Volume 5 : 6 June 2005

M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.

The Birth of Kumaara


Kalidasa is undoubtedly the greatest of all classical Sanskrit poets. Aside from the legends, we really do not have any reliable details of his life. As is the case with most Indian classical scholarship and literary works, what we have are the great works of the poet which undoubtedly reveal the genius of Kalidasa. Indian civilization would have been poorer if we had lost Kalidasa. Fortunately we did not, and so even after the lapse of over 1500 years since Kalidasa wrote them, most of our current aesthetics and art forms, including movies, borrow directly or indirectly from Kalidasa. Kumara Sambhava, meaning 'the Birth of Kumaara,' is a very sensuous poem in which the blow hot-blow cold love between Shiva and Paarvati is portrayed. Some of the early editions of this epic poem omitted the eighth canto in which the physical communion between Shiva and Paarvati is so vividly portrayed.


David Smith's translation of "The Birth of Kumaara" is so well done that one is able to enjoy this epic poem greatly through his English translation. Even though Indians from all regions within India acknowledge and feel proud about their ancient literary heritage in languages like Sanskrit and Tamil, very few have the ability to read and enjoy Kalidasa in classical Sanskrit. Unfortunately for various historical, social, and religious reasons, Sanskrit was seen more as a preserve of a few communities, and the masses could only have glimpses of great Sanskrit classics either through modern Indian languages or through oral tradition, which fortunately was always open and functioned as a perennial civilizational force in India. Restrictive practices shut the door to learning Sanskrit in the past.


The Birth of Kumaara Inner Title Page

The very brief Introduction in this translation serves many purposes. It introduces the reader to Kalidasa and his works, whets the appetite of the reader by giving a short synopsis of the epic poem and its story, and presents an insightful analysis of the plot.

Here, Brahma tells the gods that only a son of Shiva and Paarvati can defeat the demon. But Shiva is a yogi, restraining his senses and meditating. How can he sire a son? The very human problem of reproduction is put squarely on the divine level: only sexual reproduction can save the world from the demon who has conquered it (Smith, p. 16).


To me it appears that although one may like to impose a lot of inferences on to the poem and elevate it to a higher level of abstraction, etc., the poet actually seems more interested in entertaining his readers through his poetic genius. Kalidasa is a great story teller, be it his epic poems or his plays. The translation by David Smith certainly brings out this element of Kalidasa's vocation in his translation. David Smith and the editors of the Clay Sanskrit Library Series have wisely chosen to reproduce the original text in modified Roman script to take care of the sound patterns of Sanskrit, rather than reproducing the text in the Devanagari script. While learning a script per se is not a big problem, and will not take much time, using it efficiently to wade through literary works can easily work as a barrier to delve into the original. Also the pages thus formatted and printed certainly look less intimidating and less intrusive to the reader. The reader can easily ignore the original for the few times he reads the epic poem, and then if he is motivated can begin a process of comparing the verse in translation with the verse in the original. This can be easily done by an enterprising Indian student or any enterprising Sanskrit student from around the world.


The lament of Rati, the wife of Kama who was reduced to ashes by Shiva, echoes poignantly in the wailing grief of every widow in the countryside in India. It is amazing to see how a great classical lament in a classical language gets enacted again and again in rustic surroundings by women who hardly had any direct access in writing to the wailing of Rati presented in The Birth of Kumaara! Or is it that Kalidasa, a people's poet and dramatist, borrowed it from the real world around him?

Succumbing to a swoon,
Kama's wife, good and true,
But helpless, was then brought
Back to consciousness
By Fate, determined
to make her undergo
her new widowhood,
with its unbearable suffering.

At the end of her swoon
she brought herself to open her eyes
and looked intently around.
She was not aware
the sight of her beloved
was utterly cut off from her eyes,
which could never
have enough of him.

"Ayi, lord of my life, are you alive?"
she said as she got up.
She saw in front of her
on the ground only the ashes
of the fire of the Destroyer's anger-
ashes in the outline of a man.

