"Nirjaney cha vaney yasmaachakuntaihi
chaapi tatoh mayaa
"She was surrounded in the solitude
of the wilderness by Sakunta birds
I name her Shakuntala, the one protected by Shakuntas
The above were the words uttered by sage Kanva in the Adi Parva of the
Mahabharata. He was the one who found baby Shakuntala alone and
abandoned in the forest.
Indian mythology is vibrant and colourful and presents some of the
world's best ever romantic legends. Sanskrit literature, especially, is
a rich treasure trove of love tales that are sensuous and passionate
and rouse the romantics in each of us. Epics such as the Ramayana and
the Mahabharata comprise several charming stories of love between
mortals, kings and queens, Gods and Goddesses. The divine and undying
emotion of love is further celebrated by great poets and writers of
One such legend is that of Shakuntala, the daughter of sage Vishwamitra
and the beautiful Apsara, Menaka. This tale revolves round the love of
Shakuntala and the mighty king, Dushyanta. Originally mentioned in the
Mahabharata, the story of Shakuntala has been immortalized by way of
the Abhijyanashakuntalam, written by the great poet, Kalidasa.
Shakuntala was born to sage Vishwamitra and the heavenly Apsara Menaka.
Menaka had been ordered by Indra, the King of the Devas, to travel down
to earth and distract the great sage from his mighty and powerful
Indra was well aware of Vishwamitra's powers and feared that if he grew
any stronger spiritually, he would easily be able to usurp his own
thrown and start ruling the Devaloka. Before we go into the actual
story of Shakuntala, let us first look at the life and times of her
parents, Vishwamitra and Menaka.
Brahmarishi Vishwamitra is one of the most revered rishis of ancient
India. Also a great scholar, he is credited as the author of much of
Mandala 3 of the Rigveda, including the Gayatri Mantra. According to
the Puranas, Vishwamitra is the first among only 24 ancient rishis to
have understood the actual brilliance and meaning of the Gayatri
Mantra. Vishwamitra's mentioned is also found in several legendary
stories and in different works of the Sanatana Dharma.
Vishwamitra, a descendant of the mighty King Kusha (not Lord Rama's
son), was also called Kaushika. He was originally a king of ancient
India. Vishwamitra ruled the earth for many thousands of years. The
story of Vishwamitra appears in various Puranas, with slight
differences in each one of them. He was the son of Gadhi, one of the
four sons of Kusha.
Vishwamitra Meets Vasistha
On one of his expeditions, Kaushika, along with his soldiers, decided
to rest in Rishi Vasistha's ashram (hermitage). The sage welcomed him
wholeheartedly and fed and took care of the entire army. The king
wondered as to how it was possible for the humble, simple ashram to
take care of all the arrangements to feed an entire army. When he
expressed his surprise to the sage, Vasistha told him that his little
calf, Nandini, had provided the food to the entire entourage. Nandini,
the daughter of the holy, wish-granting cow, Kamadhenu, was a gift from
Kaushika immediately started thinking of possessing the calf and how
beneficial it could prove to him and the country at large. He requested
the sage to hand over Nandini to him. Vasistha was polite, but refused
the king's request, saying that he would never be tempted by any amount
of wealth that Kaushika could offer him. He knew that Nandini could
offer infinite times that wealth if he so wished.
This angered Kaushika, who poured verbal insults at Brahmarishi
Vasistha. He then ordered his soldiers to seize the cow, and drive it
to his kingdom. However, the great Vasistha, with his Yogic powers,
called forth an entire army of warriors to fight Kaushika's army. The
latter's army was completely routed and Kaushika was captured and
presented before Vasistha. The sage pardoned Kaushika, spared his life
and sent him back to his own kingdom.
In another version, Vasistha destroyed the whole of the army with the
chanting of Aum. Kaushika then undertook penance to appease Lord Shiva,
who granted him the knowledge of celestial weaponry. Filled with pride
and arrogance, Kaushika went back to Vasistha's ashram, only to be
quashed again with the power of Vasishta's Brahmadanda or sacred wooden
Vishwamitra Becomes a Brahmarishi
The defeat made the king realize how great spiritual power was. Taking
the name Vishwamitra (a friend of the World), he then renounced his
kingdom and undertook penance in order to become a greater rishi than
Vasistha. After many years of severe penance and austerities, he
finally attained the title of Brahmarishi and that too, from sage
Vasishta himself. This immediately ends their enmity.
