Narrating Dharma - Story of Shakuntala in the Mahabharata

Article of the Month - Nov 2021

This article by Nitin Kumar

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Although the great heroine Shakuntala has become a part of popular imagination because of the play by Kalidasa, the great Sanskrit dramatist, the original story of this distinguished lady occurs in the Mahabharata from which Kalidasa took his inspiration. The Mahabharata story is slightly different from Kalidasa’s version. The primary thrust in the Mahabharata is to teach us the nuances of dharma through the poignant love story of Shakuntala and king Dushyanta.

Dushyanta was a powerful and virtuous king. Once, while he was out hunting in the forests, he came across a picturesque hermitage which was as peaceful as it was beautiful. There he saw numerous saints engaged in various Vedic activities like performing yajnas and the teaching and chanting of Vedas. He came to know that the hermitage belonged to the great saint named Kanva. Wanting to pay his obeisance to the sage, he went over to his hut and called out from outside, "Is anybody there?". In answer to his call, there emerged from inside a maiden, who was dressed like an ascetic and was as beautiful as goddess Lakshmi herself. As soon as she saw that it was a guest, she welcomed him and gave him a seat, presenting him with water. She thus honoured him in appropriate ways and then smilingly asked him the purpose of his visit. The king informed her that he had come to pay respects to the illustrious sage Kanva. Shakuntala replied that he was her father and had gone out to collect fruits. She asked him to wait a while for his return.

Observing her sophistication and grace, the king could not help noticing that she was a dazzling maiden with a charming smile and a well proportioned physical form. Her attractiveness was defined as much by her youthful physical beauty as it was by her evident austere life and humility.

King Dushyanta addressed her thus: "O one with the beautiful hips! Who are you? Who do you belong to? Why have you come to the forest? Your beauty and qualities rob me of my heart. I wish to learn all about you. It seems that you cannot be the daughter of sage Kanva who is a brahmana. Remember, I am a kshatriya following the path of Vedic dharma, from which I have never wavered. It is impossible for a dharmic person like me to be attracted to a woman from a different varna (jati). I have full control over my mind, even then it is attracted towards you. This means that you too must be a kshatriya girl. Can you tell me how you came to be called the daughter of the great brahmana sage Kanva?"

In answer, Shakuntala narrated to him the circumstances of her birth and revealed that she was born of the union of the great saint Vishwamitra (who was a kshatriya) with the heavenly beauty Menaka. Sage Kanva was the one who had brought her up.

Hearing this, Dushyanta was overjoyed and said: "O fortunate one! You have spoken well. O beautiful one! Be my wife. Tell me what I can do for you. My entire kingdom will be yours. O lovely one! Marry me now itself according to the type of marriage known as ‘gandharva vivaha’.

Of the eight kinds of marriage sanctioned by the Vedas, gandharva vivaha is the one where the bride and groom willingly marry each other in secret out of love (Manu Smrti 3.32). There is no chanting of mantras and no ceremonies or relatives are present. This type of marriage is allowed only for the kshatriyas.

Shakuntala, ever the virtuous, replied: "O king! My father is my Lord and I belong to him. Right now he is not here. Please wait; he will return and hand me over to you."

Dushyanta then told her that the marriage he was proposing was very much within the ambit of dharma and explained in detail to her the eight kinds of marriages. He also informed her that as per dharma, she was entitled to freely choose her husband in a gandharva marriage (Manu Smrti 3.26). When thus explained, Shakuntala replied: "O best of kings! O lord! If this is the path indicated by dharma and I am really my own mistress, I agree to this marriage. However, first give me your word that the son born out of our union will inherit your throne. If this is acceptable, you may unite with me." 

Without hesitation Dushyanta said. "O one with a sweet smile! It shall be this way. It is what you deserve and I promise you truthfully." Saying this the king accepted her hand according to the rites of gandharva vivaha and she in turn accepted him. Later Dushyanta returned to his city alone, promising that he would send his army to escort her to his capital.
A little after the king had left, sage Kanva returned, but Shakuntala was too ashamed to come out and meet her father. However, the great Kanva had the gift of divine sight and gauged everything. The illustrious saint was extremely pleased and said: "O fortunate one! What you have done secretly today, this act of union with a man without my sanction, is not against dharma. A secret gandharva marriage between a desiring man and a desiring woman, without mantras, is fine for kshatriyas (and you both are kshatriyas). Dushyanta, the one you have accepted as your husband, is a noble man devoted to dharma. Your union will give rise to a mighty son who rule over the entire earth." Shakuntala then came in front of the tired sage, offered him water to wash his feet and properly laid out the fruits he had collected from the forests. Kanva blessed her and gave the boon that her husband’s lineage would remain virtuous and would rule the earth for a long time to come. He also instructed her saying, "Dear daughter! From now you are the wife of king Dushyanta. Therefore, you must start living according to the ideals of a woman devoted to her husband (pativrata)."

