Myths & Legends of India: Birth of Sakuntala

Enjoy ❤ Myth & Legends of India

The Mahabharata, the Great Epic of India, includes nearly all the most famous Hindu myths and legends, inserted into its main narrative of the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Often these stories are told by one character to another, to make a moral or historical point. Here the sage Vaisampayana, who has learnt the whole Mahabharata from its author Vyasa, and is its main narrator, tells the story of Sakuntala to King Janamejaya.


The story is the source of the famous play in classical Sanskrit literature, Sakuntala  by Kalidasa. The version in the Mahabharata lacks two elements introduced by Kalidasa, possibly from folk-tale tradition: the sage Durvasa‘’s curse, causing King Dushyanta to forget about Sakuntala, and the lost ring whose recovery makes Dushyanta remember and recognize her again.


In this version, Dushyanta denies all knowledge of Sakuntala when she arrives at his palace with their baby son, but this is a deliberate lie, not the result of a curse. 


The Gandharva rite by which he married Sakuntala in the forest permitted marriage without parental permission and without a priest officiating: a lover’s license in fact – easy to exploit, easy to disown.


The son of Dushyanta and Sakuntala, Bharata, became the ancestor of the Pandavas and Kauravas, and his name was used for the whole country (Bharat); hence too the name of the epic (Mahabharata).


Janamejaya said: ‘ I would like to know in detail the life-story of the high-souled Bharata and the birth of Sakuntala.


‘Holy one, tell me in full how this lion-among-men obtained Sakuntala. Because you know everything, and I ask you, it is proper that you should enlighten me.’


Vaisampayana said: Once upon a time mighty Dushyanta, accompanied by a retinue of hundreds of horses and elephants, decided to go on a hunt.


The retinue consisted of infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots; and of soldiers armed with swords, darts, maces and massive clubs.


Surrounded by hundreds of warriors with spears and lances, the king set out on his expedition. The lion-roars of the warriors, the noise of conches and kettledrums,


The rattle of the chariot-wheels, the trumpeting of huge elephants, and the clangor of different weapons,


Together with the neighing of horses – all these confused, tumultuous sounds blended into a cacophonous, deafening kil! Kil! When the king marched out.


Lovely ladies leant from balconies of splendid mansions to catch a glimpse of the heroic, illustrious and handsome king.


They saw that he was like Indra, a destroyer of his foes; they felt he was Indra himself, wielder of the thunderbolt.


They whispered: This is the hero as fierce in battle as Vasu; this is he who smites his enemies.


And they showered flowers on his head out of love for him; and he was greatly flattered.


Blessed by Brahimins everywhere on the route, the king came to the forest with the intention of hunting deer.


Seated on a proud elephant, he looked like a god. Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras followed him pronouncing blessings and crying Victory! On all sides.


The citizens and others followed the king for some distance,


Till he ordered them back. Then he mounted his golden chariot, and the whole earth, including the sky,


Reverberated with the noise of the chariot-wheels. As he entered deeper he thought he had come to the celestial forest Nandana –


A forest of wood-apple, acacia and Kapittha trees, with undulating grass, and with large boulders loosened from hillsides lying everywhere.


There was no water, and no sign of human habitation; it stretched to many yojanas. Lions, tigers and other fierce beasts roamed in it.


HIs soldiers and servants acted as beaters, and Dushyanta, best of kings, succeeded in killing many deer.


He shot arrows at tigers within fatal range and killed many.


Many others he wounded with arrows; those at close range he killed with his sword.


The skillful dart-wielder killed many with darts. Dushyanta, expert club-fighter, roamed the forest fearlessly.


Many were the beasts he killed even as he roamed – some with sword, some with flying dart, some with heavy club.


Lions in thousands left the agitated forest, which trembled at the feats of the miraculously powerful king and his hunt-delighting retinue.


The kings of the forest gone, the other beasts screamed in fear and anxiety, and scattered in all directions.


Hungry, thirsty, tired, they stumbled and fell, unable to quench


Their thirst in the dry river-beds. Some were devoured by the hungry hunters;


Others were quartered and roasted in specially lit fires and cooked properly and eaten.


Huge elephants, maddened by the pain of their wounds, ran amok with their trunks uplifted.


Vomiting blood, passing urine and dung in their terrible fear, they trampled many soldiers to death.


And in no time, the animal-filled forest was rid by the king and his followers of its lions, tigers and other beasts.