Interestingly, it was also at this time that he met Menaka and then
sired Shankuntala. Vishwamitra's love for Menaka was known to be
extremely intense and passionate, much beyond human imagination.
Vishwamitra, the Compassionate One
As a king, Kaushika had been arrogant and haughty, with a vile temper.
He had not lost that temper even when he became an ascetic. But as a
former king, Vishwamitra also had a lot of compassion for all around
and was always willing to help those in trouble.
The Story of Trishanku
King Trishanku had been cursed to become a Chandala or untouchable. He
was hence transformed into a person with an ash-smeared body, clothed
in black, wearing jewellery made of iron. Trishanku asked his guru,
Vasishta, to send him to heaven while in his own body, but the guru
told him that this was not possible. So Trishanku made the same request
to Vishwamitra, who conducted a great yagna, knowing well that this act
would also rob him of all the punya (good karma) that he had gathered
in his lifetime of penance.
When none of the Devas accepted Trishanku into heaven, Vishwamitra
decided to use his Yogic powers and ordered him to ascend to heaven.
Trishanku did rise to heaven, but was rejected by Indra. Enraged by
this, the mighty Vishwamitra created a different heaven for the king,
called the Trishanku Swarga. He stopped only when Brihaspati ordered
him to do so. Ultimately, though, the king did not enjoy his exclusive
heaven and was then transformed into a constellation.
In the Ramayana
In the epic Ramayana, Vishwamitra featured as Lord Rama's guru. He gave
both Rama and Lakshmana the knowledge of advanced religious principles
and also of the Devastras or celestial weaponry. Using this knowledge,
Rama defeated and slayed Tataka, Maricha and Subahu.
Vishwamitra also influenced Rama to go to Sita's swayamvara and win her
hand in marriage, which Rama finally does.
Menaka, the Beautiful Apsara
Menaka was a stunningly beautiful Apsara who captured the hearts of the
Devas, Suras and Asuras alike. An Apsara is a celestial nymph or a
celestial maiden, with spiritual powers. Youthful and vibrant, they are
also well-versed in all the fine arts. They are married to the
Gandharvas and serve Indra in his court, by singing and dancing to the
music created by their husbands.
Apsaras are believed to be capable of changing their shape at will. The
four most famous Apsaras are Urvashi, Rambha, Tilottama and Menaka. Out
of them, Menaka was the one who was the most beautiful, as also the
Fearing that Vishwamitra's steep spiritual rise would enable him to
overthrow Indra and rule Devaloka, Indra ordered Menaka to go down to
Earth and break his penance. Accordingly, Menaka appeared in front of
Vishwamitra and tried her level best to distract him with her dance and
Finally, Vishwamitra gave in to her charms. He felt lust and passion
well up inside him when he saw her swimming naked in a lake near the
waterfall. He left his penance to be with her and the two of them made
love for years together. Though Menaka had come with a mission, she
herself fell deeply in love with Vishwamitra and the two shared a
passion experienced by none else.
Vishwamitra came to know of Indra's devious trick and was enraged at
his cowardly act. However, he was well aware of Menaka's genuine love
for him and therefore, he merely cursed her that she would be separated
from him forever.
Menaka left for the heavens and there, she discovered she was pregnant
with Vishwamitra's child. She gave birth to Shakuntala and left the
infant at rishi Kanva's ashram.
Vishwamitra was enraged to find out how he had been duped by Menaka and
the Devas and he also felt ashamed of himself that he had lost all the
virtue he had gained through his many years of penance and ascetism. He
distanced himself from the mother and child and got back to his
Knowing that she could not leave the child with him, and wanting to go
back to the heavens, Menaka left her newborn in the forest. It was here
that the infant was found by Kanva Rishi. Naming her Shakuntala, Kanva
Rishi took her to his ashram, on the banks of the Malini River which is
located near the Shivalik hills of the Himalayas.
