There is reference in Mahabharata to three great ancestors of the Pandavas and Kauravas. The first mention is of Bharata. He was born as the son of Dushyanta to Sakuntala. Poet Kalidasa wrote his famous drama Abhijnaana Saakuntalam (“The story of Sakuntala revolving around a signet”- we use A.S for short)
Dushyanta was a great ruler. One day he went hunting with a huge army to assist. After days of hunting he wanted to rest and found a hermitage. He met the beautiful Sakuntala, alone, there. (Kalidasa gives a dramatic effect to their first meeting)
Dushyanta fell in love with Sakuntala on the very first sight. He introduced himself and told her about his love. When asked, Sakuntala told her story.
She was born to sage Viswamitra in the celestial damsel, Menaka. Indra got worried by the intense penance of Viswamitra fearing that the sage might amass enough credit to stake a claim for his throne. So, he sent Menaka to stop Viswamitra from further penance. Menaka succeeded to seduce the sage. A girl was born to them. The two left the scene afterwards leaving the helpless girl in the care of some birds (Sakunta; hence, Sakuntala). Sage Kanwa happened to find the girl and took her in his care.
Viswamitra was born in the warrior class. So, Dushyanta argued with Sakuntala that marriage by mutual consent was permitted for the two. Sakuntala found the king attractive enough. Besides, the king offered to return later to take her to the royal palace with full honour. He also promised to make the son born to Sakuntala the future king.
(In A.S the king gave her his signet ring to seal the marriage).
The two got married by the Gaandharva (mutual agreement) system and the king left her with a promise to come for her later.
When sage Kanwa returned he came to know what happened . He was happy that his daughter accepted a suitable king for husband.
Soon, Sakuntala became pregnant and in due course gave birth to a son. He was strong and showed signs of valour right from childhood. Hence, he was named Sarvadamana . (Became famous as Bharata later).
(A.S gives dramatic twists here. Sakuntala spends all her time thinking about her lover and fails to notice the short tempered sage, Durvasa arriving. The Maharshi curses her with the words that whoever that she is thinking about will fail to recognize her. Her friends, noticing the exit of the sage in a rage, goes after him and pacifies him. He modifies the curse that if the king finds any object to remind him of the past, he will recognize her)
When Bharata grew up to be a boy sage Kanwa asked his desciples to take her to king Dushyanta. The king recognized her (did not, in A.S), but, pretended not to. Sakuntala was hurt and tried to give details of their meeting. Still, the king did not budge. Absolutely dejected, Sakuntala was about to return. Then there was a voice from heaven (Asareeri – meaning, a voice without a source). The voice said that Sakuntala was truly the king’s wife and Bharata, his son. Dushyanata was satisfied. He later explained that, as the king, he had to convince the public that he was taking in a legal heir to the throne.
(In A.S Sakuntala thinks of her mother to give her refuge. Menaka comes and takes Sakuntala and her son to heaven. She is left in the care of sage Kasyapa. There is a lot of drama about her losing the signet in the river to be recovered later by a fisherman. Finally, the ring reaches the king. He then remembers her . He is repentant. Years later, on his trip to heaven he meets Sakuntala in the hermitage of sage Kasyapa. He receives Sakuntala and Bharata with profound apologies)
This Bharata became one of the most famous kings of his dynasty. The ancient name , Bhaarata, for India was also due to the same king.