Kalidasa: life and works

A collection from various sources

Last update: January 16, 1996


From: Encyclopedia Americana
Written by: Walter Harding Maurer
University of Hawaii at Manoe

KALIDASA, (kaalidaasa), India's greatest Sanskrit poet and dramatist. In spite of the celebrity of his name, the time when he flourished always has been an unsettled question, although most scholars nowadays favor the middle of the 4th and early 5th centuries A.D., during the reigns of Chandragupta II Vikramaaditya and his successor Kumaaragupta. Undetermined also is the place of Kaalidaasa's principal literary activity, as the frequent and minute geographic allusions in his works suggest that he traveled extensively.

Numerous works have been attributed to his authorship. Most of them, however, are either by lesser poets bearing the same name or by others of some intrinsic worth, whose works simply chanced to be associated with Kaalidaasa's name their own names having long before ceased to be remembered. Only seven are generally considered genuine.

Plays. There are three plays, the earliest of which is probably the Malavikaagnimitra ( Malavikaa and Agnimitra), a work concerned with palace intrigue. It is of special interest because the hero is a historical figure, King Agnimitra, whose father, Pushhpamitra, wrested the kingship of northern India from the Mauryan king Brihadratha about 185 B.C. and established the Sunga dvnasty, which held power for more than a century. The Vikramorvashiiya ( Urvashii Won Through Valor) is based on the old legend of the love of the mortal Pururavaas for the heavenly damsel Urvashii. The legend occurs in embryonic form in a hymn of the Rig Veda and in a much amplified version in the ShatapathabraahmaNa.

The third play, AbhiGYaanashaakuntala ( Shakuntalaa Recognized by the Token Ring), is the work by which Kaalidaasa is best known not only in India but throughout the world. It was the first work of Kaalidaasa to be translated into English from which was made a German translation in 1791 that evoked the often quoted admiration by Goethe. The raw material for this play, which usually is called in English simply Shaakuntala after the name of the heroine, is contained in the Mahaabhaarata and in similar form also in the PadmapuraaNa, but these versions seem crude and primitive when compared with Kaalidaasa's polished and refined treatment of the story. In bare outline the story of the play is as follows: King Dushhyanta, while on a hunting expedition, meets the hermit-girl Shakuntalaa, whom he marries in the hermitage by a ceremony of mutual consent. Obliged by affairs of state to return to his palace, he gives Shakuntalaa his signet ring, promising to send for her later. But when Shakuntalaa comes to the court for their reunion, pregnant with his child, Dushhyanta fails to acknowledge her as his wife because of a curse. The spell is subsequently broken by the discovery of the ring, which Shakuntalaa had lost on her way to the court. The couple are later reunited, and all ends happily.

The influence of the AbhiGYaanashaakuntala outside India is evident not only in the abundance of translations in many languages, but also in its adaptation to the operatic stage by Paderewski, Weinggartner, and Alfano.

Poems. In addition to these three plays Kaalidaasa wrote two long epic poems, the Kumaarasambhava ( Birth of Kumaara) and the Raghuvamsha ( Dynasty of Raghu). The former is concerned with the events that lead to the marriage of the god Shiva and Paarvatii, daughter of the Himaalaya. This union was desired by the gods for the production of a son, Kumaara, god of war, who would help them defeat the demon Taaraka. The gods induce Kaama, god of love, to discharge an amatory arrow at Siva who is engrossed in meditation. Angered by this interruption of his austerities, he burns Kaama to ashes with a glance of his third eye. But love for Paarvatii has been aroused, and it culminates in their marriage.

The Raghuvamsha treats of the family to which the great hero Rama belonged, commencing with its earliest antecedents and encapsulating the principal events told in the RaamaayaNa of Vaalmikii. But like the Kumaarasambhava, the last nine cantos of which are clearly the addition of another poet, the Raghuvamsha ends rather abruptly, suggesting either that it was left unfinished by the poet or that its final portion was lost early.

Finally there are two lyric poems, the Meghaduuta ( Cloud Messenger) and the Ritusamhaara ( Description of the Seasons). The latter, if at all a genuine work of Kaalidaasa, must surely be regarded as a youthful composition, as it is distinguished by rather exaggerated and overly exuberant depictions of nature, such as are not elsewhere typical of the poet. It is of tangential interest, however, that the Ritusamhaara, published in Bengal in 1792, was the first book to be printed in Sanskrit.

