Saturday, February 5, 2011

Love in the Woods (Shakuntala Part I)

Love in the Woods…(Shakuntala Part I)

A week has passed since my return from Sadhana Forest and I find my mind wandering to thoughts of those lush green woods.  We returned to snowy New Hampshire and snow covered naked forests.  I couldn’t help but feel that our forests felt dead, having spent a month amidst the sacred lushness of India.  I knew, however, that the trees are not dead; they merely slumber and wait for warmer, longer days before they allow the safe return of their holy leaves.

I have received two more student journals and am uplifted by them.  Dr. Thirunarayanan, the Siddha doctor and botanist who presented to us on sacred groves, has also sent his power point lecture to me.  I hope to return to the sacred grove lessons I have learned once I review his talk and back to my notes, again, and then to blog here more about sacred groves to share with you.

In the meantime, I have been reading some of the books that I purchased in Auroville during my visit.  I’m enjoying a lovely collection of stories and paintings in a single volume devoted to my favorite Hindu deity: Ganesha, remover of obstacles and Lord of auspicious beginnings.  It has reaffirmed my adoration for this sweet-loving, elephant-head, big-bellied, lovable god.

photo I took of Lord Ganesha at Chidambaram Temple 

Also, I’ve read a lovely retelling of the classic Hindu legend, Shakuntala, based on the play of Kalidasa.  Shakuntala is the story of love in the woods… love discovered, consummated and lost (later found again)!  It is a tragic tale about a young beauty who lives on an ashram in the forest and the forgetful King who woos her and then leaves her.  It has a happy ending though (at least in Kalidasa’s play) and many people think of Shakuntala as the model of feminine perfection as she is portrayed as strong, loyal, honorable and unafraid to fight for the truth.  There are many versions of her story but the original was written about 2000 years ago as a part of the Greatest Hindu Epic ever written: The Mahabharata.

It is said that the Lord Ganesh broke off his tusk to write the Mahabharata -- “the Great tale of the Bharata dynasty” which was told to him by the sage, Vyasa, around 400 BCE.  Bharat is also the official name of the Republic of India today.  Bharata was the first Emperor of India who united the subcontinent, according to legend, and whose empire stretched all the way into Central Asia and Persia. He was the son of Shakuntala, born of the Kshatriya (warrior/kingly) caste, and ancestor to the great Pandava family.  Bharata means “the cherished” which is, I think, kinda... sweet. 

The most famous version of the Shakuntala tale was re-told by Kalidasa who lived in the 4th century CE, or a bit earlier.  He is ancient India’s most revered poet and play-write.  He re-wrote the epic tale of Shakuntala as a play about 1,700 years ago.  The story has been recited, performed, re-interpreted, re-written and put into comic book form, movie form, love songs and cartoons thousands of times.  I can’t do it justice here but will give my own retelling of the story with some lovely images I’ve found scattered about the world wide web.  (Please forgive me, copyright permission gods for borrowing these for my blog. But most of these are over 100 years old and in the Public Domain, anyhow.
(See: : )

The story strikes me as yet another loving tribute to the forests of India… and the magic that lives within them!

The play, Shakuntala, was the first Indian drama to be translated into a Western language (English), by Orientalist scholar Sir William Jones, in 1789. In the next 100 hundred years, there were at least 46 translations in twelve European languages!  The version I offer here is based on the translation of the French, C. Devin, adaptation from the 2009 Auroville Press Publication.

Shakuntala by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)

The forest is a central character in the story of Shakuntala and in many other Hindu epics. 
Vedic scriptures of this kind portray the forest as a place of heroism, enlightenment, refuge and hermitage (for those seeking greater spiritual consciousness).  The various Hindu scriptures also catalogue the botanical diversity and medicinal value of the forests quite explicitly.  In our class on eco spirituality and sustainability (Fall 2010), I had the students read several articles in the Hinduism and Ecology text (Chapple & Tucker, eds., 2000) about the value of forests to Indian notions of identity, spirituality and environmentalism.  I was quite surprised, myself, to learn how much botany existed in the Mahabharata and Ramayana – two the most important pieces of Hindu literature.  It opened my eyes and heart to learn more and I was delighted to find this story again, after so many years, in the bookstore at Auroville.  Sometimes the cosmos sends us what we need to see...

