Kalidāsa (कालिद鏮स, IAST: Kālidāsa, literally “Servant of the goddess Kali”) was a playwright and poet of ancient India who wrote in Sanskrit. Kalidasa”s works symbolize the flowering of classical Indian culture. Kalidasa”s drama Shakuntala was one of the first works of Oriental literature to be translated into European languages and introduced Europe to Oriental literature.

The time and circumstances of Kalidasa”s life are unknown. Not a single document of that era concerning the poet has survived. Also there are no mentions of him by his contemporaries and descendants. Folk legends about him are known, but the information contained in them cannot be trusted. The only way to make any assumptions about Kalidasa”s life is through historiographical analysis of his works, his language and characters. There is no factual information about the author of his works. The difficulty also lies in the fact that in general there are very few historical documents about India of that era, the number of legends far exceeds the amount of reliable information.

The earliest period to which Kalidasa”s life has been attributed is the eighth century B.C. Hippolyte Fauche has suggested that the poet lived during the reign of Agnivarna of the Solar dynasty. It is to this ruler that Kalidasa”s Raghuvamsha ends, dealing with the history of the kings of this dynasty. On the other hand, folk tales connect Kalidasa”s life with the reign of King Bhoja Paramara, ruler of Malava, who ruled in Dhara and Ujjaini, about 1040-1090. There is even an apocryphal (later) work of Indian literature which depicts Kalidasa”s life in the said court. These extreme frames (eighth century B.C. to eleventh century A.D.) are now narrowed down to a more precise one.

The dramas and other works of Kalidasa do not contain any direct indication of the time of their composition. The mention of Greek slave-women indicates a comparatively late time, and the prakrit forms in the speeches of some of the characters indicate a great chronological distance separating them from the inscription language of King Ashoka, or Piyadasi. It is doubtful, however, that Kalidasa lived in the eleventh century, for the works of other writers of that century clearly show a literary decline, while the dramas of Kalidasa represent the high point of Indian poetry.

A more accurate range is based on the following assumptions. In the play Malavika and Agnimitra, one of the main characters is King Agnimitra. Obviously, Kalidasa could only create a play about his personal life some time later. Since the time of the king”s reign is known (149-141 B.C.), this gives the lower limit of Kalidasa”s life no earlier than the second century B.C. The upper limit is determined from the dating of the Aihole inscriptions – 634. On the basis of what it says about Kalidasa as a classic of poetry, the upper boundary can be taken 6th century.

There is an Indian verse that places Kalidasa in the court of King Vikrama or Vikramaditya in Udjaini, along with the other “nine pearls” of his court – the nine famous writers and scholars. According to the widespread version this time belonged to the I century B.C. However, this version is refuted by scientists: not only did these nine famous people appear to have lived at different times, the very identity of king Vikramaditya is doubtful, as here most likely the title “Vikramaditya” is meant, not the name, and this title was worn by more than one king of ancient India. According to the hypothesis, which has the greatest support at this time, Vikramaditya was king Chandragupta II, who ruled in 380-413. Under him the Gupta empire reached its heyday, which in most cases also means the flowering of the arts. Chandragupta II may have been the patron saint of the poet described in the medieval Indian tradition.

The attribution of Kalidasa to the first century B.C. raises doubts also because then it would be right to expect a great difference in the cultural and historical relation between his dramas and the works of another Indian dramatist, Bhavabhuti, whose belonging to the eighth century is quite firmly established. Meanwhile, the contents of both indicate their comparative proximity in time of origin. The Dutch Sanskritist Kern, based on the astrological data available in the works of Kalidasa”s supposed contemporary, the astronomer Varahamihira, attributes the latter to the first half of the 6th century. As applied to Kalidasa this assumption is in good harmony with the already mentioned fact of closeness of Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti.

Southern Buddhists also categorically assign Kalidasa to the 6th century. Ferguson, known for his works on Indian chronology, also assigns Kalidasa to the 6th century; but in recent times Ferguson”s considerations concerning the era of King Vikrama have been greatly shaken. Jacobi, based on astrological data in the poems attributed to Kalidasa, concludes that their author could not have lived earlier than 350.

