Classic by any definition: Aristotle’s standards and their application to Abhijñāna-Śākuntalam

This article is part 4 of 4 in the series Aristotle and Shakuntalam

The irrational and the super-natural in the play


In Aristotle’s view, there should be nothing irrational (i.e., grossly contrary to what is plausible or intelligible – Stephen Halliwell [1]) in the events; if there is, it should lie outside the play (16: 5-6). It distracts the audience that is closely following the play and are convinced of the events, when a supernatural element suddenly intervenes. The staging of anything irrational, when exaggerated, could also reduce it to a farce and render it ridiculous in the eyes of the audience. Thus, it is a great challenge for a poet to strike a balance and bring in irrational elements only where they are required to strengthen his plot, without aesthetically rupturing the play.

Kālidāsa sticks to this rule throughout the play. He only makes his characters report a super-natural incident, without ever bringing them on to the stage. Super-natural elements are irrational too, as they are beyond reason and universal human experience, but certain story-lines do demand evocation of the supernatural to bring sublimity to the narrative. Durvāsa’s curse is heard behind the scenes and is not shown on the stage (Verse 4.1). We also hear Priyamvadā’s report of his arrival, and how he relented and defined an antidote to the curse.  We also get to know through her words that the sage Kaṇva came to know of Śakuntalā’s marriage to Duṣyanta through an incorporeal metrical utterance (शरीरं विना छन्दोमय्या वाण्या). This incident is not shown on the stage. Furthermore, the boy Nārada brings ornaments for Śakuntalā and says that they manifested from the trees through the spiritual powers of the sage Kaṇva (तातकाश्यपप्रभावात् and Verse 4.5). This magical manifestation of objects is not staged by Kālidāsa and is only reported. In the Fifth Act, after Duṣyanta sends off Śakuntalā without acknowledging or recognizing her, we learn from the words of the Purohita that a flash of light in female form lifted her up and vanished (Verse 5.30).  This is yet another instance where Kālidāsa only has one of his characters report an incident and does not bring it on stage. In the Sixth Act too, the episode where the Vidūṣaka is taken away by an invisible force is reported from behind the scenes and is not staged. Mātali then appears on the stage after having released the Vidūṣaka and requests the King’s help in vanquishing demons. Thus in all these instances, Kālidāsa has always intelligently placed the irrational out of the stage, and then makes a reference to it, either by letting a character recount it, or as comment voiced from behind the screen.

Speaking of irrational elements further, Aristotle says – Even the irrational details in the Odyssey about the putting ashore (of Odysseus by the Phaeacians) would patently be intolerable if an inferior poet were to handle them; as it is , Homer uses his other qualities to soften and disguise the absurdity. This is true of Kālidāsa’s genius too. The intense emotional situations associated with the super-natural and irrational elements help soften them and the focus is taken away from them, although they might create momentary wonder. For example, in the Fourth Act, when the trees bestow Śakuntalā with bridal clothes, it is the impending pain of her separation from the āśrama that takes predominance, and the focus is on her close bond with nature. Thus, the act of trees giving her clothes, though irrational, does not look ridiculous in that situation.

These instances fulfill yet another aesthetic requirement put forth by Aristotle: Poetic needs make something plausible though impossible preferable to what is possible but implausible. It may be impossible that people should be as Zeuxis (a famous painter, probably Greek) painted them, but it is ideal, since a paragon should be of higher stature. Refer irrationalities to what people say; and there is also the defense that they are sometimes not irrational, since it is probable that improbable things occur.(25: 10-16). The uber-human personalities portrayed by Kālidāsa in his play are the ideal and art is after-all the bridge between the real and the ideal. Just as with Indian sculpture and painting, Indian literature too is stylized and stylization is a bit detached, although has its roots in reality.

In general, Aristotle says – Awe is pleasurable: witness the fact that all men exaggerate when relating stories, to give delight (24:19-20). This turns out to be true from our everyday experience as well.


Form and Content in Śākuntalam

Aristotle says: “the genre’s own nature teaches poets to choose what is apt for it” (23:35-40). He also says, as quoted earlier that the second aim of good characterization is appropriateness (15:20-22 ‘aucitya’ in the Sanskrit poetic tradition) – the words spoken, the figures of speech used and the metrical pattern should suit the character and the situation. Kālidāsa is an expert at this and thus is called the king of similes (उपमा कालिदासस्य ). He is not merely the king of similes, but the king of aucitya that he has figured out by experience. Thus, his ‘genres have taught him’, as Aristotle might have put it.

