The ancient period of the Indian subcontinent was marked with the writing of rich Sanskrit literature which provides us with an in-depth insight into the society of that time. There had been various revered Sanskrit poets and dramatists whose works are studied till date. One amongst them is Kalidasa who is considered the greatest Sanskrit poet of all time. His works vary from plays to epic poems and minor poems.
There is always a reason behind everything. Similarly, there is an objective behind every author’s works and the factors which made him write the way he did. Studying these factors becomes necessary in the sense that they help us connect with the past. This essay is an attempt towards the same.
In this essay, the economic structure prevalent during Kalidasa’s time has been analysed to study its effect on social relations during that period. The society, as depicted in his works, will be studied to understand why he wrote the way he did. Further, in the light of facts collected, the reasons for the popularity of his works will be studied. This essay aims to trace the history of the evolution of the importance of his works. The spatial constraints of this essay force the analysis to be limited to a few of his works.
Date of Kalidasa
We do not have any reliable source of information about the time and place of Kalidasa. He has left behind him a treasure of highly revered and celebrated works. Seven works of Kalidasa are known till date which include three epics, namely: Abhijnanasakuntalam, Malavikagnimitram and Vikramorvasiyam; two epic poems, namely: Raghuvamsa and Kumarasambhava; and two khandakavyas or minor poems, namely Meghadutam and Ritusamhara. Unfortunately, he has left no clue of his personal information (Mirashi and Navlekar 3). There are various theories about the time in which he lived, which some historians and scholars have tried to justify by giving facts and interpreting them. They base their conjectures on references from his works.
Amongst all, the theory of Kalidasa being the court poet of Chandragupta II of the Gupta empire has gone down well and is accepted by most scholars. The mention of Vikramaditya as his patron in Malavikagnimitram alludes towards Chandragupta II who had taken up the same title during his reign (Kosambi, An Introduction 304). Kumarasambhava is supposed to be alluding towards the birth of Kumaragupta, the son of Chandragupta II (Ramulu and Ramalu 655). The mention of the celebration of sacrificial rites of the Vedic age in Raghuvamsa relates to the frequent mention of restored Vedic practices, which had not been practised for a long time in the records of the Gupta period (Mazumdar 732). The Sanskrit inscription of Mandsaur’s Sun temple dated 473 CE is believed to be the earliest evidence of Kalidasa’s time as the inscription resembles the verses of Meghaduta Purva, 66 and Ritusamhara V.2-3 (Gopal 8). Thus, Kalidasa is believed to have lived between 400 and 500 CE.
Nature of the Society during his time
The period before the Gupta dynasty was inclined towards Buddhism and Jainism. The Mauryan king Ashoka was an ardent believer and propagator of Buddhism. The Brahmins had substantially lost their importance during that time. Prevention of ritual sacrifices by Ashoka had hit the interests of the Brahmins because animal sacrifice was the source of their livelihood (Jha 106). Brahminical supremacy, which had been gradually built during the later Vedic period, turned out to be attacked by Buddhism (Thapar, “Asoka and Buddhism” 46). The nature of religion was gradually changing and people were losing touch of the later Vedic tradition. The secular epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana were rewritten and were given a religious touch by the Brahmins (Jha 137).
Post Mauryan rule, Brahmin hegemony was furthered with the practice of land grants to the priests and temples. Instead of paying the priests and officials directly, they were given land grants and the rights to collect taxes over them. This enabled them to live a lavish and comfortable life for generations (Thapar 48). This practice gradually led to the development of a feudal society. The Brahmins and the officers became the masters of their lands and started exploiting the peasantry and the labourers who were generally from the lower varnas (Jha 155). The Brahmins made the varna system stringent by redacting the Puranas and advocating their supremacy over the other varnas. Religion was used as a tool to maintain social order. Emphasis was laid on adhering to the duties assigned to the varnas religiously and even a shudra could attain salvation with the service of the twice-born and devotion to God (Jha 161).
During the Gupta period, Sanskrit was made the main language of inscriptions due to the strong influence of Brahmins. This shows the connections between the ruling class and Brahmins, who supported their rule. Classical Sanskrit was not the language of the commons (Kosambi 69).
According to Marx, the social existence of a person determines his consciousness (Aron 120). Similarly, Kalidasa’s works can be considered a reflection of the society he lived in. His works were written in Sanskrit and all his works have two things in common, i.e., they are comedies and people of the upper and lower castes do not speak the same language. Women and the shudras spoke Prakrit (R. Sharma 146). In Raghuvamsa, Kalidasa talks about religiously following the varna system and that going against it would not bring happiness to the society. He gives a reference of Rama cutting off the head of a shudra for practising penance—which is supposed to be the prerogative of the Brahmins (Jones 641). Characters of shudra varna do not feature much in his works, which are instead centred on Brahmins and the ruling class. He also gives the reference of the land grants in the form of villages to the Brahmins (Jones 472).