Thus, although the Indian tradition attributes the life of Kalidasa to the 1st century B.C., the general nature of his work and, in particular, his poetic technique, his familiarity with the 4th century Greek astronomy and a number of other features compel European researchers to attribute him to the 4th-5th centuries A.D. – to the Gupta dynasty, whose kings had the title of Vikramaditya.

The Indian literary scholar D. S. Upadhyayn, one of India”s greatest scholars of Kalidasa”s work, has done extensive research and gives almost exact dates of Kalidasa”s life – 365-445.

The legendary biography of Kalidasa transforms him into a poor ignorant shepherd who married a princess and received wisdom and the gift of poetry from the goddess Kali who propitiated him (here is a common in medieval biographies of the West and the East cyclization of fairy “strolling plots” around a famous person. In other tales about Kalidas, for example, in numerous anecdotes about his poetic triumphs over ignorant Brahmans and boisterous court poets, a high estimate of his literary legacy is expressed.

The place of origin of Kalidasa is unknown. Among others, Udjain, Benares, and Dhar are often mentioned. Some legends say that Kalidasa is from Bengal, others speak of Ceylon or Kashmir. D.S. Upadhyaya states that Kalidasa is a native of Kashmir.

Also according to some legends Kalidasa belonged to the Brahman varna. It makes a certain sense, as Brahmans were very educated and many famous scholars and cultural figures did come out of their class. The fairy tales about Kalidasa”s shepherding and his marriage to a beautiful princess are most likely a folk mythologization of the famous poet”s life, though it is possible that he had to work his way up on his own to be counted among the most educated people of his time.

The requirements for a poet in the Kalidasa era were very high. In addition to literature and language theory, as well as other arts (dance, pantomime, music), the poet had to know logic, military theory, the foundations of the state, philosophical teachings, astronomy and, very important in Indian culture, the science of love.

Kalidasa”s work belongs to the pinnacles of classical Sanskrit poetry. What distinguishes Kalidasa from other artists is his mastery of style and freedom of creative flight, which enabled him to reflect in his works the complexity of human nature in all its richness. The jewel-like description of soulful impulses was combined with a large-scale vision of his epoch as a whole. In this way, the characters in Kalidasa”s works not only appear as vivid personalities, but also characterize the spirit of the Indian people in their inextricable connection with the culture and nature of the country.

Kalidasa was not an inventor of any new techniques in his art; the set of means he used is traditional and based on the canons that were formed at the beginning of the classical era, when secular genres began to emerge in Indian literature. But Kalidasa”s inherent individuality is so strong that his poetry is richer in color than any other of his era.

It was this brilliance and colorfulness that ignited the interest in literary Europe in the Shakuntala after it was translated into English. While the riches of ancient and Hebrew literature were already well known, the discovering treasures of Indian literature were yet to be realized. The spiritual values of India, not inferior in their significance to those of ancient Greece and Rome, and sometimes superior in the complexity of their inner structure, were revealed through Kalidasa”s work to European culture in their incomparable originality.

Kalidasa is ascribed many works of sometimes very different character and dignity. This circumstance is evidently in connection with the existence of several writers of this name, which is still in use among the Hindus. Of all these works only three dramas belong undoubtedly to Kalidasa: Shakuntala, Vikramorvashi, Malavika and Agnimitra, and three great poems: two epic ones, Raghuvamsha and Kumarasambhava, and a lyrical one, Meghaduta.

The Age

The life and work of Kalidasa fell on the “golden age” of ancient Indian classical culture. The Gupta Empire achieves its power by uniting previously fragmented areas into a single whole. For a time protection from foreign invasions is assured and thus the economy and culture are allowed to develop. The Gupta era symbolizes the transition to feudalism and the passing of fundamental changes in society.

