Striking A Bond With Nature : Ecocritical Paradigms In Shakuntala
Dr Renu Josan,
Associate Professor, Department of English Studies,
DEI Deemed University, Dayalbagh, Agra - 282005 (India)
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By the second half of the twentieth century, there was a growing realization that the earth was on the brink of ecological devastation perpetrated by the pollution of the biosphere, denudation of forests, due to the speedy technological advancement. This was the scenario which gave birth to a new critical sphere or theory in literature, later labeled as ‘Ecocriticism’, a term coined by William Rueckert in 1978. Respect for nature and an awareness of interconnectedness are the most basic tenets of Ecocriticism, though, according to Cheryll Glotfelty, in her introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader, “nature per se is not the only focus of ecocritical studies of representation. Other topics include the frontier, animals, cities, specific geographical regions, rivers, mountains, deserts , Indians, technology, garbage and the body” (XXIII). Thus Ecocriticism has a wider scope and dimension in that it involves “our human interior and exterior contexts” (Dreese:4), meaning thereby the relationship between human beings and the external environment. Ecocriticism is not just a means of analyzing nature in literature, it implies a move towards a more bio-centric world-view, an extension of ethics, a broadening of humans’ conception of global community to include non-human life forms and the physical environment. Ecological literary critics advocate for cultural change by examining how the narrowness of our culture’s assumptions about the natural world has limited our ability to envision an ecologically sustainable human society. It is the interconnection between nature and culture that is at the core of Ecocriticism.
Kalidasa, one of the celebrated Sanskrit poets, has focused on the underlying interconnection between nature and the human world in the drama, Shakuntala, regarded as one of the masterpieces of Sanskrit literature. If one is exploring ancient Sanskrit literature that corresponds to ecological principles, Shakuntala is the right play to start with. It may be argued that the play is about persons in the midst of nature and not about nature itself, my attempt is to show the symbiotic relationship that exists between persons and nature and how it addresses several environmental issues. Since nothing like the present environmental consciousness existed in the early texts so one would expect to find only in oblique way the concepts that are regarded as paramount in environmental thought.
The setting of the play Shakuntala is the preindustrial, indigenous society corresponding to what Nabhan calls as “culture of habitat”, where people are deeply absorbed in their immediate environment and enjoy a harmonious relationship with it. The environment in the hermitage of sage Kanva bears a close resemblance to that of the O’odham people of Arizona and the Australian Aborigines, examples of ‘culture of habitat’ mentioned by Nabhan. Here we do not have the nostalgia for the idyllic past but it is the ecological way of life where nature and culture exist in a state of reciprocity and are harmoniously intertwined. A bond of mutuality and reciprocity exists between human and non-human world in the hermitage of Kanva. On one hand, we have the inhabitants of Kanva’s hermitage deeply rooted in the surrounding environment and on the other hand is King Dushyanta, an outsider who only gazes at nature and fails to experience an affinity with the natural world . When Dushyanta comes to the hermitage, hunting the deer, he is suddenly stopped by a voice, “No, no, your Majesty! Don’t kill him, he’s a deer of the hermitage” (Coulson: 8). Dushyanta does not feel that human beings are a part of nature; otherwise he will have a realization that he is destroying a part of himself. The ascetic exhorts Dushyanta:
Never, never discharge that weapon
Into this soft body like fire into flowers.
What has the fragile life of deers to do
With your strong-shafted,
sharply falling arrows?
At once remove
The arrow from your bow:
Your weapon is meant to help the weak
Not smite the innocent. (Coulson: 8)
Realising the deeper significance of lines it can be very well stated in the present social context that those in the higher echelons of power and authority must embark upon a constructive use of nature and not the menacing use of science and technology causing ecological imbalance. The threatening onslaught of mechanization and industrialization has already caused immense havoc bringing the world to the brink of environmental disaster. Moreover, the Ascetic’s advice to the king echoes the thoughts of Merwin, when he asserts that the earth “is still a very beautiful place. It is seen as an object of exploitation rather than as something of which we are apart … so when we treat it with contempt and we exploit it, we are despising ourselves” (Bryson: 102).
