example, contends that, unlike Shakespeare, with whom Kalidasa is often compared, the poet was by philosophy and temperament "incapable of viewing the world as a tragic scene, of feeling any sympathy for the hard lot of the majority of men, or appreciating the reign of injustice in the world." Most critics, however, cite the many moving accounts of mourning and despair in Kalidasa's works as evidence that he recognized suffering as the lot of humanity. They further contend that Kalidasa's religio-philosophical understanding of suffering as expiation of past wrongs led to his essentially deterministic view of spiritual emancipation through trial and hardship. Because he intended his heroes and heroines to serve as inspirational models of morality as well as perseverance, Kalidasa selected characters who were legendary or divine personages.
Although critics continue to debate the breadth and universality of Kalidasa's philosophy, they are virtually unanimous in their praise of his artistry. Many have commented favorably on the delicacy of the poet's descriptions—the suggestive manner in which he "indicates by a touch," as Keith explains, what others express at length. Scholars further commend the accuracy of Kalidasa's literary allusions and his adept use of metaphor, noting that the author thus demonstrates his erudition in a wide variety of disciplines. Summarizing Kalidasa's achievement, Arthur W. Ryder wrote: "Poetical fluency is not rare; intellectual grasp is not very uncommon: but the combination has not been found perhaps more than a dozen times since the world began. Because he possessed this harmonious combination, Kalidasa ranks not with Anacreon and Horace and Shelley, but with Sophocles, Vergil, Milton."