Sakuntala (1909), d'après un carton de Sandor Nag
I was first been introduced to Shakuntala as a young impressionable girl of 18 by an Indian friend (my first crush) in college.  Late at night we'd gather in his lab and he'd regale me with tales from ancient India, romantic epics and amazing legends. I fell in love with India listening to these stories. Years later, another Indian beau would introduce me to the famous painting of Shakuntala by the amazing artist Raja Ravi Varma of Kerala.  This Travancore king/painter is one of my favorite artists and I've included a lot of his work here in this blog.  Redisovering the story of Shakuntala again a week ago, I'm moved to write it down here and share it with the people I love.  She has been with me at many stages of my life and I'm happy now to share her with Michael, my true love.  Today, after reading a short book entitled "Shakuntala, or the Ring of Remembrance" based on Kalidasa's play, I am ever more enchanted by her tale, especially as I have recently spent quite a bit of time, myself, in the woods of India…

I dedicate this blog to my Bunkie because he loves a good love story (just like I do).

The God Indira looking down on the sweet seduction of the forest hermit
by the irresistible, vivacious, sassy wood nymph.  This is how Shakuntala's story begins!

Shakuntala is, herself, a woman who derives her sense of security, power, and passion from the forest.  As the daughter of a great sage and an apsara (divine nymph) Shakuntala is a unique manifestation of the worldly and the celestial.  Her holy father, however, is angered by the fact that he was seduced by this nymph (sent to earth by a mischievous god who purposely wished to distract the holy man) and feels cheated after all his years of strict asceticism.

Shakuntala’s parents: the King-turned-Sage, Vishwamitra, 
and her nymph mother, Meneka, in the forest.

When Vishwamitra (dad) learns that the nymph is with child, he abandons mother and child (a theme we’ll see repeated later) and returns to his hermit lifestyle.  Menaka (mom) the nymph cannot stay on earth and leaves her child in the forest when she returns to heaven. 

 Begone beguiling sprite!  I reject the wood-nymph LOVE CHILD you claim is mine!

There, on a riverbank in the Himalayas, the girl child is left alone and raised by peacocks, until she is found by the holy man, Kanva, who takes her into his forest ashram to raise as his own.  He names her Shakuntala (in Sanskrit, Shakunton means birds) and she grows up in his loving care to become one of the most beautiful women to ever walk the earth.  

Shakuntala is raised in an ashram in the forest where worldly visitors are not too frequent.  She keeps deer as her pets and is adored by all woodland creatures.  Her sense of isolation and detachment from the cruelty of the world makes her at once vulnerable and strong (never having known injustice, she is courageous in the face of hardship).  Shakuntala is, in short, a child of the wilderness – humble and strong.

Shakuntala loved the forest, the animal of the forest and cared deeply for the trees…
Shakuntala working in the forest, pausing near a banyan tree

One day, a King hunting a deer in the forest nearby the ashram saw Shakuntala in the distance and was mesmerized by her beauty.  King Dushyant of the Puru Kingdom stops to take rest and to talk to a few hermits from the ashram he meets there.   He is delighted to learn that the beautiful woman he has seen is the ‘daughter’ of the holy man who runs the place.  He is invited inside so that he may be greeted by the girl who, as luck would have it, serves as hostess to ashram arrivals.  Shakuntala has been told to meet visitors while the sage, her adoptive father, is away for a few days.  The king enters the hermitage expectantly:

Everything indicated that they were approaching one of those revered places found in the forests of ancient India that were called ashrams.  At once university and monastery, community and sanctuary, an ashram was dedicated at the same time to study, discipline and research.  It was a privileged place where both the youth most avid for knowledge and the most remarkable men of the time came to receive teachings…” (p19)

Upon entering the sacred precincts, the King was overcome with a sense of calm, his fatigue disappeared, and he felt ‘an intense desire to shed himself of all encumbering ornaments, all that was useless.’  He handed over his bow and quiver to his charioteer, removed all his jewels and walked alone, on foot, ‘like a humble pilgrim.’

