Shakuntala and Dushyanta; Birth of Bharata
King Parikshit, grandson of Arjuna and son of Abhimanyu, the heir of the Pandavas, was killed by Takshaka, the king of Nagas. Bent on revenge, Parikshit’s son and heir, Janamejaya vowed to rid the world of all the Nagas. He arranged for a snake sacrifice. It was conducted on a grand scale and many prominent sages were invited to participate. While the preparations for the event were underway, the members of the royal family and the sages gathered around and asked sauti Vaishampayana to tell them about the events that happened in the past. King Janamejaya, the great-grandson of Arjuna, asked Vaishampayana about the founder of the Kuru lineage. Vaishampayana narrated the story of Shakuntala and Dushyanta, and their son, Bharata, who grew up to be an emperor and founded the kuru lineage.
Once upon a time, there lived a young prince.
King Dushyanta was the king of Hastinapur (present day city in Uttar Pradesh, India). Dushyanta was loved by his subjects and feared by his enemies. He was known to be a kind and generous king; he was equally well-known for his prowess in the art of warfare and was praised for his accomplishments in handling weapons such as the bow and arrow; mace; and the use of animals like elephants and horses in battle. He was a charismatic King—strong and powerfully, admired by all for his valor in the battlefield.
Under Dushyanta’s rule, there was no shortage of food or wealth in the kingdom; people abided by the rules and lived in a peaceful, rich land. Dushyantha was a generous and kind king to his subjects.
One day, the young King Dushyanta decided to go on a hunt. And so, accompanied by a large hunting party consisting of heavily armed men, horses and elephants he set out for a hunting trip. As Dushyanta’s hunting party made its way to the dense forest, sounds of conches and drums reverberated around them. People stopped what they were doing to look at the possession of this great big hunting party. Dushyanta’s subjects cheered him and his men on, and showered him with their love and affection. Many of his subjects followed him to the forest, stopping only when Dushyanta asked them to return home because it would not be safe for them to continue.
Dushyanta and his army thundered their way into the forest. A hunting spree followed, Dushyanta and his men hunted and killed the animals that had the misfortune to cross their path. They killed many animals—many kinds of deer, tigers and even elephants. The frightened animals scattered helter-skelter, many got separated from their herd and became easy prey for the fierce hunters. It was a carnage and the wildlife in the forest suffered the consequences of the king and his men’s indiscriminate hunting.
Leaving the forest behind in a sad state they soon entered yet another forest. The king broke away from his men and explored the forest on his own. As he went deeper into the forest, he discovered that it was no ordinary forest.
The enchanting of the Prince
It was a delightfully beautiful place. It was filled with various flowering and fruit bearing plants and trees, and the sweet floral scent surrounded him as he walked deeper into the forest; everywhere he looked, colonies of bees swarmed the lush flora. It was magical and Dushyanta was completely enchanted.
To his pleasant surprise, Dushyanta found a quaint looking hermitage, which was located near the delta* of the river Malini (said to be situated in present day state of Uttarakand). The hermitage was beautiful and serene. It was surrounded by woods; geese and other water birds, which swam in the river; deers roamed freely in and around the hermitage and lived unafraid alongside monkeys, bears, elephants, tigers and snakes. As Dushyanta stood taking in the beauty of the place, the calming intonations of chants being recited reached his ears from the hermitage.
Dushyanta learned that the hermitage was run by the great sage Kanva, who was the descendent of Kashyapa. Wishing to pay his respects to the sage and to see more of the hermitage, Dushyanta told his advisor and priest to accompany him and asked the rest of his men to wait for his return.
When he got closer to the hermitage, Dushyanta saw that it was teeming with activity—multiple sacrificial fires raged and different groups of sages and ascetics were performing various tasks. A group of sages were reciting the verses from the Rig veda; another group was performing sacrificial rituals from Yagur veda; yet another group was reciting the samhitas form Athrva veda; and others were deep in meditation. Dushyanta also saw sages and ascetics practicing and debating about various subjects including, philosophy, theology, spirituality, science and others.
At some point, Dushyanta left behind his advisor and priest and continued to explore the hermitage on his own. He went inside the hermitage looking for sage Kanva. When he found it empty, he called out to ask if anyone was there. A beautiful young lady came to welcome him. When they introduced themselves to each other, Dushyanta learned that the young lady was Sage Kanva’s daughter, Shakuntala. When he asked about Sage Kanva, Shakuntala told him that her father was out collecting fruit and would be back shortly.
A child abandoned; found and loved.