On the other hand, the Meghaduuta, until the 1960's hardly known outside India, is in many ways the finest and most perfect of all Kaalidaasa's works and certainly one of the masterpiece of world literature. A short poem of 111 stanzas, it is founded at once upon the barest and yet most original of plots. For some unexplained dereliction of duty, a Yaksha, or attendant of Kubera, god of wealth, has been sent by his lord into yearlong exile in the mountains of central India, far away from his beloved wife on Mount Kailasa in the Himaalaya. At the opening of the poem, particularly distraught and hapless at the onset of the rains when the sky is dark and gloomy with clouds, the yaksa opens his heart to a cloud hugging close the mountain top. He requests it mere aggregation of smoke, lightning, water, and wind that it is, to convey a message of consolation to his beloved while on its northward course. The Yaksha then describes the many captivating sights that are in store for the cloud on its way to the fabulous city of Alakaa, where his wife languishes amid her memories of him. Throughout the Meghaduuta, as perhaps nowhere else So plentifully in Kaalidaasa's works, are an unvarying› freshness of inspiration and charm, delight imagerry and fancy, profound insight into the emotions, and a oneness with the phenomena of nature. Moreover, the fluidity and beauty of the language are probably unmatched in Sanskrit literature, a feature all the more remarkable for its inevitable loss in translation.


From: The Hindu World Part I
Written by: Benjamin Walker, 1968

Kalidasa (AD ?350-600?) the greatest of the sanskrit dramatists, and the first great name in Sanskrit literature after Ashvaghoshha. In the intervening three centuries between Asvaghosha (who had a profound influence on the poet) and Kalidasa there was some literary effort, but nothing that could compare with the maturity and excellence of Kalidasa's poetry. Virtually no facts are known about his life, although colourful legends abound. Physically handsome, he was supposed to have been a very dull child, and grew up quite uneducated. Through the match-making efforts of a scheming minister he was married to a princess who was ashamed of his ignorance and coarseness. Kalidasa (Kall's slave), an ardent worshipper of Kali, called upon his goddess to help him, and was rewarded with sudden gifts of wit and sense. He became the most brilliant of the `nine gems' at the court of Vikramaditya of Ujjain.

There is strong reason to believe that Kalidasa was of foreign origin. His name is unusual, and even the legend suggests that it was adopted. The stigma attaching to the suffix `dasa' (slave) was very strong, and orthodox Hindus avoided its use. His devotion to the brahminical creed of his time may betray the zeal of a convert. Remarkably enough, Indian tradition has no reliable data concerning one of its greatest poets, whereas there is a fund of information both historical and traditional about hundreds of lesser literary luminaries. Kalidasa was well acquainted with contemporary sciences and arts, including politics and astronomy. His knowledge of scientific astronomy was manifestly gleaned from Greek sources, and altogether he appears to have been a product of the great synthesis of Indian and barbarian peoples and cultures that was taking place in north-western India in his day. Dr S. Radhakrishnan says, `Whichever date we adopt for him we are in the realm of reasonable conjecture and nothing more. Kalidasa speaks very little of himself, and we cannot therefore be sure of his authorship of many works attributed to him. We do not know any details of his life. Numerous legends have gathered round his name, which have no historical value' (II, p. ii). The apocryphal story that he ended his days in Ceylon, and died at the hands of a courtesan, and that the king of Ceylon in grief burned himself to death, is not accepted by his biographers. Listed below are the chief works attributed to Kalidasa.

Shaakuntal, with a theme borrowed from the Mahabharata, is a drama in seven acts, rich in creative fancy. It is a masterpiece of dramatic skill and poetic diction, expressing tender and passionate sentiments with gentleness and moderation, so lacking in most Indian literary works. It received enthusiastic praise from Goethe.

Malavikaagnimitra (Malavika and Agnimitra) tells the story of the love of Agnimitra of Vidisha, king of the Shungas, for the beautiful handmaiden of his chief queen. In the end she is discovered to be of royal birth and is accepted as one of his queens. The play contains an account of the raajasuuya sacrifice performed by Pushyamitra, and a rather tiresome exposition of a theory on music and acting. It is not a play of the first order.

