The legend of the exquisitely beautiful Shakuntala and the mighty king Dushyant is a thrilling love story from the epic Mahabharata, which the great ancient poet Kalidasa retold in his immortal play Abhijnanashakuntalam.
The Kings of the Puru dynasty are famous. A number of them were royal sages.Bharata's father Dushyanta was a royal sage. Shakuntala is the venerable mother who gave birth to Emperor Bharata.Once King Dushyanta went on a hunting expedition. He hunted a large number of animals. Finally he followed a deer. The King's follower stayed behind. In that forest, although there were domestic animals and wild animals, all the animals were living in amity. None of them had a harmful disposition. The deer enticed the King to this place which was the garden of hermitage. The flow of the river Malini running through the hermitage was making a pleasant sound. Several types of trees were there on the banks of the river. Birds built nests on the trees and the chirping of the birds produced echoes. Cold breeze was blowing pleasantly, carrying the fragrance from the flowers. Green grass carpeted the ground. Deer roamed about fearlessly munching tender grass. Peacocoks danced merrily. Birds were pecking the corn. A little further, a few Brahmins were meditating; a few were performing religious rites; some others were engaged in arguments and counterarguments. Some were reciting the Vedas.
The hermits stopped the king who followed the deer with bow and arrow."Animals should not be killed in the hermitage," they protested. The King heeded their advice, and laid down his bow and arrow. The hermits were pleased at the gentle nature of the King. On coming to know that he was Dushyanta, their joy increased. Who had not heard of King Dushyanta! His dynasty was noble. His character was also exemplary: respect for elders and teachers, veneration of God, courtesy towards friends, affection and love of the wives; one who had civility and love towards servants. He was good-looking, healthy and full of humility and virtuousness. He was well-mannered, brave, strong, intelligent, honest, learned in many branches of knowledge. His Kingdom was prosperous.
On coming to know that the place to which he had come was the hermitage of the elderly sage Kanva, Dushyanta wished to meet him and seek his blessings. He removed his royal dress and ornaments and proceeded in a humble manner. Sage Kanva had taken the responsibility of feeding, clothing bringing up and educating ten thousand disciples. It was therefore Kanvas responsibility to arrange for food and residence of the teachers, numerous scholars and guests. The person who was managing all this was Kanva the sage. He was called ‘Kulapati'.His was a great centre of education. When King Dushyanta came to the hermitage Kanva was not there. He had gone to Somatirtha for worship. He had assigned his daughter the task of looking after guests. When the King came to the hermitage, sounds of laughter were heard. The king hid behind a tree in curiosity. The rustic maidens, in humble attire befitting monastic life, were carrying pots and watering the trees. Their coiffure hair and flowery adornment, though simple were attractive. Even though they did wear jewels, they looked beautiful and the king got enchanted by their looks. One of them was Shakuntala, daughter of Kanva. She was of incomparable beauty. Kanva fell in love with her at very first sight.Shakuntala loved dearly the trees and plants of the monastery. On account of this she looked after the plants. She liked this work and did it with keen interest.She looked on plants as her sisters and was lovingly tending them. Shakuntala's friends were Anusuya and Priyam vada.All of them grew up together in the hermitage, simple minded, ignorant of deceit.
Shakuntala was watering a navamallika flower. A bee on the flower flew and landed on her forehead. She became frightened and began to run in fear. The bee continued to follow her.Shakuntala implored the friends! "Save me, save me from this bad bee." The friends thought it to be funny.Priyamvada made fun of her! “Dear friend, your face is beautiful like a lotus and that's the reason why the bee is coming to you to suck the honey.Anasuya told “King Dushyanta is the protector of the sufferers. Ask for his help."The King was yearning to speak to them. Finding the occasion appropriate, he came out of hiding and faced them."Who dares harm the innocent?" he asked. The maidens of the hermitage were surprised. Who is this man who immediately answered our call? When, from where and how did he appear? The King asked about their welfare."Is the penance free from trouble?" Hiding their curiosity, they got ready to follow Kanva's instructions. They treated him courteously with words of welcome. Even as Shakuntala saw this handsome and dignified person she was charmed by him. But she must find out who he is.
The enterprising Anasuya asked:"Who are you? To which royal dynasty do you belong?" The king hid his real self."I am a religious head. I have come here to find out about the administration of the hermitage, “he humbly said. The king also got interested in Shakuntala.Who could she be? From the talk she appeared to be Kanva's daughter. But there was a nagging doubt. Kanva is a bachelor. How could she be his daughter? Finally he asked Anasuya,"Who is this friend of yours?"
