The Tragic Element in ‘Sakuntala’



(Lecturer, Intermediate College, Bangalore)


With the study of Western tragic dramas, naturally the question whether the tragic element is present in the works of the ‘Shakespeare of India’ interested many readers. It need hardly be pointed out that the convention of the Sanskrit drama, which requires a happy ending, precludes the possibility of producing a full-fledged tragedy. Nevertheless, when we remember that it is not merely the sorrowful ending that makes Macbeth or Othello a tragedy, it becomes clear that although a dramatist may not produce plays which end tragically, he may still present the tragic outlook in his plays.


Tragedy proper has been, by universal consent, considered to have reached its greatest heights in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides of ancient Greece, and of Shakespeare of England. It is evident that the Greek dramatists are bound to be poles apart from the English dramatist in many respects, for the Greek tragedians belonged to a different age, culture, country, and religion. And yet there is something common to them all–something which by its presence makes the works of these dramatists, whose differences from each other are pronounced, belong to the same kind of drama, namely the tragedy.


What then is this essence of the tragedy? Macnelle Dixon, in his remarkable book, ‘Tragedy’, defines it as “a way of thinking about the world presented dramatically, in story form, but of thinking directed towards certain aspects of human life and experience, a way of thought with a bias of special interest.” He continues:


“To reach its centre, we must ask, what is that bias? And the answer would seem to be that, simple in simple times with simple folk, more complex with others, but always and of necessity governed by predominant opinions, coloured by prevailing religious or philosophical conceptions, in all forms and varieties, tragedy is preoccupied with the more serious, enigmatic or afflicting circumstances of life.”


This definition is later qualified by another statement:


“Tragedy of whatever type, to remain tragedy, must refuse to make all things plain, must prostrate itself before the unknown, nor presume, with the sentimentalists, lightly to interpret the hieroglyphics of destiny.”


It is obvious from these remarks that the essence of tragedy does not lie in the conclusion of the work, but in the outlook presented in it. The tragic outlook on life thus muses on the conflict and injustice, evil and suffering present in life, and finds itself baffled. Musing on the spectacle of a great soul groaning under the burden of suffering, which is either totally or to a great extent undeserved, the tragic dramatist feels baffled by the magnitude and the complexity of the problems of life, and confesses that at the heart of life lies a mighty mystery. He has to confess that the ways of that Force which seems to preside over the destinies of humanity are, in the last analysis, inexplicable and inscrutable. He may, like Aeschylus; hold that this supreme Force of the Universe is essentially a moral and just Force; he may, like Sophocles, not be so emphatic in his answer; he may, like Euripides, raise more questions than he answers; he may, like Shakespeare, concentrate upon human endeavour and destiny, suggesting only by implication that this Force is on the whole more favourable to the forces of good than the forces of evil; but whatever be the view of the tragedian, an element of mystery, a confession of the helplessness of the human intellect, with its limitations, in the presence of the Sphinx of Life, is present in his work. That is why Dixon declares that “only such exceptional and irreparable disaster, however caused, by error or by fate, as startles us out of a dullard’s acquiescence, searches our minds and forces us to review our ‘welt-anschauung’, our conception of the world, is in the deepest sense, tragic. We are hardly, that is, in the neighbourhood of tragedy till we are forced to reflect and yet find our reflections fail us.”


“Kalidasa, greatest of Indian dramatists, experiences no uneasiness at the structure of life or the working of the world...For the deeper questions of human life, Kalidasa has no message for us; they raised, so far as we can see, no question in his own mind; the whole Brahmanical system, as restored to glory under the Guptas, seems to have satisfied him, and to have left him at peace with the universe. Fascinating and exquisite as is Sakuntala, it moves in a narrow world, removed far from the cruelty of real life, and it neither seeks to answer, nor does it solve, the riddles of life.”–So wrote a great Sanskrit scholar, Prof. Keith.1 This view, which he but partly modified later, would deny even the presence of the tragic element in Sakuntala.


No one can seriously claim that Sakuntala is a tragedy; but it is worth considering seriously whether the play is totally devoid of the tragic element.