Vikramorvashi (Urvashii won by Valour), a drama of the troTaka class relating how king Pururavas rescues the nymph Urvashii from the demons. Summoned by Indra he is obliged to part from her. The fourth act on the madness of Pururavas is unique. Apart from the extraordinary soliloquy of the demented lover in search of his beloved, it contains several verses in Prakrit. After many trials the lovers are reunited in a happy ending.

Meghaduuta (Cloud Messenger): the theme of this long lyrical poem is a message sent by an exiled yaksha in Central India to his wife in the Himalayas, his envoy being a megha or cloud. Its beautiful descriptions of nature and the delicate expressions of love in which passion is purified and desire ennobled, likewise won the admiration of Goethe.

Raghuvamsha (Raghu's genealogy), a mahaakavya, regarded by Indian critics as Kalidasa's best work, treats of the life of Rama, together with a record of his ancestors and descendants. There are many long descriptions, large parts of which are contrived and artificial. Only one king in this pious dynasty fails to come up to the ideal standard, namely, Agnivarna.

Rituu-samhaara, (Seasonal Cycle), a poem describing the six seasons of the year in all their changing aspects.

Kumaara-sambhava (Kumaara's Occasioning), usually translated `The Birth of the War-god', a mahaakavya relating how Parvati won the love of Siva in order to bring into the world Kumara (i.e. Karttikeya) the god of war to destroy the demon Taraka. The last few cantos are usually omitted from printed versions, being of an excessively erotic nature. This is especially true of Canto VIII where the embraces of the newly-wedded divine couple are dwelled upon in vivid detail.

Great as Kalidasa was, it has been observed that he had his literary weaknesses. He showed no interest in the social problems of his day; his plays do not reflect the tumultuous times in which he lived; he felt no sympathy for the lot of the common man; his work is overburdened with description, and is sentimental, wordy and at times coarse. Within his range he was unsurpassed by any of the dramatists who wrote in the Sanskrit language, but this does not amount to much, for the general standard of Sanskrit drama is not on a par with the best elsewhere. Comparing his works with those of the Persians, Arabs, Greeks and Europeans, and by the same strict standards of criticism, Max Muller declares, `Kalidasa's plays are not superior to many plays that have been allowed to rest in dust and peace on the shelves of our libraries'.


by Shashikant Joshi


Wow! What do I say about him. He is my idol!! Here are some extracts from the `prastaavanaa' (preface) of Kumarasambhavam, translated by Pt. Praduman Pandey. I am leaving aside technical details.

My main aim was to give the story of Kalidasa's gaining wisdom, but I find some other stuff to be of general interest. See how historians/literature-researchers tackle such simple questions as when was Kalidasa born, where did he live.

There is lot of descrepancy about his life time, place of birth and even some of his works!!

Kalidasa's Life Time

There are eight hypothesis about his lifetime. The main logics, ecidences are as follows:

5, 6, 7: some more complex conjuctures :-))

Finally this is what can be said about his lifetime:
Kalidasa in his drama `Malvikaa-agni-mitra' makes Agni-mitra his hero, who was the son of Pushamitra Shunga who was in 2nd century BC. This is his upper bound.

VaaN.bhaTTa in the preface of his kaadambaree mentions Kalidasa. VaaN.bhaTTa was in early 7th century AD. This is Kalidasa's lower bound.

Kalidasa's Life

Many tell tales are there for his life. Some call him native of Kashmir, some of Vidarbh, some of Bengal and others of Ujjain.

It is said that he was a dumb fool to start with. The king's daughter was a very learned lady (equality of women ! :-) ) and said that she will marry him who will defeat her in `shaastraartha' (debate on the scriptures). Anyone who gets defeated will be black faced, head shaven and kicked out of country on a donkey. (The punishment part might be later aditions!) SO, the pundits took Kalidasa (whom they apparently saw cutting the tree branch on which he was sitting) for debate. They said that he (Kalidasa) only does mute debates. The princess showed him one finger saying `shakti is one'. He thot she will poke his one eye, so he showed her two fingers. She accepted it as valid answer, since `shakti' is manifest in duality (shiv-shakti, nar-naaree etc etc). She showed her the palm with fingers extended like in a slap. He showed her the fist. She accepted it as answer to her question. She said `five elements' and he said `make the body' (earth, water, fire, air, and void). [ The debate explanations are also apparently later additions] So they get married and she finds he is a dumbo. So she kicks him out of the house. He straightaway went to Kali's temple and cut his tongue at her feet. Kali was appeased with him and granted him profound wisdom. When he returned to his house, his wife (the learned) asked, ``asti kashchit vaag-visheshaH'' (asti = is; kashchit = when, as in questioning; vaag = speech, visheshaH = expert; i.e. ``are you now an expert in speaking'').