Shakuntala's childhood was spent happily roaming around in the greenery
of the hills, along with her two closest friends, Anasuya and
Priyamvada. She grew up to be a strikingly beautiful young woman, who
radiated youth and elegance, though simply clad in cotton garments and
flowers for ornaments. She had a sweet voice and equally sweet and
sober nature as well.
So gentle and soft-spoken was she, that even the birds and animals
residing in the forest were drawn to her. In fact, Shakuntala is often
portrayed petting deer, who are considered to be some of the most timid
animals, fearing all human contact.
Shakuntala Meets Dushyanta
Shakuntala's life turned around when she happened to lay her eyes on
Dushyanta. Dushyanta was a great King featuring in Indian mythology and
classical Indian literature as well. He is the central male character
of Kalidasa's great play, Abhignanashakuntalam.
His name appears in the Mahabharata as a mighty, powerful and just
ruler who fought and won many a battle, thereby gaining power over many
states of India. Dushyanta was the son of Ilina and Rathantara. His
rule is believed to have spanned from Gandhara (now, Kandahar in
Afghanistan) to the Vindhyas and from Sindhu (now, Pakistan) to Banga
King Dushyanta first encountered Shakuntala while travelling through
the forest with his army, in pursuit of a male deer, injured by his
arrow. He happened to enter the ashram, when he saw Shakuntala and
instantly fell in love with her. Begging her forgiveness for harming
the deer, he also spent some time at the ashram.
When he expressed his love for her, he realized that Shakuntala too
reciprocated his feelings. The young couple spent many happy hours with
each other. Dushyanta then secretly married Shakuntala, in accordance
with the Gandharva Vivaha tradition prevalent then. Dushyanta stayed
overnight in the ashram and then left for his capital city, promising
Shakunatala that he would return soon to take her back to his kingdom,
as his lawfully wedded wife. Before leaving, he gave his precious ring
to Shakuntala, as a sign of his love for her. He also particularly
asked her not to lose it under any circumstance.
After Dushyanta's departure from the ashram, Shakuntala spent much time
dreaming about him and was often in her own dream world, neither eating
nor sleeping properly. One day, rishi Durvasa, who was infamous for his
nasty temper, came to the ashram. Lost in her thoughts, Shakuntala
failed to notice the sage and greet him properly.
Enraged by this insult, Durvasa cursed Shakuntala, saying that the
person of her dreams would forget about her altogether. As he was about
to depart, one of Shakuntala's friends explained to him the real reason
behind Shakuntala's distraction and that it was never her intention to
insult the rishi.
Understanding Shakuntala's state and realizing that she was truly
innocent; Durvasa modified his curse saying that the person who had
forgotten Shakuntala would recall everything if she showed him a
personal token of love that had been given to her.
SHAKUNTALA PINES FOR KING DUSHYANTA, WITH
PRIYAMVADA AND ANUSUYA
Time passed by and Shakuntala started wondering why Dushyanta did not
return for her. In a few weeks' time, Shakuntala panicked when realized
that she was pregnant with Dushyanta's child. Very soon, her condition
would become obvious to one and all around. She confided in Kanva
Maharshi, who immediately decided to send her to her husband,
Shakuntala Loses the Ring
It was the day for Shakuntala to leave for the capital city. Dressed in
beautiful silk attire, Shakuntala left the ashram along with her foster
father. On the way to the kingdom, Shakuntala and her entourage had to
cross a river by a canoe. Attracted to the sheer beauty of the river,
Shakuntala ran her fingers through the deep blue water. At this moment,
the ring given to her by Dushyanta slipped off her finger, without her
realizing it. A fish swimming in the river swallowed the ring.
