Kalidasa probably lived in the fifth century of the Christian era. This date, approximate as it is, must yet be given with considerable hesitation, and is by no means certain. No truly biographical data are preserved about the author, who nevertheless enjoyed a great popularity during his life, and whom the Hindus have ever regarded as the greatest of Sanskrit poets. We are thus confronted with one of the remarkable problems of literary history. For our ignorance is not due to neglect of Kalidasa’s writings on the part of his countrymen, but to their strange blindness in regard to the interest and importance of historic fact. No European nation can compare with India in critical devotion to its own literature. During a period to be reckoned not by centuries but by millenniums, there has been in India an unbroken line of savants unselfishly dedicated to the perpetuation and exegesis of the native masterpieces. Editions, recensions, commentaries abound; poets have sought the exact phrase of appreciation for their predecessors: yet when we seek to reconstruct the life of their greatest poet, we have no materials except certain tantalising legends, and such data as we can gather from the writings of a man who hardly mentions himself.
THE DYNASTY OF RAGHU
The Dynasty of Raghu is an epic poem in nineteen cantos. It consists of 1564 stanzas, or something over six thousand lines of verse. The subject is that great line of kings who traced their origin to the sun, the famous “solar line” of Indian story. The bright particular star of the solar line is Rama, the knight without fear and without reproach, the Indian ideal of a gentleman. His story had been told long before Kalidasa’s time in theRamayana, an epic which does not need to shun comparison with the foremost epic poems of Europe. In The Dynasty of Raghu, too, Rama is the central figure; yet in Kalidasa’s poem there is much detail concerning other princes of the line. The poem thus naturally falls into three great parts: first, the four immediate ancestors of Rama (cantos 1-9); second, Rama (cantos 10-15); third, certain descendants of Rama (cantos 16-19). A somewhat detailed account of the matter of the poem may well precede criticism and comment.
First canto. The journey to the hermitage.—The poem begins with the customary brief prayer for Shiva’s favour:
God Shiva and his mountain bride,Like word and meaning unified,The world’s great parents, I beseechTo join fit meaning to my speech.
Then follow nine stanzas in which Kalidasa speaks more directly of himself than elsewhere in his works:
How great is Raghu’s solar line!How feebly small are powers of mine!As if upon the ocean’s swellI launched a puny cockle-shell.
Yet I may enter through the doorThat mightier poets pierced of yore;A thread may pierce a jewel, butMust follow where the diamond cut.
Of kings who lived as saints from birth,Who ruled to ocean-shore on earth,Who toiled until success was given,Whose chariots stormed the gates of heaven,
Whose pious offerings were blest,Who gave his wish to every guest,Whose punishments were as the crimes,Who woke to guard the world betimes,
Who sought, that they might lavish, pelf,Whose measured speech was truth itself,Who fought victorious wars for fame,Who loved in wives the mother’s name,
Who studied all good arts as boys,Who loved, in manhood, manhood’s joys,Whose age was free from worldly care,Who breathed their lives away in prayer,
Of these I sing, of Raghu’s line,Though weak mine art, and wisdom mine.Forgive these idle stammeringsAnd think: For virtue’s sake he sings.
The good who hear me will be gladTo pluck the good from out the bad;When ore is proved by fire, the lossIs not of purest gold, but dross.
After the briefest glance at the origin of the solar line, the poet tells of Rama’s great-great-grandfather, King Dilipa. The detailed description of Dilipa’s virtues has interest as showing Kalidasa’s ideal of an aristocrat; a brief sample must suffice here:
He practised virtue, though in health;Won riches, with no greed for wealth;Guarded his life, though not from fear;Prized joys of earth, but not too dear.
His virtuous foes he could esteemLike bitter drugs that healing seem;The friends who sinned he could forsakeLike fingers bitten by a snake.
Yet King Dilipa has one deep-seated grief: he has no son. He therefore journeys with his queen to the hermitage of the sage Vasishtha, in order to learn what they must do to propitiate an offended fate. Their chariot rolls over country roads past fragrant lotus-ponds and screaming peacocks and trustful deer, under archways formed without supporting pillars by the cranes, through villages where they receive the blessings of the people. At sunset they reach the peaceful forest hermitage, and are welcomed by the sage. In response to Vasishtha’s benevolent inquiries, the king declares that all goes well in the kingdom, and yet:
Until from this dear wife there springsA son as great as former kings,The seven islands of the earthAnd all their gems, are nothing worth.
The final debt, most holy one,Which still I owe to life—a son—Galls me as galls the cutting chainAn elephant housed in dirt and pain.
Vasishtha tells the king that on a former occasion he had offended the divine cow Fragrant, and had been cursed by the cow to lack children until he had propitiated her own offspring. While the sage is speaking, Fragrant’s daughter approaches, and is entrusted to the care of the king and queen.
Second canto. The holy cow’s gift.—During twenty-one days the king accompanies the cow during her wanderings in the forest, and each night the queen welcomes their return to the hermitage. On the twenty-second day the cow is attacked by a lion, and when the king hastens to draw an arrow, his arm is magically numbed, so that he stands helpless. To increase his horror, the lion speaks with a human voice, saying that he is a servant of the god Shiva, set on guard there and eating as his appointed food any animals that may appear. Dilipa perceives that a struggle with earthly weapons is useless, and begs the lion to accept his own body as the price of the cow’s release. The lion tries sophistry, using the old, hollow arguments:
Great beauty and fresh youth are yours; on earthAs sole, unrivalled emperor you rule;Should you redeem a thing of little worthAt such a price, you would appear a fool.
If pity moves you, think that one mere cowWould be the gainer, should you choose to die;Live rather for the world! Remember howThe father-king can bid all dangers fly.
And if the fiery sage’s wrath, aglowAt loss of one sole cow, should make you shudder,Appease his anger; for you can bestowCows by the million, each with pot-like udder.
