Saturday, November 19, 2011

A mystery called Kalidasa

I was about 10 years old when I first saw 'Kaviratna Kalidasa' in Kannada featuring the thespian Dr. Rajkumar. Out of the various scenes the one that stuck most to my memory was the transformation he undergoes from a quintessential rural goatherd to one of the biggest names in Sanskrit literature. The scene where this takes place is depicted thus: Having shocked the living daylights out of the immensely intelligent and articulate princess he married (due to the evil motives of a minister) he tries to console her in the time of such grief. To help him out with this she takes him to the Kali temple (a deity Kalidasa is known to have utmost devotion for) and tells him to sit and pray to her all night. She also assures him that Kali will appear before him and 'cure him' from the illiteracy that plagues him. Kalidasa, hence, sits and starts to pray. Lo and behold the goddess does appear in human form (bejewelled with the usual cinematic inclusion of theatrical ornaments) and asks him to push out his tongue. When he does so she dramatically raises her trident and etches the word 'Aum' on it. The very next moment a halo of knowledge starts to glow behind his head as he opens his eyes, now welled up by the effect of this drastic transformation, and starts to sing Kali's praises in pure Sanskrit.

The scene, needless to say, is a memorable one. Partly because of the masterful authenticity Dr. Raj brings to this otherwise comic version of how Kalidasa actually got his skills. (As a child, and being one who was woefully inept at topics like Math and Biology, I secretly hoped that I too could get a goddess to come to me this way and etch that magical 'Aum' on my tongue so that I could ace exams and get more Amar Chitra Katha and GI Joe's as gifts...)

A second version of this story is presented in the aforementioned Amar Chitra Katha comic where Kalidasa is shunned by the princess on realizing she has been swindled into marrying an absolute dimwit. Unable to tolerate the shame he walks straight to the Kali temple and spends many days in meditation trying to please the goddess. On failing to do so he picks up the sword near the idol and tries to kill himself (as a sacrificial offering) when, finally, the goddess appears and blesses him with the vision and tongue of a poet laureate.

To me both these versions, despite their colorful variety, of Kalidasa's literary beginnings began to seem less and less accurate with passing time. The one point I had a hard time digesting was the appearance of Kali as some sort of quick fix mantra to take care of all of his problems. A premise, that, just seems too easy for the start of such a legend's historic journey.

Over the last few years I have sporadically tried to find out as much as I could about Kalidasa's origins as a poet but have failed to find anything reliable. So, as an attempt to try and rationalize the intellectual start of such a literary giant in Indian literature, I present to you my humble version of the same episode.

So what might have happened? Perhaps this: Contrary to popular belief Kalidasa was not a complete illiterate. He is said to have had 'minimal literacy' but was not a very bright lad. This perhaps means that he did get some crude sort of formal education but either due to poverty (given that he was a goatherd in all versions) or due to the lack of motivation, the boy never learned much. This brings us to the next point. Now, why does anyone learn anything sincerely? Some ounce of genuine purpose? Maybe some spoonfuls of passion mixed in? But Kalidasa had none of these factors to actual see the benefits of a good education. At such a point in his life enters the wronged minister. He spots an ideal way to get back at the egotistical princess. He takes a gullible Kalidasa under his wing and trains him enough to pass the 'groom test' she conducts with every man who walks into the palace wanting to be her husband. Due to a sequence of circumstantial events the princess does not detect the plot hole. In fact I have also read that Kalidasa was quite a handsome looking fellow. So there is also a bright chance the princess, despite her centered demeanor, developed a slight state of infatuation just by laying her eyes on him. This perhaps also explains why she didn't think too much of his bizarre responses which were being aptly paraphrased by the minister.

Long story short, the marriage takes place. She discovers she was wrong and kicks him out. Initially I was surprised she didn't have him executed immediately. But on second consideration it dawned upon me that it could have been her soft feelings for the man and the blatant realization that he too was a victim, that made her merely let go of him, albeit with a broken heart. What happened next? Kalidasa, clearly now full of self hate and uncontrollable fury (at having been shamed by the princess thus) goes to an abandoned Kali temple (or even somewhere in the middle of a forest. It doesn't matter where) and starts to meditate intensely.

