Kalidasa: Essays and Translations

— Sri Aurobindo


Price: Rs 230

Pages: 329
Dimensions (in cms): 14x22
ISBN: 978-81-7058-746-0
Soft Cover
Publisher: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, Pondicherry

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About Kalidasa: Essays and Translations

"Kalidasa", writes Sri Aurobindo, "is the great, the supreme poet of the senses, of aesthetic beauty, of sensuous emotion. His main achievement is to have taken every poetic element, all great poetical forms, and subdued them to a harmony of artistic perfection set in the key of sensuous beauty. In continuous gift of seizing an object and creating it to the eye he has no rival in literature." During the first decade of the twentieth century, Sri Aurobindo wrote a number of essays that were meant to be chapters of a comprehensive work on Kalidasa. He also translated one of the poet's plays, Vikramorvasie or the Hero and the Nymph, along with parts of his other works. Kalidasa: Essays and Translations contains all of Sri Aurobindo's writings on and translations from this great representative poet of classical Sanskrit literature.


The stunningly vast range of adventures in consciousness and lofty or daring actions and imaginativeness that overwhelms us when we enter the world of the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, gave way to an age marked by natural reactions—a tendency to fix ceilings on the freedoms characterizing the epics. We come to a time "when India was systematising her philosophies and developing her arts and sciences, turning from Upanishad to Purana, from the high rarefied peaks of early Vedanta and Sankhya with their inspiring sublimities and bracing keenness to physical methods of ascetic yoga and the dry intellectualism of metaphysical logic or else to the warm sensuous humanism of emotional religion,—before its full tendencies had asserted themselves, in some spheres before it had taken the steps its attitude portended, Kalidasa arose in Ujjayini and gathered up in himself its present tendencies while he foreshadowed many of its future developments." ("The Age of Kalidasa")

Thus the genius, Kalidasa, as if Providentially ordained to glorify a transitional era that might otherwise have remained arid. This reviewer does not think that the phenomenon that was Kalidasa had ever been more clearly and convincingly stated than in the few short essays by Sri Aurobindo, "The Malavas", "The Age of Kalidasa", "The Hindu Drama", and "The Spirit of the Times" written during the period 1898–1903, while he was at Baroda (Vadodara).

The second of the four essays is not confined to the scope its title suggests. It is much more. With exemplary brevity achieved through a poignant prose, Sri Aurobindo tells us about the minds of the epic poets, Valmiki and Vyasa, who preceded Kalidasa at least by a thousand years, the development of Indian literature and the difference between the impulses and forces behind the epic poets and those behind Kalidasa, among several other historically vital issues. In the essay entitled "The Spirit of the Times" he reveals – but reveals through a few strokes of lightning as though – the wondrous face of the "age when the Indian world after seeking God through the spirit and through action turned to seek Him through the activity of the senses, an age therefore of infinite life, colour and splendour, an age of brilliant painting and architecture, wide learning, complex culture, developing sciences; an age of great empires and luxurious courts and cities; an age, above all, in which the physical beauty and grace of woman dominated the minds and imaginations of men."

In the recent past India has grown conscious of the need for translating literatures of one language into another. Workshops are held for training aspiring translators in the principles they should follow in this special realm of creativity. They will go a long way in realizing the basic need of the art if they study Sri Aurobindo's essay "On Translating Kalidasa". While agreeing with the theory that for the first time gained some ground in the 19th century, though even to this day most of the translators have not proved equal to this demand—that there is a spirit behind the word which eludes the so called "faithful" translator but without capturing which no poetry worth the name can be presented in a different language, Sri Aurobindo offers several examples of his translation of lines from Kalidasa, explaining the reasons for his not being literal. While "the dark foot of Vishnu lifted in impetuous act to quell Bali" should be the faithful translation of a line from Kalidasa where the poet describes through comparison a huge dark cloud striding northwards, Sri Aurobindo renders it as:

     Dark like the cloudy foot of highest God
     When starting from the dwarfshape world-immense
     With Titan-quelling step through heaven he strode.

Vishnu may not mean anything for a Western reader than a bizarre Hindu idol. Bali would not convey anything to a foreigner. Hence highest God and Titan. The Sanskrit syamah padah has been presented as dark like the cloudy foot, "the word cloudy being necessary both to point the simile which is not so apparent & natural to the English reader as to the Indian and to define the precise sort of darkness indicated by the term syamah."

Along with these essays the compilation under review gives us a complete feast of all that Sri Aurobindo wrote on the great poet, his study of the characters in Vikramorvasie and his translation of the poet's works, some in full and some in fragments. However, the comprehensive work Sri Aurobindo had planned on Kalidasa was never completed. A draft of the chapters he intended working on shows how much he had studied them and their historical background. We cannot but heave a sigh of disappointment that Time did not allow those gems of knowledge and ideas already formed to assume visibility. A valuable appendix is an extract from A Defence of Indian Culture where Kalidasa figures significantly.

The compilation is a boon not only for the lovers of Kalidasa's works, but also for scholars in need of an insight into that genius the factual aspect of whose life is "lost in the silence of antiquity".

— Manoj Das

Shri Manoj Das is a well-known writer. A Padma awardee, he is a recipient of the Saraswati Samman and Sahitya Akademi award.

October 2004