Save life and youth; for to the dead are givenNo long, unbroken years of joyous mirth;But riches and imperial power are heaven—The gods have nothing that you lack on earth.
The lion spoke and ceased; but echo rolledForth from the caves wherein the sound was pent,As if the hills applauded manifold,Repeating once again the argument.
Dilipa has no trouble in piercing this sophistical argument, and again offers his own life, begging the lion to spare the body of his fame rather than the body of his flesh. The lion consents, but when the king resolutely presents himself to be eaten, the illusion vanishes, and the holy cow grants the king his desire. The king returns to his capital with the queen, who shortly becomes pregnant.
Third canto. Raghu’s consecration.—The queen gives birth to a glorious boy, whom the joyful father names Raghu. There follows a description of the happy family, of which a few stanzas are given here:
The king drank pleasure from him late and soonWith eyes that stared like windless lotus-flowers;Unselfish joy expanded all his powersAs swells the sea responsive to the moon.
The rooted love that filled each parent’s soulFor the other, deep as bird’s love for the mate,Was now divided with the boy; and straightThe remaining half proved greater than the whole.
He learned the reverence that befits a boy;Following the nurse’s words, began to talk;And clinging to her finger, learned to walk:These childish lessons stretched his father’s joy,
Who clasped the baby to his breast, and thrilledTo feel the nectar-touch upon his skin,Half closed his eyes, the father’s bliss to winWhich, more for long delay, his being filled.
The baby hair must needs be clipped; yet heRetained two dangling locks, his cheeks to fret;And down the river of the alphabetHe swam, with other boys, to learning’s sea.
Religion’s rites, and what good learning suitsA prince, he had from teachers old and wise;Not theirs the pain of barren enterprise,For effort spent on good material, fruits.
This happy childhood is followed by a youth equally happy. Raghu is married and made crown prince. He is entrusted with the care of the horse of sacrifice, 1 and when Indra, king of the gods, steals the horse, Raghu fights him. He cannot overcome the king of heaven, yet he acquits himself so creditably that he wins Indra’s friendship. In consequence of this proof of his manhood, the empire is bestowed upon Raghu by his father, who retires with his queen to the forest, to spend his last days and prepare for death.
Fourth canto. Raghu conquers the world.—The canto opens with several stanzas descriptive of the glory of youthful King Raghu.
He manifested royal worthBy even justice toward the earth,Beloved as is the southern breeze,Too cool to burn, too warm to freeze.
The people loved his father, yetFor greater virtues could forget;The beauty of the blossoms fairIs lost when mango-fruits are there.
But the vassal kings are restless
For when they knew the king was goneAnd power was wielded by his son,The wrath of subject kings awoke,Which had been damped in sullen smoke.
Raghu therefore determines to make a warlike progress through all India. He marches eastward with his army from his capital Ayodhya (the name is preserved in the modern Oudh) to the Bay of Bengal, then south along the eastern shore of India to Cape Comorin, then north along the western shore until he comes to the region drained by the Indus, finally east through the tremendous Himalaya range into Assam, and thence home. The various nations whom he encounters, Hindus, Persians, Greeks, and White Huns, all submit either with or without fighting. On his safe return, Raghu offers a great sacrifice and gives away all his wealth. 2
Fifth canto. Aja goes wooing.—While King Raghu is penniless, a young sage comes to him, desiring a huge sum of money to give to the teacher with whom he has just finished his education. The king, unwilling that any suppliant should go away unsatisfied, prepares to assail the god of wealth in his Himalayan stronghold, and the god, rather than risk the combat, sends a rain of gold into the king’s treasury. This gold King Raghu bestows upon the sage, who gratefully uses his spiritual power to cause a son to be born to his benefactor. In course of time, the son is born and the name Aja is given to him. We are here introduced to Prince Aja, who is a kind of secondary hero in the poem, inferior only to his mighty grandson, Rama. To Aja are devoted the remainder of this fifth canto and the following three cantos; and these Aja-cantos are among the loveliest in the epic. When the prince has grown into young manhood, he journeys to a neighbouring court to participate in the marriage reception of Princess Indumati. 3 One evening he camps by a river, from which a wild elephant issues and attacks his party. When wounded by Aja, the elephant strangely changes his form, becoming a demigod, gives the prince a magic weapon, and departs to heaven. Aja proceeds ceeds without further adventure to the country and the palace of Princess Indumati, where he is made welcome and luxuriously lodged for the night. In the morning, he is awakened by the song of the court poets outside his chamber. He rises and betakes himself to the hall where the suitors are gathering.
Sixth canto. The princess chooses.—The princely suitors assemble in the hall; then, to the sound of music, the princess enters in a litter, robed as a bride, and creates a profound sensation.
For when they saw God’s masterpiece, the maidWho smote their eyes to other objects blind,Their glances, wishes, hearts, in homage paid,Flew forth to her; mere flesh remained behind.
The princes could not but betray their yearningBy sending messengers, their love to bring,In many a quick, involuntary turning,As flowering twigs of trees announce the spring.
Then a maid-servant conducts the princess from one suitor to another, and explains the claim which each has upon her affection. First is presented the King of Magadha, recommended in four stanzas, one of which runs:
Though other kings by thousands numbered be,He seems the one, sole governor of earth;Stars, constellations, planets, fade and fleeWhen to the moon the night has given birth.
But the princess is not attracted.
The slender maiden glanced at him; she glancedAnd uttered not a word, nor heeded howThe grass-twined blossoms of her garland dancedWhen she dismissed him with a formal bow.
They pass to the next candidate, the king of the Anga country, in whose behalf this, and more, is said:
Learning and wealth by nature are at strife,Yet dwell at peace in him; and for the twoYou would be fit companion as his wife,Like wealth enticing, and like learning true.
