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The Recognition of Sakuntala Summary
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The Recognition of Sakuntala is a Sanskrit play written by the Indian poet and dramatist Kalidasa, between the first and fourth centuries BCE. Centered on a marriage plot between the Indian King Dushyanta and his betrothed, Sakuntala, the story stems, in part, from the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic seminal to the Indian philosophical tradition. The play follows Sakuntala from birth through her marriage’s aftermath, showing how she plays out her destiny to become entangled in the mythos of Indian history.
The play begins with a reference to the myth of Sakuntala, which extends far into the past. According to the myth, Sakuntala was an orphan, having been left by her parents immediately after her birth. She is discovered by the sage Kanva, who takes her in and raises her in his monastery. Kanva protects Sakuntala from what he perceives as a hostile external world; therefore, she has a rather insular childhood. However, one day, when Sakuntala is a young adult, Kanva leaves the monastery on an errand. Sakuntala is discovered by King Dushyanta, who is traveling the land to hunt game. Enamored by her beauty, Dushyanta instantly begins to court her. Because he is the Indian king, he effectively has his pick of a bride; the cultural norm of the arranged marriage compels Sakuntala to immediately accept. Before he leaves, Dushyanta gifts her a wedding ring, telling her it will serve as her proof of identity when she makes it to the royal palace.
Just before Sakuntala departs to meet him at his home in Hastinapura, her monastery is visited by an ancient sage. Sakuntala, too distracted by her forthcoming new life, neglects to give the sage hospitality, forgetting to feed him. The sage puts a curse on Sakuntala to avenge her failure to honor him, telling her it will prevent her husband from remembering her unless she presents an object tied to his memory of meeting her. Remembering the ring, she travels to Hastinapura. On the way, she attempts to cross a river, and the ring is whisked away by the water. Believing that Dushyanta’s love is strong enough to overcome the curse, she finishes her journey to the castle. Dushyanta, outraged at the arrival of someone who claims to be his betrothed, kicks her out. Returning home, Sakuntala learns that Kanva has disowned her.
After an indeterminate period, the ring is found in the stomach of a fish by a local fisherman. He submits it to the palace, causing Dushyanta to remember Sakuntala. Initially, he is unable to reach her because his kingdom is in the middle of a war. Once the war ends, he finally retrieves Sakuntala. Once she is named queen, she gives birth to their son.
The Recognition of Sakuntala is strikingly similar to the Roman poet Ovid’s classical story of Echo and Narcissus, in which a terrible fate befalls a beautiful youth who becomes obsessed with an idealized selfhood. It is possible, though highly contentious in the academic world, that The Recognition of Sakuntala provided the skeleton of Ovid’s plot. Regardless of how the story was later adapted, it remains a national treasure of Indian literature, warning its audience about the potential pitfalls of love and insufficiencies of expectation.