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Over the next couple of week’s we plan to showcase articles written by Swami Tathagatananda, courtesy of Vedanta Society of NY, founded by Swami Vivekananda


Abhijnana Sakuntalam “A Wonder Coming From A Land of Wonders” by Swami Tathagatananda

Download full text: pdf Abhijnana Sakuntalam “A Wonder Coming From A Land of Wonders” by Swami Tathagatananda

Abhijnana Sakuntalam “A Wonder Coming From A Land of Wonders” by Swami Tathagatananda

Through divine dispensation, India’s spiritual values and high moral tone expressed through her immortal Sanskrit literature was to make a great impact on the minds of creative writers in the West. Over the last few centuries, the new flavor of Indian literature savored in the West was so enchanting and captivating that responsive writers and thinkers showed their immediate, favorable receptivity to the literary beauty of Indian lore. In the nineteenth century, the popularity of Sir Arnold’s poetic composition on the life of Buddha, The Light of Asia, indicated the Western frame of mind under the effects of Romanticism. The Light of Asia was an instant success and enjoyed such great popularity that it achieved many editions within a few years of its first publication in 1879. Sixty editions were published in England and eighty in America, with sales of millions in both countries. It is relevant to this article on the famous Abhijnana Sakuntalam of the illustrious fourth-century poet Kalidasa, because the demand in the West for India’s eternal values as they are reflected in her immortal literature touched the very core of the Western mind. It provides an insight into the modern Western mood.

Professor Sylvain Lévi wrote:

The name of Kalidasa dominates Indian poetry and epitomizes it brilliantly. The drama, a grand and scholarly epic, the Elegy is attesting again today the power and plasticity of this magnificent genius; alone among the disciples of Sarasvati (the goddess of learning and the arts) he had the happy opportunity to produce a truly classical masterpiece, which India admires and which humanity recognizes. The praise which is saluting the birth of Shakuntala at Ujjayini, has existed over long centuries, bringing illumination from one world to the other since William Jones revealed it to the West. Kalidasa has marked his place in this radiant Pleiad, where each name embodies a period of the human spirit. The series of these names forms history; or rather it is history itself.

Arthur W. Ryder, one of Kalidasa’s translators, also expressed his homage:

The best proof of a poet’s greatness is the inability of men to live without him; in other words, his power to win and hold through centuries the love and admiration of his own people, especially when that people has shown itself capable of high intellectual and spiritual achievement. For something like fifteen hundred years, Kalidasa has been more widely read in India than any other author who wrote in Sanskrit. There have also been many attempts to express in words the secret of his abiding power: such attempts can never be wholly successful, yet they are not without considerable interest.

When Swami Vivekananda described some of India’s gifts to the world, he included Shakuntala:

In literature, our epics and poems and dramas rank as high as those of any language; our “Shaguntala” [Shakuntala] was summarized by Germany’s greatest poet as “heaven and earth united.”

S. Radhakrishnan, in his inaugural address to the Sahitya Akademi, a creative academy of drama and music with a universal aspiration, gave the true import of Kalidasa’s work:

In the millennium between the Greek drama and the Elizabethan, the only drama of quality in the world is, according to Berriedale Keith, the Indian drama. An Indian drama is not merely a play. It is poetry, music, symbolism and religion. Images chase one another beyond the speed of thought in the writings of Kalidasa who is known outside our frontiers. He represents the spirit of India, even as Shakespeare England, Goethe Germany and Pushkin Russia (S. Radhakrishnan on March 12, 1954. From his Occasional Speeches and Writings (Calcutta, 1956), 110).

In The Discovery of India, Nehru pointed out that Indian philosophy was felt by Europeans—characteristically ambivalent about the tremendous stimulus of Indian thought on western civilization—to fulfill a need that their own culture had failed to meet.

August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767-1845) referred to Shakuntala in his first lecture on dramatic literature:

Among the Indians, the people from whom perhaps all the cultivation of the human race has been derived, plays were known long before they could have experienced any foreign influence. It has lately been made known in Europe that they have a rich dramatic literature, which ascends back for more than two thousand years. The only specimen of their plays (Nataks) hitherto known to us is the delightful Sakoontala, which, notwithstanding the colouring of a foreign climate, bears in its general structure a striking resemblance to our romantic drama.

