Preceptors of Advaita
Describing Kalidasa Sri Aurobindo said, “He is a true son of his age in his dwelling on the artistic, hedonistic, sensuous sides of experience and pre-eminently a poet of love and beauty and joy of life. He represents it also in his intellectual passion for higher things, culture, the religious idea, the ethical ideal, the greatness of ascetic self-mastery; and these too he makes a part of the beauty and interest of life and sees as admirable elements of its complete and splendid picture”1. Further, according to him, Kalidasa, ‘in creed was a Vedantist and in ceremony perhaps a Siva-worshipper’2. The term Vedanta has become identified with Advaita and thus great intellectuals like Sri Aurobindo have hardly doubted in dubbing Kalidasa an Advaitin.
Any careful student of the poet will not fail to discern his deeper convictions based on Advaitic thought, though none can dogmatise his having passed through the discipline of a systematised philosophy. Advaita itself was later much developed into an unshakable system by no less a Drashta and Master-mind than Sankara. Some of the axiomatic doctrines of Advaita like brahma satyam, jagan mithya, (Absolute is real; World is an illusion); or the process of elimination in arriving at Truth by the method of ‘neti, neti’ (Not this, not this), rarely receive any echo in the poet’s phraseology or philosophical dissertations. Nevertheless, one cannot escape the conclusion that no other poet of the classical age has so much elevated the spirit in man as of an indivisible part of the One Supreme Reality. The one sovereign thought ever ruling him was that of the immanence of Spirit (sarvatmabhava). Kalidasa has picturesquely expressed what the Chandogyopanishad has proclaimed in no equivocal terms as:
esho’nima aitadatmyamidam sarvam
tat satyam sa atma.
(The subtle essence, all this is of the nature of That. That is Truth, That is the Self), We find him, in his eulogy of Brahma, bringing home to us the idea of the All-pervading Spirit as actuating everything of the manifest Universe:
stulah sukshmo laghurguruh,
prakamyam te vibhutishu3.
(You are in liquid form as well as in the hardest material; you are perceptible to the senses as well as too subtle and beyond perception; you are light as well as heavy; you are the cause as well as the effect; you are thus manifest in everything, according to your own pleasure). Nothing is in animate or inanimate nature, neither human nor animal, strikes him as of a different origin or existence from an all-powerful Reality. Hence his further elaboration of the same thought when he perceives a unity of spirit in every object and substance:
tvameva havyam hota cha bhojyam bhokta cha sasvatah,
vedyam cha vedita chasi dhyata dhyeyam cha yatparam4.
(You are the oblation as well as the sacrificer; you are the food as well as the eternal enjoyer of it; you are the aim of knowledge as well as the knower; you are the supreme object of meditation as well as the meditator). Needless to remind ourselves of a parallel passage in the Gita where the Lord tells Arjuna how the same Supreme Brahman dwells in all:
brahmagnau brahmana hutam,
brahmaiva tena gantavyam
The oblation, the act of offering, the fire, the officiating priest every work is the same Atman and tends towards the same goal).
It is not by a process of ratiocination that Kalidasa reaches the kernel of Advaita. He does not proceed by the established path but ever crosses to his destination by the green meadow of poetry. In the language of simile and metaphor, by imagery and example, he makes us believe in a higher existence than what meets our eye here below. Again he will not be satisfied with salvation for the individual alone but for the entire universe. Insentient beings like trees and rivers appear to him possessed of the Universal Spirit. Otherwise he would not have drawn so much upon them for enlivening our conception of the beauty of life. To him both Urvasi and a gliding river happen to present the same engrossing content for decorations of his imagination:
vikarshanti phenam vasanamiva samrambha-sithilam,
padaviddham yanti skhalitamabhisandhaya bahuso
nadibhaveneyam dhruvamasahana sa parinata6.
(The wavelets reminding quivering eye-brows, the flock of white cranes in serried flights appearing like the girdle of pearls round the waist, the foam-embroidered waters flowing back as if the frills of her skirt are withdrawn, the winding zig-zag course reminding her quick steps indicating exasperation at my lapses–– all these make me believe Urvasi has assumed the form of the river). Kalidasa has here represented Pururavas, the hero, as searching for his sweetheart and mistaking the river for his partner. Apart from the beauty of the imagery, one cannot be lost to a sense of sameness in both Urvasi and the river that the king entertains by this comparison. Kalidasa could feel with as much intensity of sympathy for true lovers in their pangs of separation as he would for the Chakravaka pair lost to each other by the blinding darkness of the night. They only forcibly remind us of the poet’s expansive heart ready to embrace the entire life within him. A truer Advaitin in experience is hard to imagine.
