What is a curse? And how can it affect people? In the modern world of Twitter, a curse might not mean something big for readers, but things weren’t the same in ancient times. A curse is much like a wish to inflict adversity on someone using supernatural powers like mantras or magic spells like we saw in Harry Potter. From Greek and Roman curses to Celtic curses, African American voodoo to the Mediterranean evil eye curse, it has its roots all around the world. In Hindu scriptures, the repertoire of curses is even more severe and there are multiple meritorious instances where the burden of curses is heavier than ever.
But sometimes, these curses also formed the most beautiful love stories in our folktales. One such legend is of Shakuntala, the daughter of sage Vishwamitra and the beautiful Apsara, Menaka. The story is mentioned in Mahabharata and has been widely circulated in Abhijyanashakuntalam, written by Kalidasa.
Shakuntala’s Birth and her encounter with Dushyanta
Shakuntala was the daughter of great sage Vishwamitra who was lured by the Apsara Menaka on the order of Indra. Menaka succeeded in seducing the sage and breaking his penance. The duo made love and Menaka gave birth to Shakuntala. Enraged to find out how Menaka tricked him, Vishwamitra distanced himself from Menaka and her daughter. Knowing that she could not leave the child with him, and wanting to go back to the heavens, Menaka left her infant in the forest, which was later found by Kanva Rishi. Kanva Rishi took her to his ashram where she spent most of her youth.
Shakuntala grew up to be a beautiful young woman and spent her time in the greenery of the hills with her two best friends Anasuya and Priyamvada. She most wore cotton and loved to adorn flower ornaments. She had a gentle and sweet voice and was very friendly. She was so well-spoken that even the birds and animals residing in the forest were drawn to her.
One day a King named Dushyanta entered the forest with his guards in the hope to hunt. In the forest, a deer was hit by one of his arrows and when the king reached the animal, he saw Shakuntala aiding the deer. Stunned by her beauty, Dushyanta fell in love with her at first sight. Begging her forgiveness for harming the deer, he was allowed to spend some time at the ashram. In the course of just a few hours, both Shakuntala and Dushyanta fell madly in love with each other. Holding hands, they spent hours together and Dushyanta then secretly married Shakuntala, following the Gandharva Vivaha tradition prevalent then.
He stayed overnight at the ashram and promised Shakuntala the next morning that he will return soon to take his wife with him before returning to the capital. Just as he was about to leave, he gave his precious ring to Shakuntala and asked her that under no circumstances she should lose it. After bidding farewell, Shakuntala spent most of her time daydreaming about her husband and imagining her life in the capital.
One day, Rishi Durvasa, who was infamous for his nasty temper, came to pay a visit to the ashram. Lost in her thoughts, Shakuntala failed to greet the sage properly. Enraged by this insult, the rishi cursed her that the person in her dreams would forget about her. As he was about to leave, Priyamvada begged the sage’s mercy by telling him the real reason behind Shakuntala’s behaviour. Realizing her innocence, the sage reduced the curse by saying that person who had forgotten Shakuntala would recall everything if she showed him a personal token of love.
In the following days, Shakuntala waited for Dushyanta but he never came. After a few weeks, she realized that she is pregnant with Dushyanta’s child. She immediately went to her foster father and narrated the whole ordinance who then decided to escort her to the palace. On her way to the palace, her palanquin had to cross a stream of the river. Pleased by the ambiance, Shakuntala ran her fingers in the water, and without realizing the ring Dushyanta gave her slipped from her finger and was swallowed by a fish.
When she finally arrived at the palace, a message was sent to King Dushyanta that a woman claiming to be his wife is asking for him. Dushyanta who has completely forgotten about Shakuntala due to the curse denied accepting her as his wife. Shakuntala tried her best to remind him of their time together and how they married each other, but Dushyanta couldn’t remember a thing. It was then when she tried to show him the ring he gave her, did she realize that she had lost it.
Humiliated by his rejection, Shakuntala went to the deep forest to live alone. There she gave birth to a baby boy whom she named Bharat. Bharata grew up to be a strong, fierce, fearless, and well-mannered child. Shakuntala taught him how to use weapons and the art of archery. She also tutored him in the Vedas and the Upanishads. Bharata turned out to be a strong, handsome, and educated boy. He was so fearless that he would often spend his time with wild animals opening the mouths of lions and tigers with his bare hands.
In the meantime, a fisherman was surprised to find a royal ring inside the stomach of a fish. Recognising the royal stamp, he returned the ring to the king. As Dushyanta held the ring, he immediately recalled Shakuntala and realized that he had refused to accept his pregnant wife. Disgusted with his behavior, Dushyanta went straight to the ashram but was informed that Shakuntala has long left the place. Determined to find his wife, he went deeper into the forest and was surprised to see a young boy had pried open the mouth of a lion. When asked his name, the boy told him that his name is Bharata, son of King Dushyant.
It was then that he realized that this brave young child is actually his own son. At Dushyanta’s request, the boy took him to his mother Shakuntala. Upon meeting Shakuntala, Dushyanta narrated everything to her and apologized for the past. Shakuntala forgives him and hence the family was reunited once and for all.
Their son Bharata went on to become a legendary Indo-Aryan emperor of India, who has given equal importance in both Hindu and Jain mythology. It was Bharata who was an early ancestor of Kauravas and Pandavas who fought the great Kurukshetra war. And thus the story of Shakuntala and Dushyanta is one of the most important tales in Mahabharata.