The German naturalist, traveler and statesman Alexander von Humboldt (1769- 1859) wrote about Indian poetry and observed that

Kalidasa, the celebrated author of the Sakoontala, is a masterly describer of the influence which Nature exercises upon the minds of lovers. This great poet flourished at the splendid court of Vikramaditya, and was, therefore, contemporary with Virgil and Horace. Tenderness in the expression of feeling, and richness of creative fancy, have assigned to him his lofty place among the poets of all nations.

Will Durant highlighted the impact of Shakuntala when he addressed the need for a deeper study of India’s culture in The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage:

In 1789 Sir William Jones opened his career as one of the greatest Indologists by translating Kalidasa’s Shakuntala; this translation, re-rendered into German in 1791, profoundly affected Herder and Goethe, and—through the Schlegels—the entire Romantic movement, which hoped to find in the East all the mysticism and mystery that seemed to have died on the approach of science and Enlightenment in the West.


Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Sakuntalam was the first Sanskrit drama ever to be translated into a European language. This was accomplished by Sir William Jones in 1789 in order to display an example of India’s treasures of Hindu drama to an admiring Europe. It created a landmark in the history of Indian studies in the West. It may be remembered that Sir William Jones had founded the Asiatic Society in Bengal in 1784. The society had published the first complete translation from the Sanskrit into English of the Bhagavad Gita by Charles Wilkins the same year. Its literary organ, Asiatic Researches, swiftly disseminated India’s Sanskrit lore throughout England, Germany and France. The first generation of Indic scholars was vigorously interested in the research and publications of the society. Jones actually completed his first translation of Kalidasa’s drama in Latin, “which bears so great a resemblance to Sanskrit, that it is more convenient than any other modern language for a scrupulous interlineary version,” but then rendered it “word for word” into English, “without suppressing any material sentence” and “disengaged it from the stiffness of a foreign idiom and prepared the faithful translation.” When Sir William Jones translated Abhijnana Sakuntalam into English as Shakuntala or the Fatal Ring, it took only a decade for him to achieve international fame as the translator of Shakuntala, “incomparable” in Goethe’s estimation, in whose correspondence and diaries it is revealed that it held a special place Goethe’s heart. From the fresh soil of Jones’ translation, others sprang up in German, French, Danish and Italian. Shakuntala became one of the most circulated Indian masterpieces—it was reprinted five times in England between 1790 and 1807 and it was retranslated and published many times throughout Europe.

The century after Jones translated it, Shakuntala appeared in forty-six translations in twelve different languages in Europe. Jones went on to translate another of Kalidasa’s poems, Ritusamhara, in 1792. He published it in Calcutta as The Seasons, A Descriptive Poem. His English translation of Shakuntala, together with his Hymns to Narayana, were studied with fond devotion by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), Robert Southey (1774-1843), Thomas Moore (1779- 1857), Alfred Tennyson (1850-1892) and other nineteenth-century English poets. They read his works with admiration and quoted him, calling him the “harmonious Jones.” Thanks to the influence of Jones’ Shakuntala and Hymns to Narayana, Shelley was able to overcome his atheistic and materialistic tendencies and develop his spiritual outlook. Another great English Indologist translated Kalidasa’s beautiful dramatic composition. Sir Charles Wilkins (1750-1836), whose translation of the Bhagavad Gita had the greatest impact in Europe, returned to England in 1786 after sixteen years in India. Wilkins fitted a printing press in Bath, England, with Devanagari characters and from this press, he printed his Story of Shakuntala from the Mahabharata in 1793. Around the nineteenth century, a new cultural and literary currency was being wrought in Europe, with India playing a significant role in England’s Romantic period. Jones’ work, particularly Shakuntala, pervaded England through her thinkers and by way of the receptive, intuitive wells of thought in her poets. The “Himalayan barrier of language” and the “cruel inadequacy of poetical translation” that translators must accept were to be surmounted by another great Indologist who came under the spell of Shakuntala.


