1902 Encyclopedia > Kalidasa

Sanskrit poet and dramatist
(flourished 5th century A.D.)

KALIDASA is the most illustrious name among the writers of the second epoch of Sanskrit literature, which, as contrasted with the age of the Vedic hymns, may be characterized as the period of artificial poetry. Owing to the utter absence of the historical sense in the Hindu race, it is impossible to fix with chronological exactness the lifetime of either Kalidasa or any other Sanskrit author. Native tradition places him in the 1st century B.C.; but the evidence on which this belief rests has been shown to be wholly worthless. The works of the poet have been found to contain no allusions by which their date can be directly determined; yet the extremely corrupt form of the Prakrit or popular dialects spoken by the women and the subordinate characters in his plays, as compared with the Prakrit ins inscriptions of ascertained age, has led the chief authorities, Weber and Lassen, to agree in fixing on the 3d century of our era as the approximate period to which the writings of Kalidasa should be referred.

The richness of his creative fancy, his delicacy of sentiment, and his keen appreciation of the beauties of nature, combined with remarkable powers of description, which are conspicuous throughout his works, place Kalidasa in the first rank of Oriental poets. The effect, however, of his productions as a whole is greatly marred by extreme artificiality of diction, which, though to a less extent than in other Hindu poets, not unfrequently takes the form of puerile conceits, and plays on words, the matter being treated merely as a means for displaying dexterity in the manipulation of the language. In this respect his writings contrast very unfavourably with the more genuine poetry of the Vedas. Though a true poet, he is wanting in that artistic sense of proportion so characteristic of the Greek mind, which exactly adjusts the parts to the whole, and combines, form and matter into an inseprable poetic unity. Kalidasa’s fame rests chiefly on his dramas, but he is also distinguished as an epic and a lyric poet.

He wrote three plays, the plots of which all bear a general resemblance to each other, inasmuch as they consist of love intrigues, which, after numerous and seemingly insurmountable impediments of a similar nature, are ultimately brought to a successful conclusion.

Of these, Cakunlala is that which has always justly enjoyed the greatest fame and popularity. The unqualified praise bestowed upon it by Goether sufficiently guarantees its poetic merit. There are two recensions of the text in India, the Bengali and the Devanagari, te latter being generally considered older and purer. Cakuntala was first translated into English by Sir William Jones (Calcutta, 1789), who used the Bengali recension. It was soon after translated into German by G. Forster (1791), and by Herder in 1803. An edition of the Sanskrit original, with French translation, was published by Chezy at Paris in 1830. This formed the basis of a translation by Hirzel (Zurich, 1830). Another edition of the Bengali recension was published by Prema Chandra (Calcutta, 1860) for the use of European students. The Devanagari recension was first edited by Bohtlingk (Bonn, 1842), with a German translation. On this were based the successive German translations of Meyer (Tubingen, 1851) and Lobedanz (2d ed., Leipsic [Leipzig], 1861). The same recension has been edited by Dr C. Burkhard with a Sanskrit-Latin vocabulary and short Prakrit grammar (Breslau, 1872), and by Professor Monier Williams (Oxford, 2d ed., 1872). Another edition was published at Bombay in 1861.

The Vikramorvaci, or Urvaci won by Valour, abounds with fine lyrical passages, and is of all Indian dramas second only to Cakuntala in poetic beauty. It was edited by Lenz (Bonn, 1833) and translated into German by Hofer (Berlin, 1837), Hirzel (1838), and by Lobedanz (Leipsic [Leipzig], 1861). The best edition is by Bollensen (Petersburg, 1845). There is also an English edition by Monier Williams, a metrical and prose version by the late Professor H.H. Wilson, and a literal prose translation of Professor E.B. Cowell (1851).

The third play, entitled Malavikagnimitra, has considerable poetical and dramatic merit, but is confessedly inferior to the other two. It possesses the advantage, however, that its hero Agnimitra and its heroine Malavika are more ordinary and human characters than those of the other plays. It was edited by Dr. Tulberg at Bonn, 1840, and more correctly by Shankar p. Pandit, with English notes, in 1869, and ably translated into German by Professor Weber in 1856.

Two epic poems are also attributed to Kalidasa. The longer of these is entitled Raghuvanca, the subject of which is the same as that of the Ramayana, viz., the history of Rama, but beginning with a long account of his ancestors, the ancient rulers of Avodhva (edited by Stenzler, London 1832). The other epic is the Kumarasambhava, the theme of which is the birth of Kumara, otherwise called Karttikeya or Skanda, God of War (edited by Stenzler, London, 1838, and by the Rev. K.M. Banerjea, 3d ed., Calcutta, 1872). Though containing many fine passages, it is tame as a whole.

His lyrical poems are the Meghanduta and the Ritusamhara. The Meghaduta, or the Cloud-Messenger, describes the complaint of an exiled lover, and the message he sends to his wife by a cloud. It is full of deep feeling, and abounds with fine descriptions of the beauties of nature. It was edited with free English translation by H.H. Wilson (Calcutta, 1813), and by Gildemeister (Bonn, 1841); a German adaptation by M. Muller appeared at Konigsberg (1847), and one by Schmitz at Bielefeld (1859). It was edited by Johnson, with vocabulary and Wilson’s metrical translation (London, 1867). The Ritusamhara, or Collection of the Seasons, is a short poem, of less importance, on the six season of the year. There is an edition by Bohlen, with prose latin and metrical German translation (Leipsic [Leipzig], 1840).

Another poem, entitled the Nalodaya, or Rise of Nala, edited by Benary (Berlin, 1830) and by Yates (Calcutta, 1844), which is a treatment of the story of Nala and Damayanti, but describes especially the restoration of Nala to prosperity and power, has been ascribed to the celebrated Kalidasa, but was probably written by another poet of the same name. It is full of most absurd verbal conceits and metrical extravagances.

So many poems, partly of a very different stamp, are attributed to Kalidasa that it is scarcely possible to avoid the necessity of assuming the existence of more authors than one of that name. It is by no means improbable that there were three poets thus named; indeed modern native astronomers are so convinced of the existence of a triad of authors of this name that they apply the term Kalidasa to designate the number three. (A. A. M.)

The above article was written by Arthur Anthony MacDonnell, M.A., Ph.D., Boden Professor of Sanskrit, Oxford University; Keeper of the Indian Institute; Fellow of Balliol College; author of Sanskrit Grammar, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, and Vedic Mythology.

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