Him too the princess rejects, “not that he was unworthy of love, or she lacking in discernment, but tastes differ.” She is then conducted to the King of Avanti:
And if this youthful prince your fancy pleases,Bewitching maiden, you and he may playIn those unmeasured gardens that the breezesFrom Sipra’s billows ruffle, cool with spray.
The inducement is insufficient, and a new candidate is presented, the King of Anupa,
A prince whose fathers’ glories cannot fade,By whom the love of learned men is wooed,Who proves that Fortune is no fickle jadeWhen he she chooses is not fickly good.
She saw that he was brave to look upon,Yet could not feel his love would make her gay;Full moons of autumn nights, when clouds are gone,Tempt not the lotus-flowers that bloom by day.
The King of Shurasena has no better fortune, in spite of his virtues and his wealth. As a river hurrying to the sea passes by a mountain that would detain her, so the princess passes him by. She is next introduced to the king of the Kalinga country;
His palace overlooks the ocean darkWith windows gazing on the unresting deep,Whose gentle thunders drown the drums that markThe hours of night, and wake him from his sleep.
But the maiden can no more feel at home with him than the goddess of fortune can with a good but unlucky man. She therefore turns her attention to the king of the Pandya country in far southern India. But she is unmoved by hearing of the magic charm of the south, and rejects him too.
And every prince rejected while she soughtA husband, darkly frowned, as turrets, brightOne moment with the flame from torches caught,Frown gloomily again and sink in night.
The princess then approaches Aja, who trembles lest she pass him by, as she has passed by the other suitors. The maid who accompanies Indumati sees that Aja awakens a deeper feeling, and she therefore gives a longer account of his kingly line, ending with the recommendation:
High lineage is his, fresh beauty, youth,And virtue shaped in kingly breeding’s mould;Choose him, for he is worth your love; in truth,A gem is ever fitly set in gold.
The princess looks lovingly at the handsome youth, but cannot speak for modesty. She is made to understand her own feelings when the maid invites her to pass on to the next candidate. Then the wreath is placed round Aja’s neck, the people of the city shout their approval, and the disappointed suitors feel like night-blooming lotuses at daybreak.
Seventh canto. Aja’s marriage.—While the suitors retire to the camps where they have left their retainers, Aja conducts Indumati into the decorated and festive city. The windows are filled with the faces of eager and excited women, who admire the beauty of the young prince and the wisdom of the princess’s choice. When the marriage ceremony has been happily celebrated, the disappointed suitors say farewell with pleasant faces and jealous hearts, like peaceful pools concealing crocodiles. They lie in ambush on the road which he must take, and when he passes with his young bride, they fall upon him. Aja provides for the safety of Indumati, marshals his attendants, and greatly distinguishes himself in the battle which follows. Finally he uses the magic weapon, given him by the demigod, to benumb his adversaries, and leaving them in this helpless condition, returns home. He and his young bride are joyfully welcomed by King Raghu, who resigns the kingdom in favour of Aja.
Eighth canto. Aja’s lament.—As soon as King Aja is firmly established on his throne, Raghu retires to a hermitage to prepare for the death of his mortal part. After some years of religious meditation he is released, attaining union with the eternal spirit which is beyond all darkness. His obsequies are performed by his dutiful son. Indumati gives birth to a splendid boy, who is named Dasharatha. One day, as the queen is playing with her husband in the garden, a wreath of magic flowers falls upon her from heaven, and she dies. The stricken king clasps the body of his dead beloved, and laments over her.
If flowers that hardly touch the body, slay it,The simplest instruments of fate may bringDestruction, and we have no power to stay it;Then must we live in fear of everything?
No! Death was right. He spared the sterner anguish;Through gentle flowers your gentle life was lostAs I have seen the lotus fade and languishWhen smitten by the slow and silent frost.
Yet God is hard. With unforgiving rigourHe forged a bolt to crush this heart of mine;He left the sturdy tree its living vigour,But stripped away and slew the clinging vine.
Through all the years, dear, you would not reprove me,Though I offended. Can you go awaySudden, without a word? I know you love me,And I have not offended you to-day.
You surely thought me faithless, to be banishedAs light-of-love and gambler, from your life,Because without a farewell word, you vanishedAnd never will return, sweet-smiling wife.
The warmth and blush that followed after kissesIs still upon her face, to madden me;For life is gone, ’tis only life she misses.A curse upon such life’s uncertainty!
I never wronged you with a thought unspoken,Still less with actions. Whither are you flown?Though king in name, I am a man heartbroken,For power and love took root in you alone.
Your bee-black hair from which the flowers are peeping,Dear, wavy hair that I have loved so well,Stirs in the wind until I think you sleeping,Soon to return and make my glad heart swell.
Awake, my love! Let only life be given,And choking griefs that stifle now, will fleeAs darkness from the mountain-cave is drivenBy magic herbs that glitter brilliantly.
The silent face, round which the curls are keepingTheir scattered watch, is sad to look uponAs in the night some lonely lily, sleepingWhen musically humming bees are gone.
The girdle that from girlhood has befriendedYou, in love-secrets wise, discreet, and true,No longer tinkles, now your dance is ended,Faithful in life, in dying faithful too.
Your low, sweet voice to nightingales was given;Your idly graceful movement to the swans;Your grace to fluttering vines, dear wife in heaven;Your trustful, wide-eyed glances to the fawns:
You left your charms on earth, that I, remindedBy them, might be consoled though you depart;But vainly! Far from you, by sorrow blinded,I find no prop of comfort for my heart.
Remember how you planned to make a wedding,Giving the vine-bride to her mango-tree;Before that happy day, dear, you are treadingThe path with no return. It should not be.
And this ashoka-tree that you have tendedWith eager longing for the blossoms red—How can I twine the flowers that should have blendedWith living curls, in garlands for the dead?
The tree remembers how the anklets, tinklingOn graceful feet, delighted other years;Sad now he droops, your form with sorrow sprinkling,And sheds his blossoms in a rain of tears.