Shakuntala’s affinity and a deep bond of love with the surrounding world of flora and fauna is basically a celebration of the multi dimensionality of life and acceptance of the profound relation between nature and human life, thereby, overcoming the divisions of mind/body, man/nature. This concept is made prominent in Kanva’s speech addressing the plants to bid farewell to Shakuntala when she is going to her husband King Dushyanta’s house.
Kanva :
She who would never drink
till you yourselves were watered,
Who though she loved ornament could
never bear to pluck your blossoms,
who welcomed with joy the time of
your first budding,
She, Shakuntala, is going to her
husband’s house;
all of you, make your farewells.
(Coulson: 97).
Shakuntala expresses reverence for the fertility of the earth and embraces a view of nature as an integral whole, a perspective not inconsistent with the ecological representations of nature as an amalgamation of interdependent systems. Shakuntala displays tremendous sensitivity towards the surrounding vegetation, in that she refrains from plucking a blossom despite her immense love for ornaments. The portrayal of such sensitivity by Kalidas stands unparalleled in the literary sphere and it is very well corroborated by the Indian botanist, Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose and the distinguished French paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, who testified the sensitivity of the plants. According to Bose, the plants have life responses, and to Chardin, the sudden breaking of a rocky piece with an accompanying echo-sound conveyed the idea of hidden divine power even in stone.
An ecocentric vision seeks not only to assert the value of non-human perspectives but also somehow to accommodate them in the human sphere since they are constitutive of human life. Unlike Dushyanta, Shakuntala nurtures this vision and the contrast in the attitude of Dushyanta and Shakuntala towards the animals in the hermitage is quite prominent as the fawn, refuses to drink water out of Dushyanta’s hand but is happy to take it from Shakuntala’s hand. Dushyanta himself comments on the situation thus, “True enough, we all trust those who smell the same, for you and he are both creatures of the forest” (Coulson: 114). Shakuntala has knowledge of the minute things related to the surrounding vegetation and has the attributes of the community that Ray Dasmann calls as ‘ecosystem people’ (21). By the term ‘ecosystem people’ is meant the community where people live in harmony with their surrounding environment. On leaving the hermitage, Shakuntala remembers to bid goodbye to the spring creeper which she regards as her sister
Shakuntala (recollecting) : Father, I must say goodbye to my sister among the vines, the spring creeper.
Kanva : Yes, my child, I know how fond you are of it, Look, there it is to the right.
Shakuntala (Going up and embracing the vine): Sister, embrace me with your tendrils, from now on I’ll be far away from you. (Coulson: 99)
The very fact that Shakuntala regards the creeper as nothing less than her sister and asks it to ‘embrace her with its tendrils’ reflects her extreme love and respect for nature. She is in consonance with the views of Abrams that “all living things and their earthly environment, no less than the human species, possess own importance, value and even moral … rights” (60).
Ecocritics believe that the natural world is a vibrant force having its own sanctity and in which each individual feels an intimate relation with a particular physical place and where human beings live in interdependence and mutual reciprocity. The state of perfect reciprocity exists between Shakuntala and the natural world, as nature responds with equal measure of love and affection. At the time of Shakuntala’s departure from the hermitage, ‘the doe drops the grass’, ‘peahen gives up dancing’ and creepers seem to be crying by shedding their pale leaves. Priyamvada, a friend of Shakuntala, reports as to how everyone is feeling about Shakuntala’s departure from the hermitage.
Priyamvada : You’re not the only one to be upset about your leaving Just look at the state of the grove itself which is going to lose you:
The grass drops from the doe’s mouth,
The peahen gives up dancing,
And as their pale leaves fall away
The vines seem to be weeping.