A characteristic feature of Indian culture as a whole is its conservatism. New trends do not produce revolutionary changes, they are built into the existing perceptions, living in parallel with them. Ancient beliefs can exist for as long as they like without disappearing with time, which forms the complexity and peculiarity of Indian culture for which it is known.

In the age of the Guptas there is a certain weakening of India”s class system and its transition to the caste system. Although in the literature of that time the hierarchy of the varnas is reflected with unquestioning reverence, a certain liberation from the dogmas of ancient times allows the finest creative manifestations of the Indian people to take place.

Another peculiarity of Indian culture of that time, as well as of other eras, is its deepest connection with religion. Religion came to the forefront everywhere: in everyday life, in the polity, in social relations. India”s culture is imbued with mythology as much as its social structure is structured by caste divisions. The vast masses of the population, living practically under the conditions of the primitive communal system, served as a constant source of the archaic worldview, and whatever high level of development the elite rose to, it could not detach itself from these roots. In the Kalidasa period Hinduism replaces Brahmanism. Hinduism assimilates popular beliefs, transforms ancient cults, destroys the corked world of Brahmanism, striving to keep itself untouched from inferior influences.

One of the most important motifs that came to Hinduism from antiquity is that of asceticism. Common in the literature of the time, it tells of the acquisition of powerful mystical powers by those who have taken the path of mortification of the flesh. The gods send to such righteous men to seduce beautiful maidens–it becomes one of the most popular motifs of classical Sanskrit literature. Asceticism and eroticism, easily coexisting together in the Indian worldview, become widespread.

Other ideas developed in religion and, by extension, in art, include the concept of “bhakti” (love of God as the path to bliss), the cyclical nature of the universe, and karma. In the works of Kalidasa, the end of the world at the end of the kalpa is already present, but the idea of constantly repeating births and deaths was yet to be fully developed in the future.

As the pinnacle of the “golden age” of classical Indian literature, Kalidasa”s work was at the same time its conclusion. The Gupta empire was not destined to last long. The invasions of warlike tribes and internal contradictions led to its rather rapid decline, after which India entered the dark ages of feudal fragmentation, wars and foreign conquest of the country. All this is fully reflected in literature – after Kalidasa, Sanskrit shows signs of decline and is never destined to reach its former heights. Sanskrit literature will be replaced by literature in new languages.

Prerequisites for creativity

During the period of Kalidasa”s works, literature becomes more secular. The monumental epic works of the past give way to works closer to real life. Their authors are no longer anonymous as before. Literature itself becomes the subject of scrutiny and study. The development of the drama genre becomes a symbol of revival of creative forces of the people, which is possible only in the civilization, standing on a high level of historical progress. The dramatic genre is born from the ritual traditions of the people, from the popular public readings of epics in India. By the time of Kalidasa”s life, dramatic art had reached a serious stage of growth, the classical theater in India had developed as early as the middle of the first millennium B.C., and the poet could draw on the rich experience of his predecessors. Presumably, Kalidasa may have been familiar with the Natyashastra, the most ancient treatise on the art of theater. The poet was also close to the time of Kalidāsa”s life and was the first Indian literary theorist, famous for his treatise Kāvyālaṅkāra (Kavyālankara).

It is very difficult to speak of a direct influence on Kalidasa”s work of any writer of India due to the difficulty of determining the time of his life and work. The Ramayana, attributed to Valmiki, has had a certain influence, and its traces can be seen in the master”s works, but it was composed centuries earlier. In the introduction to Malavika and Agnimitra, Kalidasa mentions Bhasa, Kaviputra and Saumilla as his predecessors, but little is known of their lives and works.

The only poet who wrote in Sanskrit and lived at a time close to the time of Kalidasa is Ashwaghosha, the author of the epic poem about the Buddha Life of the Buddha (Buddhacarita). The language and style of classical Sanskrit poetry were already well established in Ashwaghosha”s work. Other works with which Kalidasa may presumably have been acquainted include the following: “Panchatantra,” attributed to Vishnu Sharma, “Jatakamala” (“Garland of Jatak”) by Aryashura (Āryaśūra), the prose of Vatsyāna, author of the famous “Kamasutra.”