Vaisampayana continued: The king and his followers killed thousands of animals and went to another forest to hunt there.


Tired and hungry, accompanied by one follower alone, he came to a patch of scrub-land at the far end of the forest.


He crossed this dry region, and came on a forest filled with ashrams.


Lovely to the eyes,

Soothing to the heart,


Cool breezes blowing,

Full of flowering trees,

Soft green grass everywhere,


Echoing with birdsong,

Trills of male kokilas,

And the shrill cicadas;


Canopy of big-branched trees,

Bees humming round creepers,

Fragrant bowers everywhere;


No trees without fruits,

No shrubs with thorns,

No plants without bees;


Filled with singing birds,


Soothing under-tree shadows –


Such a lovely forest

Did King Dushyanta enter.

Waving flowering trees


Showered clusters

Of fragrant blossoms

On the king’s head;


Rainbow-flowered trees,

Birds on their bowed branches,

And the tempted bees humming


For honey in sweet chorus

In the creeper-covered bowers.

The king was enchanted.


Clasping one another,

The flower-filled trees

Looked like rainbows entangled.


Siddhas and Charanas,

Gandharvas, Apsarases, Kinnaras,

And monkeys delighted there.


Drugged with flower-scent,

Cool breezes blew,

As if flirting with the trees.


He saw the lovely forest

Beside a river delta,

Like a pole in Indra’s honour.


He saw in the forest,

The happy-birded forest,

A heart-charming ashram,


Surrounded by trees,

And a sacred fire burning.

He honored the ashram.


He saw Yatis and Valakhilyas;

Many rooms circled the fire;

The ground was a carpet of flowers.


Tall trees with large trunks

Made the spot beautiful.

The river Malini flowed nearby.


Waterfowl in the river

Pleased the rishis; the king saw

Deer-cubs sporting on her banks.


The king whose chariot no power on earth cloud obstruct entered the ashram. It was lovely wherever one looked; it was like heaven.


He noticed that the ashram was situated right on the river-bank, on the bank of the sacred river, which was like a mother flowing beside it.


Milk-white were the waves

On her breasts; chakravakas

Played on her banks; Kinnaras

Lived there, with bears and monkeys.


The ascetics, given to study

And meditation, lived there,

Beside the river, along with

Snakes, tigers and elephants.


On her banks too was

Kasyapa’s ashram, visited

By many great rishis.


He saw the river,

He saw the ashram,

And he had to enter.


The river was dotted with

Islands with seductive shores;

It was like Nara-Naryana’s

Ganga-washed abode.


He entered the hermitage,

And he heard:

The cry of wild peacocks

In the garden of Gandharvas.


He entered:

Because he wanted to meet

Kanva, great rishi of Kasyapa’s race,

Kanva, all-virtue-possessor,

Too dazzling to behold.


He ordered the flag-bearers, foot-soldiers, horsemen and elephant-riders to halt on the outskirts of the forest, and said:


‘I go to meet the great rishi of Kasyapa’s race, the without-darkness-one. Stay here till I return.’


He forgot his hunger and thirst when he entered, so lovely was the sight of that infinite-pleasured garden, like Nandana itself.


He put aside all the trappings and signs of his kingship, and entered, accompanied by his minister and priest,


Because a great desire had risen in him to see the rishi of indestructible ascetic virtues.


The ashram looked like the realm of Brahma.


Bees hummed, and birds sang.

In one corner, Brahmins

Changed the Rig Veda

With the proper intonation;


In another, Vedanga-knowing

Brahmins chanted from the Yajur;

In a third, rigid-vowed rishis

Sang the Sama melodiously;


In a fourth, he saw Brahmins

Reciting from the Atharva

With the proper intonation;


And in various other places,

Brahmins skilled in orthoepy

Recited different mantras.


The sacred ashram,

Filled with holy syllables,

Was like Brahma’s own abode.


Brahmins expert in yajna,

Yajna-edifices, and karma,

Lived there; others too, skilled

In Nyaya, mental sciences, Vedas.


And some there were, learned

In the science of semantics,

Some expert in special rituals,

Some in moksha-dharma.


Some know the arts of debate,

How to draw right conclusions,

Reject superfluities; some skilled

In etymology, prosody, astrology.


Some know the properties of matter,

Others the fruits of yajna, others

The relation of caus eand effect,

Others bird and monkey language;


Others the Sastras. The king

Heard them chanting and reciting,

With captivating excellence.