A couple of instances are quoted here to illustrate this:

To show hurry and anxiety, he uses a meter (mālinī) which is rich with short syllables (‘laghu’) that indicate quickness. In the First Act, hermits stop Duṣyanta from shooting an arrow at the deer. They say:

न खलु न खलु बाणः संनिपातोSयमस्मिन्
मृदुनि मृगशरीरे पुष्पराशाविवाग्निः |
क्व बत हरिणकानां जीवितं चातिलोलं
क्व च निशितनिपाताः वज्रसाराः शरास्ते || (1.10)

The short syllables in the beginning of the meter show the urgency of the situation and their effort in stopping Duṣyanta from shooting an arrow. Even the words used to describe the tender body of the deer are full of soft consonants – “मृदुनि मृग-” (called ‘mṛdu-vyañjana’ in Sanskrit). The simile the hermits use is also apt to their background – their exposure to life is, in all likelihood, limited to rituals associated with fire, flowers and water, and thus they compare the tender body of the deer to a heap of flowers and Duṣyanta’s sharp arrow to fire. The arrow released by him would be like fire falling on a heap of flowers.

In the Fourth Act, Kaṇva asks Śakuntalā to pay homage to the sacred fires and go round their altar (vedi). Here, Kālidāsa employs the rare ṛk-chandas through the words of Kaṇva for this occasion:

अमी वेदिं परितः कॢप्तधिष्ण्याः
समिद्वन्तः प्रान्तसंस्तीर्णदर्भाः
अपघ्नन्तो दुरितं हव्यगन्धै
र्वैतानस्त्वां वह्नयः पावयन्तु || (4.8)

To quote another example for the apt-use of a simile, in the First Act, the charioteer who sees Duṣyanta carrying a bow compares him with Pinākī, the form of Śiva in which he carries his bow called Pināka. The most popular mythological episode where Śiva carries a bow is when he chases a deer (that is actually a personification of Viṣṇu, the essence of yajña). Here too, Duṣyanta is actually chasing a deer and the simile is apt. Moreover, it is the charioteer who is speaking – he is supposed to be well read in the scriptures and acts as the King’s personal assistant. It is thus no surprise that he can easily connect a real-life situation with a mythical one.

The play Śākuntalam and other works of Kālidāsa are replete with instances where the form and content are completely befitting to the character and the situation.

Aristotle further observes that “a highly brilliant diction, on the other hand, obscures character and thought” (25:35-40). Unlike later poets such as a Śrīharṣa, Māgha and Śivasvāmi, Kālidāsa makes sure that form subserves content. He does not use bombastic words to communicate something simple and his choice of meters is appropriate to what he wants to describe. (Kṣemendra in his Kavikaṇṭhābharaṇa quotes examples for non-optimal use of words [10]). The play Śākuntalam also has an optimum blend of prose and verses and this quality is also attested to by several Indian and foreign scholars in their works [11][12].

A few other requirements:

  • While speaking of characterization, Aristotle says – “A character if inconsistent, should be consistently inconsistent” (15:25-27). This is true of the Vidūṣaka’s character throughout the play. There is consistency in his stupidity.
  • What is fearful and pitiable can result from spectacle, but also from the actual structure of events which is the higher priority and the aim of a superior poet (14: 1-4). This is certainly true of the Śākuntalam, as it is the events that evoke pity in us, and not miracles or spectacles. Miracles such as nature conjuring up bridal clothes for Śakuntalā and the voice from the skies wishing her a smooth journey (रम्यान्तरः कमलिनीहरितैः सरोभिः11), though they create wonder, are actually metaphors attesting to the intimacy the hermits in general and Śakuntalā in particular shared with nature.