In 1853, the eminent Sanskrit-English lexicographer, Sir Monier Monier-Williams (1819- 1899) came under the eternal charm of Sanskrit. He considered the vast Sanskrit lore and was induced to compile and publish a “correct edition” of Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam with a view to providing for Sanskrit students desiring a “close and literal translation” of the drama. In his Sakoontala; or, The Lost Ring; An Indian Drama, Translated into Prose and Verse from the Sanskrit of Kalidasa, Monier-Williams redeemed his pledge to present the English public with a free translation of Shakuntala. It was published in 1855 (a second edition was published in 1876). In his Introduction he wrote of providing the first English translation, in prose and verse, of the true and pure version of the most celebrated drama of the great Indian Shakspere [sic]. The need felt by the British public for some such translation as I have here offered, can scarcely be questioned.

A great people, who, through their empire in India, command the destinies of the Eastern world, ought surely to be conversant with the most popular of Indian dramas, in which the customs of the Hindus, their opinions, prejudices, and fables; their religious rites, daily occupations, and amusements, are reflected as in a mirror. Nor is the prose translation of Sir W. Jones (excellent though it may be) adapted to meet the requirements of the Englishman who, unacquainted with Sanskrit, desires an accurate representation of the original text, and notes to explain unintelligible allusions. That translation was unfortunately made from modern and corrupt manuscripts (the best that could then be procured), in which the bold and nervous phraseology of Kalidasa has been weakened, his delicate expressions of refined love clothed in a meretricious dress, and his ideas, grand in their simplicity, diluted by repetition or amplification. It is, moreover, altogether unfurnished with explanatory annotations. The text of my edition, on the contrary, represents the old and pure version of the drama, and from that text the present has been made; while abundant notes have been added, sufficient to answer the exigencies of the non-oriental scholar. Moreover, the metrical portions of the play have, for the first time, been rendered into verse.

Monier-Williams highly appreciated Kalidasa’s use of eleven different varieties of meter in the first thirty-four verses of the poem to convey the characters’ diction with “boldness and felicity.” He chose to preserve the “grand, yet simple and chaste creation of Kalidasa” in translation by employing both blank verse and rhyming stanzas and even hypermetrical lines of eleven syllables. He felt his own meters to be “prosaic” and was aware that he might not have “expressed in language as musical as his [Kalidasa’s] own.” He humbly acknowledged, “I have done all in my power to avoid substituting a fictitious and meagre poem of my own” and that “no metrical system in English could give any idea of the almost infinite resources” of Sanskrit. When Sir John Lubbock (1824-1913) listed one hundred of the best titles in the world, Monier-Williams’ Sakoontala; or, The Lost Ring was included and listed as Abhigyan Sakuntala.


The impact of Shakuntala was not isolated from the overall profound impression made on the West by other Indian works and the new field of comparative Sanskrit studies. England was regarded as the “native land” of Indian studies but Germany was the true cradle of the Indian renaissance. During the 1790s, Oriental research in Jena, Weimar and Heidelberg and then at Bonn, Berlin and Tübingen was established “like a rapid-fire series of explosions.” German translations and re-translations of Shakuntala, along with the Laws of Manu and the Gita Govinda as well as Asiatic Researches published by Calcutta’s Asiatic Society were studied in depth and ignited “a fervid intensity” in receptive German minds. Their contact with India’s original and universal religion through these works gave them a sense of exaltation. Shakuntala was the first work to attract Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803)—with far-reaching effects. Shakuntala proved to be the first link with the authentic India. When Georg Forster (1754-1794) published his very popular English translation of Shakuntala from Jones’ English version in 1791, he retained the poetic verse in the Prologue, but rendered the rest of the poetic play into prose.