Shakuntala soon became radiant with the offspring of Dushyanta she was carrying within her. In due time she gave birth to a son endowed with immense energy and strength. When he was merely six years old, her son had enough strength to tie up wild animals like lions, tigers, boars etc to trees near the hermitage. As he grew up, Shakuntala eagerly awaited for someone to come from her husband’s side to take her to him.

Very soon, seeing the boy’s superhuman exploits, Kanva told Shakuntala that the time had come for him to be installed as the heir apparent. He asked some of his disciples to accompany Shakuntala to her husband’s place saying that ‘it was not proper for a woman to stay for long at her parent’s place and therefore she should be united with her husband soon.' Taking her lotus-eyed son with her, Shakuntala set out from the forests.

When she reached the capital and was presented before the king, she naturally felt a surge of affection at the sight of her husband. However, Shakuntala conducted herself with grace and restraint and began by referring to their son. She said, "O king! This is your son. As per your promise, let him be instated as the heir apparent. This god-like son was begotten by you in me at my father’s hermitage in the forest."

Sakuntala (Texts, Readings, Histories)

Having heard her, the king, even though he remembered everything said: "O ascetic woman! I remember nothing. Who do you belong to? I do not remember having any relation with you. Go or stay, do as you wish; but I don’t recall anything." Being thus addressed, the virtuous Shakuntala felt ashamed. In her grief, she almost lost her senses and stood immobile like a pillar. Soon her eyes turned red like copper in anger. Her lips began to quiver and she cast sidelong glances at the king as if to burn him down. Though driven by wrath, she calmed her demeanour, using the energy accumulated by her tapas. She stood still for a moment, collecting her thoughts. Then she looked straight into her husband’s eyes and said, "How can a great king like you lie like a commoner? Your heart knows whether my words are true or false.You yourself are the witness to what happened. Do what is good and do not degrade yourself.

"He who knows one thing in his mind, but represents it in another way, is a thief who but robs his own self. You think you are alone with your own self. But don’t you know that the all-knowing God dwells in every heart. He knows all our acts and evil deeds. It is in His presence that you lie. When sinning, a man thinks that no one sees him. But the sun, moon, wind, fire, sky, earth, water, his own heart, Yamaraja, day, night, the two sandhyas and dharma, all bear witness to his acts.

"If the God in the heart, who is a witness to all acts, is pleased, Yamaraja ignores the evil a man has done. But when the in-dweller God is not pleased, Yamaraja punishes the sinner for his evil deeds. He who degrades his own self by making false representations cannot find refuge with the gods. He is not blessed by his own soul. I am a faithful wife to my husband. Do not disrespect me because I have come on my own. I am your wife and deserve to be treated with honour. Why don’t you hear me? I am certainly not crying in the wilderness.

"O king! If you do not do what I am asking you to do, your head today will splinter into a thousand pieces. The ancient wise ones have said that it is the husband himself who enters into the womb of his wife to emerge as a son. She is a true wife who looks after the house. She is a true wife who bears children. She is the true wife whose life is devoted to her husband and is faithful to him. A wife is half the man. A wife is the best of friends. A wife is the source of the three aims of life - dharma, artha and kama. Those who have wives are the ones who have Lakshmi. A wife has three roles - She is a sweet spoken companion in solitude; In rituals she is a benefactor like a father and during moments of suffering she consoles her husband like a mother.

"When travelling abroad, a husband can find solace even in a forest if his wife is accompanying him. In daily life too a man having a wife is more trusted than one without a wife. Therefore, a wife is the best means of salvation. It is only the wife who remains with her husband even after death because the scriptures say that a wife ascends to the same worlds as her husband. If the wife dies first, she stays and waits for the spirit of her husband. If the husband dies first, the devoted wife soon follows. O king! It is for these reasons that man seeks marriage.


"Wise people have said that a man is himself born as his son. Therefore, a man should respect the mother of his son in the same manner that he would his own mother. Looking at his son born from his wife, a man sees his own face, as in a mirror, and is as delighted as a virtuous man attaining heaven. Like a person burnt in the sun finds solace in a refreshing bath, the same way, a person who is burning in the heat of mental affliction or is suffering from diseases, finds solace in his wife. Knowing that his love, joy and virtue are centred on her only, a man should never behave unpleasantly with his wife. The wife is the sacred ground in which is the husband is born again. Is there a greater happiness for a father than to embrace his son whose limbs are dirty because of playing with dirt? Why do you frown and reject your son who is glancing fondly at you? Even ants take care of their eggs and do not break them. You are learned in the ways of dharma. Will you not support your own son?