Joy’s sun is down, all love is fallen and perished,The song of life is sung, the spring is dead,Gone is the use of gems that once you cherished,And empty, ever empty, is my bed.
You were my comrade gay, my home, my treasure,You were my bosom’s friend, in all things true,My best-loved pupil in the arts of pleasure:Stern death took all I had in taking you.
Still am I king, and rich in kingly fashion,Yet lacking you, am poor the long years through;I cannot now be won to any passion,For all my passions centred, dear, in you.
Aja commits the body of his beloved queen to the flames. A holy hermit comes to tell the king that his wife had been a nymph of heaven in a former existence, and that she has now returned to her home. But Aja cannot be comforted. He lives eight weary years for the sake of his young son, then is reunited with his queen in Paradise.
Ninth canto. The hunt.—This canto introduces us to King Dasharatha, father of the heroic Rama. It begins with an elaborate description of his glory, justice, prowess, and piety; then tells of the three princesses who became his wives: Kausalya, Kaikeyi, and Sumitra. In the beautiful springtime he takes an extended hunting-trip in the forest, during which an accident happens, big with fate.
He left his soldiers far behind one dayIn the wood, and following where deer-tracks lay,Came with his weary horse adrip with foamTo river-tenks where hermits made their home.
And in the stream he heard the water fillA jar; he heard it ripple clear and shrill,And shot an arrow, thinking he had foundA trumpeting elephant, toward the gurgling sound.
Such actions are forbidden to a king,Yet Dasharatha sinned and did this thing;For even the wise and learned man is mindedTo go astray, by selfish passion blinded.
He heard the startling cry, “My father!” riseAmong the reeds; rode up; before his eyesHe saw the jar, the wounded hermit boy:Remorse transfixed his heart and killed his joy.
He left his horse, this monarch famous far,Asked him who drooped upon the water-jarHis name, and from the stumbling accents knewA hermit youth, of lowly birth but true.
The arrow still undrawn, the monarch boreHim to his parents who, afflicted soreWith blindness, could not see their only sonDying, and told them what his hand had done.
The murderer then obeyed their sad behestAnd drew the fixèd arrow from his breast;The boy lay dead; the father cursed the king,With tear-stained hands, to equal suffering.
“In sorrow for your son you too shall die,An old, old man,” he said, “as sad as I.”Poor, trodden snake! He used his venomous sting,Then heard the answer of the guilty king:
“Your curse is half a blessing if I seeThe longed-for son who shall be born to me:The scorching fire that sweeps the well-ploughed field,May burn indeed, but stimulates the yield.
The deed is done; what kindly act can IPerform who, pitiless, deserve to die?””Bring wood,” he begged, “and build a funeral pyre,That we may seek our son through death by fire.”
The king fulfilled their wish; and while they burned,In mute, sin-stricken sorrow he returned,Hiding death’s seed within him, as the seaHides magic fire that burns eternally.
Thus is foreshadowed in the birth of Rama, his banishment, and the death of his father.
Cantos ten to fifteen form the kernel of the epic, for they tell the story of Rama, the mighty hero of Raghu’s line. In these cantos Kalidasa attempts to present anew, with all the literary devices of a more sophisticated age, the famous old epic story sung in masterly fashion by the author of the Ramayana. As the poet is treading ground familiar to all who hear him, the action of these cantos is very compressed.
Tenth canto. The incarnation of Rama.—While Dasharatha, desiring a son, is childless, the gods, oppressed by a giant adversary, betake themselves to Vishnu, seeking aid. They sing a hymn of praise, a part of which is given here.
O thou who didst create this All,Who dost preserve it, lest it fall,Who wilt destroy it and its ways—To thee, O triune Lord, be praise.
As into heaven’s water runThe tastes of earth—yet it is one,So thou art all the things that rangeThe universe, yet dost not change.
Far, far removed, yet ever near;Untouched by passion, yet austere;Sinless, yet pitiful of heart;Ancient, yet free from age—Thou art.
Though uncreate, thou seekest birth;Dreaming, thou watchest heaven and earth;Passionless, smitest low thy foes;Who knows thy nature, Lord? Who knows?
Though many different paths, O Lord,May lead us to some great reward,They gather and are merged in theeLike floods of Ganges in the sea.
The saints who give thee every thought,Whose every act for thee is wrought,Yearn for thine everlasting peace,For bliss with thee, that cannot cease.
Like pearls that grow in ocean’s night,Like sunbeams radiantly bright,Thy strange and wonder-working waysDefeat extravagance of praise.
If songs that to thy glory tendShould weary grow or take an end,Our impotence must bear the blame,And not thine unexhausted name.
Vishnu is gratified by the praise of the gods, and asks their desire. They inform him that they are distressed by Ravana, the giant king of Lanka (Ceylon), whom they cannot conquer. Vishnu promises to aid them by descending to earth in a new avatar, as son of Dasharatha. Shortly afterwards, an angel appears before King Dasharatha, bringing in a golden bowl a substance which contains the essence of Vishnu. The king gives it to his three wives, who thereupon conceive and dream wonderful dreams. Then Queen Kausalya gives birth to Rama; Queen Kaikeyi to Bharata; Queen Sumitra to twins, Lakshmana and Shatrughna. Heaven and earth rejoice. The four princes grow up in mutual friendship, yet Rama and Lakshmana are peculiarly drawn to each other, as are Bharata and Shatrughna. So beautiful and so modest are the four boys that they seem like incarnations of the four things worth living for—virtue, money, love, and salvation.