(Coulson: 98)
Linda Hogan, an American Indian writer of the twentieth century has demonstrated the interconnections between the human and natural worlds and how human processes throughout life and death mirror those of the land. She has reinforced the notion of the earth as a vital, living organism upon which we live and emphasizes on the preservation of earth’s creatures and bridging the gap between the human and the non-human world. She says that “caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time, and perhaps that stewardship is finally our place in the web of life” (Hogan: 115). The caring and the stewardship that Hogan talks about in the twentieth century, had been well emphasized by Kalidas in Shakuntala many centuries back.Shakuntala’s caring for the deer is an excellent example of preservation of earth’s creatures and establishing a harmonious balance between human and natural world. When Shakuntala is leaving the hermitage, she feels someone tugging at her dress, pulling her back, she wonders as to who it can be.
Shakuntala : Oh, who’s this at my heels who keep tugging at my dress?
Kanva : It’s the little fawn whose mouth you dobbed with oil of Ingudi
To heal it when it was cut by the sharp grass,
And whom you gently fed on handfuls of wild millet.
He is your adopted son, and will not leave you alone. (Coulson: 99)
Shakuntala regards the surrounding flora and fauna as the family members, in that she considers the spring creeper as her sister and the little fawn as her adopted son and this intense intimacy is at the core of ecological thought. It is upon this respect and reciprocal exchange that the relationship between the natural and human world should be built, and for bringing about such a relationship there is need for a change in the mindset of people regarding nature. The imposition of Western culture has resulted in alienation from nature, which has led to destructive exploitation of earth; whereas, the primitive cultures, overshadowed by the Western culture, always believed in and practised worship of nature. Ecocritics have evinced a deep interest in Hindu, Buddhist and other religions that are not based on the Western opposition between humans and nature and do not recognize human beings’ dominion over the natural world. In fact, harmonious relationship with nature and understanding the concept of nature as a benefactor has been an integral part of the Indian culture. The practice of performing yajna (sacrifice with a philanthropic motive) was instituted by our Vedic ancestors, in order to propagate the concept of giving and sacrifice; and the same approach has been stressed upon by the English writerT.S. Eliot in his work The Waste Land, wherein, the quoted Sanskrit words ‘Datta’, ‘Dayadhvam’ and ‘Damyata’ convey the crucial importance of giving, sympathy and self-control. The aim of Bhoot yajna, practised by our Vedic ancestors, was to care for all kinds of organisms and work for the welfare of the entire living and non-living world. Unfortunately, the Indians themselves have forgotten their cultural past, being tremendously influenced by the Western materialistic practices.
An individual’s identity is linked with the place or land to which he/she belongs. His/her social, cultural roots lie anchored there and any kind of displacement or dislocation would result in social alienation, thereby, leading to the fragmented self and ultimately loss of identity. Native cultures regard land as pious, sacred and synonymous with their identity, thus establishing a close bond between man and nature. However, due to colonization by the Europeans, in the twentieth century, the American Indian tribes were removed to different landscapes which resulted not only in their loss of self and cultural alienation but also they were subjected to the most severe levels of industrial waste and environmental exploitation. The tribals in India, too, have suffered a similar fate. Due to the construction of Narmada Dam, the displaced tribals from the state of Maharashtra and Gujarat have an uncertain and bleak future looming large over them. Even though they have been rehabilitated, it is an adverse and hostile environment to which they are unaccustomed.It is a discernible fact that dislocation always causes immense hardships and unwarranted anxiety. This is well corroborated by the displaced families. One of the affected families says “In our native villages, apart from tilling our own fields, we also grew crops in forest land …. Forget additional crop, there is no gauchar (land for the cattle to graze) here” (Oza: 34).