Dushyanta, slayer-of-foes,

Saw all around him Brahmins

Engaged in homa and japa.


He was astonished when he saw

The exquisite carpet brought

For him to sit on.


Seeing all the rituals performed

To worship the gods, he wondered:

Am I in Brahma’s realm?


The more he saw –

Of Kasyapa’s holy ashram,

Its graces and virtues –

The more he wanted to see.


Impelled by curiosity

To see the entire ashram,

He went further in; accompanied

By his minister and priest.




Vaisampayana continued: Proceeding still further, he left his minister and priest behind; but he was unable to find the strict-vowed rishi.


Seeing no sign of human life, he shouted, ‘Is anyone there?’ The words echoed in the forest.


A girl in bark-dress,

Lovely as Lakshmi,

Emerged from the rishi’s hut.


She saw Dushyanta.

The black-eyed girl honored

And welcomed him in.


She offered him a seat,

Water to wash his feet,

And the ritual of arghya;

Enquired after his health.


She honored him and,

After the necessary courtesies,

Asked, ‘What can I do for you?’


Honored by her, the king

Said to the soft-voiced

Faultless-featured lady,


‘My purpose, lovely lady, is

To pay homage to Rishi Kanva;

Where is the noble rishi?’


Sakuntala said,


‘My father, sir, is away,

To collect fruits for the ashram.

If you would care to wait,

He will be back soon.’



The king (Vaisampayana continued)


Did not see any rishi near.

He heard her talk to him.

He saw she was lovely, sweet-smiling,

She had a faultless figure.


She was in the bloom of her youth.

Her simplicity, her humility, and

Her features constituted her beauty.


He asked:


‘Who are you?

Whose daughter, lovely lady?

Why are you here, in this forest?

O lovely one, accomplished one,

From where have you come?


‘Sweet-smiling one,

You stole my heart with your first glance.

Tell me more about yourself,

Lovely lady, tell me all.’


She smiled, and said sweetly,

‘I am the daughter of Kanva,

Who is virtuous and wise

A mahatma ascetic.’


Dushyanta said,

‘He is a great rishi.

The entire world honors him.

He has controlled his sexual passions.

Dharma itself may stray, but not he.


‘How is it, O lovely one,

That you are his daughter?

This I would like to know from you.’


Sakuntala replied:

‘Sire, all I know is what I have been told –

About what happened,

How I became his daughter.


‘A long time ago, a rishi

Came here and enquired about my birth.

This is what the maharishi told him:


‘In the distant past Visvamitra

Practiced such severe self-discipline

That Indra, king of gods, grew frightened.


‘He feared that the penances of the rishi

Would dethrone him. Alarmed,

He summoned Menaka and said,


‘ ‘Menaka,

Loveliest of Apsarases,

Gracious nymph,

Help me.


‘ ‘The maharishi Visvamitra,

Sun-refulgent ascetic,

Is practicing severe self-discipline.

I am afraid.


‘ ‘Menaka,

Slim-waisted Apsaras,

Do this for me:

Go to Visvamitra, who is

Deep in meditation and penance.


‘ ‘He has power to dethrone me.

Go to him.

Tempt him.

Frustrate his yoga.

Save me.


‘ ‘Lovely Apsaras,

Use your beauty, youth,

Your charm, your skill, smile and speech

And tempt him.’


‘Menaka replied: ‘ ‘He is a great rishi.

He shines.

You know this, my lord.

You have heard of his wrath.


‘ ‘His power, penance and wrath

Have made even you fearful.

What about poor me?


‘ ‘He was responsible for Vasishtha’s

Premature grief over the deaths of his sons.

He was born a Kshatriya

And became a Brahmin by merit.


‘ ‘He created a whole river

For the sake of his ablutions’

They call it the Kausika.


‘ ‘There his wife was looked after

By the rishi Matanga during the famine;

Matanga was then living as a hunter.


‘ ‘When the famine ended,

Visvamitra returned and named the river



‘ ‘Out of gratitude to Matanga, he

Became his priest; you, my lord,

In fear went to his yajna to drink soma.


‘ ‘The great rishi, furious,

Once created another universe of stars;

He sheltered the guru-cursed Trisanku*


‘ ‘I am afraid.

I am afraid to approach a man

So powerful in deeds.

Give me assurance, my lord,

That he will not burn me in anger.