Then, once more distraught,
her breasts dirty
from embracing the earth,
she wailed,
disheveling her hair,
seeming to make the ground
feel her pain.

"Your body was
the standard of comparison
for ladies' men
on account of its beauty.
That it has come to this condition
And I'm not tearing myself apart!
Truly women are hard-hearted!
Where have you run to,
Casting me aside,
whose life depends on you,
breaking up our love in a moment,
as a torrent of water,
breaking through
a restraining causeway,
casts aside a lotus?

You did not do anything to displease me,
Nor have I done anything
against your wishes.
Why for no reason
is sight of you not given to Rati
when she laments you?

O Love, do you remember
Me tying you up
With the strings of my girdle
When you got my name wrong,
Or the beatings with the lotuses
that were my ear ornaments,
paining your eyes with
their falling filaments?

You used to say
'You dwell in my heart,'
words dear to me.
I realize they're false.
If they were not a polite phrase,
how is it that when you have no body
Rati is unharmed?

You've just started
on your journey to the next world,
and I will follow your path.
Fate's cheated us all:
the happiness of embodied beings
depended on you!


The craving for love, sensuous love, runs all through the poem. A Brahman tries to dissuade Paarvati from seeking the love of Shiva, because, according to the Brahman, he is not worthy of the love of such a fine girl as Paarvati. Ultimately the craving is fulfilled in the marriage and its consummation:

No sooner was the marriage ritual completed,
the mountain king's daughter experienced
the captivating happiness of being lovesick,
brought on by her combination
of love and fear in respect
of Shiva the Destroyer.

When spoken to she returned no answer.
She wanted to move away
when he held her robe.
When she was on the bed.
she turned her face away.
Even so, she still delighted
Shiva bearer of the Pinaaka bow.

When her lover pretended to be asleep
And curiosity made Paarvati
take a look at him,
he opened his eyes and smiled.
She closed her eyes
as if struck by lightning.

When Shankara [Shiva] put his hand
near her navel,
she quivered and pushed it away,
and then her buttocks
of their own accord
far undid the petticoat string.

The whole episode is not only sensuous in great detail, but also vividly brings out the fears and hesitations of Indian brides in typically arranged marriage situations, in all their innocence, sensibilities, and craving. The theme and the experience of Paarvati are repeated again and again through the various art forms in Indian aesthetics. Such is the great impact of the insight, genius, and skill of Kalidasa on Indian literature including modern day Indian movies.


The question, of course, remains unanswered convincingly: is this appropriate for a poet to depict Shiva and Paarvati in such sensuous terms? "Anandavardhana, writing some four hundred years after Kalidasa, holds that the eighth canto [on the consummation of marriage] is reprehensible" (Smith, p. 18). Speaking from a Western secular point of view, David Smith takes the position that "none of this need concern the modern reader, especially the reader who reads in the context of the western literary tradition." He simply considers the poem as "a supreme achievement of poetic art,worthy to stand beside any other artwork" (p. 18). That the appropriateness of depicting the divine in such sexual terms was questioned is a tribute to the Indian literary and theological tradition.

The translation is eminently readable and enjoyable. In addition, Professor Richard Gombrich's masterful editing and design of the series will make the books in the series very enjoyable. I have no doubt that it (The Birth of Kumaara) is a welcome addition which enables the present generation of Indian Diaspora around the world to enjoy a great literary work, in the fashion of ancient Greek literature. And for students of Indian literature in India, who have no direct contact with the Sanskrit language, it is a great invitation. I look forward to reading all the volumes in this well-thought out series.

An American high school student, who went to school in London, was introduced to Sanskrit there long ago; he liked the language and literature so immensely that he and his wife have now given a lot of their time and monetary and other resources to bring out a series that brings immortal classics to the world. Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. John Clay, for your effort in popularizing classic Indian literature!

[Read the story about how the Clay Sanskrit Library was started in another article in this issue of Language in India, A NEW BOOK SERIES OF CLASSICAL SANSKRIT LITERATURE. - Editor]