The poet’s voice versus the voice of the character


Aristotle identifies one special quality of Homer – “Homer deserves praise for many other qualities, but especially for realising, alone among epic poets, the place of the poet’s own voice. For the poet should say as little as possible in his own voice, as it is not this that makes him a mimetic artist” (24:5 -10). In the Indian literary tradition, Kaviprauḍhokti is the portion where the poet directly speaks to the reader and Kavinibaddhapraudhokti is where he speaks through his characters. Aristotle says this while speaking about an epic or a long poem, and is not directly applicable for an Indian play, as it is only the characters that speak. Indian theatre tradition avoids the poet speaking or a narrator reporting the playwright’s words and makes use of secondary characters to bridge the gap between the acts and bring continuity to the story.

The Second Act has a long monologue of the Vidūṣaka to update the readers about the events after the First Act and before the Second. This role is fulfilled by viṣkambhaka for the Third and Fourth Acts. The praveśaka before the Sixth Act fulfills a similar purpose. Kālidāsa also tries to look through the eyes of different characters to give different perspectives to the same set of events. For example, he has Sānumatī, an apsara watch the proceedings of the entire Sixth Act. He gives the perspective of seeing a running deer, horses, trees and nature by the characters sitting on a chariot, Duṣyanta and the charioteer (1.7, 1.8, 1.9). Even when he has the play’s director (sūtradhāra) in conversation with a female actor (naṭī) on the stage to establish the context of the play, in the prelude to the First Act, he gives a hint of the storyline. The sūtradhāra, who, for a moment, is carried away by the song sung by the naṭī, forgets what play is to be presented and the naṭī reminds him. This is the theme of the whole play, in fact – the man forgets and the lady reminds him!



abhijnana shakuntala Classic by any definition: Aristotle’s standards and their application to Abhijñāna-Śākuntalam AS-3-300x200

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Aristotle presents a great set of parameters to evaluate a tragedy. It is only unfortunate that the second part of Poetics, which contained discussions about comedy is missing. His parameters are mainly related to the technique of creating a tragedy. A third category of plays, not stated by Aristotle, called the ‘tragicomedy’ was defined by later literary aestheticians. It was first coined by Plautus, a Roman playwright of the 2nd century BC in the prologue to his play Amphitryon [13]. Tragicomedy is defined either as a tragic play that has several comic elements within it to lighten the overall mood or a serious play with happy ending [14]. Most scholars aptly classify the play Abhijñāna-Śākuntalam under this third category – the tragicomedy. Śākuntalam is also usually compared with Shakespeare’s Winter Tale, a tragicomedy.

A feature that Indian aestheticians have held in high esteem and is missing in Aristotle is the concept of ‘dhvani’ i.e., suggestion, that emerges out due to oblique expression (vakratā). Although he makes passing references to suggestion and says that suggestion is important in any piece of art, its kinds, means and evaluation are missing. Furthermore, the essence of all arts, Rasa (aesthetic delight) and its varieties and various contributing factors that the Indians always discuss while talking about any art, although referred to here and there by Aristotle using different terminologies, its thorough analysis and documentation is missing. Aucitya, i.e., appropriateness is the fourth important aesthetic parameter used by Indians and is discussed in detail by Aristotle too.  An examination of the play Śākuntalam from the view point of dhvani, that is caused by oblique expression (vakratā) in the backdrop of Rasa would perhaps be wholesome. Nevertheless, using the set of parameters defined by Aristotle, Śākuntalam reigns supreme as a play in terms of technique and design.

Let us contrast the play Śākuntalam with another highly acclaimed play, the Mudrārākṣasa of Viśākadatta [15] – Though there is a ring involved throughout the play, it is merely a tool used by Cāṇakya to meet his goals. In Śākuntalam however, the ring graduates from being a mere token of identity to being a token of recognition, from merely being a fact to being a value, thereby brining sublimity to the word ‘Abhijñāna’, that appears as a part of the title. (A value differs from a fact in that, the latter is simply anything that becomes the object of information for the purposes of a purely theoretic investigation. The satisfaction of desire or attainment of ends as the result of knowing facts is a ‘value’ [16]). A token of identity is a material aspect (a physical reality) while that of recognition is a spiritual aspect, thus the play graduates the material to the spiritual. Moreover, the recognition in Śākuntalam is associated with a lifeless object, the ring, in the Sixth Act and in the Seventh Act, it is a combination of the recognition through a person, Bharata, who in turn is recognized through a lifeless object, the bracelet. Kālidāsa, unlike Viśākadatta employs compound recognition through a lifeless object, a living being and the combinations of the two. Thus, Aristotle would certainly rank Śākuntalam higher than Mudrārākṣasa in this aspect, at least.