‘ ‘His righteous anger can burn the worlds.

His kick can make the earth totter.

He can uproot Meru, and hurl it far.

He can cover the ten-points of the universe in an instant


‘ ‘How can a woman like me

Tempt a man like him –

So full of yoga, burning

Like a disciplined flame, always

In control of his passions?


‘ ‘His mouth is aflame!

The pupils of his eyes are the sun and the moon

His tongue is like Yama, god of death!

My lord, what can a woman like me do?


‘ ‘Yama, Soma, great rishis,

Sadhyas, Visvas, Valakhilyas,

Tremble at the thought of his power.

Why should I not fear him?


‘ ‘Because you can command me, my lord,

I will go.

But give me some means to protect myself,

Even as I tempt him.


‘ ‘Ask the wind-god Vayu to be present,

To remove my dress

When I tempt him.

Ask the god of love Kama

To obey your instructions

And help me in my mission.


‘ ‘Ask the wind do carry fragrance from the forest

To seduce the rishi.”

She finished; and, provided as desired, she

Came to Visvamitra’s ashram’




Sakuntala continued:

‘ ‘Indra ordered the wind’,

My father told me,

‘ ‘To be present when Menaka

Appeared before the rishi.


‘The shy Apsaras

Entered the ashram,

And stood before Visvamitra,

Sin-cancelled ascetic,

Strict-penanced rishi.


‘She greeted him, and

Danced in front of him;

Then, suddenly, the wind

Stole her moon-white dress.


‘Embarrassed, she

Ran after it, pretending

To be angry with

The conduct of the wind-god.


‘All this happened

Before the sun-strong-rishi’s eyes;

He saw her, naked,

The ravishing Apsaras.


‘She was lovely, he

Saw her lovely, there

Was not one mark of age

On her naked skin.


‘He saw her beauty,

Desire stirred in him,

The best of rishis

Longed for her company.


‘He asked her to come

To him; she accepted;

Many days they passed

Alone with each other;


‘Many years went by

Seeming but a day

To the lovers; and she

Conceived Sakuntala.


‘Menaka went to the Malini

Rippling through Himavat valley;

There her daughter was born;

There abandoned by her.


‘Successful in her mission,

She returned to Indra.

Meanwhile, vultures

Spotted the child.


‘In the forest of lions

And tigers, and circled her,

Protecting her; that

No beasts of prey harm her,


‘The vultures surrounded

Menaka’s child; I went there

For my ablutions one day,

Saw the child lying,


‘Alone in the forest,

Surrounded by the vultures.

I brought her here,

And made her my daughter.


‘The Sastras say: There

are three fathers – maker

Of body, protector of life,

And giver of food.


‘Because I found her alone,

Protected by birds known

As sakuntas, I named her



‘This, O Brahmin, is how

Sakuntala became my daughter.

And Sakuntalal too

Treats me as her father.’’


Sakuntala added:


‘That, sire, is what the rishi

Said to the Brahmin about me.

Now you know how I am

The daughter of Kanva.


‘I do not know my real father.

My father is Kanva.

I have told you all

I know about my birth.’




Dushyanta said:


‘Gracious lady, princess,

How beautifully you speak!

Lady of loveliness, be my wife.

Tell me what I may do for you.


‘I shall get for you, today,

Golden earrings, garlands, gems,

Robes, pearls, coins, carpets, my kingdom!

Lady of loveliness, be my wife.


‘Marry me, beautiful one,

Shy one, tapering-thighed one,

According to Gandharva rites;

That marriage, they say, is the best.’


Sakuntala replied:


‘My father is away;

He has gone to bring fruits.

Wait till he comes.

He will marry me to you.’


Dushyanta said:


‘O beautiful lady, faultless, one,

Accept me on your own.

I give you all of myself,

I give you all my heart.


‘What better friend than oneself?

What better help than oneself?

According to the Sastras,

You are free to choose.


‘The sastras lay down

Eight kinds of marriage:

Brahmya, Daiva, Arsha,

Prajapatya, Asura,


‘Gandharva, Rakshasa

And Paishacha. Brahma’s

Self-born son Manu describes

Which suits which caste.


‘Faultless lady, the first four

Are recommended by Brahmins;

And the first six

Are for Kshatriyas;


‘For kings, even the Rakshasa

Is permitted; the Asura

Is for Vaisyas and Sudras.

The first three are sanctioned, the next two not.