One may perhaps dismiss this as pure imagination, beautiful no doubt, but possessing nothing more in it to convey a consciousness of the Unity of Spirit in all life around. Still, one can provide stronger evidence to prove how Kalidasa unmistakably tries to show that life around is one and the same except that it has assumed different forms and shapes. Everything proves, on ultimate analysis, to be permeated by no less a spirit than what the human beings imagine they exclusively possess. A situation is created by the poet in the play, Sakuntalam, when the kokil’s voice is chosen in reply to the sage’s request by the forest creatures, especially tress, to shower their benediction on the young wife leaving her parental abode for her husband’s.
parabhritavirutam kalam yatha
(Sakuntala has been permitted to take her leave by these her kinsfolk of forest-dwelling tress; with the kokil’s sweet note, the reply of these trees has been signified). It is worthy of notice that the words used are vanavasabandhubhih, the forest-dwelling trees who are her kin. They certainly convey the normal attitude of the poet towards insentient beings as having very little of a difference so far as their behavior is concerned, from that of the humans. In this context it may be fruitful to recollect the verse in the Srimad Bhagavata where Vyasa while chasing his son Suka cries ‘My son’, ‘Oh My son’, which cry was replied to by the tress, which bespeaks of their identification with the sage Suka owing to the indwelling spirit being the same:
putreti tanmayataya taravo’bhineduh.
The consciousness of an immanent Spirit in all creatures, dumb as well as vocal, animate as well as inanimate, influenced the poet’s outlook so much that whenever an opportunity presented itself for his emphasis of it, he showed no tardiness or indifference to declare it. He did it in his own way, which is the poetic way, singularly refreshing both in its choice of subject and picture of portrayal. To add one more instance how nature and man reciprocate each other and how sympathy in joy and sorrow can be shared with each other, we can take the scene where Aja, at the sight of his queen’s sudden passing away, was plunged in the deepest gloom, while the birds in the neighbourhood were affected by his pathetic condition.
samaduhkha iva tatra chukrusuh
(When the attendants about the royal pair raised their wail of pain, the frightened birds dwelling in the nearby lotus-pools expressed by their clamorous sounds their sympathy in his bereavement).
It is Kalidasa’s own inimitable method of comparing the beauty of the human with that of other beings in nature, point by point even and with a sense of adequacy in having comprehended all life by such a soulful survey. We know that the Yaksha, pining for his beloved in a distant land, could not but decipher his love’s varied charms distributed, as it were, among many objects in nature.
syamasvangam chakitahariniprekshane drishtipatam
vaktrachchhayam sasini sikhinam barhabhareshu kesan,
utpasyami pratanushu nadi-vichishu bhruvilasan
hantaikasmin kvachidapi na te chandi sadrisyam asti,
(Oh thou petulant one! Nowhere do I find all the different charms gathered up in a single being as in you; because the tender creepers bear only the delicacy of your figure; the deer share the tremulousness of their eyes alone with yours; the moonlight partakes the glow of your ivory cheeks; the burden of the peacock’s plumes reminds your heavy tresses, the ever dancing wavelets have caught the quiver of your brows). Unless one has experienced so great an intensity of life as to feel an absence of completeness without actively mixing in spirit with all, he could not have set a great store by the companionship and sympathy with others, even if they happened to be insentient beings. Sage Kanva is represented as one whose power was in no way less than that of a Visvamitra, if he wanted to create things. But what happened actually was, the spirits of the forest endowed Sakuntala with costly silks, fine cosmetics and bright jewels–all because of their eagerness to participate in the parental fondness of Kanva for bestowing on his loving daughter, at her departure, the good things of life.
Not satisfied with the gifts of the forest-spirits to the maiden whose parting caused such a wrench in the hearts of the forest dwellers, the poet would move us to the core by the rarer gift of sympathy from the mute world around, when he makes the deer swallow not their mouthfuls of grass, the peacocks complete not their dances and the creepers restrain not their tears in the falling of leaves on the ground.
mrigyah parityaktanartana mayurah,
This is Kalidasa in his fullest measure of comprehension of the one Universal Spirit pervading all life.