Shakuntala experiences a sense of emotional and physical dislocation involving a loss of the self, a cultural alienation, when she moves away from the hermitage of Kanva to meet Dushyanta in the city. She experiences a kind of restlessness and anxiety within her. Her heart palpitates with the apprehension about the uncertainty of future related to her identity as Shakuntala and its recognition by Dushyanta. Shakuntala’s efforts to make Dushyanta remember his relationship with her by citing various incidents are basically an attempt to establish her identity. Despite her best attempts, she is not recognized by Dushyanta and she feels desperate and helpless. As a result of rejection by the king, she develops a kind of hatred for herself and does not wish to live any more and pleads with mother earth to swallow her up. Immediately, she is taken away by a creature (half fish, half woman), emerging from the pond. Thereafter, Shakuntala resides in the natural environs of Marich, which provides her same succour and comfort, as was the case in the hermitage of Kanva. The meeting of Dushyanta and Shakuntala in the sacred natural premises of Marich signifies the unification of the inner and external self. Dr. Vasudev Krishna Chaturvedi comments thus, “Basically, this union is not the union of two separated lovers but the re-establishment of the perpetual unification of the inner self and the external environment”(Chaturvedi:60).
Due to the pervading influence of the capitalistic culture, it is assumed that nature is productive only through the intervention of technology, even though, it has proved to be detrimental to nature. Vandana Shiva considers this assumption to be narrow in its approach. Due to the prevalent developmental practices, production is possible when it is mediated by technologies “even when such technologies destroy life” (Shiva: 161). Such kind of production is labeled as “Maldevelopment”, which Shiva defines as “the violation of the integrity of a living interconnected world and it is simultaneously at the root of injustice, exploitation, inequality and violence” (Shiva: 193). Such exploitation occurs due to narrow patriarchal thought and action that has vested interest at its core. Moreover, greater emphasis is placed on consumerism and development than a recognition of being an integral part of the fragile ecosystem. According to Booth and Jacobs, “American Indian cultures adapted their needs to the capacities of natural communities; the new inhabitants freshly out of Europe , adapted natural communities to meet their needs”(Dreese:6). Shakuntala has an excellent lesson to offer to the present day industrialists and producers vying for large scale exploitation of mother earth, in order to increase the production. Working in tandem with the natural pattern and order will definitely yield productive results, as exemplified in the play. Gautami asks a young hermit, Harita, as to from where he has got the dress and ornaments to adorn Shakuntala, when she is going to the city to meet Dushyanta, Harita replies.
Harita : One tree displayed a linen wedding dress, pale as the moon,
Another exuded red lac to dye the feet.
From yet others the hands of forest deities, like graceful shoots of leaf,
Emerged up to the wrist and offered us jewellery.(Coulson: 95)
Here is an excellent example of the bounty and generosity of nature, which, unfortunately, human beings have ceased to acknowledge in their mad pursuit of mechanization and industrialization. However, in the twentieth century, interest has been generated in the study of natural processes and taking them as a model for solving problems of the human world. Jenine Benyus, scientist and author of the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (1997) has emphasized upon sustainability as an objective of Biomimicry, a science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems. It is imperative that the human beings work in tandem with the natural patterns as is made evident in Shakuntala’s relationship with her surrounding environment, where she adapts her needs to the natural surroundings and not vice-versa, thus maintaining a sustainable environment.
From the point of view of literature creating awareness about the environment, Kalidas’ play Shakuntala appears to hold tremendous significance. As viewed in the present context of environmental concerns, it signals to the discerning reader to recognize his/her position within the plethora of life forms in the world around and work for their welfare, thereby, making this world a safe and happy place to live in. Moreover, the play provides an insight into the need to gain a more balanced perspective on both natural phenomena and their potential meanings for human beings. To express in the words of John Elder, the play may compel us “to recognize more clearly that sensitivity to nature is renewed and expanded by vivid encounters with the non-Western literature”(viii). Kalidas’ portrayal of the symbiotic relation between the human and non- human world is, undoubtedly, a significant contribution towards creating environmental consciousness.


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10. Oza, Nandani. “Dam and the damned”. The Week, 07 Nov 2010.
11. Shiva, Vandana. “Development as a New Project of Western Patriarchy”. Dimond and Orenstein 121.

© Author

(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Summer 2013)