Dushyanta Forgets Shakuntala
When she reached Dushyanta's court, a message was sent to the king
about the arrival of a woman who claimed to be his wife. Unfortunately,
Dushyanta had lost his memory, due to Durvasa's curse. He did not
recall anything at all about Shakuntala and their wedding. Hence, he
refused to accept Shakuntala as his wife. Shakuntala tried to remind
him of their meeting, the hours they had spent in each other's company,
the night he had stayed on in the ashram and so on. But Dushyanta
In a final bid, Shakuntala told him about the ring he had given her and
raised her hand to show it to him. Only then did she realize that it
had fallen off somewhere and that she had lost it forever.
Shakuntala Gives Birth
Utterly humiliated and dejected, Shakuntala returned to a remote part
the forest, where she, in due course of time, gave birth to a beautiful
baby boy. Bharata, as she named him, was one day destined to become one
of the most powerful icons of Indian history.
Bharata gradually grew older and turned out to be a strong, handsome
youth. Having been raised in the forest, he moved around with the wild
animals there and grew to be fearless, healthy and extremely active and
agile. He used to ride the wild animals and often made a sport of
opening the mouths of lions and tigers in order to count their teeth.
When the time came, Shakuntala taught him the art of archery and also
the use of weapons. She also acquainted him with the Vedas and the
Upanishads. Bharata soon grew to become a handsome and intelligent
young man - veritably, a prince in exile!
Dushyanta Regains His Memory
In the meantime, a fisherman was utterly surprised to find a royal ring
inside the belly of a fish he had caught. He found the ring when he cut
up the fish and recognizing the royal seal, he took the ring to
Dushyanta. As he held the ring, Dushyanta immediately recalled his past
- his love for Shakuntala, the wonderful time spent with her and the
memories of his lovely bride. He felt very bad about the way he had
rudely driven away his own pregnant wife from his court, insulting her
in front of one and all present there.
Dushyanta Meets Bharata
Wasting no more time, Dushyanta immediately set out to find Shakuntala.
Arriving at her father's ashram, he realized that she had left there.
He decided to move deeper into the forest to find her. He then suddenly
stopped when he came upon a surprising scene - a young lad had pried
open the mouth of a lion and was counting its teeth!
Utterly amazed, Dushyanta asked the boy his name. More surprise was in
store for him, as the boy said that he was Bharata, the son of King
Dushyanta. Then, at Dushyanta's request, the boy took him to
Shakuntala. Dushyanta narrated to her all that he had been through in
the past few days, how he had lost his memory and how he could now
remember everything. Finally, he asked her to join him again and thus,
the family was reunited.
Another Version of the Story
There is yet another version of this story. It goes on to narrate how
Menaka took Shakuntala back to Heaven when Dushyanta refused to accept
her as his wife. Shakuntala stayed on there till she gave birth to
Meanwhile, Dushyanta had to wage war against the Devas - his reward was
to be reunited with his wife and son. He emerged the victor in this
battle and after that, he had a vision, which surprised him.
He saw a young boy counting the teeth of a lion. His kavach (armour)
had fallen off his arm. The Devas told Dushyanta that only Bharata's
mother or father could tie it back on his arm. Dushyanta successfully
tied the kavach on his arm. Surprised and confused, Bharata took the
king to his mother Shakuntala and told her that this person claimed to
be his father.
Shakuntala was amazed to see Dushyanta again and told Bharata that the
king was indeed his father. Thus the family was reunited in Heaven.
They then returned to earth to rule for many years before the birth of
The Story of Emperor Bharata
Bharata, the son of Shakuntala and Dushyanta, went on to become a
legendary Indo-Aryan emperor of India, who was given equal important in
both Hindu and Jain mythology. Belonging to the Kashyapa clan of Hindu
Brahmins, he is considered to be the ancestor of all those belonging to
Bharata was a mighty emperor who conquered all of Greater India,
unifying it into a single entity, which was named after him, as the
Bharatavarsha. According to the Mahabharata, Bharatavarsha spanned over
the entire Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan,
Turkmenistan, Kyrgistan, Bactria and Persia. Today, the term
"Bharatavarsha" officially implies only the Republic of India.