‘The Paisacha and Asura

Should never be practiced

That’s what the Sastras say,

And a man should abide by them.


‘Gandharva and Rakshasa are for Kshatriyas,

So do not fear; single,

Or as a mixture of both,

Our marriage will be valid.


‘Lovely lady, desire overcomes me,

As it does you.

Be my wife,

By Gandharva rites.’


Sakuntala said:

‘Noble Paurava,

If what the Sastras say

Is that I can choose for myself,

Then promise me this:


‘Promise you will give what I ask for

Here, from you, now, in secrete,

In this secluded place –

The son that is born to me


‘Must inherit the crown.

This is my condition.

I have decided. If you agree,

Let us marry.’


Vaisampayana continued:


The king, without thinking twice,

Agreed. ‘Sweet-smiling lady,’

He said, ‘I give you my word.

I will take you to my capital.


‘I promise to do as you say.

You deserve it.

I am speaking the truth.’

With these words, Dushyanta


Married graceful-gaited Sakuntala,

According to the Sastras.

He returned to his capital,

Repeatedly assuring her,


I will send my army,

All four kinds of soldiers,

To bring you to my capital,

O sweet-smiling lady.


With this pledge, O Janamejaya,

He went away.

On his way back, he

Began to think of Kanva.


What will he say,

When he gets to know it all?

This was uppermost in his mind

All the way to his capital.


Hardly had he left the ashram

Than Kanva arrived.

But Sakuntala, ashamed,

Did not come out to greet him.


With his intuitive wisdom,

He guessed the truth.

His spiritual eyes showed him all,

And he was pleased.


‘My child, your intercourse in secret

Today, without my permission,

Has fortunately not

Violated your virtue.


‘A Gandharva marriage

Between willing man and woman,

Though without mantras, is

Considered best for a Kshatriya.


‘Dushyanta is best among men,

Noble, high-souled.

This is the person

You have taken for husband.


‘Your son will be famous,

Powerful; his dominion

Will extend over the entire earth,

Over even the ocean.


‘When your son

Illustrious king,

Will march against foes,

They will scatter in fear.’


Sakuntala came near, and

Washed her tired father’s feet.

She removed the load from his shoulders,

Arranged the fruits properly,


And said: ‘Father,

Bless my husband,

King Dushyanta,

And his council of ministers.’


‘My lovely child,’ said Kanva,

‘I will bless him for your sake.

Sweet girl,

Ask any boon you like.’


Sakuntala, moved by desire

Of her husband’s welfare,

Asked that the Pauravas stay noble

And never be deprived of their thrones.




Vaisampayana continued:


After Dushyanta left the ashram,

Making his promises to Sakuntala,

She gave birth to a boy

Of extraordinary abilities.


When only three,

He shone like a blazing fire.

O Janamejaya, he had beauty,

And magnanimity, and every accomplishment.


Kanva, best of holy men,

Performed all the boy’s rites

As enjoined in the Sastras.

He flourished daily.


He had pearly, strong teeth,

Broad forehead, auspicious markers on his palms,

Could kill a lion bare-handed;

He grew up like a god’s son.


‘At the age of six, he

Could seize and tie tigers,

Boars, buffaloes and elephants

To the trees of the ashram.


‘He rode some, seized others’

And played games with them.

The hermits of the ashram called

Him Sarvadamana, the all-tamer.


‘And that became his name –

Sarvadamana –

For he had great strength,

Energy and prowess.


Rishi Kanva saw his feats,

And advised Sakuntala

That the time had come

For him to be heir-apparent.


He said to his disciples,

‘Take Sakuntala and her son

To the house of her husband,

Who has all the auspicious marks.


‘It is not right for a woman

To stay long with paternal

Or maternal relatives; it harms

Her good name. Take her to her husband.’


The illustrious disciples of Kanva

Promised to do so,

And took Sakuntala and her son

To the city of Hastinapura.


The fair-eyebrowed beauty

And her lotus-eyed son

Left the ashram where she

Had first met Dushyanta.


She sent word ahead of her

Before entering the royal court.

Her son shone like the morning sun.

They introduced her to the king.


The disciples of the rishi

Explained everything to him,

And returned to the ashram.

She greeted him and said:


‘This is your son, your majesty,

Your god-like child by me.

Make him the heir-apparent,

Even as you once promised.


‘Sire, recall

The agreement you made with me

When we two were married

In the ashram of Kanva.’