"The touch of fragrances, women and water is not as pleasing as the embrace of one’s own son. Amongst humans, a brahmana is the best. Amongst four-legged creatures the cow is the best and amongst all superiors the guru is the best. Similarly, amongst things to be touched, the son is the best. O king! I bore your son for you. He has been born from your limbs, one man from another. Look on your son as your second self, like a reflection in a clear pond. Though you are one, you have been divided into two.

"O king! In earlier times, you were on a hunting expedition and were led away by a deer. I was a virgin in my father’s hermitage and was approached by you. I was given birth by the apsara Menaka in the plains of the Himalayas. Without any feelings, she abandoned me there, as if I was someone else’s child. What sins have been committed by me in my previous lives that I was abandoned by my relatives in childhood and by you now? Forsaken by you, I am ready to go back to my hermitage. But do not forsake this child who is your own son."

Dushyanta replied: "O Shakuntala! I do not believe that this son born from you is mine. Women are known to lie. Who will believe your words? Your mother Menaka was a courtesan. She was cruel and abandoned you on the Himalayas like a faded garland. Where is Menaka now or your illustrious biological father Vishwamitra? O ascetic woman! Everything you say is unknown to me. I do not know you. Go away, do as you please."

Shakuntala replied: "O king! You see the fault of others even though they are as small as a mustard seed. But you you do not see your own faults, which are as large as a bilva fruit. Menaka is one of the thirty-three gods. Therefore, my birth is nobler than yours. Not out of hatred towards you, but as an illustration, I am going to tell you a popular saying. Therefore, pardon me and listen. Until he sees his own face in a mirror, an ugly man thinks himself to be more handsome than others. But when he sees his real malformed self in a mirror, he realizes the difference between him and the others. He who is himself handsome never demeans others. A fool seeks out what is negative and leaves out the good when he hears the speech of others. But the virtuous swan always searches out milk from water. Similarly, the wise ones seek out words of quality when they hear another person speak.

Shakuntala | Painting By Dhiraj Khandelwal

"A man who has begotten a son like himself, but does not accept him, doesn’t attain to the superior worlds and the gods destroy his prosperity. The ancestors have said that a son should never be abandoned. Therefore, it is not proper for you to forsake your son. O lord of the earth! Protect him like you protect yourself and dharma. There is nothing greater in this world than the truth. O king! I tell you that truth is equal to studying all the Vedas and bathing in all the pilgrimages. There is no dharma higher than the truth and no evil greater than a lie. Therefore, let truth and yourself be united. However, if you are united with falsehood and have no belief in my words, I shall go away from here on my own. A relationship with one like you is not something to be sought after."

Saying so Shakuntala prepared to leave. Thereupon, a voice from the heavens spoke to Dushyanta, as he sat surrounded by his ministers and advisers. "O Dushyanta! The mother is only a vessel for holding water. Born from the father, the son is the father himself. Support your son and do not reject Shakuntala. To abandon one’s own son and continue to live is a great misfortune."

Having heard these words from the sky, Dushyanta was delighted. He addressed the gathering saying: "All of you have heard what the gods had to say in this matter. I myself very well know that this is my son. But if I had accepted him today as my son on Shakuntala’s words alone, there would have been suspicion among all the people and he would never been considered to be pure."

The king then stepped forward and embraced his son. The brahmanas pronounced their blessings on him and he was praised by the bards. He also paid homage to his wife and accepted her according to the rites of dharma. He said to her: "O large eyed one! My union with you was not known to the people here. This is the reason I argued with you. It was natural for people to think that our union was devoid of dharma. Therefore, I thought about what was best to clear you and our son. O beloved one! I have forgiven you for all the harsh words you spoke in anger. You also please do the same with me." Having thus spoken to his beloved wife, king Dushyanta honoured her with various expensive gifts befitting her status as his queen and mother of the future king.


The immortal dialogue between Shakuntala and her husband is one of the greatest elaborations of dharma in the Mahabharata, paralleled perhaps only by the dialogue between Savitri and Yamaraja occurring elsewhere in the epic. That the graceful lady was so well-versed in the nuances of dharma, speaks volumes for her high birth and superior upbringing, convincing everyone that she would make a suitable and responsible queen for the illustrious king and her son too would be capable enough to shoulder the responsibilities of a king.

The story of Shakuntala occurs in the Mahabharata, Adi Parva, Chapters 68-74.

Key Takeaways
  • Shakuntala is a love story of King Dushyanta and the beautiful maiden, Shakuntala.

  • The play is known for its exquisite poetry, romanticism, and a depiction of Indian culture and values.

  • The play explores the themes of love, duty, and morality.

  • The story of Shakuntala has been adapted into various art forms, including paintings, music, and films.

  • The play is considered a masterpiece of Sanskrit literature and a significant contribution to the world of drama.

References & Further Reading:

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  • Beautiful article. Thank you for sharing. I only knew the Kalidasa version, not this one.
    Purvi November 19, 2014