Let us first take into consideration only the first five Acts of the play. It is needless to trace the movement of the action of so well-known a play. At the end of the fifth Act, what is the position? The heroine, a living embodiment of grace and innocence, finds all that she leaned upon and built her hopes upon crumbling around her, and leaving her alone and helpless in the midst of relentless cruelty and hideous despair. She finds shelter nowhere in this vast world, except at last in the maternal bosom. The hero, himself the glass of fashion and the mould of form, the observed of all observers,’ springing from the noble race of the Purus and conscious of the greatness of his ancestors and eager to uphold the noble traditions of his race, is the unconscious instrument of the humiliation and anguish of an innocent maiden.  And yet, can we say that all this suffering inflicted is wholly undeserved? Sakuntala, lost in the sorrow caused by her separation from Dushyanta, forgot the elementary duty of hospitality, a duty doubly imposed upon her by the absence of Kanva. If we want to realise the magnitude of this sin–for sin it surely is–we have to remember the picture of Parvati’s hospitality to Siva in disguise, even when consumed by her own distress, painted by Kalidasa in the Kumarasambhava. It was because Sakuntala failed to realise her responsibility, first as a hostess and, secondly, as the representative of Kanva, that the suffering was inflicted on her; for, her offence was not only against Durvasa but against Dharma itself. Nor is Dushyanta free from blame. Great and noble and of matchless prowess though he is, he has not yet realised what true love is, and yet dallies with it. He has a lesson to learn-a lesson which only bitter sorrow can imprint on his heart. And yet, who can say that all this anguish is justified? Who can argue that the suffering is proportionate to the magnitude of the guilt? What rules of justice can possibly reconcile us to the sight of a helpless, innocent, beautiful maiden expressed to the cruelty and hypocrisy of the world, and petrified at the heart rendering spectacle of all her reasonable and rosy hopes crumbling like mansions shaken by the earthquake–the spectacle of an innocent, artless maid whose life has suddenly turned into a wilderness of soul shaking emptiness? Here is tragedy that shakes us to the very core of our being; here is “exceptional and irreparable disaster” which “startles us out of a dullard’s acquiescence”; here is tragedy as grim as that of an Oedipus hunted by malignant fate, of Antigone whose loyalty to justice is the cause of her undoing, and of Hamlet whose only fault is that he is too good and noble for the world of mortals. Here is both preoccupation with the sorrows and injustices of the world, and an overwhelming sense of mystery; here is a heart-rending spectacle which raises both pity and terror.


Dixon calls Aeschylus’ work “the tragedy of the centre,” because of his preoccupation with the central problem of life, “the axis round which all other matters revolve”–man’s place in the universe, his relation to God or Nature. He also points but that the world created by the Greek tragedians is larger and more impressive, because it is peopled not only with mighty mortals but also with the gods and goddesses themselves. “The Greek refused to isolate man’s world from other worlds...His thoughts, his feelings, his acts had their springs in the invisible,” he remarks, adding, “In brief, say what you will, without this infinitude of background, tragedy fades to a shadow of its greater self, dwindles to a sorrowful tale, no more.” In Sakuntala we are in a world where the ordinary barriers between living and lifeless objects vanish, for Nature here is as instinct with life as humanity itself. The heart of Nature throbs in unison with the joys and sorrows of human life. Nor is this all. The forces of darkness here take on ugly shapes and blind the eye with their hideousness. The forces of spiritual strength are embodied in the sages, Kanva and Durvasa. The fairies are as real here as Anasuya and Priyamvada. And the problem is the problem of Aeschylus–the relation of man to the Supreme Force of the Universe. Surely, if Aeschylus is “the tragedy of the centre,” the first five Acts of Sakuntala constitute a “tragedy of the centre.”


What, it will be asked, of the last two Acts? Do not the last two Acts counterbalance and so destroy the sense of mystery created by the first five Acts, by explaining too much and too well? Does not Kalidasa take too superficial a view of life by considering all suffering as a blessing in disguise? How can such a superficial view of life be consistent with our conception of tragedy, which lays stress on the impression of bewilderment and mystery which it creates? To answer these questions, Dixon’s definition, already quoted, must be carefully studied. Defining tragedy as preoccupied with “the more serious, enigmatic or afflicting circumstances in life,” he points out that it is “always and of necessity governed by predominant opinions, coloured by prevailing religious or philosophical conceptions.” Kalidasa’s acceptance of Hinduism, the cardinal doctrines of which are the theory of Karma and the theory of rebirth, was thus bound to influence his work. Moreover, what Kalidasa has done in the last two Acts–and especially the last Act–of the play, is what Shakespeare has done in The Tempest and what Aeschylus has done in the last play of the Orestian trilogy. What Shakespeare did in two plays and Aeschylus in three, Kalidasa did in a single play: all the three descended into the yawning abysses of human suffering and despair, but finally soared to the pinnacle of serenity. One wonders whether if only The Tempest of Shakespeare and The Eumenides of Aeschylus had been preserved to posterity, and no other plays of theirs, we would have called the superficial, as some have called Kalidasa superficial because of the last two Acts of Sakuntala.


Nor is the impression of mystery destroyed by the last two Acts. Those who declare that Kalidasa explains too much ignore how much he leaves unexplained, just because it is inexplicable. It is true but suffering is seen in the play to be the fire that purifies gold; it is the stroke of the sculptor’s chisel which transforms a piece of stone - pretty, perhaps, but nothing more–into a figure of matchless grace, and silent with this significance of life. Yet, we are bound to ask, “Why should the stroke the chisel, the ordeal of fire, be necessary at all?” And there is no answer. And let us not forget what it is that suffering has really done. It has transformed the shy, trusting, innocent maiden into a matron of staid wisdom and mature experience; her silence in the first Act was the silence of maidenly reserve, but her silence in the last Act is the silence of experience that has burnt into the soul and has taught the futility of words. We have, it is true, a more mature, a more majestic Sakuntala who inspires in us awe and reverence, as the earlier Sakuntala could never have done. But then–the grace and the laughter have died away, forever. The happy laughter that made all the world look like a paradise of beauty and innocence is silenced forever. “The true gods sigh for the cost and he pain,” and we ask, bewildered, “Why is this cost and pain inevitable?” Kalidasa gives us no answer, for there can be no answer to the question. Surely is it not the inexpressible mystery of life that finds most poignant expression in that simple answer of Sakuntala to her son’s question in the last Act, “Who is this man, mother?” – “Ask the fates, my child”?