May be an unimaginative critic or a stickler for accuracy will require more specific instances to show the poet’s unshakable belief in the Advaitic thought. We can satisfy all such doubters by pointing to them the many verses of his where he refers to the one indivisible and inscrutable Atman, which yet for the sake of apparent manifestation assumes the Trimurti aspects of creation, protection and annihilation.
namo visvasrije purvam
visvam tadanu bibhrate,
atha visvasya samhartre
tubhyam tredha sthitatmane.
(You create the world first, then you strive to guard it against danger and finally destroy it – all these are your own triple aspects).
Again he describes the Supreme Spirit in these words:
rasantaranyekarasam yatha divyam payo’snute
dese dese guneshvevam avasthastvam avikriyah.
(Just as the rain, however tasteless, acquires varied tastes by falling on different spots of the earth, so also changeless as you are, you still assume attributes according to your own pleasure). One can perceive that this idea is not far removed from the statement in the Kathopanishad (ii, 15):
yathodakam suddhe suddhamasiktam tadrgeva bhavati
evam muner vijanata atma bhavati gautama.
(O Gautama, as pure water poured on pure water becomes verily the same, so also does become the Self of the man of knowledge who understands).
If Advaita postulates the supreme merit of knowledge as by itself the goal of all life’s strivings, then Kalidasa unerringly suggests such an achievement. When he wrote of Raghu campaigning against the Persians and leading his army by the land-route, he observes:
parasikan tato jetum pratasthe sthalavartmana,
indriyakhyaniva ripun tattvajnanena samyami.
(Then he set out to conquer the Persians by the land-route even as a disciplined person would seek to conquer his senses by the power of reasoning and deliberation). Mark the word tattva-jnanena (by knowledge of Truth) used by the poet. No greater indication is required to prove that the path of knowledge (vicharamarga) was preferred by the poet. Apart from the knowledge of geography he had, the fact of the existence of perhaps a sea-route also to reach the same place gives the further emphasis of a choice by him of the route which was less risky or more advantageous to travelling.
Captivated by solitude and environmental tranquility, the poet never tires of taking his kings to the forest for a life of rest and meditation after they had had their fill of worldly enjoyment and material comforts. Moreover fascinated by yoga as a sure disciplinary method for the attainment of liberation, he invariably talks of some of the monarchs resorting to the practice of yoga for attaining ultimate release from all earthly bonds:
raghuraptaih samiyaya yogibhih.
(For securing the timeless life, Raghu sought the company of Yogis of genuine calibre). One can trace a suggestion in the Panchadasi of Vidyaranya, that Yoga may be equated to an upasana for reaching the Nirguna-Brahman (Formless One).
(Upasana is not impossible because of its application to nirguna Brahman. For, as in the case of Saguna, Upasana can be practiced, but only by the method of frequent and repeated dwelling upon it.)
For obtaining the self-knowledge, Sastra requires the seeker to attempt first total destruction of all purva-samskaras (past deeds) by the fire of one’s own knowledge. Kalidasa very pertinently points out how Raghu tried to have himself purified in the fire of his own thought.
itaro dahane svakarmanam
vavrite jnanamayena vanhina,
(The other [Raghu] attempted to burn out every bit of his accumulated past samskaras in the fire of his knowledge). One has only to remember the Gita verse in order to be convinced of the accuracy of the poet’s observation.
yasya sarve samarambhah
tamahuh panditam budhah, (4-18).
(One whose actions have all no personal motives of self-advance and whose past deeds have all been burnt in the fire of knowledge; he alone would the wise call a sage, the best-equipped).
The road to salvation is not a smooth one. It is beset with many a pitfall. The traveler needs poise of mind and a balanced judgment if he has to tread it with safety and sureness of purpose. The mind of a Sthitaprajna has been deemed as of utter need if one wants even in this life the satisfaction of Realisation. For that he must strive to be unaffected by both joy and sorrow, gain and loss, pleasure and pain. Kalidasa has made a Sthitaprajna of Raghu by his constant reminder of the idea of gold and mud as of no different consequence to him.
(Raghu with equal disdain of both gold and a clod of clay conquered the three Gunas by adopting a changeless outlook).
Perhaps it may be said that Kalidasa felt sannyasa-asrama as of dire need for a seeker of the Immortal Self. Otherwise he would not have referred to the king’s taking to sannyasa:
(Having entered upon the last asrama [sannyasa], he began staying away from the city out-skirts).
