Amita Bhose

Amita Bhose

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The Sakuntala Epoch in European romanticism and Indian Classicism

(Synthesis, I, 1974, Editura Academiei Române, Bucureşti, pp.187-192)

The Romantic Period in European literature is closely connected with the oriental studies in Europe. The interest in Indian classies in Europe arose from the publication of Sir William Jones's translation of Sakuntala in 1789, and in the following decades almost all the important Sanskrit works were translated in the major European languages. Never since the Renaissance this continent saw such great flux of translated literature, nor such a revival of literary spirit. This was, indeed, a pheno¬menon, which was termed as the Oriental Renaissance by Edgar Quinet [1].

The passion of Sir William Jones, the initiator of this movement, for Indian classics, especially for Sakuntala, is well-known, but the inci¬dent that led to its discovery has little been discussed. Just after his depu¬tation to India as a high official of the East India Company, Jones took a keen interest in the culture of the country. A poet and a scholar of equal merit, he was soon attracted by the beauty of the ancient language of India, and within a short time he learnt it so perfectly that he could con¬verse fluently with the Indian scholars in Sanskrit [2]]. After mastering the language, he was interested in reading the Sanskrit Nâtacas about which he had heard so much, but nobody could explain to him what they really were. At last, Radhacant, a Bengali Brahmin from Calcutta, told him that they were equivalent of European dramas, and recommended him to read Sakuntala, the finest opera of the greatest Indian dramatist Kalidasa. Impressed with Radhacant's description of the play, Jones procured a correct copy of Sakuntala, and assisted by his Sanskrit teacher Ramlo¬chan, started translating it into Latin, which in his opinion bore a close relation to Sanskrit, and then retranslated the Latin text into English [3]. Jone's English translation was published in Calcutta in 1789 and in London in the following year.

Jones had a deep admiration for the Sanskrit language, which he thought was more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined than either [4]. The object of his translating Sakuntala, was, as he said in its preface, to inspire other Europeans to learn Sanskrit and translate other works of Kalidasa [5].

Jones's expectations were not in vain. In England, his tradition was carried out by Wilkins (who had earlier translated the Bhagavadgita) Colebrook, who along with him formed the trinity of Sanskrit pioneers. Even before the publication of Sakuntala, the Asiatic Society was founded in Calcutta in 1784 with Sir William Jones as its President, and the journal of the society, "Asiatic Researches", brought many facts about India light. Jones's "Essay on the poetry of the Eastern Nations" and other articles published in this review, as well as Jones's poems with Indian themes exerted a strong inlluence on the British romantic poets, especially the lake poets. [6]

In Germany, Herder and Maier were the first to inculcate a passion for Indian literature. It was Herder who enthused Goethe about Sakuntala, and Maier in his turn inspired Schopenhauer to read the Upanishads [7] which were, however, translated much earlier into Latin from Dara Sheko's Persian translation.

It was Maier again who initiated Frederic Schlegel, Schelling and Novalis in the spirit of Indian poetry [8]. F. Schlegel, the greatest propounder of Herder's myth of primitive poetry and the theme of universal revelation, was the first to translate Sanskrit. After Herder, all German romantics situated the cradle of humanity in the Himalayas, and thus the question of human origin that preoccupied European intellectuals of that time seemed to get its answer [9].

The acquaintance with Indian poetry had another impact on the European romantics. The fact that an immensely great number of Sanskrit poems survived through thousands of years, in spite of the fact that the names of their composers were forgotten, or not even known, added to the disregard of the romantics for great names and strengthened their belief in the triumph of anonymous genius [10].

The highly circulated Indian texts in those days were parts of the Vedas and the Upanishads, fragments from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Laws of Manu, some of the Puranas, and works of other later ¬poets like Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti and Jayadeva. Of these, the two Gitas, the Bhagavadgita and the Gitagovinda had a lasting impact on the romantics; but the most warmly appreciated Sanskrit opera remained the unsurpassable Sakuntala, the gem of all Indian gems.

Herder, a brilliant judge of antique poetry, hailed the publication of Forster's translation of Sakuntala in 1791 as a literary event, and exclaimed that for the Germans the name of Forster would for ever be linked with that of Sakuntala [11]. Goethe read Sakuntala in Forster's translation. His first impression of this drama could be found in one of the letters from "Travels in Italy", where he writes, "How often has the cursory reading of a book which irresistibly carries one with it, exercised the great influence on a man's whole life and produced at once a decisive effect, which neither a second perusal nor earnest reflection can either strengthen or modify. This I experienced in the case of Sakontala"[12].

Goethe's admiration of Sakuntala was expressed in a short poem of two stanzas, the first four lines of which are universally known as Goethe's epigram on Sakuntala. We are quoting below the whole of it in an English translation.

Wouldst thou the blossoms of spring
as well as the fruits of autumn, Wouldst thou what charms and delights, Wouldst thou what plenteously feeds, Wouldst thou include botli heaven and
earth in one designation
All that is needed is done,
when I Sakontala name.