Eleventh canto. The victory over Rama-with-the-axe.—At the request of the holy hermit Vishvamitra, the two youths Rama and Lakshmana visit his hermitage, to protect it from evil spirits. The two lads little suspect, on their maiden journey, how much of their lives will be spent in wandering together in the forest. On the way they are attacked by a giantess, whom Rama kills; the first of many giants who are to fall at his hand. He is given magic weapons by the hermit, with which he and his brother kill other giants, freeing the hermitage from all annoyance. The two brothers then travel with the hermit to the city of Mithila, attracted thither by hearing of its king, his wonderful daughter, and his wonderful bow. The bow was given him by the god Shiva; no man has been able to bend it; and the beautiful princess’s hand is the prize of any man who can perform the feat. On the way thither, Rama brings to life Ahalya, a woman who in a former age had been changed to stone for unfaithfulness to her austere husband, and had been condemned to remain a stone until trodden by Rama’s foot. Without further adventure, they reach Mithila, where the hermit presents Rama as a candidate for the bending of the bow.
The king beheld the boy, with beauty blestAnd famous lineage; he sadly thoughtHow hard it was to bend the bow, distressedBecause his child must be so dearly bought.
He said: “O holy one, a mighty deedThat full-grown elephants with greatest painCould hardly be successful in, we needNot ask of elephant-cubs. It would be vain.
For many splendid kings of valorous name,Bearing the scars of many a hard-fought day,Have tried and failed; then, covered with their shame,Have shrugged their shoulders, cursed, and strode away.”
Yet when the bow is given to the youthful Rama, he not only bends, but breaks it. He is immediately rewarded with the hand of the Princess Sita, while Lakshmana marries her sister. On their journey home with their young brides, dreadful portents appear, followed by their cause, a strange being called Rama-with-the-axe, who is carefully to be distinguished from Prince Rama. This Rama-with-the-axe is a Brahman who has sworn to exterminate the entire warrior caste, and who naturally attacks the valorous prince. He makes light of Rama’s achievement in breaking Shiva’s bow, and challenges him to bend the mightier bow which he carries. This the prince succeeds in doing, and Rama-with-the-axe disappears, shamed and defeated. The marriage party then continues its journey to Ayodhya.
Twelfth canto. The killing of Ravana.—King Dasharatha prepares to anoint Rama crown prince, when Queen Kaikeyi interposes. On an earlier occasion she had rendered the king a service and received his promise that he would grant her two boons, whatever she desired. She now demands her two boons: the banishment of Rama for fourteen years, and the anointing of her own son Bharata as crown prince. Rama thereupon sets out for the Dandaka forest in Southern India, accompanied by his faithful wife Sita and his devoted brother Lakshmana. The stricken father dies of grief, thus fulfilling the hermit’s curse. Now Prince Bharata proves himself more generous than his mother; he refuses the kingdom, and is with great difficulty persuaded by Rama himself to act as regent during the fourteen years. Even so, he refuses to enter the capital city, dwelling in a village outside the walls, and preserving Rama’s slippers as a symbol of the rightful king. Meanwhile Rama’s little party penetrates the wild forests of the south, fighting as need arises with the giants there. Unfortunately, a giantess falls in love with Rama, and
In Sita’s very presence toldHer birth—love made her overbold:For mighty passion, as a rule,Will change a woman to a fool.
Scorned by Rama, laughed at by Sita, she becomes furious and threatening.
Laugh on! Your laughter’s fruit shall beCommended to you. Gaze on me!I am a tigress, you shall know,Insulted by a feeble doe.
Lakshmana thereupon cuts off her nose and ears, rendering her redundantly hideous. She departs, to return presently at the head of an army of giants, whom Rama defeats single-handed, while his brother guards Sita. The giantess then betakes herself to her brother, the terrible ten-headed Ravana, king of Ceylon. He succeeds in capturing Sita by a trick, and carries her off to his fortress in Ceylon. It is plainly necessary for Rama to seek allies before attempting to cross the straits and attack the stronghold. He therefore renders an important service to the monkey king Sugriva, who gratefully leads an army of monkeys to his assistance. The most valiant of these, Hanumat, succeeds in entering Ravana’s capital, where he finds Sita, gives her a token from Rama, and receives a token for Rama. The army thereupon sets out and comes to the seashore, where it is reinforced by the giant Vibhishana, who has deserted his wicked brother Ravana. The monkeys hurl great boulders into the strait, thus forming a bridge over which they cross into Ceylon and besiege Ravana’s capital. There ensue many battles between the giants and the monkeys, culminating in a tremendous duel between the champions, Rama and Ravana. In this duel Ravana is finally slain. Rama recovers his wife, and the principal personages of the army enter the flying chariot which had belonged to Ravana, to return to Ayodhya; for the fourteen years of exile are now over.
Thirteenth canto. The return from the forest.—This canto describes the long journey through the air from Ceylon over the whole length of India to Ayodhya. As the celestial car makes its journey, Rama points out the objects of interest or of memory to Sita. Thus, as they fly over the sea:
The form of ocean, infinitely changing,Clasping the world and all its gorgeous state,Unfathomed by the intellect’s wide ranging,Is awful like the form of God, and great.
He gives his billowy lips to many a riverThat into his embrace with passion slips,Lover of many wives, a generous giverOf kisses, yet demanding eager lips.
Look back, my darling, with your fawn-like glancesUpon the path that from your prison leads;See how the sight of land again entrances,How fair the forest, as the sea recedes.
Then, as they pass over the spot where Rama searched for his stolen wife:
There is the spot where, sorrowfully searching,I found an anklet on the ground one day;It could not tinkle, for it was not perchingOn your dear foot, but sad and silent lay.
I learned where you were carried by the giantFrom vines that showed themselves compassionate;They could not utter words, yet with their pliantBranches they pointed where you passed of late.
The deer were kind; for while the juicy grassesFell quite unheeded from each careless mouth,They turned wide eyes that said, “‘Tis there she passesThe hours as weary captive” toward the south.
There is the mountain where the peacocks’ screaming,And branches smitten fragrant by the rain,And madder-flowers that woke at last from dreaming,Made unendurable my lonely pain;
And mountain-caves where I could scarce dissembleThe woe I felt when thunder crashed anew,For I remembered how you used to trembleAt thunder, seeking arms that longed for you.