We are not sure whether Kalidasa shared the view of some of the Advaitins who have chalked out a course of preparation wherein Sannyasa occupies prominence for attainment of liberation.
vihitatvat sravanadyangataya cha
atmajnanaphalata sannyasasya siddha.
(Vivarana, Calcutta Sanskrit Series, p. 694)
(It is affirmed that for Self-realisation in its context the efforts of listening, contemplating, etc., will have their fulfillment only through sannyasa).
One senses even a crowning thought in Kalidasa towards the state of Brahma-bhava. Speaking of a later monarch of the Raghu line by name Kausalya, he writes describing his final resolve to become a Brahmanishtha by pursuing meditation and tapas.
yasobhih abrahmasabham prakasah
sa brahmabhuyam gatimajagama,
(With his fame reaching even the Brahmaloka, he followed the path to become actually one with Brahman),
Detachment and selfless action which alone can lead one gradually to the acquisition of the true spirit of Advaita are frequently dwelt upon by this national poet of India. In two epithets he describes Dilipa, the earliest king of the Raghu line, thus:
(One who earned wealth without avarice and enjoyed life without attachment). He feels detachment is the only passport to the shining land lit by the eternal sunshine of Ananda.
Unique as was Kalidasa’s perception of love, his sense of values did not abandon him even in a situation of conflicting ideals. It is evident, from his narration of the love-episode of Siva and Uma having its summation in a spiritual union; how the moorings of his culture aided him on to prefer purity to the appeal of the flesh, constancy to the lure of passion. At the same time he was not for renunciation and austerity without the necessary preparation of a mature mind. In a verse of his where Vasishtha counsels Aja to get reconciled to the inevitability of fate’s workings, there is an intriguing thought expressed by the poet in the line:
tadalabdhapadam hridi sokaghane
(His heart crushed under the sorrow did not receive the words of consolation; they [the words of advice] returned, as it were, to the preceptor himself). Evidently Kalidasa was amused at the sage advice of Vasishtha without his finding out whether premature consolation would work its way into the heart of the king, lacerated as it was by grief. Further, it is clear that the poet wants to impress on his readers that however wise Vasishtha might be, he could not really comprehend the depth of true love practiced as Yoga by both Aja and Indumati. Otherwise the poet would not have ended their love episode as having its culmination in their regained union in the halcyon bowers of svarga. The purpose of Kalidasa in presenting the picture of Aja’s love may be to remind us that mere austerity and renunciation by themselves will not always take one to any great Understanding. There may be other paths such as that of love which should not be forgotten by those who pin their faith on Knowledge. Tolerance has, according to him, a place in any scheme of striving for the higher life, especially to one imbued with the spirit of Advaita.
Even as Valmiki and Vyasa before him had conceived of a greater glory awaiting man treading the straight path of Dharma, Kalidasa harped on the significance of a full life, which would not discard intense living and yet would care for the watch-word of ‘Ripeness is All.’ Anandavardhana, the arch-priest of literary criticism, has not in vain placed Kalidasa along with the two epic poets. It is true Kalidasa like Shakespeare lifts his head to the Heaven of heavens and only “spares the cloudy border of his base to the foiled searching of mortality”8. In appreciating Kalidasa we cannot forget the culture in which he was born and brought up. Dr. Radhakrishnan recalls the culture that was given to Kalidasa thus: “This culture is essentially spiritual in quality. We are ordinarily imprisoned in the wheel of time, in historicity and so are restricted to the narrow limits of existence. Our aim should be to lift ourselves out of our entanglement to awareness of the real which is behind and beyond all time and history, that which does not become, that which is, absolute, non-historical being itself. . . . The end of man is to become aware by experience of this absolute reality.”9
No other poet known to us in Sanskrit had so well benefited by this culture. No other thinker ever has enabled generations after him to ruminate with profit on this superior culture which gave Kalidasa insight into a world that is seemingly diversified, yet remain One.
1. The Foundations of Indian Culture, p. 344.
2. Kalidasa by Sri Aurobindo, p.14.
3. Kumarasambhava, II, 11.
4. Ibid., II, 15.
5. Bhagavad-gita, iv, 24.
6. Vikramorvasiya IV, 28.
7. Sakuntalam, iv, 10.
8. Shakespeare (Sonnet), by Mathew Arnold.
9. Introduction by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan to Sushil Kumar De’s edition of Meghasandesa, p. 12.
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