Saturday, April 11, 2015

5. The Birth of Sakuntala

King Dushmanta once went to a forest for hunting. He was accompanied by his army and other followers. He killed a large number of animals. Seeing the wide destruction around, many animals including lions, tigers and deer began to flee the forest. Some animals fainted due to thirst and fatigue. The elephants that were injured became wild and started running amok, vomiting the contents of their stomach and trampled many warriors to death.

The king then moved to another forest. He was fatigued with thirst and hunger.  He first came across a large desert at the end of the forest. But after crossing the desert, he found another forest lush with plants and inhabited by many ascetics. All the trees were full of fruits. 

He saw an attractive retreat of ascetics in the midst of trees. The sacred fire had been lit and was burning. The retreat had many chambers with sacrificial fires. The floor was covered by flowers that had dropped from the trees. The river Malini was flowing near that retreat. There were many animals like the deer, lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys and bears on the banks of the river.

Dushmanta realized that it was the retreat of the illustrious sage Kashyapa which, at that time, was inhabited by sage Kanwa, belonging to his race. He told his followers, “I will enter the retreat, pay obeisance to Sage Kanwa and come back. Stay here till I come back.”

The king entered that retreat along with his minister and priest. He called out "Who is there?" A charming young lady, dressed as an ascetic's daughter, came out. She welcomed him and asked him to come in. She made him sit comfortably and then politely asked him of the purpose of his visit.

The king said, "I have come to pay my respects to Sage Kanwa. Where has he gone?"

The young lady replied that the sage had gone to fetch some fruit and requested him to wait. The king found the young lady to be exceedingly beautiful and pleasantly smiling. He asked her, “Who are you?  You have stolen my heart even at the first glance. I would therefore like to know more about you.”

The young lady replied, "Oh king! I am Sakuntala, daughter of Sage Kanwa.”

The king asked her, “How could you be the daughter of Sage Kanwa, who is an ascetic of severe vows?"

Sakuntala replied, “Oh king! I will tell you what I heard my father tell another Rishi (sage) about my birth.” 

She then began to narrate her story.

Sage Viswamitra was once engaged in austere penances. Indra, the God of the celestials, worried that the sage, through his penances might supplant him, summoned Menaka, the celestial dancer and asked her to wean the sage away from his penances by enticing him through her beauty. Menaka was reluctant to accept the assignment, considering the fact that Viswamitra was endowed with a lot of power and that he was short tempered. She feared that he might curse her for attempting to disrupt his penance.

Viswamitra was born as a Kshatriya (King) but subsequently became a Brahmana through his austere penances. He created a river called Kausiki for performing his ablutions. During the time, Viswamira was away from his country for doing penance, his wife was taken care of by the royal sage Matanga (Trisanku). Matanga was living as a hunter because of his father’s curse.

In return for the services rendered by Matanga, Viswamitra chose to be the priest for a sacrifice performed by Matanga. When the celestials refused to admit Matanga into the heaven, Viswamitra created a new heaven for Matanga, in between the earth and the heavens. This is known as Trisanku's Heaven. 

Recalling the above facts relating to Viswamitra, Menaka told Indra that she was afraid to approach him. She pointed out that she could be burnt alive by the sage who was capable burning the three worlds, making the earth quake by stamping on it and severing the mighty Meru mountain from the earth and hurling it to any distance.

She further said, “His mouth can emit fire,  the pupils of his eyes are like the Sun and the Moon and his tongue is like a weapon of Yama, the God of death. Even gods like Yama and Soma and the great saints like the Saddhyas, the Viswas, Valakhilyas are terrified of his prowess! How can a woman like me even touch him? 

"However, since you have commanded me, I will approach the saint. But you have to devise some plan to protect me.

“When I go near him and try to divert his attention from his penance by enticing him through my overtures, please ask Marut, the God of Winds to rob me of my dress. Let Manmata (Cupid), the God of  Love also help me in my endeavour.”

Menaka went to the retreat of Sage Viswamitra. She first saluted him and then began to sport. Lord Marut ensured that her garments were flown by the wind. Menaka, pretending to be bashful, ran as if attempting to retrieve her garments and showing her irritation with Marut.

Viswamitra who watched the drama enacted by her was instantly captivated by her beauty. Instantly consumed by lust, he indicated to her that he desired her company. Menaka was only too glad to accept his invitation. They spent a lot of time together. 

Eventually Menaka became pregnant. She delivered a female child on the banks of the river Malini and left the child there. The infant was protected by vultures that squatted around her. Kanwa saw the child lying on the river bank, while going to the river for his ablution and carried the child to his retreat. Since the baby was surrounded by Sakunta birds, he named her Sakuntala and brought her up as his own daughter.

Sakuntala narrated this story of her birth as she heard Kanwa narrating to another sage and said, “I consider Sage Kanwa as my own father.”




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