Rama then points out the spots in Southern India where he and Sita had dwelt in exile, and the pious hermitages which they had visited; later, the holy spot where the Jumna River joins the Ganges; finally, their distant home, unseen for fourteen years, and the well-known river, from which spray-laden breezes come to them like cool, welcoming hands. When they draw near, Prince Bharata comes forth to welcome them, and the happy procession approaches the capital city.
Fourteenth canto. Sita is put away.—The exiles are welcomed by Queen Kausalya and Queen Sumitra with a joy tinged with deep melancholy. After the long-deferred anointing of Rama as king, comes the triumphal entry into the ancestral capital, where Rama begins his virtuous reign with his beloved queen most happily; for the very hardships endured in the forest turn into pleasures when remembered in the palace. To crown the king’s joy, Sita becomes pregnant, and expresses a wish to visit the forest again. At this point, where an ordinary story would end, comes the great tragedy, the tremendous test of Rama’s character. The people begin to murmur about the queen, believing that she could not have preserved her purity in the giant’s palace. Rama knows that she is innocent, but he also knows that he cannot be a good king while the people feel as they do; and after a pitiful struggle, he decides to put away his beloved wife. He bids his brother Lakshmana take her to the forest, in accordance with her request, but to leave her there at the hermitage of the sage Valmiki. When this is done, and Sita hears the terrible future from Lakshmana, she cries:
Take reverent greeting to the queens, my mothers,And say to each with honour due her worth:”My child is your son’s child, and not another’s;Oh, pray for him, before he comes to birth.”
And tell the king from me: “You saw the matter,How I was guiltless proved in fire divine;Will you desert me for mere idle chatter?Are such things done in Raghu’s royal line?
Ah no! I cannot think you fickle-minded,For you were always very kind to me;Fate’s thunderclap by which my eyes are blindedRewards my old, forgotten sins, I see.
Oh, I could curse my life and quickly end it,For it is useless, lived from you apart,But that I bear within, and must defend it,Your life, your child and mine, beneath my heart.
When he is born, I’ll scorn my queenly station,Gaze on the sun, and live a hell on earth,That I may know no pain of separationFrom you, my husband, in another birth.
My king! Eternal duty bids you neverForget a hermit who for sorrow faints;Though I am exiled from your bed for ever,I claim the care you owe to all the saints.”
So she accepts her fate with meek courage. But
When Rama’s brother left her there to languishAnd bore to them she loved her final word,She loosed her throat in an excess of anguishAnd screamed as madly as a frightened bird.
Trees shed their flowers, the peacock-dances ended,The grasses dropped from mouths of feeding deer,As if the universal forest blendedIts tears with hers, and shared her woeful fear.
While she laments thus piteously, she is discovered by the poet-sage Valmiki, who consoles her with tender and beautiful words, and conducts her to his hermitage, where she awaits the time of her confinement. Meanwhile Rama leads a dreary life, finding duty but a cold comforter. He makes a golden statue of his wife, and will not look at other women.
Fifteenth canto. Rama goes to heaven.—The canto opens with a rather long description of a fight between Rama’s youngest brother and a giant. On the journey to meet the giant, Shatrughna spends a night in Valmiki’s hermitage, and that very night Sita gives birth to twin sons. Valmiki gives them the names Kusha and Lava, and when they grow out of childhood he teaches them his own composition, the Ramayana, “the sweet story of Rama,” “the first path shown to poets.” At this time the young son of a Brahman dies in the capital, and the father laments at the king’s gate, for he believes that the king is unworthy, else heaven would not send death prematurely. Rama is roused to stamp out evil-doing in the kingdom, whereupon the dead boy comes to life. The king then feels that his task on earth is nearly done, and prepares to celebrate the great horse-sacrifice. 4 At this sacrifice appear the two youths Kusha and Lava, who sing the epic of Rama’s deeds in the presence of Rama himself. The father perceives their likeness to himself, then learns that they are indeed his children, whom he has never seen. Thereupon Sita is brought forward by the poet-sage Valmiki and in the presence of her husband and her detractors establishes her constant purity in a terrible fashion.
“If I am faithful to my lordIn thought, in action, and in word,I pray that Earth who bears us allMay bid me in her bosom fall.”
The faithful wife no sooner spokeThan earth divided, and there brokeFrom deep within a flashing lightThat flamed like lightning, blinding-bright.
And, seated on a splendid throneUpheld by serpents’ hoods alone,The goddess Earth rose visibly,And she was girded with the sea.
Sita was clasped in her embrace,While still she gazed on Rama’s face:He cried aloud in wild despair;She sank, and left him standing there.
Rama then establishes his brothers, sons, and nephews in different cities of the kingdom, buries the three queens of his father, and awaits death. He has not long to wait; Death comes, wearing a hermit’s garb, asks for a private interview, and threatens any who shall disturb their conference. Lakshmana disturbs them, and so dies before Rama. Then Rama is translated.
Cantos sixteen to nineteen form the third division of the epic, and treat of Rama’s descendants. The interest wanes, for the great hero is gone.
Sixteenth canto. Kumudvati’s wedding.—As Kusha lies awake one night, a female figure appears in his chamber; and in answer to his question, declares that she is the presiding goddess of the ancient capital Ayodhya, which has been deserted since Rama’s departure to heaven. She pictures the sad state of the city thus:
I have no king; my towers and terracesCrumble and fall; my walls are overthrown;As when the ugly winds of evening seizeThe rack of clouds in helpless darkness blown.
In streets where maidens gaily passed at night,Where once was known the tinkle and the shineOf anklets, jackals slink, and by the lightOf flashing fangs, seek carrion, snarl, and whine.
The water of the pools that used to splashWith drumlike music, under maidens’ hands,Groans now when bisons from the jungle lashIt with their clumsy horns, and roil its sands.