He heard her.

He remembered all. He said,

‘I remember nothing.

Wicked woman, who are you?


‘I cannot recall every

Having anything to do with you

Regarding dharma, artha or kama.

Go! – or stay; as you please.’


When she heard this,

Shame engulfed her;

She felt faint’

She stood transfixed, a pole.


Then her eyes flamed, like copper,

Her lips trembled;

She cast glances on the king

As if they would burn him.


But by a supreme effort

She checked herself,

Subdued her flaming anger,

Suppressed her conscience.


She collected herself,

Looked straight at her husband,

Sadly and with feeling

Said to him:


‘How can your majesty,

Knowing everything, say,

Like a petty person,

I know nothing?


‘Your heart is the witness

If I lie or speak truth.

O speak the truth,

Do not lower yourself.


‘He deceives himself

Who is one thing to himself

And another to others.

No wickedness is beyond such a man.


‘You think only you know

What you know. But no –

One in your heart knows too.

He knows your wrongs; you have betrayed Him.


‘Man, when he does wrong,

Thinks no one sees him.

But the gods see him.

The God in his heart sees him.


‘Sun, moon, air, fire,

Earth, sky, water see him;

Yama, day, night, twilight

And Dharma see him.


‘If the God in his heart

Is pleased, Yama is helpless.

Yama, son of the sun,

Cannot touch such a man.


‘If the God in his heart

Is not pleased, Yama is happy;

And Yama will punish that wrong-doer

For all his evil deeds.


‘No do the gods bless a man

Who has two faces

And so degrades himself.

His own Atman does not bless him.


‘I come as a faithful wife,

On my own. Do not spurn me.

I am your wife.

I deserve respect.


‘Because I have come on my own,

Am I a slut to be insulted?

Is my voice a voice in the desert?

Hear me, Dushyanta!


‘If you refuse me,


Your head will splinter today

Into a thousand pieces!


‘Wise men say:

When a husband enters his wife’s womb,

He comes out as a son.

A wife is she-from-whom-one-is-born.


‘Born to a wise man,

A son is responsible

For the liberation of the spirits

Of the deceased ancestors, the pitris.


‘Therefore, he is called putra, by Brahma himself,

For he frees his ancestors

From the hell

Called put.


‘With the birth of a son,

A man conquers the three worlds; with a grandson,

Enjoys eternity; with a grandson’s son,

He finds everlasting bliss.


‘She is a true wife

Who is skilled in household duties;

She is a true wife

Who bears a son;

She is a true wife

Whose hart is given to her husband;

She is a true wife

Who knows no man but her husband.


‘A wife

Is a man’s half;

A wife

Is a man’s closest friend’

A wife

Is dharma, artha and kama;

A wife

Is moksha too.


‘With a wife

One performs religious rites;

A wife

Brings domestic happiness;

A wife

Is a means to joy;

A wife

Brings good fortune.


‘A sweet-speaking wife

Is a companion in happy times;

A wife

Is like a father on religious occasions;

A wife

Is like a mother in illness and sorrow.


‘To a husband

Wandering in a forest

A wife

Is consolation;


‘The man

Who has a wife

Is trusted

By all;


‘The wife

Is a means

To a man’s



‘And when a husband goes

To the land of Yama,

Leaving this world,

It is the devoted wife

Who faithfully

follows him there.


‘And if she dies

Before her husband,

She waits for him;

If he dies first,

The chaste wife

Soon follows him.


‘For all these reasons,


Marriage exists.

The husband enjoys his wife

In this world

And the next.


‘Wise men have said:

A man himself

Is born as his son;

So a wife who has a son

Should be treated

As one’s mother.


‘Looking at his son,

A man sees himself

In a mirror;

He feels happy,

Like a good man

Attaining heaven.


‘In mental distress, in disease,

To look at one’s wife

Is to be relieved,

Just as a perspiring man

Is relieved

After a cool bath.


‘No man,

Not even in anger,

Should displease his wife;

Happiness, joy, virtue,


Depends on her.


‘She is the hallowed soil

In which he is born

A second time;

Even rishis

Cannot create men

Without women.


‘Is any happiness greater

Than what a father feels

When his small son,

Though grubby and dusty,

Runs towards him

To be clasped in his arms?


‘Why do you treat this child,

Your son,

So coldly?

Look how he looks at you,


Again and again!


