The greatest long poem in classical Sanskrit by the greatest poet of the language, Kumarasamvhavam celebrates the love story of Siva and Parvati, whose passionate union results in the birth of their son, the young god Kumara. Beginning with a luminous description of the birth of Parvati, the poem proceeds in perfectly pitched sensuous detail through her courtship with Siva until the night of their wedding. It plays out their tale on the immense scale of supreme divinity, wherein the gods are viewed both as lovers and as cosmic principles.
Composed in eight scintillating cantos, the verses of Kumarasambhavam continue to enchant readers centuries after they were fist written. Hank Heifetz's sparkling translation brings to life the heady eroticism and sumptuous imagery of the original.
Kalidasa, perhaps the most extraordinary of India's classical poets, composed seven major works: there plays, two epic poems and two lyric poems. According to legend, he lived at the end of the fourth century, and was one of the 'nine jewels' in the court of the Gupta King Chandragupta II. Although very little is known about his life, Kalidasa's popularity has endured for centuries.
I'm very pleased that Penguin India is reprinting my translation of Kalidasa's Kumarasambhavam. It was produced at a time when most translation from Sanskrit was waterlogged in nineteenth-century banalities produced by extremely learned but literarily deprived scholars. I think the situation has now improved and there is less need to justify translating into a modern rather than a faded (and emotionally remote) nineteenth-century idiom. I was gratified by its positive reception at the time (and many requests for copies when the original two editions fell out of print) and the appreciation accorded to it by poets as well as thoughtful scholars. I hope this edition serves the purpose of further demonstrating Kalidasa's elegance and power, especially to people who cannot read the original, luminous Sanskrit. There is of course far more to say about Kalidasa and Sanskrit ornate verse than I chose to include in the introduction and notes which (while providing necessary scholarly information) are primarily aimed towards general readers of poetry. But I have decided not to expand the introduction and I offer the text as published in its second American edition, in the hope that its virtues might continue to surpass its limitations.
Kalidasa's Kumarasambhavam is the greatest long poem in classical Sanskrit, by the greatest poet of the language. Only the Raghuvamsa a more extended but also a more uneven work by the same author-can be considered its rival for that title. Sanskrit (from samskrta) means 'perfected', 'completely accomplished' and also 'purified'. The language is closely related to ancient Greek and Latin. It first appears in literary history as Vedic, the idiom of the Four Vedas that constitute (especially the Rg Veda, the Veda of Hymns) the oldest literature of the Indo- Europeans who, as pastoral tribesmen and warriors, began entering the Indian subcontinent about 1500 BCE. Classical Sanskrit is the later language, as described by the grammarian Panini (c. fifth century BCE). This description was later interpreted as a codification, thereby artificially regularizing and encapsulating the language. Very early in its history classical Sanskrit became the speech of the educated to the educated, the language used in imperial courts and in the assembly halls for theological and philosophical discussion, while vernaculars called Prakrits (from prakrta, 'ordinary', 'unrefined', 'original') developed for all other uses and people.
Although classical Sanskrit is still spoken and written in India by traditional scholars and clerics, its great period as a language for major poetry extends from the time of the later Upanisads (c. 600 BCE) to the end of the first millennium CE. A few valuable poems and verse plays come later, but even by the tenth century CE the separation between Sanskrit and the vernaculars seems to have grown too wide and Sanskrit to have lost much of its emotional force for the creation of poetry. (Among theologian-philosophers writing in prose, many of whom used Sanskrit continually and conversationally in monastic or priestly life, the language remained and still is emotionally alive as a medium for debate and analysis.)
Kalidasa seems to have lived at a perfect time for Sanskrit, a period when this cultivated language had not yet grown too remote from the Prakrit of everyday speech. He consistently uses Sanskrit as a living language of feeling. In contrast to the later emphasis, overwhelming towards the end of the millennium and after, on puns and erudite indirection in poetry, Kalidasa's Sanskrit is normally direct and clear, but of a greater complexity and higher polish than that of earlier authors or of the more 'popular' Epic Sanskrit of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The rhythmic and sonic resources of Sanskrit had been developed from the Epic idiom and were now available for kavya (Ornate Poetry). In Kalidasa's voice this kavya Sanskrit is still plausible speech-at elegant levels of strongly felt emotion expressed in sensuous detail, with a classical but fresh perfection and moderation of form.
Classical Sanskrit poetry has often been compared to the productions of eighteenth-century English neoclassicism, chiefly because of the kavya use of epithets, firmly fixed metres and elaborate circumlocutions for the sake of elegant variation. The comparison is misleading, however, as regards the charge of the poetry. Sanskrit verse is far more sensuous in image, rhythm and sound play and far more concerned with emotion, the inner life, than with wit, the comment on the other. These qualities of Sanskrit verse exist in Kalidasa's great predecessors, such as the dramatist Bhasa, who was still close to Epic simplicity in his handling of emotion, or Asvaghosa, with his Buddhist kavyas full of exultation; they are also found in his successors Bhavabhuti, for instance, and his psychologically acute presentation of tragedy, or the poets Bhartrhari and Amaru, to whom hundreds of superb lyrics are attributed. In Kalidasa these qualities of the best Sanskrit verse are combined with perfect pitch as well as a security of values-and apparently of worldly position under (if his estimated date is correct) India's most illustrious empire.
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