Categories: Hindu Mythology

Shakuntala: A Celestial Love Story

Shakuntala is Dushyanta’s wife and Emperor Bharata’s mother. Her tale is in the Adi Parva, the first part of the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata. Many writers have retold it, with Kalidasa’s play “Abhijnanasakuntala” being the most well-known adaptation.

Versions

Shakuntala’s life has two stories. The first version is in the Mahabharata, one of the two major Hindu epics linked to the sage Vyasa. This tale was turned into a play by the poet Kalidasa around the 4th–5th century CE.

Birth

Once, Vishvamitra was deep in meditation, seeking the esteemed status of a Brahmarshi. His intense penance raised concerns in Indra, the king of gods, who worried Vishvamitra might aspire to take his throne. In a bid to disrupt the meditation, Indra dispatched Menaka, a celestial nymph, to entice him. Menaka succeeded, breaking Vishvamitra’s focus with her charms. They lived together for a while, and a daughter was born to them. Later, Vishvamitra realized it was all a ploy by Indra. Understanding the need to control his emotions, he parted ways with Menaka. She left their child near Rishi Kanva’s hermitage before returning to heaven.

Upbringing

Rishi Kanva discovered two lovely babies in his quiet home, with Shakunta birds nearby. So, he named the baby girl Shakuntala, which means protected by Shakunta.

Marriage with Dushyanta

King Dushyanta met Shakuntala while journeying through the forest with his soldiers. Chasing a wounded deer, they fell in love and married under the Gandharva tradition. Before heading back to his kingdom, Dushyanta gave Shakuntala his royal ring, pledging to bring her to the palace as his queen.

Durvasa’s Curse

Shakuntala often daydreamed about her new husband, Dushyanta, and became so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t properly greet the powerful rishi Durvasa when he visited their ashrama. Annoyed by her inattentiveness, Durvasa cursed Shakuntala, declaring that the person she was dreaming of would forget her completely. Later, realizing his anger was excessive, the rishi modified the curse, stating that the forgotten memories would return if Shakuntala showed the person a personal token given to her.

Journey to Palace

Shakuntala waited a long time for Dushyanta to come back, but he didn’t. Wondering why he didn’t return, she decided to go to the capital city with her foster father and friends. While crossing a river on a canoe, Shakuntala lost Dushyanta’s ring in the blue water without noticing.

When they reached Dushyanta’s court, he didn’t recognize Shakuntala and had no memory of her. Despite her efforts to remind him, the absence of the ring made him unaware of their relationship. Feeling humiliated, Shakuntala returned to the forest with her son Bharata, who grew up surrounded by wild animals. He became strong and even played with tigers and lions, counting their teeth for fun.

Reunion with Dushyanta

In a distant land, a fisherman’s ordinary day turned extraordinary when he discovered a royal ring inside a fish. Recognizing its significance, he hurried to the palace. As King Dushyanta laid eyes on the ring, memories of his long-lost bride rushed back. Eager to find her, he journeyed to her father’s ashram but found an empty space. Delving deeper into the forest, he stumbled upon a fearless boy counting a lion’s teeth. The boy, Bharata, proudly revealed himself as Dushyanta’s son and guided the king to Shakuntala. Thus, the family’s reunion unfolded amidst the enchanting forest.

Variants

In an alternate tale, Dushyanta’s failure to recognize Shakuntala led to a celestial intervention. Shakuntala, accompanied by her mother Menaka, ascended to Heaven, where she gave birth to their son Bharata. Dushyanta, proving his valor in battle alongside the devas, earned the right to reunite with his family. A mystical vision guided him, witnessing a boy counting a lion’s teeth, his kavacha slipping off. The devas revealed that only Bharata’s true parent could restore it. Dushyanta, successfully reattaching the kavacha, presented himself to a bewildered Bharata. Guided by Shakuntala, the family’s reunion unfolded in the celestial realms before they descended to Earth, ruling for many years, setting the stage for the eventual birth of the Pandavas.

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Krishna Das is an experienced article writer. He writes about Hinduism in his spare time.

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