Vshwamithra was a famous sage – a rajarshi.Once he undertook a rigorous penance. Indira Lord of heaven came to know of it. One of his hobbies was testing people who were engaged in rigorous penance. He thought of testing Vishwamitra also. He sent charming Menaka to entice him. Vishwamitra could not resist falling in love with Menaka.They led a family life for sometime.Menaka gave birth to a female child who is Shakuntala.Menaka returned to heaven.Vishwamitra left to resume penance and the child became an orphan. The birds all around volunteered to bring up the child. They stood like a fortress around the child and they guarded .They fed the child as they fed their young. Kanva who happened to pass that way decided to bring up the child. He considered the child his own and from then on Shakuntala became the foster daughter of Kanva .Shakuntal is the Sanskrit word for a bird.Dushyanta got all this information from her friends. They were happily engaged in conversation, when Dushyanta had to leave to drive away a wild elephant when the minds of Dushyanta and Shakuntala had united. Residents of the hermitage thought of performing a religious sacrifice. They requested the king to stay in the hermitage to ensure trouble free performance of the ceremonies. The king gladly agreed.
The king stood ready with bow and arrow. The ceremonies of the hermitage were completed without any hindrance. All praised the King. After his duty was performed and now the king was looking for Shakuntala. Shakuntala too fell in love with the stranger who had come to the hermitage. On coming to know about this the king was very happy. He said he would marry her. But Shakuntala said that it would not be proper for them to marry without the consent of the elders. The king pacified her. There could be no objection for their marriage and Kanva would surely agree, he said and finally got her consent too.Shakuntala then agreed with the king's proposal. Thereafter the King married her.Dushyanta put on the signet ring to Shakuntala.The work in the hermitage to be performed by Dushyanta was over and time had come to return back to his capital. He had to separate himself from Shakuntala.The sorrow of separation from the king was intense. The king consoled her. He promised to have her back with him early." Be counting the letters in the ring, one each day. Before you complete it, I will send my people to you, and fetch you with suitable royal honours.Don't worry, “he consoled her and returned to the capital.Shakuntala's mind was full of thoughts of Dushyanta.She was ruminating on his words, looking at the ring given by him. Her world consisted only of Dushyanta.
One day the most renowned ascetic Durvasa known for his short temper and entourage came to the hermitage.Shakuntala was not at all aware of his arrival. Durvasa was expecting the people of hermitage to welcome him but nobody was seen. He came to the door of the hermitage and shouted:" I have come." Seeing that there was nobody to welcome him, he became enraged and looked around again. He then saw Shakuntala who was immersed in thoughts of Dushyanta.For ignoring the guest Shakuntala was cursed:"He, whom you are thinking of, without taking notice of the guest, let him forget you!" Poor soul! Shakuntala knew nothing about this. Her friends were also far away, plucking flowers for worship. They heard the call at the door of hermitage. When Priyamvada came running, she saw Durvasa seething with anger. She guessed at once that some catastrophe had happened. The sage is angry against her friend.Priyamvada shook in fear. Probably the ascetic was not welcomed and taken care of. Shakuntala has not conducted herself properly, thought Priyamvada.She fell at the feet of the ascetic. After she expressed her sorry Durvasa told her about the curse and how to get over it." Shakuntala, who forgot her guest, will be forgotten by her lover. But if she shows anything which he can recognize, then he will remember, “said Durvasa and went on his way.Priyamvada and all her friends were very sorry for the fate of their friend.
Kanva returned fromSomatirtha.It was only for the good of Shakuntala he had gone to Somatirtha.He completed worship and returned with the sanctified ‘Prasadha'.He came to know of Shakuntala having become the wife of Dushyanta and was very happy to learn of it and Shakuntala was now pregnant. He thought that she would deliver a great emperor. Kanva was making all arrangements to send her back to Dushyanta's palace. He deputed his disciples Sharangarava and Sharadvata to accompany Shakuntala to the capital.Gautami venerable with age, also accompanied them. All residents of the hermitage gathered to see her off and blessed her. The two friends adorned Shakuntala with the articles available in the hermitage. Shakuntala was overwhelmed by the love and affection of the friends. The friends were overcome with grief at having to be separated from their companion. Kanva blessed Shakuntala.