Through his writings we understand Kalidasa’s patron was a monarch named Vikramaditya. He did not specify the Vikramaditya of his time. Hence, this has led to a lot of confusion about his time. Some Indian scholars like M.R. Kale have identified this Vikramaditya with King Vikramaditya of Ujjayini – founder of the Samvat era (57 BCE). This is yet another date for the poet-laureate of the Sanskrit literature. Un-Paninian expressions and grammatical forms in Kalidasa’s writings have led scholars to believe that he wrote at a time when the Ashtadhyayi did not have total sway over scholars. Some scholars took this king to be Skanda Gupta (453 to 480 CE). Ashvaghosha (78 CE) has similar passages as Kalidasa.
He called Buddha Charitam a mahakavya. Scholars who insist on a later date for the poet cite this in support of their argument. But the problem is Ashvaghosha was a philosopher who was not known for his poetic brilliance. If there is any borrowing, then it is likely that Kalidasa was the original. This is the view of Prof. R.N. Apte. Thus, Kalidasa had a long literary career. His writings clearly prove that they were the creation of a peaceful era whereas Skanda Gupta presided over the empire when it had reached its nadir. There is another problem with the Ashvaghosha theory. There have been two or three persons bearing that name.
Most European scholars, however, place Kalidasa between the 4th and 5th century CE. They identify Vikramaditya with Chandra Gupta II and maintain that Kalidasa’s later works were written under Kumara Gupta I (413 to 455 CE) and the poet continued to write even during Skanda Gupta’s reign (455 to 480 CE).The poet was conversant with court life, which is evident from his writings. Though he was supposed to be a fool in his youth, he later displayed great knowledge of the Vedas, Epics, Puranas, Bhagavat, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, the systems of Samkhya, Yoga, Ayurveda and Vedanta as propounded by Badarayana Vyasa.
Kalidasa appears to be a Brahmin. This theory is further reinforced by the fact that the poet shows partiality to Brahminism. This, according to Pandit Suryanarayana Vyas, who did a lot of research on Kalidasa, makes Kalidasa a poet belonging to the Sunga period when Buddhists were suppressed and Vedic religion was re-established. It is worth recalling that Malavikagnimitram is the only historical play written by the bard. The rest of the works are based on the Puranas.
It would be wrong to assume that he was a libertine; his writings conform to the accepted social norms of the day. This is clearly proved from the way he describes Shiva and Parvati as the ideal couple, inseparable as the word and its meaning. In Abhijnana Shakuntalam, the heroine berates the king for betraying her. She tells him that his conduct was fit for a man in the street and not worthy of a monarch belonging to the family of Raghu.
We have referred to legends surrounding Kalidasa. The Sanskrit Bhojaprabandha, a popular work in several Indian languages, is their source. But we cannot rely upon these stories. Seven works of Kalidasa have come down to us. Of these, three are plays: Vikramoryasiyam, Malavikagnimitra and Abhignana Shakuntalam. Two are epics: Raghuvamsham and Kumarasambhavam. The first is Vaishnavite in nature, dealing with the genealogy of the kings of the Raghu dynasty to which Rama belongs. The second is Shaivite as it deals with Shiva and Parvati and the birth of their son, Kartikeya, also called Kumaraswami, Murugan, etc.
Kalidasa thus showed perfect impartiality in tackling the various sectarian factions of his day. This drew Ryder’s admiration, “Kalidasa moved among the jarring sects with sympathy for all, fanaticism for none.’’ According to C.R. Devdhar and N.G. Suru, the epics and Meghadutam were written when Kalidasa’s genius was in full flow. His works show the poet to be eclectic in his approach to matters spiritual.
In Raghuvamsham, Kalidasa begins the work by reverentially hailing Mahadev and Parvati as unified as the word and its meaning. Then he describes the lineage of Raghu and the exploits of some of the kings.
Kalidasa’s best known work is Abhijnana Shakuntalam, a play based on an episode from the Mahabharata. Kalidasa has modified it by introducing Rishi Durvasa. The short-tempered sage curses Shakuntala that when she goes to meet her husband King Dushyanta, he will fail to recognize her. This curse is because the heroine was too absorbed in thinking of Dushyanta to pay proper attention to Durvasa when he visited Kanva’s ashram. When Shakuntala’s friend intercedes on her behalf, the sage relents and modifies the curse – Dushyanta will recognize her and recall the promise to make her the queen and their son the crown prince when she shows him the signet-ring. In the original story in the Mahabharata, a voice from heaven tells Dushyanta that what Bharata’s mother is saying is true and he should welcome them. In Kalidasa’s play, Shakuntala loses the ring when she visits Dushyanta due to the curse. The king calls her a liar. Shakuntala returns to Kanva’s ashram in distress because of the king’s rude behaviour. Miraculously, a fisherman finds the signet ring in the mouth of a fish. He is arrested while trying to sell it. The royal guards drag him before the king. Dushyanta recalls the episode involving Shakuntala on seeing the signet ring, and the fisherman is released. He also touches the amulet tied around Bharata’s neck without any harm to himself. It was made of the Aparajita herb and was given by Sage Maricha. Anyone, except the parent of the boy, will come to harm on touching it. Dushyanta handles it without any harm. Ultimately the family is reunited. As the union is made possible through a token, the signet ring, the play is titled Abhignana Shakuntalam (Of Shakuntala recognized by a token).
The play has been widely acclaimed, both in India and abroad. The distinguished German scholar, Goethe, declared, “Shakuntalam blends together the fruits of young year’s blossoms and the fruits of its decline; it combines heaven and earth in one.” The play has been staged in many theatres the world over. When you mention Kalidasa, Shakuntala automatically comes to mind.
It appears as if Kalidasa has reserved for himself a place in our literature as one of the greatest poets of all time. There are few poets and dramatists in world literature who have such a reputation. Several men of letters have tried to imitate Kalidasa’s style, but with little success. While some called themselves Kalidasa, others have tried to fob off their works on the original poet. The poet has turned out to be like a mountain peak which many have attempted to reach but have to contend themselves with merely looking at it from the base. Kalidasa continues to provide inspiration to litterateurs in the West. Dramatists continue to write using Kalidasa as a model. Even to this day poets writing in various Indian languages are inspired by the great poet. Ashadh ka Din by Mohan Rakesh is considered the first modern Hindi play. It is based on Meghadutam. This way not only Hindi but several Indian languages have adapted Kalidasa’s works.