While Shakuntala played host, Dushyanta decided to wait for sage Kanva’s return. Dushyanta and Shakuntala talked some more. Dushyanta was curious about the beautiful Shakuntala; he wanted to know more about her.
“How is it that Sage Kanva—a known ascetic—is your father?” Dushyanta asked Shakuntala. It was widely known that sage Kanva followed strict ascetic vows and had chosen to not have a wife or children.
In explanation, Shakuntala narrated to Dushyanta the story she was told about her birth.
The sage Vishwamitra—who was a powerful King and gave up his throne to live as an ascetic—was renowned for his intense work as an ascetic. He was involved in austerities to increase his powers to unimaginable levels. His capabilities were legendary and because he was working towards obtaining even more power, it made King of Gods, Indra nervous. As Vishwamitra continued with his work, Indra became increasingly insecure about his position as the King of Gods.
Indra decided Vishwamitra needed to be distracted from his ascetic practices and he turned to Menaka for help. Menaka was an apsara, a celestial spirit, who lived in Indra’s court. Indra ordered Menaka to tempt Vishwamitra away from his work. A hesitant Menaka agreed. However, she also confronted Indra with the fact that she didn’t really want to do it because she knew about how powerful Vishwamitra was and didn’t relish the idea of potentially provoking his anger.
“Even you, the King of Gods himself, is afraid of him. How do you expect me to be okay with confronting such a powerful man?” Menaka asked. Nevertheless, Menaka agreed because her position as an apsara in Indra’s court made it impossible for her to refuse Indra’s orders. Menaka asked Indra for help—she told him to enlist the help of Vayu (Wind god) and Manmatha (God of Love).
When the time came, Menaka went to where Vishwamitra was performing his ascetic practices. As planned Vayu and Manmatha worked together to create a romantic atmosphere and Menaka successfully caught Vishwamitra’s notice. She was successful in breaking Vishwamitra’s work as Indra had instructed.
Later, Menaka got pregnant with Vishwamitra’s child. She had the child, but unfortunately decided to abandon the little baby girl near the river Malini. When sage Kanva found the baby girl on the banks of the river, she was surrounded by vultures, who stood around her, guarding her against the wild predators living in the area. Kanva took the baby. He named her Shakuntala and raised her as his own.
And that, said Shakuntala, was how she came to be the daughter of Sage Kanva.
The start of a new love story
By the time Shakuntala finished narrating her story, Dushyanta had fallen in love with her. Shakuntala had completely won over Dushyanta with her beauty, poise, manner of speaking and intelligence. Dushyanta immediately declared his love to Shakuntala and asked her to marry him. Shakuntala reciprocated his feelings; however, she asked Dushyanta to wait for her father and ask for his permission.
But Dushyanta had other ideas. “I want you to make the decision to marry me on your own,” he said.
He told her that a gandharva marriage between them was completely acceptable as it is allowed for Kshatriyas. Gandharva marriage is when 2 consenting people decide to enter a marriage on their own, without express permission or the presence of other family members, or rituals. Dushyanta reasoned with Shakunthala that they would not go against their Dharma if they made the decision to get married in the Gandharva way.
Shakuntala wanted to marry Dushyanta, and despite her initial reservations she was convinced by Dushyanta’s reasoning that a Gandharva marriage between them was appropriate. However, she had a condition—she told Dushyantha that she would agree to the marriage only if he promised to make their first-born son his heir.
Dushyanta agreed, following which they got married according to the Gandharva form of marriage. Alas, the newlyweds were to part not too long after the marriage as Dushyanta needed to return to his capital. Before his departure, he promised his new wife that he would return soon with a large cavalry and take her with him to the capital with all the pomp and grandeur as befitting his queen.
Not too long after Dushyanta left, Sage Kanva returned to the hermitage. Burdened by the guilt of making a monumental decision without her father’s blessing, Shakuntala could not meet Kanva’s eyes. When Kanva figured out what had happened in his absence, he consoled Shakuntala. He told her that a Gandharva marriage between two people who liked each other and desired to be together is the best kind of marriage; especially for a Kshatriya. Kanva thought highly of Dushyanta and felt he was a worthy groom for Shakuntala. He congratulated Shakuntala on marrying a fine man and blessed their marriage. As a wedding gift, he offered Shakuntala a boon. The wise Shakuntala asked that all of the future kings of the Puru lineage be successful kings and rule their lands justly.
The start of a new life
Weeks passed. Shakuntala was delighted to find out that she was pregnant with Dushyanta’s child. She carried the baby for a period of three years. She gave birth to a strong and healthy baby boy.