Initially he is full of distractions. He thinks of the beautiful princess and lets his thoughts wander. That then brings back the ugliness of her words that drove him out of her life. Anger keeps returning and fuelling the energy in him to focus on the goal at hand – to prove her wrong. For several days, Kalidasa is in this state of trance. Animals, birds and insects wander about him but do not harm him as he doesn't seem like a threat. His mind is full of prayer verses that he knows for Kali. His face and body is now covered with all kinds of debris. Rain, sunshine, wind – each one of them have come and showered him with their presence. His body has also been regularly answering nature's calls without his knowledge since, well, it has to do what it has to do. His soiled garments are proof that despite the shabbiest state of affairs the man has not moved a muscle. His body remains but his mind is fixed only on Kali. He wants to please her and get her blessings. It is also possible that due to the state of fatigue and growing hunger he may have had bizarre hallucinations of Kali at some points too.

Now, while all of this is happening in his conscious state his subconscious state has been picking up a few things. It notices the song of birds, the perfume of trees, the music in the breeze, the rustle of leaves, the hum of bees, the rhythm in the rain drops, the way a wind runs up to someone and hugs them like a child eager for attention, the way different times of a single day smell so unique from one another, the way animals communicate various feelings to each other – of anger, of lust, of sorrow, of trust. Every single entity in the world around him is coming alive in a way that Kalidasa had never bothered to notice before. In fact it seems he didn't have the faculty to do so. By filling up his conscious state with so many disturbances and wants, he had subdued the poet in him for a very long time. But now, in these moments when his body is not his own and nothing else matters, the poet inside him is waking up. A sense of calm comes over him. He looks and smells like the foulest garbage mound on earth but within that heap of hovering flies and maggots stirs the psyche of a man in whom the thirst for knowledge has begun. It starts in the inner most walls in his mind. First as a drop of dew, then multiple drops, drop by drop accumulating, a puddle, many such puddles now, filling up quickly as the elements around him start to influence the volume, growing with each passing day, becoming too heavy for him to hold it within until it starts to fill his insides. His itch for learning becomes so grave that he can't even reach it to scratch it back to peace. It continues to well up like an emerging lava as the fumes of its impending arrival start to ooze out of him. His yogic trance starts to die away as the long hidden meaning for his birth breaks down every door and like a flood that cannot be tamed, gushes out of him, illuminating him from within and exploding out into the open. The raw fierce energy of the force ignites his conscious state now and switches his eyes open. The lack of food in his stomach and water in his throat for days, perhaps weeks, now suddenly hits him. His mental strain in keeping his focus on the goal was so overwhelming that it now overpowers his physical attributes. He leans over immediately and loses consciousness.

The reason I feel something similar to this, if not all of it, happened was because the mind is arguably one of the most powerful things in the universe. Learning to control it basically means being able to control pretty much everything else in and around one. So if Kalidasa was to go on into the passages of history and create epics then the fire of ambition to actually go there had to have come from within him. His devotion to Kali was perhaps so huge that in a sheer display of humility he later on dedicated his mastery to her – thus earning the name Kalidasa (there is literature that says his name was something else earlier to this episode. He became Kalidasa much later).

So let us wrap up then. Maybe he did faint, maybe he didn't. That is besides the point. Either way once he was back to his senses he was a different man. He got up and walked straight to the river where he shed his awful clothes, bathed till his mind was content and came out a completely new man. Maybe, while in the waters, he wept bitterly till his heart's content too so that along with those foul tears his past also might disappear into the waters never to resurface again.

He then perhaps got some help from someone for shelter and food, after which began a lengthy phase of him reading and analyzing every scripture, epic, upanishad and veda known to man. This must have taken him several years since even though he had the burning desire to overcome his own shortcomings it still needed a different sort of mental and physical acumen to actually absorb the literature he was gradually being exposed to. It is conceivable then, that after such rigorous self training (or perhaps he did seek out a guru too. We have no evidence to claim he didn't) he walks into the court of King Bhoja one day and enthralls the audience with his abilities. The rest, as they say, is history.

Like many of the pieces I have recently written, this too is an attempt to dissect out the mysterious origins of Kalidasa and try to find a non-mythical way to explain his talents. That he eventually fell prey to the same (the story that he was killed by a greedy courtesan to get some extra money) is perhaps the most fitting end to a life that was always somehow so much larger than itself.

Thoughts and feedback most welcome.

1 reflections:

Nandini Vishwanath said...

You know what this reminds me of? My Sanskrit textbook in 2nd PUC. We had this story in Sanskrit, of course. There was a different beauty to it :)