And the great Kalidasa wrote three books starting with the 3 words:
with asti = asti-uttarasyaam dishi = Kumara-sambhavam (epic)
with kashchit = kashchit-kaantaa = Meghdoot (poetry)
with vaag = vaagarthaaviva = Raghuvansha (epic)

Another story says that he was the friend of Kumardas of Ceylon. He was killed by a courtesan once when he visited his friend in Ceylon.

Kalidasa's work

mainly his epics - Raghuvansha and Kumaar-sambhavam; `khanDakaavyaa' - Meghadoot; and dramas - abhigyaan-shaakuntalam, Vikrama-uravasheeya, and Malavikaa-agnimitra are considered his works for sure. Apart from that `Ritu-sanhaar and Shruta-bodh are considered his works as well.

Characteristics of Kalidasa's works

Kalidasa is considered as the greatest poet of `shringaar' (or romance, beauty) His works is brimming with shringaara-rasa. Sometimes he has used `haasya' (comedy) and `karuN.' (pathos). There are two aspects of `shringaar' -
`sambhoga' (sam = together,
bhoga = to enjoy, consume as in consumer;
so sambhoga = the being together, the romance of being
together, the happy love poems etc)
`vipralambha' - that of separation

Kalidasa was expert at both. Meghadoot is immersed in the `vipralambha-shringaar'. Kumara-sambhavam's 8th chapter is epitome of `sambhoga-shringaar'. 4th chapter of KumarS (Rati-vilaapa) and 8th chapter of Raghu-vansha (aja-vilaapa) are superb examples of `karuN.-rasa' (pathos). Kalidasa's comedy is of the highest order. (Bharata in his NaTya-shaastra mentions 8 types of comedy from the crudest of physical comedy resulting in guffawing loud laughter to the most subtle where the heart smiles). Kalidasa's comdey brings a gentle smile, not a loud guffaw.

Alankaraa (figure of speech) is of two types -
`shabda-alankaara' = beauty of sound
`artha-alankaar' = beauty of meaning

Kalidasa uses artha-alankaar more than the former. He is famous for his `upamaa' (metaphor?). Indian pundits say, ``upamaa kaalidaasasya'' (upamaa like Kalidasa's). His upamaa are clear, complete and beautiful. His observation is sharp and subtle. He knows the nature and human nature in and out. He has a sound knowledge of the scriptures. His `utprekshaa' (simile) and `artha-antaranyaas' (transfer of meaning) are also very beautiful. He has used some `shabda-alankaar's as well. `anupraasa' (alliteration), `yamaka' (same word repeated with different meaning), and `shlesha' (pun; one word two meanings). Kalidasa loves the softer side of nature. He mentions serene and beautiful ashramas, river banks, gardens, palaces, bumblebee, deer, cuckoo etc. He loves Himalayas more than the Vindhyaachal (both mountain chains).

Kalidasa knew the human psychology deeply. What humans think in what situation. He also knew women's psychology very well. He is a master of expressing emotions through actions. This brings extra dimension to his work (Remember the shlok about Parvati counting the lotus leaves when her marriage proposal was being discussed?). In continuation to the shlok (about The great rishi asking parvati's hand from Himalaya for Shiva), Kalidasa says, ``and then Himalaya glanced at Mena'' It is uderstood that he was seeking Mena's approval ``as every good householder should include his wife's opinion in every decision''. (So, women's oppression is a pretty later development)