The peacock-pets are wild that once were tame;They roost on trees, not perches; lose desireFor dancing to the drums; and feel no shameFor fans singed close by sparks of forest-fire.
On stairways where the women once were gladTo leave their pink and graceful footprints, hereUnwelcome, blood-stained paws of tigers pad,Fresh-smeared from slaughter of the forest deer.
Wall-painted elephants in lotus-brooks,Receiving each a lily from his mate,Are torn and gashed, as if by cruel hooks,By claws of lions, showing furious hate.
I see my pillared caryatidesNeglected, weathered, stained by passing time,Wearing in place of garments that should please,The skins of sloughing cobras, foul with slime.
The balconies grow black with long neglect,And grass-blades sprout through floors no longer tight;They still receive but cannot now reflectThe old, familiar moonbeams, pearly white.
The vines that blossomed in my garden bowers,That used to show their graceful beauty, whenGirls gently bent their twigs and plucked their flowers,Are broken by wild apes and wilder men.
The windows are not lit by lamps at night,Nor by fair faces shining in the day,But webs of spiders dim the delicate, lightSmoke-tracery with one mere daub of grey.
The river is deserted; on the shoreNo gaily bathing men and maidens leaveFood for the swans; its reedy bowers no moreAre vocal: seeing this, I can but grieve.
The goddess therefore begs Kusha to return with his court to the old capital, and when he assents, she smiles and vanishes. The next morning Kusha announces the vision of the night, and immediately sets out for Ayodhya with his whole army. Arrived there, King Kusha quickly restores the city to its former splendour. Then when the hot summer comes, the king goes down to the river to bathe with the ladies of the court. While in the water he loses a great gem which his father had given him. The divers are unable to find it, and declare their belief that it has been stolen by the serpent Kumuda who lives in the river. The king threatens to shoot an arrow into the river, whereupon the waters divide, and the serpent appears with the gem. He is accompanied by a beautiful maiden, whom he introduces as his sister Kumudvati, and whom he offers in marriage to Kusha. The offer is accepted, and the wedding celebrated with great pomp.
Seventeenth canto. King Atithi.—To the king and queen is born a son, who is named Atithi. When he has grown into manhood, his father Kusha engages in a struggle with a demon, in which the king is killed in the act of killing his adversary. He goes to heaven, followed by his faithful queen, and Atithi is anointed king. The remainder of the canto describes King Atithi’s glorious reign.
Eighteenth canto. The later princes.—This canto gives a brief, impressionistic sketch of the twenty-one kings who in their order succeeded Atithi.
Nineteenth canto. The loves of Agnivarna.—After the twenty-one kings just mentioned, there succeeds a king named Agnivarna, who gives himself to dissipation. He shuts himself up in the palace; even when duty requires him to appear before his subjects, he does so merely by hanging one foot out of a window. He trains dancing-girls himself, and has so many mistresses that he cannot always call them by their right names. It is not wonderful that this kind of life leads before long to a consuming disease; and as Agnivarna is even then unable to resist the pleasures of the senses, he dies. His queen is pregnant, and she mounts the throne as regent in behalf of her unborn son. With this strange scene, half tragic, half vulgar, the epic, in the form in which it has come down to us, abruptly ends.
If we now endeavour to form some critical estimate of the poem, we are met at the outset by this strangely unnatural termination. We cannot avoid wondering whether the poem as we have it is complete. And we shall find that there are good reasons for believing that Kalidasa did not let the glorious solar line end in the person of the voluptuous Agnivarna and his unborn child. In the first place, there is a constant tradition which affirms that The Dynasty of Raghu originally consisted of twenty-five cantos. A similar tradition concerning Kalidasa’s second epic has justified itself; for some time only seven cantos were known; then more were discovered, and we now have seventeen. Again, there is a rhetorical rule, almost never disregarded, which requires a literary work to end with an epilogue in the form of a little prayer for the welfare of readers or auditors. Kalidasa himself complies with this rule, certainly in five of his other six books. Once again, Kalidasa has nothing of the tragedian in his soul; his works, without exception, end happily. In the drama Urvashi he seriously injures a splendid old tragic story for the sake of a happy ending. These facts all point to the probability that the conclusion of the epic has been lost. We may even assign a natural, though conjectural, reason for this.The Dynasty of Raghu has been used for centuries as a text-book in India, so that manuscripts abound, and commentaries are very numerous. Now if the concluding cantos were unfitted for use as a text-book, they might very easily be lost during the centuries before the introduction of printing-presses into India. Indeed, this very unfitness for use as a school text seems to be the explanation of the temporary loss of several cantos of Kalidasa’s second epic.
On the other hand, we are met by the fact that numerous commentators, living in different parts of India, know the text of only nineteen cantos. Furthermore, it is unlikely that Kalidasa left the poem incomplete at his death; for it was, without serious question, one of his earlier works. Apart from evidences of style, there is the subject-matter of the introductory stanzas, in which the poet presents himself as an aspirant for literary fame. No writer of established reputation would be likely to say:
The fool who seeks a poet’s fame,Must look for ridicule and blame,Like tiptoe dwarf who fain would tryTo pluck the fruit for giants high.
In only one other of his writings, in the drama which was undoubtedly written earlier than the other two dramas, does the poet thus present his feeling of diffidence to his auditors.
It is of course possible that Kalidasa wrote the first nineteen cantos when a young man, intending to add more, then turned to other matters, and never afterwards cared to take up the rather thankless task of ending a youthful work.
The question does not admit of final solution. Yet whoever reads and re-reads The Dynasty of Raghu, and the other works of its author, finds the conviction growing ever stronger that our poem in nineteen cantos is mutilated. We are thus enabled to clear the author of the charge of a lame and impotent conclusion.