The usage of Sanskrit in his works implies that the target audience included the political elites and those sections of the society who were familiar with the language, i.e. poets and courtesans. Women and shudras were not a part (Singh 344). Kalidasa reflected the social consciousness of the society through his works. His works grew popular because they advocated the ideology which the dominant section of the society wanted to promulgate. In Raghuvamsa and Abhijnanasakuntalam, we see instances of Kalidasa’s characterisation of women as meek and docile. Sita, as portrayed by him, speaks ill of herself and her fortune when abandoned by Rama (Jones 631), which is in total contrast to Valmiki’s Sita, who is bold and a woman of pride and self-respect (Kumar 61). Shakuntala of Mahabharata is a fearless character who confidently confronts Dushyanta when she takes her son to his court whereas Kalidasa portrays her as a damsel in distress when left alone by her friends in Dushyanta’s court (Rustomji 47). His works helped in promoting the supremacy of upper varnas and subjugation of women through the religious stories. He had chosen the characters of his works from religious texts due to the strong influence of religion in society.
Kalidasa was famous from the time of the conception of his works. He is believed to have had the patronage of Chandragupta II. Sanskrit theatre enjoyed the patronage of the Gupta kings (Varadpande 237). The Mandsaur inscription of 473 C.E. also alludes to the fact that Kalidasa was famous during the time in which he is contested to have lived. In the times after Kalidasa, various poets have lauded his literary brilliance. The sixth century writer Dandin praises him for refining the Vaidarbha style of composition (Gopal 1). The 634 CE Aihole inscription of Chalukya king Pulakesin II mentions Kalidasa as a famous poet. He had also been praised for his sweet and charming way of writing by Banabhatta in Harshacharita written in the seventh century (Gopal 1). Cambodian inscriptions ranging between the seventh and the tenth century CE have references of Raghuvamsa. An eighth century Javanese inscription also alludes to his work (Singh 343). Rajasekhara in the tenth century AD, Padmagupta and Soddhala in the eleventh century AD and Govardhanacharya in the twelfth century AD have all written in Kalidasa’s praise (Mirashi and Navlekar 459). We do not get any mention of Kalidasa during the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal rule. The reason could be the advent of Persian and Arabic literature and meagre royal patronage to Sanskrit scholars. However, we get the reference of a poet with the pen name Akbariya Kalidasa in the court of Akbar in the sixteenth century. His real name was Govinda Bhatta (Chaudhari 5). This alludes to the popularity of Kalidasa among Sanskrit writers of that time so much so that his name was adopted as a pen name.
Kalidasa’s works were translated into English by Sir William Jones in the late eighteenth century. The intention was that the Indian people “might be ruled justly according to their prejudices, civil and religious, and suffered to enjoy their customs unmolested” (Cannon and Pandey 528). He was eager to know whether Sanskrit plays contained some information on Hindu law. He chose to translate Abhijnanasakuntalam, the most revered Sanskrit play. He published the translation in England in 1789. It was translated in German in 1791. It was heavily lauded by eminent European poets of that time which included Herber and Goethe. Impressed by Kalidasa’s works, Goethe praised him by writing a note on Shakuntala in his play, Faust (Cannon and Pandey 529). This was followed by a flurry of translations into various European languages. His works have also inspired Indian authors like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Rabindranath Tagore (Mirashi and Navlekar 460).
Kalidasa has been lauded for his literary brilliance from the time of the inception of his works. His works have been a source of inspiration for various writers who have followed. Being written in Sanskrit, his works would have been limited to the upper varnas of society. He is contested to be a Brahmin whose works were centred around men and power. Brahminical hegemony, as a function of land grants made to them, worsened the status of lower varnas due to exploitation at the hands of landowners. The idea which the dominant section of the society wanted to propagate was at the centre of his works. His works tried to manifest the idea of the Gupta age being the “Golden Age”. This itself explains the reason for his works being very popular.
Therefore, this essay establishes that his works were the reflection of his society, written with a male Brahmin’s perspective, limited to a section of society which was in power due to changes in the economic infrastructure, popular because they depicted the mindset of the audience and sounded music to their ears, and remained popular during the course of time among other Sanskrit writers.
By Shantanu Mishra (Guest Author)
National Law School of India University, Bangalore
Shantanu Mishra is a II year BA LLB Hons. student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. He has a keen interest in Ancient and Medieval history and analyse them with new theories he learns in his curriculum at NLS. He is cricket aficionado and a part time Clash of Clans enthusiast.
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