‘Even ants

Do not destroy

their eggs;

And you, so learned,

Shouldn’t you

Support your own child?


The touch of sandal paste,

Of women,

Of water,

Is not half as pleasing

As the embrace

Of one’s own son.


‘A Brahmin is best among bipeds,

A cow best among quadrupeds,

A guru best among superiors,

A son among objects pleasing to the touch.


‘Let this lovely boy

Touch you,

Embrace you.

There is nothing in the world

More pleasing

Than a son’s embrace.


‘Great king,

Great foe-chastiser,

I gave birth to this boy,

Dispeller of your sorrows,

After the completion

Of three years.


‘O great Paurava,

As I lay

In the birth-room,

I heard a voice in the sky

Say: He will perform

A hundred Asvamedhas.


‘Far away from home,

A man picks up

Another man’s son,

Smells his head

And feels his being

Fill with happiness.


‘And as a child’s birthday,


Your majesty knows,

Speak the following mantras

From the Vedas

As part of the ceremony:


‘Flesh of my flesh

Heart of my heart

My own son

May you live a hundred years.


‘This boy

Is flesh of your flesh,

Being of your being;

Like your image in a lake

You see before you

A part of yourself.


‘Just as the fire of the yajna

Is lit from the fire

Of the hearth,

This son has come from you.

You were one,

Now you are two.


‘You were on a deer=hunt, your majesty,

When you met me, a virgin,

In the ashram of my father.


‘Urvasi, Purvacitti, Sahajanya, Menaka,

Visvaci and Ghritaci are six lovely Apsarases.


‘Menaka, born of a Brahmin,

Is the loveliest. Coming from heaven,

She gave me birth on earth

From her union with Visvamitra.


‘I was born in a Himavat valley.

She had no feelings; she left me

Alone, there, as if I was someone else’s child.


‘What great wrong did I do in a previous life

To be abandoned in this way by my parents?

What have I done now to be abandoned by you?


‘If you reject me,

I will return to the ashram;

But do not reject this boy,

Your own son.’


Dushyanta replied:


‘I do not know, Sakuntala,

Whose child this is.

Women often tell lies.

What proof have you?


‘Your mother, amorous Menaka,

Is devoid of affection;

She abandoned you in Himavat,

Like a ritual flower cast away.


‘Your father, amorous Visvamitra,

Is devoid of affection;

He is the man who

Was tempted from his yoga.


‘But Menaka is best of Apsarases

To you, Visvamitra best of rishis.

You may be their daughter,

But who will believe your words?


‘Your words are valueless.

Go away!

Are you not ashamed to speak like this

Before me? – Go!


‘Where is that fine rishi today,

Where is Menaka, fine Apsaras?

What are you doing here

In dress of a hermit?


‘Your son is grown up.

He looks strong.

So soon – and so strong –

Like a sal-tree?


‘You were born low,

You speak like a low woman.

You were born from the lust

Of Menaka.


‘Leave me, hermit woman.


All that you say

Has no connection with me.’


Sakuntala said:


‘Others’ faults, small as mustard seeds,

You see, your majesty –

But not your own,

Big as the fruit of the bilva.


‘Menaka is a goddess

Best among goddesses.

My birth, Dushyanta,

Is nobler than yours.


‘You walk on earth,

I roam the sky.

You are a mustard seed,

I the mountain Meru.



I can go, if I please,

To the abodes of Indra,

Kubera, Yama and Varuna.


‘Defectless man,

Let me cite a metaphor,

Well-meant, not ill-meant.

(Forgive my audacity.)


‘The ugly man

Thinks himself more handsome

Than others –

Till he looks in a mirror.


‘When he sees himself

In the undeceiving mirror,

He knows the difference

Between him and others.


‘The good-looking man

Does not need to mock others;

The man who mocks others

Really mocks himself.


‘A pig delights in filth

Even in a flower-garden;

A wicked man finds evil

Even where there’s good.


‘But like the Himalayan swan

That sifts milk from water

A wise man takes only good

Out of good-and-evil mixed.


‘It pains the good man

To speak ill of others;

It delights the evil man

Always to speak ill.


‘It delights the good man

to be respectful to elders:

It delights the evil man

To do otherwise.


‘Good men shun fault-finding,

Fools revel in it;

Evil men speak ill of good men,

Good men return good for evil.


‘What thing is more sad

In this world than this –

That men who are wicked

Should brand good men as wicked?