About Bharatavarsha, the Vishnu Purana says:
"Uttaram yatsamudrasya himadreschaiva
tadbharatam naama bharati yatra santatihi
Translated in English, this means:
"The country that lies in the north
of the ocean and in the south of the snowy mountains is called
Bharatam. Therein reside the descendants of Bharata.
According to some other Puranas, the Bharatavarsha implies the whole of
Planet Earth, and not just India.
The name Bharata in Sanskrit, stands for "the cherished one". During
childhood, Bharata was also referred to as Sarvadamana, which means,
"the one who subdues all". This name probably came to be because even
as a young child, Bharata loved to play with the fierce animals of the
forest, seizing and restraining them with his bare hands. It is also
believed that since Dushyanta supported his son after receiving the
celestial message, the boy came to be called Bharata, "the supported".
Of course, there is no historical or mythological evidence to prove the
theory. This sometimes shows up in some dramatized versions of
Bharata Becomes Emperor
Bharata, who became King in his youth, ruled long and virtuously,
earned great name and fame. His empire was named Bharatavarsha. He soon
grew from strength to strength and earned several titles, including
"Chakravarti" (emperor) and "Sarvabhauma" (the omniscient one).
The Bharata Vansha (Race)
The Bharata Vansha is very significant in Indian mythology, as the
Pandavas were descendants of the mighty king Bharata. Here is an
account of the great Bharata Vansha through the course of many
centuries, leading into the Mahabharata:
- Bharata wedded Sunanda, the
daughter of Sarvasena, the ruler of Kashi.
- Bharata had in all three wives and
nine sons. But none of them were like him. The mothers of the children
were very angry and disappointed by this and hence, slew all their
children. Bharata then conducted a great yagna called "mourisoma" and,
by the grace of the sage, Bharadwaja, begot a son he named Bhumanyu. He
named this son his heir-apparent.
- Bhumanyu wedded Vijaya, the
daughter of Dasarha and they had a son named Suhotra. Suhotra later
married Suvarna, the daughter of Ikshvaku and they begot a son named
Hasti. Hasti founded the city of Hastinapura.
- Hasti got married to Yashodhara,
the princess of Trigarta. They had a son named Vikunthana.
- Vikunthana, in time, went on to
marry Sudeva, the princess of Dasarha. They had a son named Ajamidha.
Ajamidha had four wives Raikeyi, Gandhari, Visala and Riksha. By his
wife Riksha, Ajamidha begot a son, Samvarana.
- Samavarana married Tapati,
Vivaswat's daughter and begot a son named Kuru. This great ruler went
on to create the Kurukshetra sacred by practising asceticism there.
- Kuru married Shubhangi and they got
a son named Viduratha. Viduratha in turn married Supriya and they had a
son named Anaswan.
- Anaswan got married to Amrita and
they had a son called Parikshit. Parikshit then married Suvasa and they
had a son, Bhimasena. Bhimasena in turn married Kumari and their son
was named Pratisravas. Pratisravas' son was called Pratipa.
- Pratipa got wedded to Sunanda and
they had three sons. Because the eldest son adopted the life of an
ascetic, the second son, Shantanu, ascended the throne.
- Shantanu became one of the most
important characters of the Mahabharata. He married Ganga, who bore him
a son called Devavrata, who was later referred to as Bhishma. Shantanu
also married Satyavati later and got two sons. Out of them,
Vichitravirya ascended the throne. Satyavati had already had a son by
sage Parashara, named Vedavyasa (also known as Dwaipayana).
- Sage Vedvyasa had three children,
Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura.
- The 100 sons of Dhritarashtra were
collectively referred to as the Kauravas, while the five sons of Pandu
were called the Pandavas.
- The Mahabharata starts off with the
story of the Pandavas and the Kauravas and their hatred for each other.
The Pandavas married Draupadi or Panchali, as she is also known.
Arjuna, one of the Pandavas, had many wives, one of which was Krishna's
sister, Subhadra. By Subhadra, Arjuna begot Abhimanyu, who died
fighting in the Chakravyuha formation during the great Kurukshetra war.
- Abhimanyu married Uttar and they
had a son called Parikshit, who took the Bharata Vamsa further ahead
after the Pandavas' time.