Kalidasa the playwright is above Kalidasa the epic and lyricist. At the head of them is “Learned Shakuntala” or simply “Shakuntala,” a specimen of nataka or supreme drama. It is the story of the mutual love of King Dushyanta and Shakuntala, daughter of the nymph Menaka and the sage Vishvamitra. Shakuntala, in love, immersed in her dreams, does not notice the approach of the holy Vedic sage-devotee Durvasa and thus incurs his wrath. Durvasa puts a curse on her: King Dushyanta will forget her and only remember her when he sees the ring he gave her. This curse, which remains hidden to Shakuntala, is the dramatic plot of the play. The king pushes his sweetheart away and it is only after a series of various twists and turns and touching scenes that he sees his ring; he recalls the past and, meeting Shakuntala in the sky of Indra, who has meanwhile given birth to a son, is united with her for all eternity.

The drama is available in two lists, named after the script in which they are written, Devanagari and Bengali. The first is shorter than the second. On the Devanagari list are based the editions of Byotlingka (Monier Williams”a, with an English translation (Jivananda Vidyasagara (Calcutta, 1880).

Literary translations from this list are Monier Williains” English (Hertford 1855, luxury edition), A. Bergaigne and P. Lehugeur”s French (P. 1884), E. Meyer”s German (Hildburghausen 1867), Lobedants” (7th ed. Leipzig, 1884), F. Rückert (1885).

The Bengal list was published by Richard Pischel (from which an English translation was made by Jones (L. 1789), German. Fritze (Chemnitz 1877), and others. The best, in accuracy, are the translations by Betlingk and Fritze. The Russian translation was published by A. Putyata (Moscow, 1879), the Danish translator. Martin Hammerich (Copenhagen, 1879).

The famous Russian historian and writer Nikolai Karamzin, who translated “Shakuntala” from English into Russian in 1792, was the first to acquaint Russians with the works of Kalidasa. In the preface to the translation he noted:

“The creative spirit does not dwell in Europe alone; it is a citizen of the universe. Man is everywhere a man; everywhere he has a sensitive heart, and in the mirror of his imagination he contains heaven and earth. Everywhere nature is his tutor and the main source of his pleasures…

“Vikramorvashi” and “Malavika and Agnimitra”

The next drama of Kalidasa, “Vikramorvashi”, has as its subject the myth of the mutual love of the nymph Urvashi and the king Pururava, which can be already found in the Vedas. Kalidasa”s third drama, “Malavika and Agnimitra,” has as its subject a light love affair between King Agnimitra and Malavika, the maid of his wife, Queen Dharini. The jealous queen hides her beautiful maid from the eyes of her husband, who, however, manages to open up to her and get her reciprocation despite all sorts of tricks and intrigues by Dharini and another queen, Iravati. At the end of the play Malavika”s regal origins are revealed, so that the main obstacle to the union of the two lovers is removed and everything ends for the common good.

The belonging of the play “Malavika and Agnimitra” to Kalidasa was long disputed, but was found to be proven. Editions: O. Tullberg (Bonn, 1840), Shankar Pandit (Bombay, 1869, 2nd ed. 1889), Taranatha Tarkavacaspati (Calcutta, 1870), Bollensen (St. Petersburg, 1879). Translations: English by S. N. Tawney (German. A. Weber (French, R. E. Foucaux (Paris, 1877). Italian translation of all three dramas: A. Marozzi, “Teatro di Calidasa” (it is quite unlikely that Kalidasa is the author of the poem Nalodaya (ib. 87), which belongs undoubtedly to a later period of Indian literature. The same must be said of Shroutabodha, a treatise on Sanskrit metrics (see “Sroutabodna, traite de prosodie sanscrite,” in Journ Asiat. IV, 1854, ot. П. 1855).

A crater on Mercury is named after Kalidasa.


  1. Калидаса
  2. Kalidasa
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