A detailed analysis of Aristotle’s Poetics with parallels from Indian literary aesthetics and their application to classical literature is presented by N Balasubrahmanya [17].



The paper has shown that Kālidāsa’s Śākuntalam is a classic even when viewed from Aristotle’s principles, as delineated by him in his Poetics. This is either a strange coincidence or proof of the fact that artists and aestheticians, irrespective of their native land and the times that they live in, have similar thoughts on classical art, or at least, the ancient Greeks and ancient Indians did so. Aristotle wrote his Poetics at least eight-hundred years before Kālidāsa was born, and Kālidāsa was probably not aware of the Poetics of Aristotle, but Śākuntalam, which is hailed as his best play, fully conforms to the expectations set by Aristotle. What was propounded in theory by Aristotle has been practically executed by Kālidāsa, the amazing fact here is that both theoretician and poet worked independent of each other.




[1] Halliwell, Stephen (Edited and translated – 1999), ‘Aristotle-Poetics’, edited and translated by, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University press

[2] Kale, MR (2005) ‘The Abhijñāna-Śākuntalam of Kālidāsa’ with the commentary of Rāghavabhaṭṭa and translation by M.R. Kale, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

[3] Krishna Shastry, AR (2012), ‘Samskṛta- nāṭaka’, Hemanta Sahitya – Kannada original

[4] Krishnamoorthy, K (2003), ‘Samskṛta-kāvya’, Vidyuth Prakashana – Kannada original

[5] Ranganna, SV (2014), ‘Pāścātya-gambhīra-nāṭakagaḻu’, Mysore Prasararanga – Kannada original

[6] Stoler Miller, Barbara Ed (1984), ‘Theater of Memory – The plays of Kāḻidāsa’ –, Unesco collection of representative works – Indian series (Original Columbia University Press, 1984)

[7] Karmarkar, RD (1960), ‘Kāḻidāsa’, Karnataka University, Dharawar

[8] Venkataramayya, CK (1966) ‘Kālidāsa-mahākavi’, Sahitya-Samskrti-abhivruddhi-shakhe (1966)

[9] Ganesh, R (2011), ‘Śakuntalādarśa’, an essay in the anthology ‘Kāvyakalpa’, Sahitya Prakashana

[10] Krishnamoorthy, K (2011) ‘Kṣemendrana Kavikaṇṭhābharaṇa’, with notes and translation by, Dr. K. Krishnamoorthy Samśodhana Pratiṣṭhāna – Kannada original.

[11] Ranganna, SV (2011) ‘Kāḻidāsana-nāṭakagaḻa-vimarśe’published by S.R. Shivaram – Kannada original

[12] Srikantayya, TN (2005-06) ‘Kāvya-samīkṣe’, Kavyalaya  – Kannada original

[13] Foster, Verna A. (2004). The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate. p. 16

[14] Dewar-Watson, Sarah; Eds. Subha Mukherji and Raphael Lyne (2007), ‘Aristotle and Tragicomedy, Early Modern Tragicomedy’, Brewer. pp. 15–23.

[15] Karmarkar, RD (2002) ‘Mudrārākṣasa of Viśākadatta’ –Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan

[16] Hiriyanna, M (1940) The Quest after Perfection, Journal of the Madras University, Vol. xiii.2 (Miller Lectures)

[17] Balasubrahmanya, N (2015) ‘Aristotlena kāvyamīmāmse’ – Kavyalaya – Kannada original



Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh and Prof. LV Shanthakumari for their valuable feedback and help in preparing this paper.

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Arjun Bharadwaj abhijnana shakuntala Classic by any definition: Aristotle’s standards and their application to Abhijñāna-Śākuntalam arjun b

Arjun Bharadwaj

Arjun is a poet, translator, engineer, and musician. He is a polyglot, well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, Hindi, English, Greek, and German. He is currently studying comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature.
Arjun Bharadwaj abhijnana shakuntala Classic by any definition: Aristotle’s standards and their application to Abhijñāna-Śākuntalam arjun b