Inside the ashram, the King ‘admired the splendid vegetation and the grace of the flowering shrub trees that had been planted by the members of the community.  One could feel that each tree had been protected, taken care of and tended by loving, expert hands.” (This quote from the story reminded me so much of Sadhana Forest and our gardens, I had to smile!)

Then the King heard girlish laughter and feminine voices coming his way.  He looked up and saw Shakuntala there with two of her maiden friends and quickly hid behind the leaves of a mango tree to watch her secretly.  The girls are dressed simply, in robes of bark (similar to the robes Rama and Sita wore in the forest in the Ramayana epic).  The girls carry earthen pots upon their hips. gracefully.  They are watering the flowers and trees in the ashram.  A troublesome bee began to agitate Shakuntala and she starts swatting, then fleeing from the bee, as her friends tease her and laugh.  She runs right towards the mango tree and practically into the arms of the handsome King who is hiding there.  Regaining her composure, and remembering her duty as hostess, Shakuntala welcomes the guest.  Dutifully, she offers the weary traveler fresh water to drink.

First meeting, Shakuntala offers the king water. Jute weaving.

The King begins asking the fair maiden questions about her background and family, and her chattering friends offer all the details of her royal birth and humble arrival to the ashram.  The King is delighted – it would not be seemly for him to pursue the love of a girl from a caste other than his own, however, learning that she is of royal lineage lifts his spirits.  He is assured Shakuntala will be his.  In fact, Shakuntala is quite taken by the King, too, and when they aree forced to part for a few hours, she finds she can think only of him.  She becomes physically ill with this infatuation, over-heated, listless and unable to speak (we’ve all been there).  Her friends try to get her to come around and perk up but she is weak with the ‘torment of love’ and can, she claims, only be refreshed by the sight of her beloved.

In the era of pre-text messaging and before FB status up-dates, Shakuntala does what any love-sick girl would do in these circumstances– she grabs a lotus leaf and writes a letter to the object of her obsession:

“I know not your heart. And yet, O thou cruel one, Love consumes me night and day, and my desires have no object but you!”  She stood back once she had finished it and read it aloud to her compatriots.

Just then, a movement in the shrubbery!  That tricky King was lurking about in the foliage (he seemed to do this a lot).  Out leapt King Dushyant, who had been spying on the young ladies from behind the leaves again.  He took Shakuntala in his arms.  Her tactful companions bowed out of the scene and let the two lovers go at it like the love-sick pups they were.  Well, in various versions of this story, actually, there are some interesting interpretations of what happens here...

Most stories simply say ‘they were married in the ashram’ at this point.  Nevertheless, what many versions fail to reveal was that there was no ceremony, no priest, no formal religious ritual to bless the wedding.  It is clear that they both loved each other and wanted to marry but for some reason, they were in a bit of a HURRY it seems.  They didn't even pause to get witnesses when they exchanged their vows...

In some versions of the tale, Shakuntala begs that they wait, before consummating their love. She asks that they wait for a few days for  her father to return to the ashram so that he might give them his blessings.  But the King, for unknown reasons, is anxious to get back to court and declines to wait any longer. 

He tells her he that since their love is true, their union is blessed and that is all that matters (how many times have we heard that before, ladies?).  So, they seem to come to an agreement and the King offers her his golden ring as a sign of his fidelity and love.  They are wed before the gods and nature in their own secret and private ceremony in the forest.

The happy couple on their marriage night.  12th century manuscript tapestry, Nepal.

In fact there was precedent for such a thing in the scriptures, it seems.  This ancient ceremony between a man and a woman (with Mother Nature as the only witness) was referred to as a ‘Ghandarva' marriage.

Interestingly, the Ghandarvas are male nature spirits who are the husbands of the apsaras (nymphs).  They are magical, part beast and part sprite, and very musically inclined.  One might imagine what lovely melodies wafted through the wood that day when Shakuntala and her beloved King united!

Painting of King Dushyant and Shakuntala by Raja Ravi Varma (late 19th century)

To be continued... (in next blog)!  Love in the Woods: Shakuntala (Part II)

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