Yesterday thy head was brown
as are the flowing locks of love ;
In the bright blue sky I watched thee
Towering, giant like above. Now thy summit, white and hoary,
Glitters all with silver snow, Which the stormy night hath shaken
From its robes upon thy brow? And I know that youth and age
Are bound with such mysterious meaning
As the days are linked together,
One short dream but intervening. [13]

It is known that about 40 years after he wrote Faust, Goethe added a prologue to it after the model of the prologue of Sakuntala. It is also held by some that Goethe even thought of adapting Sakuntala for the Weimar stage [14].

Herder's poem on Sakuntala is less known, and we cannot resist the temptation of quoting this here.
Where Sakontala lives with her vanished boy Where Dusmanta receives her anew, anew from the Gods, Hail to thee, Oh, holy land and thou, leader of sounds, Voice of the heart, uplift me often thither through celestial space. [15]

In France, it was Sakuntala that determined Chezy's career as an orientalist. He was jealous of Forster who won Herder's appreciation for a retranslation only [16]; but his French translation of Sakuntala, from the original Sanskrit had an equal success. He was congratulated by Goethe for translating Sakuntala, which Goethe said was one of the stars that made his (Goethe's) nights more pleasant than the days [17].
The reasons for Goethe's profound admiration for Sakuntala were analysed by Macdonell. Speaking about Kalidasa, the British orientalist observed that the richnessof creative fancy which Kalidasa displayed in his plays, and his skill in the expression of tender feelin assigned him a high place among the dramatists of the world. The harmony of the poetic sentiment was nowhere disturbed by anything violent or terrifying. Hence it was that Sakuntala exercised so great a fascination on the calm intellect of Goethe, who at the same time was so strongly, repelled by the extravagances of Hindu mythological art ... [18]

Europe's interest in the Indian classics led to their revival among English-educated Indian intellectuals of the 19th century. Out of this, there was created a new genre of literature in India, which combined Indian thoughts with European forms. Just as in Europe, there was an
unprecedented flux of literary works, rich in quality and altogether new in form and contents. In the history of Indian culture, this period is termed as the Bengal Renaissance. Writers belonging to this age, for example Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873), clearly admitted that they were equally indebted to Homer, Dante and Shakespeare as they were to Valmiki, Vedavyasa and Kalidasa. At the same time, there was a re-assessment of Sanskrit classics in India, and naturally the centre of attention of these critics was Sakuntala, which created so much of commotion in the West. Of all these critiques, we would like to mention only a few.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891), au eminent educationist of Calcutta, who brought many Sanskrit and English classics home to common Indian readers through a very lucid translation, was the first to speak of Goethe's epigram on Sakuntala in 1853. After him, Har¬aprasad Sastri (1853-1913), a well-known Sanskrit scholar, wrote about Goathe's admiration of Sakuntala, and made a fairly appreciative analysis of the literary values of the drama. Chandranath Basu, a propounder of the idea of social reformation through the revival of ancient traditions, made a study of Kalidasa's idea of social and human relations as revealed in Sakuntala. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1894), the first and till now the best Bengali novelist, and a literary critic at the same time, made a comparative study of Sakuntala with Desdemona and Miranda, which was quite new and unusal for his time. It may be inentioned that in those days Kalidasa was often referred to as the Shakespeare of India, the title being first ascribed to him by William Jones [19]. Chatterji was, however, rather critical of Kalidasa, and was of the opinion that Sakuntala lacked in the personality of these heroines of Shakespeare. Yet, he held that she was in no way inferior to them in artistic beauty. All this discussion came to the end with a brilliant article of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), published in about 1902, which sought to refute indirectly Chatterji's argu¬-ments against Sakuntala [20].

It is quite interesting to note that Chatterjee, utterly traditional, almost dogmatic about the Indian ways of life, seemed to judge Sakuntala from the points of view of an European, while Tagore, much liberal in thought and much more universal in expression, analysed Kalidasa's drama from the perspective of the Indian concepts of life. Tagore's contention was that, though the external circumstances in Tempest and Sakuntala were similar, the inner contents of the two dramas were so different that there was no point in looking for any similarity in the characters of the two heroines. According to him, both Sakuntala and Miranda were perfect in their own way [21].

In his study, Tagore took Goethe's epigram as a guide-line. He said that Goethe's poem on Sakuntala was by no means an exaggeration of a lover of poetry ; it was a balanced judgment of a connoisseur of literature. In Tagore's interpretation, "flowers of spring" and "fruits of the late season", which Goethe said one could find together in Sakuntala, referred metaphorically to the love of youth and the maturity of motherhood ; these were the two important phases of woman's life, and the termination of one into the other led her to perfection.
It would be worthwhile to mention here that in the portrayal of feminine characters in his own novels and dramas, Tagore was mostly guided by this "Two women" theory ; some of his heroines are essentially lovers, some are basically mothers and some represent the combination of the two in one. This is considered to be one of the aspects of Kalidasa's influence on Tagore. However, it is of little wonder that Tagore who read Kalidasa at the age of twelve, and knew Sanskrit literature thoroughly, would be deeply influenced by such a noble and sensitive poet of his land as Kalidasa. But it is a real surprise that some of the tendencies of Kalidasa are manifested in the works of a poet from eastern Europe, whose country had hardly ever touched the fringes of the waves of Orientalism in Europe. This poet was none but the last of the great romantic poets of Europe - the poet of Romania - Mihai Eminescu.

