Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The story of Sakuntala

King Dushyanta

It is said that Dushyanata presided over an empire that spread as far as the oceans on all sides. He was a just king and ruled the land strictly by the law. There was plenty everywhere and the people lived happily without fear of robbers and thieves.

The hunting expedition

The kings in those days frequently used to go hunting. It was partly for the fun and partly to protect hermits from wild animals, and demons who harassed them. One day Dushyanta set on such an expedition. An army of assistants accompanied the king with hunting equipment and taking with them horses and dogs to chase game animals. The citizens watched with pride as their king march through the land and were all in his praise looking at his handsome figure.

The party hunted in a forest not too far away from the palace throughout the day and was soon overwhelmed with thirst and physical exhaustion. They started looking for water and found a clearing which drew the attention of the king. He asked the people behind him to move with caution and went ahead to explore the place.

The hermitage of a great sage

What lay ahead was a place of heavenly beauty and absolute peace. Green meadows were interspersed with trees in full blossom. Flowers that fell from the trees made patterns over the meadows. Birds of various types sang with an abandon. Bees sat on tree trunks and helped themselves lavishly on honey that was in plenty. Vedic hymns gently resonated out of a few hermitages that were concealed behind the thick growth of trees. There was a river that quietly flowed behind the row of the hermits’ huts. Perfect tranquility prevailed over the entire terrain.

The king entered the area warning his companions not to disturb the peace of the hermitage at any cost. As he advanced, a gentle breeze blew carrying the intoxicating fragrance from the flowering trees with it. Dushyanta thought that it must be a sage of great penance who lived in such a place cut off completely from human habitation.

A sweet welcome

Finding no one around, Dushyanta announced himself politely, as was the custom, and asked for the hosts who lived there. He was surprised to find a damsel emerging out of a hut who, to the eyes of the young king, did not fit in the harsh living conditions of a hermitage. She simply and sweetly spoke the words of welcome and offered her guest a seat, and water to wash his feet as per the tradition. Then she asked. “What can I do for you, your excellency?”

Dushyanta replied. “I am king Dushyanta of the dynasty of Purus. I came hunting and arrived at this place by accident. Now I want to pay my respects to the sage who lives here. Who are you, fair maiden? You do not seem from your appearance to belong to this place.”

Sakuntala’s Story

In reply, the sweet young girl introduced herself. She was the daughter of sage Viswamitra born of the celestial damsel, Menaka. The sage was performing long years of penance performing a number of sacrificial rituals (Yajna) that terrified Indra, the king of gods. There is a tradition that one who performed one hundred such rituals qualified himself to the heavenly throne. Indra wanted to disturb the meditation of Viswamitra by whatever means at his disposal. The first and easiest choice fell on Menaka, one of the most beautiful and talented among the celestial damsels. That was normally an unfailing tool in the hands of the king of gods.

Menaka was apprehensive of the sage and his powers from meditation. Indra assured her of her safety. That was how the heavenly lady set out on her mission. Menaka sang sweetly and danced seductively and waited for the sage to open his eyes. When it was time for sage Viswamitra to open his eyes a gentle breeze blew, apparently instigated by Indra, to expose the curves of Menaka. Indra did not go wrong in his calculation.The pent up emotions of sage Viswamitra was roused at the sight of the pretty and voluptuous Menaka. The result was their union and the birth of a pretty female baby. It is said Menaka abandoned her at birth, as nursing the baby was not part of the deal. Viswamitra’s only concern was to get back to his penance and make up for all the damage that was done to it by his not so pious adventure. The hapless baby found only the company of some little birds that perched around and took care of her.

Sage Kanwa happened to pass by the scene and stumbled upon the abandoned child. He adopted the baby out of kindness and left it under the care of his good lady. The baby was named Sakuntala as she was saved by the little birds known by the name, Sakunta.

A marriage of consent

Dushyanta had already fallen in love at the very first sight of the sweet Sakuntala. The knowledge that she was the daughter of Viswamitra who was originally a king himself, assured the king that she was one of his kind. The king proposed a marriage of mutual consent (Gaandharva Vidhi) which was widely accepted as one suitable for the royalty. Sakuntala was apprehensive in the beginning, though she was charmed by the looks of the young king. Dushyanta assured her that he would make her his queen in due course. Sakuntala asked for a better commitment from the king. If a male child was born to them, he should be made the future king. Dushyanta was willing to give his word on that.

The two accepted each other as husband and wife. Only the birds and trees of the hermitage stood witness for the unusual marriage. The king left in due course without waiting for sage Kanwa to return. He did promise to send his emissaries to take his queen to the palace in due course.

Soon, Kanwa returned. Sakuntala’s mind was in turmoil thinking about the reaction of his guardian when he would hear about the recent events that took place in his absence. But, she had to boldly tell him the truth. The sage was not upset on hearing the story. He was not against the alliance as he knew that the right place for his adopted daughter was a palace.

Sakuntala gave birth to a son in due course. Kanwa performed all the ceremonies that were due for a royal child from birth onwards. The boy grew playing with the wild animals that roamed near the hermitage and soon was acclaimed to be one of extraordinary strength and courage. Accordingly, he was named Sarvadamana or one who subdued all around him.

(To be concluded in the next episode)


Melissa said...

I like the story so far, especially the descriptions of the place--it made me want to be there! Wouldn't abondoning a baby cause further setback for the sage, or is it really just Menaka would would be considered to have abandoned her? Or was it not such a big deal because it was a daughter and not a son?

Kunjunny said...

Looking after the baby, unfortunately, was (is) considered primary the responsibility of the mother, even between a married couple. That would not have been treated as a sin on the part of Viswamitra (or Parasara, the father of Veda Vyasa). But, the gender of the baby did not make any difference in this regard.

Kunjunny said...

I missed to notice Melissa's comment posted in December in the context of Balarama's pilgrimage. I have commented on that today.

bhoomika said...

it is just like shrigaara rasa