Another adverse criticism cannot so readily be disposed of; that of a lack of unity in the plot. As the poem treats of a kingly dynasty, we frequently meet the cry: The king is dead. Long live the king! The story of Rama himself occupies only six cantos; he is not born until the tenth canto, he is in heaven after the fifteenth. There are in truth six heroes, each of whom has to die to make room for his successor. One may go farther and say that it is not possible to give a brief and accurate title to the poem. It is not a Ramayana, or epic of Rama’s deeds, for Rama is on the stage during only a third of the poem. It is not properly an epic of Raghu’s line, for many kings of this line are unmentioned. Not merely kings who escape notice by their obscurity, but also several who fill a large place in Indian story, whose deeds and adventures are splendidly worthy of epic treatment. The Dynasty of Raghu is rather an epic poem in which Rama is the central figure, giving it such unity as it possesses, but which provides Rama with a most generous background in the shape of selected episodes concerning his ancestors and his descendants.
Rama is the central figure. Take him away and the poem falls to pieces like a pearl necklace with a broken string. Yet it may well be doubted whether the cantos dealing with Rama are the most successful. They are too compressed, too briefly allusive. Kalidasa attempts to tell the story in about one-thirtieth of the space given to it by his great predecessor Valmiki. The result is much loss by omission and much loss by compression. Many of the best episodes of the Ramayana are quite omitted by Kalidasa: for example, the story of the jealous humpback who eggs on Queen Kaikeyi to demand her two boons; the beautiful scene in which Sita insists on following Rama into the forest; the account of the somnolent giant Pot-ear, a character quite as good as Polyphemus. Other fine episodes are so briefly alluded to as to lose all their charm: for example, the story of the golden deer that attracts the attention of Rama while Ravana is stealing his wife; the journey of the monkey Hanumat to Ravana’s fortress and his interview with Sita.
The Rama-story, as told by Valmiki, is one of the great epic stories of the world. It has been for two thousand years and more the story par excellence of the Hindus; and the Hindus may fairly claim to be the best story-tellers of the world. There is therefore real matter for regret in the fact that so great a poet as Kalidasa should have treated it in a way not quite worthy of it and of himself. The reason is not far to seek, nor can there be any reasonable doubt as to its truth. Kalidasa did not care to put himself into direct competition with Valmiki. The younger poet’s admiration of his mighty predecessor is clearly expressed. It is with especial reference to Valmiki that he says in his introduction:
Yet I may enter through the doorThat mightier poets pierced of yore;A thread may pierce a jewel, butMust follow where the diamond cut.
He introduces Valmiki into his own epic, making him compose the Ramayana in Rama’s lifetime. Kalidasa speaks of Valmiki as “the poet,” and the great epic he calls “the sweet story of Rama,” “the first path shown to poets,” which, when sung by the two boys, was heard with motionless delight by the deer, and, when sung before a gathering of learned men, made them heedless of the tears that rolled down their cheeks.
Bearing these matters in mind, we can see the course of Kalidasa’s thoughts almost as clearly as if he had expressed them directly. He was irresistibly driven to write the wonderful story of Rama, as any poet would be who became familiar with it. At the same time, his modesty prevented him from challenging the old epic directly. He therefore writes a poem which shall appeal to the hallowed association that cluster round the great name of Rama, but devotes two-thirds of it to themes that permit him greater freedom. The result is a formless plot.
This is a real weakness, yet not a fatal weakness. In general, literary critics lay far too much emphasis on plot. Of the elements that make a great book, two, style and presentation of character, hardly permit critical analysis. The third, plot, does permit such analysis. Therefore the analyst overrates its importance. It is fatal to all claim of greatness in a narrative if it is shown to have a bad style or to be without interesting characters. It is not fatal if it is shown that the plot is rambling. In recent literature it is easy to find truly great narratives in which the plot leaves much to be desired. We may cite the Pickwick Papers, Les Misérables, War and Peace.
We must then regard The Dynasty of Raghu as a poem in which single episodes take a stronger hold upon the reader than does the unfolding of an ingenious plot. In some degree, this is true of all long poems. The Æneiditself, the most perfect long poem ever written, has dull passages. And when this allowance is made, what wonderful passages we have in Kalidasa’s poem! One hardly knows which of them makes the strongest appeal, so many are they and so varied. There is the description of the small boy Raghu in the third canto, the choice of the princess in the sixth, the lament of King Aja in the eighth, the story of Dasharatha and the hermit youth in the ninth, the account of the ruined city in the sixteenth. Besides these, the Rama cantos, ten to fifteen, make an epic within an epic. And if Kalidasa is not seen at his very best here, yet his second best is of a higher quality than the best of others. Also, the Rama story is so moving that a mere allusion to it stirs like a sentimental memory of childhood. It has the usual qualities of a good epic story: abundance of travel and fighting and adventure and magic interweaving of human with superhuman, but it has more than this. In both hero and heroine there is real development of character. Odysseus and Æneas do not grow; they go through adventures. But King Rama, torn between love for his wife and duty to his subjects, is almost a different person from the handsome, light-hearted prince who won his bride by breaking Shiva’s bow. Sita, faithful to the husband who rejects her, has made a long, character-forming journey since the day when she left her father’s palace, a youthful bride. Herein lies the unique beauty of the tale of Rama, that it unites romantic love and moral conflict with a splendid story of wild adventure. No wonder that the Hindus, connoisseurs of story-telling, have loved the tale of Rama’s deeds better than any other story.
If we compare The Dynasty of Raghu with Kalidasa’s other books, we find it inferior to The Birth of the War-god in unity of plot, inferior to Shakuntala in sustained interest, inferior to The Cloud-Messenger in perfection of every detail. Yet passages in it are as high and sweet as anything in these works. And over it is shed the magic charm of Kalidasa’s style. Of that it is vain to speak. It can be had only at first hand. The final proof that The Dynasty of Raghu is a very great poem, is this: no one who once reads it can leave it alone thereafter.