The love story of Shakuntala and King Dushyanta is undoubtedly among the most narrated and discussed legends in India. Vyasa, the author of this legend, mentions it as an episode in the Mahabharata. Kalidasa recounts this legend through his play, Abhijnana-shakuntala which is regarded as an exemplar in Sanskrit drama.

The structure of the legend in both the versions is similar. Shakuntala was the progeny of the sage Viswamitra and Apsara Menaka.  Menaka had come at the behest of the King Indra, to distract the great sage from his profound meditation. She manages to seduce him, as a result of which they beget a child. However, infuriated at the loss of his chastity, Viswamitra distances himself from his wife and daughter to return to his work. Realizing that she could not leave the child with him and having to return to the heavenly realms, Menaka leaves the infant in the forest. As fate would have it, Sage Kanava happens to pass by that forest and spots the new-born child surrounded by Shakunta birds. Taken by kindness, he decides to take the child home and names her 'Shakuntala' or one fed by Shakunta birds.

Shakuntala grows up to be a beautiful young lady. One day, King Dushyant, while returning from a deer hunt, stops by the hermit's cottage where he sees Shakuntala and immediately falls for this beautiful, innocent girl. Shakuntala too finds him handsome and virile and the two develop an emotional bond. They courted and mated without social sanction, not even her father’s approval. After some days, the King is summoned to the court due to unrest in his city. Having to leave in haste, he promises to be back and meet Kanva to ask her hand in marriage.

In Vyasa’s version, written 2,000 years ago, Kanva returns to find that his daughter has given birth to a son. The child is raised by Kanva and Shakuntala. When the child grows up, he wonders who his father is. So Shakuntala takes him to meet Dushyanta. The king, however, does not remember her. He insults her as a woman of loose morals and accuses her of trying to stake claim over his kingdom. Shakuntala, unperturbed by his outburst, declares him to be the father of her son and leaves with dignity.

The gods intervene to reiterate her truth and Dushyanta is forced to apologise and take back his words. He claims to have spoken thus because he wanted the support of his people so that no one challenges his legitimacy because Shakuntala is a forest maid and does not beget social approval.

Kalidasa’s version, written in the Gupta period mentions that after some days of Dushyanta’s exit, the great sage Durvasa visits the Ashram. Lost in reverie, Shakuntala fails to greet him. Incensed by this slight, the rishi curses Shakuntala, saying that the person she was dreaming of would forget about her altogether. After Shakuntala and her friends explain the situation to him, he realises that his extreme wrath was unwarranted and modifies his curse by saying that the person who had forgotten Shakuntala would remember everything again if she showed him a personal token that had been given to her. When Dushyanta does not return, Kanva insists that the pregnant Shakuntala should go to him, as his wife. On her way, she loses the ring Dushyanta had gifted to her. In the court, Dushyanta cannot remember her because of Durvasa’s curse. Heartbroken, she leaves the king’s palace and returns, some say to the forest, some say to her mother’s abode. After she departs, a fisherman finds the ring and gives it to the king and the memory returns. A shattered Dushyanta searches for his beloved everywhere, in vain.

Years later, as a reward for helping the Devas defeat the Asuras, Indra leads Dushyanta to his son and wife. Thus Shakuntala is reunited and there is a happy ending, after long years of longing and separation.

The different courses that the story takes in the two prominent versions of this legend are a reflection of change in social values and gender identity over time. Vyasa is considered to have written in the early Vedic period where the subordination of women is not as rampant as it becomes in the later times. Also, in this period, rigid caste structure and ostracizing of lower castes wasn’t prevalent. Therefore, Vyasa’s Shakuntala is autonomous and dignified, seeks her son’s father and is indifferent to social stigma.

The Gupta period is characterised by rigidity in caste structure. Also, women were considered to be subordinate to men and had to conform to the male ideals of perfect women. Therefore, in Kalidasa’s play, Shakuntala is portrayed to be a frail lovelorn heroine who she seeks her husband and very conscious of social stigma. 

This legend begs questioning. Are we really progressing where the view of women is concerned? How is it that Kalidasa's adaptation is accepted in all modern day adaptations of the story and we never seek to question why such standards are placed on women. Myths that have set a precedence or a code of conduct should be looked into, especially myths and legends like these and here at antiquity blog we seek to do the same.

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    February 2013