Kalidasa expresses inner world and the external world equally well. Among the objects of metaphors, he knows exactly how much importance to give to which one. He only describes the major attribute of the thing being compared. He also maintains the chronological order of events (else you get what is called kaala-dosha = time decrepancy). e.g. here is a shlok about Parvati meditating hard to win Shiva:

stithaaH xa.Nam paxmasu taaDita-adharaaH payodhara-utsedhanipaata-chur.Nitaa
valeeshu tasyaaH skhalitaaH prapedire chire.N naabhim prathama-oda-bindavaH


prathama-oda-bindavaH tasyaaH paxmasu xa.Nam stithaaH taaDita-adharaaH
payodhara-utsedhanipaata-chur.Nitaa valeeshu skhalitaaH chire.N naabhim

prathama-oda-bindavaH = first water drop
tasyaaH = her
paxmasu = on eyelids
xa.Nam = momentarily
stithaaH = stayed
taaDita-adharaaH = fell on the lips
payodhara-utsedhanipaata-chur.Nitaa = shattered on hard breasts
valeeshu = in the tri-vali (triple fold on the belly, a mark of beauty)
skhalitaaH = slid
chire.N = in a long time
naabhim = in the navel
prapedire = disappeared

i.e. The first drop of rain stayed momentarily on her eyelids, dropped on her lips, shattered on her hard breasts and trickled down her triple fold and after a long time disapperaed in her navel.

Notice the time order of events!

Sanskrit pundits have accepted three style of writing -
gauDee = big huge samaasa (word conjugations)
paanchaalee = small samaasa
vaidarbhee = no samaasa

kaavya (loosely poetry) has three features:
oja = harsh words and long samaasa
maadhurya = sweet words with small samaasa
prasaada = scarce samaasa and easy to understand

Kalidasa is of the vaidarbhee style. Easy to understand (yet the trickery of hinting the cause through mention of effect and vice versa is very common). He has COMPLETE control over language. His language is very chaste as per the grammar. His words are very select. He doesn't use words like `hi, cha, vaa' (also, and) for completing the meter. When he uses them, he has a purpose!

Kalidasa's verse knowledge is immensely deep. He has used most of the known meters (chhanda) in Sanskrit. In one chapter he uses only one meter. The next chapter is in a new meter. The whole of `Meghadoota' is in `mandaa-krantaa' meter (2-2-2, 2-1-1, 1-1-1, 2-2-1, 2-2-1, 2-2).

Kalidasa was follower of the Vedic Sanatana dharma. He believed in the `var.Na-aashraam' social order (four ``castes'' and four `aashraama' (stages of social life) ) He believed in dharma, artha, kaama, moxa. Moxa was his eternal goal. Then dharma. Then comes kaam. He advocates `tyaaga' (opp. of indulgence) and `tapasyaa'(austerity). He prefers `tapovana' (forest aashramas) instead of palaces. he is a Shiva devout and remembers Shiva in all his openings of works (mangala-aachara.N). He puts society above the individual. He prays here and there for world peace. he is optimistic. Even though he considers death as natural and life as a deviation from that, he considers this small life as a great gain.

PS: anyone is free to use this translation as long you give the credit for translation and typing and extra comments :-)))


by Sameer Mahajan (sameer@cc.gatech.edu)

raamaabhishheke jalamaaharantyaaH
hastaachchyuto hemaghaTo yuvatyaaH .
sopaana maargeNa karoti shabdaM
ThaaThaM ThaThaM ThaM ThaThaThaM Tha ThaM ThaaH ..

Once King Bhoj lying on his bed saw a young beautiful girl on her way to fetch water. But as she reached the stairway she stumbled and dropped the vessel. The King listened to the noise made by the vessel and it gave him an idea. The next day he called his courtiers and gave the puzzle to solve ``ThaaThaM ThaThaM ThaM ThaThaThaM Tha ThaM Thaa.h''

None was able to solve it. Kalidas, when asked, demanded two days of time or the solution. He observed Bhoj's daily schedule minutely for those two days. The observation provided him the insight into the solution and he gave the above mentioned answer. The meaning is quite straightforward.

Notes to contributors

Search for hrule to separate the items in the above file. The original file is directly loadable to ITRANS for devanagari printout of sanskrit portion. If you do not have ITRANS installed but if you have a postscript printer, send a message on sanskrit@schirf.cs.utah.edu that you want a postscript file giving your email address at the end.

Your contribution will be added, to this file, with credits. It may be useful to add following items:

1) A humorous poem by Ravindranath Tagore on Kalidasa will be interesting.

2) Stories of Kalidasa and Vikramaditya or Bhojaraja mostly in samasyaapurtii style.

3) Collect references on his work.

4) Anything else you can think of?

5) What is the complete story about the samasyaapuurtii line

Translation of Abhijnana-Sakuntalam act 1,Notes.

Kalidasa as playwright