Years passed. Shakuntala continued to live in the hermitage, she raised her son with the help of her father. Her son was a big, strong and energetic six-year-old boy. He was adventurous and afraid of nothing. With his superior strength he tamed the wild animals that lived near the hermitage and hence was named Sarvadamana (Sarva=all; damana=tamer).
When Sage Kanva saw how well his grandson was growing, he felt that it was time for Sarvadamana, and Shakuntala, to join Dushyanta in his capital. So, he called some of his most trusted disciples and tasked them with taking both mother and son to Gajasahrya (or Hastinapur), Dushyanta’s capital.
When they reached the palace, Shakuntala stood before Dushyanta in his court. She greeted him and introduced him to their son. She told Dushyanta that they came because it was time for Dushyanta to declare their son as his heir, just as he had promised.
A stand against injustice and betrayal
To Shankuntala’s horror and the shock of everyone else gathered in the court, Dushyanta told her that he had no idea who she was and he had never seen her before. She was blindsided by Dushyanta’s refusal to acknowledge her. Humiliated, confused, angry and sad, for a few moments Shakuntala could do nothing but stand paralyzed in front of Dushyanta and his people. However, she quickly collected herself and proceeded to confront the powerful king head on.
“You do not do justice to your position as a king with your lies,” she told him. “You know the truth and so you know you are lying, even if others don’t.”
Shakuntala scolded Dushyanta for lying that he didn’t know her. She told him that, as his wife and the mother of his son, she should’ve been treated with respect and dignity. She mentioned that even the ancestors knew that a man depended on his wife to flourish and to be happy, a man depended on a woman if he wished to have children and continue his line. A wife is a companion that a man sought to complete his journey through this life and even the next life and shared everything with her—the good, the bad and the ugly. A wife is someone you shouldn’t treat so callously; even when a man is angry, he shouldn’t talk harshly to his wife. “I have been faithful to you and yet you treat me like I mean nothing to you,” Shakunthala accused Dushyanta passionately.
“As a baby, I was thoughtlessly abandoned by my parents—Menaka and Vishwamitra. For no fault of mine, I was abandoned. And now, you say you will abandon me and my son in the same way,” Shakuntala said.
In response, Dushyanta accused Shakuntala of lying. He mocked her the about the fact that her parents, though powerful people, wanted nothing to do with her. He told her that regardless of what her parents accomplished, she was nothing but a liar dressed as an ascetic. Once again, he rejected her.
“Go away,” he dismissed her.
Shakuntala refused to back off. She stood her ground; and stood proudly in front of Dushyanta and the people of his court, and demanded that she and her son be given the respect and honor that was due to them.
Shakuntala chided Dushyanta for being judgmental about her circumstances. She told him that his words reflected badly on himself and revealed his weak character. Shakuntala warned Dushyanta that if he turned his back on his own son, he would be without honor, and that nothing good would come to him. She also told him that he would be remiss in following dharma if he lied and abandoned his own child.
“But,” she told him, “since you continue to deny the truth and refuse to acknowledge us, I don’t know if I want to be with a person who behaves with such dishonor.”
Acceptance and reunion
In that moment, Shakuntala decided to leave and return to her home. The moment she got ready to leave and turned her back on Dushyanta, a celestial voice emerged from the skies. The voice announced loudly and clearly that Shakuntala had been truthful; it urged Dushyanta to do the right thing and embrace his family. The voice declared that since Dushyanta would engage with his son because of the Akashavani, or the voice from the skies, the son will be named Bharata (=maintaining or engaging).
The message was delivered from the messenger of God himself. This pleased Dushyanta immensely. He turned to the courtiers and told them, “You listened to what the messenger of God had to say. Everything he announced is the truth. I couldn’t reveal it before now because I knew you would not fully believe Shakuntala and would have reservations about accepting Bharata as the rightful heir. But now that God’s messenger has told you the truth, I can accept my son freely.”
Dushyanta apologized to Shakuntala for everything he had done and for all the hurtful words he had spoken. He pleaded with her to understand why he needed to do what he did and told her that it was the only way he could think to make sure people would accept her and Bharata as legitimate. He declared his love to her and she accepted both his apology and his love. Shakuntala was happily reunited with her husband and Bharata was appointed as Dushyanta’s heir.
And that…is the love story of Dushyant and Shakuntala and the story of Bharata’s birth.
*Delta: The mouth of a river is where it meets an ocean, a lake or another river. If a river carries a great deal of silt, gravel, clay and sediment as it travels, and this settles out at its mouth, that area of land is called a delta (from the Greek letter). Source: https://sciencing.com/river-delta-6724725.html
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