‘Even atheists fear

Liars and wrong-doers,

As men fear poisonous snakes.

  • And I, a believer?


‘The man who neglects

His own son is doomed.

The gods take away his wealth,

His good fortune is destroyed.


‘The pitris: A son

Continues the family line.

A son’s birth is most pious.

A son should never be neglected.


‘Manu says: There are five sons –

A wife’s, a son got from another,

A son bought, a son of affection,

An illegitimate son.


‘Sons sustain dharma;

Sons increase joy;

Sons rescue one’s pitris

From hell.


‘Noble king,

Do not abandon your son.

By cherishing him,

You cherish your own self.


‘Be honest, my lord – a tank

Is better than a hundred wells,

A yajna better than a tank, a son still better,

Truth better than a hundred sons.


‘Weigh a hundred Asvamedhas

And Truth.

Truth will tilt heavier

Than a hundred horse-sacrifices.


‘Listen to me, sire!

Truth equals the study

Of all the Bedas,

Of all pilgrimages put together.


‘There is no dharma like Truth,

Nothing higher than Truth.

Nor is there anything worse

Than falsehood.


‘Truth is the lord Brahma,

Truth the Great Vow.

Do not break your word, sire:

Let Truth and you be one.


‘If you and falsehood unite,

If you disbelieve me,

I will go, now, by myself.

I do not want you.


‘But when you die, Dushyanta,

My son will rule the earth

Surrounded by the four seas and

Adorned with the king of mountains.’


Vaisampayana continued:


She said this, and turned away.

An unseen form in the sky

Shouted to Dushyanta, seated

Beside his ministers and ritviks:


‘A mother,


Is a flesh-sheath;

Just that.

The son

From her

Is the father.


Your son.

Honor her.


‘One’s own son

Is one’s own savior

From death. She is right:

You are this boy’s father.


‘A husband’s body breaks

In two: one himself, one his son

In wife-womb. Acknowledge him:

Your son, born of Sakuntala.


‘To abandon one’s son

And live as a crime.

O Paurava, acknowledge him:

Your son, born of Sakuntala.


‘To abandon one’s son

And live is a crime.

O Paurava, acknowledge him:

Your son born of Sakuntala.


‘Because you cherish this child

On the strength of our word,

The world will know him as Bharata,

The cherished one.’


He heard these words of the gods,

And he was pleased.

He turned to his ministers and priests,

And said:


‘You have heard the words

Of the voice from heaven.

I know now

This boy is my own.


‘Had I acknowledged him

At Sakuntala’s words,

My subjects would have suspected me,

My son would not have been thought pure.’


O great Bharata, the king

Was pleased that the voice from heaven

Had clearly established

The purity of his son.


Joyfully he performed

All the rights

That a father performs

For his son.


He smelt his son’s head,

He lovingly embraced him.

The Brahmins blessed him,

The poets glorified him.


The pleasure of a son’s touch

Was now his; he acknowledged

Sakuntala with honor and affection,

Lovingly pacified her:


‘My wife, I marred you

In secret. No one knew.

My people would have said,

They just joined in lust,


Not as husband and wife.

Our son would have been rejected.

That’s what I was thinking of –

How to make him accepted.


‘My dearest, lovely-eyed one,

I forgive you and

All that you spoke in anger,

Because I love you.’


He said this to his queen,

And presented her

With gifts of perfume,

Choice food and drink,


And installed his son

As heir-apparent,

And gave him the name



From that day Bharata’s chariot,

Like the god’s chariot,

Dazzling-wheeled, filled

The earth with noise.


Bharata subdued

All the kings of the world.

He ruled nobly,

He became greatly famous.


They called him Chakravartin

And Sarvadamana.

He performed many sacrifices

Like Indra, lord of the Maruts.


Kanva presided at these yajnas.

Offerings were made to Brahmins.

The fortune-favored king

Performed the cow-and horse-sacrifices.


Bharata gave one thousand gold coins

As Kanva’s dakshina.

He is the many-feated Bharata,

From whom sprang our great race.


All kings after him

Are known by his name.

Many among the Bharatas

Were like gods,


Many were greatly powerful

Monarchs, many

Like Brahma himself.

Their names are countless.


O great Bharata,

I shall name the chief ones,

All blest with good fortune, all

truth, honest; like all the gods.

3 thoughts on “Myths & Legends of India: Birth of Sakuntala

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