He sent it to Herder. Herder wrote Forster that Shakuntala “was a masterpiece that appears once every two thousand years” and heartily acknowledged his appreciation of Shakuntala by writing the Preface to Forster’s second edition. Herder used Shakuntala for the basis of his construction of the Indian origin of the human race. His sagacious work, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Ideas on the Philosophy of History), successfully established India’s relationship to the rest of the world and gave the philosophy of history its rightful new foundation. Herder was enchanted by Shakuntala and wanted others to experience his recognition of it as a new model in dramatic theory. He wrote a lengthy essay about Shakuntala, challenging the Aristotelian dramatic theory by which all dramatic works were evaluated up to that time. The fruit of this effort to free himself from the yoke of Classicism (shared by other writers of his time) was published in Zerstreute Blätter, the fourth collection of his works. Herder also reevaluated his conceptions about Indian art in light of Shakuntala and concluded that the Greek model was not the absolute model in art. Significantly, Herder joined the historic Enlightenment and Romantic Movements in Germany and set the course for future German Indologists. Herder, Goethe (1749-1832) and Schiller (1759-1805)—all ardent admirers of Kalidasa —shared Forster’s great fervor for Shakuntala. It awakened in them the “highest degree” of enthusiasm, according to Bhim Sen Gupta in The Glassy Essence: A Study of E. M. Forster, L. H. Myers and Aldous Huxley in Relation to Indian Thought. Goethe’s legendary fascination with Shakuntala is probably responsible for its reputation in the West. His adaptation of Shakuntala for the German stage was also the source for his “Prologue in the Theater” in Faust, according to the poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), who revealed the details of Goethe’s sources. Heine, whose “spiritual home was on the banks of the Ganges,” was inspired by his passionate interest in Indian literature to model three sonnets after Shakuntala and sent them to Ernst Friedrich Ludwig Robert.

Rabindranath Tagore praised Goethe by translating his glowing lines of Shakuntala into Bengali.

E. B. Eastwick in turn, translated the German philosopher’s lines into English:

Wouldst thou the young year’s blossoms and the fruits of its decline,
And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed,
Wouldst thou the earth and Heaven itself in one sole name combine?
I name thee, O Sakuntala! and all at once is said.

The inspiration Goethe and other Europeans derived from India’s sacred scriptures was noted by Swami Vivekananda in his “Memoirs of European Travel”:

He is a good poet [referring to Jules Du Bois, the famed French writer], and is an advocate of the Indian Vedantic ideas that have crept into the great French poets, such as Victor Hugo and Lamartine and others, and the great German poets, such as Goethe, Schiller, and the rest. The influence of Vedanta on European poetry and philosophy is very great. Every great poet is a Vedantin, I find; and whoever writes some philosophical treatise has to draw upon Vedanta in some shape or other. Only some of them do not care to admit this indebtedness, and want to establish their complete originality, as Herbert Spencer and others, for instance. But the majority do openly acknowledge.

Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829), the first German Indologist to study Sanskrit and Indian religion and philosophy in depth, was also greatly inspired by Georg Forster’s translation of Shakuntala. Schlegel’s pioneering work in 1808 established the contributions in antiquity of the language and wisdom of India (Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier: Ein Beitrag zur Begrundung der Altertumskunde). It was a primary publication of nineteenth-century European Indology influenced by the Romantic Movement. This work was enthusiastically acknowledged for its scholarly translations of extracts from the sacred Sanskrit texts and forever inspired Germans to refer to the “Wisdom of India.”

A close friend of Friedrich Schlegel, the poet Novalis was inspired by Shakuntala. The death in her early youth of his fiancée became merged in his mind with the German perception of India as the “childhood of humanity” and occasioned his Romantic mystery-poem about Sophie von Kühn, whom he represents as the manifestation of the universal, divine cosmos. In this work, he united the values of the departed young soul of Sophie with the values of Hinduism, reflecting Maier’s definition of Sanskrit poetry as Morgentraüme unseres Geschlechtes, “the childhood dreams of our species.” The German creative mind was strongly attracted to the Upanishadic ideals. A flow of novels and poems was inspired from Asian streams as German scholars read and translated India’s most important classical poems and dramas. During the 1830s, the dissemination of the works of Kalidasa and Bhartrihari were greatly assisted through the translations of Peter von Bohlen (1796-1840) in Germany. Shakuntala was translated more than ten times, Vikramorvasi five times (and produced as an opera in Munich in 1886), Mricchakatika (“The Little Clay Cart”) four times (and staged in Western theaters) and Dasa-kumara-charita three times. Shakuntala was adapted to the German theater and the Parisian ballet and produced on the English stage in 1899, 1912 and 1913.

The banal taste of theatergoers everywhere was elevated by the productions of Shakuntala—in Russia, Alexander Tairov deliberately staged the play at Moscow’s Kamerny Theater in 1914 expressly for that reason. He adapted it to the aesthetics of the prevailing Symbolist School, which emphasized the visual, poetic and contemplative descriptions of nature.

Download full text: pdf Abhijnana Sakuntalam “A Wonder Coming From A Land of Wonders” by Swami Tathagatananda

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