Śakuntalā’s poem

Dushyanta and Shakuntala in a Landscape — LACMA

The play Abhijnāna-Śakuntalam is one of the most well-known and frequently-performed works by the renowned Indian poet Kālidāsa. The play is based on the famous story found in the Mahābhārata about the romance of Śakuntalā and Duṣyanta. However, Kālidāsa uses his own creative imagination to add some additional twists and turns into the narrative. Apart from its interesting plotline, Kālidāsa’s version also has many interesting literary and linguistic features, however, which I will briefly discuss in this article.

Naturally, as a royal personage, Duṣyanta speaks in Sanskrit, and frequently resorts to verse to express his most heartfelt and inward sentiments. However, a large majority of these verses appear to be in Ᾱryā metre, a type of morae-based metre which is in general very common in Prakrit literature and early Indian vernacular language poetry. By contrast, types of metre based on syllables per verse are much more common in most Sanskrit literature. Regarding the Ᾱryā metre, Prof. K.R. Norman explains

“it is … clear that some indigenous (Dravidian) influence played a part in its origin …

“Among the cultural influences, which the Indo-Aryans adopted from the Dravidian sub-strate they absorbed within themselves, were music and metre. The imposition of the brahmanical religion upon the subjected peoples led to their knowledge of Vedic metres, but their tendency to sing rather than to chant, and to make use of musical syncopation, led to a flexibility being introduced into the old Vedic metres in a way which completely transformed them.”

The prevalence of Ᾱryā metre in this play would seem to enhance the theme of the play, which is about Duṣyanta getting away from the urban, courtly life and out into the countryside where he can encounters Śakuntalā. The Ᾱryā metre strengthens the sense of rusticity and simple natural spontaneity that is expressed in the play. The Ᾱryā metre is the most common morae-based metre, and, in fact, is used very heavily throughout this play, perhaps almost 40 times in total.

The majority of classical Indian grammarians hold that Prakrit language is derived from Sanskrit.* For example, according to the Jain grammarian Hemacandra, Sanskrit is the basis (prakṛti) and source (yoni) of Prakrit language, also writing-

“prakṛtiḥ saṃskṛtam| tatrabhavaṃ tata āgataṃ vā prākṛtam|”

Hemacandra, Siddha-hema-candrānuśāsana Ch.8

By contrast, a few grammarians suggest that Prakrit is a more natural and less artificial form of speech, possibly reversing the order of explanation. Thus Nāmisādhu, another Jain grammarian, explains that Prakrit is an earlier form of speech (prāk pūrvaṃ kṛtaṃ) which is easily understood by children and women (sic.) (bāla-mahilā-subodham) and is the origin of all forms of speech (sakala-bhāṣā-nibandhana-bhūtaṃ vacanam).

In this regard, the utterances of Śakuntalā and her companions are of even greater interest. Living a simple life in the forest hermitage, constantly immersed in appreciating the beauties of the natural world around her, Śakuntalā of course speaks in Prakrit. In Act Three, inflamed by the passions of love, she sets herself to compose a verse, which she then reads out to her friends as follows –

The state of your heart I do not know
But day and night love
Cruelly makes my limbs suffer
Filled with desire for you

[Abhijñāna-Śākuntalam Act 3 Verse 15; my own translation]

By contrast with Duṣyanta, it takes some time and effort for Śakuntalā to think up and write out this little verse, yet at the same time we can say that Śakuntalā expresses here a charming sentiment of vipralambha-śṛñgāra or love-in-separation. Śakuntalā’s poem is in in Prakrit and in the Ᾱryā metre also. This is actually Maharashtri Prakrit, which is what Śakuntalā speaks throughout the play. Indeed, this is one of the three literary Prakrits. Maharashtri, Shauraseni and Magadhi which we commonly find in literature. Of these Maharashtri seems to have been introduced into literature by Kālidāsa himself, and was later considered (e.g. by Daṇḍin) to have the most beautiful literature.

Indeed, the exact relationship between Prakrit and Sanskrit language and literature is somewhat involved and it can be difficult to discern to what extent Prakrit languages were independent spoken languages, and to what extent they were exclusively literary creations. Further, it can be difficult to discern to what extent the everyday languages of the India population evolved under the steering influence of Sanskrit and to what extent these had an evolutionary momentum of their own. Thus Prof. A.B.Keith explains –

“The most widely accepted etymology of Prākrit current in India treats the name as denoting derivative, the prime source (prakṛti) being Sanskrit. Another view reverses the position; Prākrit is what comes at once from nature, what all people without special instruction can easily understand and use.”

[A.B. Keith, A History of Sanskrit Literature, p.26]

In any case, Śakuntalā’s poem stands as a fine example of early Indian vernacular poetry. Indeed, the early Indian vernacular poetry of Alvars, Nayanars, Sheikh Farid, Kabir, Mirabai, Sūrdās and others could perhaps be considered a continuation of the tradition of Prakrit poetry of the sort composed by Śakuntalā. We may conclude with the words of Jayavallabha in praise of Prakrit poetry as follows –

“Strung with deśī words, shaped by metres with sweet syllables, charming,
With meanings that are plain and evident, Prakrit poetry is well worth reading”

[Jayavallabha, quoted in Luigia Nitti-Dolci, The Prākṛita Grammarians; my own translation]

*Note: I corrected this story on 3rd May as I had wrongly presented the view of Hemacandra and other grammarians. Prakrit is generally considered to be derived from Sanskrit and not the other way around! I am still studying the works of the Prakrit grammarians so any comments on this would be welcome.

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