The salient features of Kalidasa, communion of man with Nature and the idea of the two feminine types, are found in poems of Eminescu, who was a passionate lover of India and read almost all important works of Kalidasa. The love of Nature was of course an inborn characteristic of Eminescu which he inherited from the rich folklore of his own country. But the association of human sentiments with Nature, as expressed in such poems as "The lake" or "The murmur of the forest" is typically Indian, and the pang of separation of the human soul from the forest in "Oh, stay on" inevitably reminds us of the fourth act of Sakuntala.

To speak of the "Two women" theory, we may observe that most of the heroines in Eminescu's poems excel in love only ; they are mostly "flowers of spring". But at least in two cases we find the "fruits of the late season", the motherly affection, as well. Poesis, heroine of Geniu Pustiu, is full of both love and compassion ; even at the threshold of death she is worried about the welfare of her beloved, who deserted her through misunderstanding.

In "Venus and Madonna" we find Eminescu's heroine as an embodiment of both Venus, the symbol of eternal love and Madonna, the symbol of eternal motherhood. The detailed comparative study of "Venus and Madonna" with Sakuntala does not come under the scope of this paper. We would only like to mention here that there exists some biographical evidence that "Venus and Madonna" is a direct outcome of Eminescu's acquaintance with Indian literature, and that keeping the two texts side by side, we have observed that "Venus and Madonna" bears a striking resemblance with Sakuntala both in conception and artistic presentation. Especially, the repentance of the poet for reproaching the heroine strongly reminds us of Dusmanta's repentance in the seventh act of Sakuntala.

It is needless to repeat here that for a long time this poem of Eminescu remained a puzzle for his annotators, but all literary critics were of the same opinion as Iorga that with "Venus and Madonna", Eminescu broke the shackles of conventions of Romanian poetry all of a sudden [22]. To our minds, it could not be otherwise. "Venus and Madonn" was inspired, as the poet himself says, by a young and sweet message from a sky with other stars, other heavens and other gods. Who sent him this message, we wonder. Was it not Kalidasa, whom Eminescu placed among his other literary masters, Homer and Dante [23] ?


1.Raymond Schwab, La Renaissance Orientale. Paris, 1950, p. 18.
2. Letters of Sir William Jones, Vol. II, London, 1821, p. 91.
3. Preface to Sakuntala in The Works of Sir William Jones, Vol. IX. London, 1807, pp. 366-367.
4. Eleven discourses by Sir William Jones, Calcutta, 1873, p. 18.
5. Preface to Sakuntala, The Works of Sir William Jones. op. cit., p. 373.
6. A.J. Arberry, Oriental Essays, London, 1960. p. 82. See also Raymond Schwab, La Renaissance Orientale, pp. 210-212.
7. Raymond Schwab, ibid., p. 64.
8. Ibid. p. 64.
9. Ibid. p. 221.
10. Ibid. p. 227.
11. Raymond Schwab, ibid., p. 65.
12. Goethe, Letters from Italy, Translated by Rev. A.J.W. Morrison, London, 1881. Quoted by Debipada Bhattacharys in Rabindra Carya, Calcutta, 1973, p. 113.
13. Goethe Poetical Works, Vol. I, John C. Nimmoltd, MDCCCC III, Quoted by Debipada Bhattacharya, ibid., p. 112.
14. Arthur A. Macdonell, A History of Sanskrit Literature, London, 1899, pp. 416-417.
15. The German Sakuntala Experience, India and the Germans, Walter Lifer, Sakuntala Publishing House, 1971. Quoted by Debipada Bhattacharya. Ibid., p. 110.
16. Raymond Schwab, ibid., p. 65.
17. Raymond Schwab, ibid., p. 68.
18. Arthur A. Macdonell, ibid., pp. 352-353.
19. Preface to Sakuntala in The Works of Sir William Jones, op. cit., p.369.
20. Rabindranath Tagore, Sakuntala in Pracin Sahitya, Rabindra Racanaval i. Vol. V. Calcutta, 1963, pp. 521-537.
21. Ibid.
22. Nicolae Iorga, Dimitrie Petrino-Poeme (Dimitrie Petrino - Poems) in "Adevărul ilustrat", Bucureşti, 8 May, 1895, p. 6.
23. M.Eminescu, Icoană şi privaz (Icon and Sash), in Opere alese (Selected Works), edition Perpesicius, Bucureşti, 1964, vol. II, pp. 308-313.

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