Preceptors of Advaita

by T. M. P. Mahadevan | 1968 | 179,170 words | ISBN-13: 9788185208510

The Advaita tradition traces its inspiration to God Himself — as Śrīman-Nārāyaṇa or as Sadā-Śiva. The supreme Lord revealed the wisdom of Advaita to Brahma, the Creator, who in turn imparted it to Vasiṣṭha....

54. Kālidāsa



K. Chandrasekharan

M.A., B.L.

Describing Kālidāsa Śrī Aurobindo said,

“He is a true son of his age in his dwelling on the artistic, hedonistic, sensuous sides of experience, and pre-eminently a poet of love and beauty and joy of life. He represents it also in his intellectual passion for higher things, culture, the religious idea, the ethical ideal, the greatness of ascetic self-mastery; and these too he makes a part of the beauty and interest of life and sees as admirable elements of its complete and splendid picture”.[1]

Further, according to him, Kālidāsa,

‘in creed was a Vedāntist and in ceremony perhaps a Śiva-worshipper’.[2]

The term Vedanta has become identified with Advaita, and thus great intellectuals like Śrī Aurobindo have hardly doubted in dubbing Kālidāsa an Advaitin.

Any careful student of the poet will not fail to discern his deeper convictions based on Advaitic thought, though none can dogmatise his having passed through the discipline of a systematised philosophy. Advaita itself was later much developed into an unshakable system by no less a Draṣṭā and Master-mind than Śaṅkara. Some of the axiomatic doctrines of Advaita like brahma satyam, jagan mithyā, (Absolute is real; World is an illusion); or the process of elimination in arriving at Truth by the method of ‘neti, neti’ (Not this, not this), rarely receive any echo in the poet’s phraseology or philosophical dissertations. Nevertheless, one cannot escape the conclusion that no other poet of the classical age has so much elevated the spirit in man as of an indivisible part of the One Supreme Reality. The one sovereign thought ever ruling him was that of the immanence of Spirit (sarvātmabhāva) . Kālidāsa has picturesquely expressed what the Chāndogyopaniṣad has proclaimed in no equivocal terms as:

esho’ṇima aitadātmyamidam sarvam tat satyam sa ātmā.

(The subtle essence, all this is of the nature ol That. That is Truth, That is the Self).

We find him, in his eulogy of Brahma, bringing home to us the idea of the All-pervading Spirit as actuating everything of the manifest Universe:

dravaḥ saṃghāta-kathinaḥ sthulaḥ sūkṣmo laghurguruḥ,
vyaktāvyaktetaraśchāsi prākāmyam te vibhūtish

(You are in liquid form as well as in the hardest material; you are perceptible to the senses as well as too subtle and beyond perception; you are light as well as heavy; you are the cause as well as the effect; you are thus manifest in everything, according to your own pleasure).

Nothing in animate or inanimate nature, neither human nor animal, strikes him as of a different origin or existence from an all-powerful Reality. Hence his further elaboration of the same thought when he perceives an unity of spirit in every object and substance:

tvameva havyam hotā cha bhojyam bhoktā cha śāśvataḥ,
vedyam cha veditā chāsi dhyātā dhyeyam cha yatparam

(You are the oblation as well as the sacrificer; you are the food as well as the eternal enjoyer of it; you are the aim of knowledge as well as the knower; you are the supreme object of meditation as well as the meditator),

Needless to remind ourselves of a parallel passage in the Gītā where the Lord tells Arjuna how the same Supreme Brahman dwells in all:

brahmārpaṇam brahmahavir-brahmāgnau brahmaṇā hutam
brahmaiva tena gantavyaṃ brahma-karma-samādhinā.

(The oblation, the act of offering, the fire, the officiating priest every work is the same Ātman and tends towards the same goal).

It is not by a process of ratiocination that Kālidāsa reaches the kernel of Advaita. He does not proceed by the established path but ever crosses to his destination by the green meadow of poetry. In the language of simile and metaphor, by imagery and example, he makes us believe in a higher existence than what meets our eye here below. Again he will not be satisfied with salvation for the individual alone but for the entire universe. Insentient beings like trees and rivers appear to him possessed of the Universal Spirit. Otherwise he would not have drawn so much upon them for enlivening our conception of the beauty of life. To him both Ūrvaśī and a gliding river happen to present the same engrossing content for decorations of his imagination:

taraṅgabhrūbhaṅgā kṣubhitavihagaśreṇi-raśanā
vikarshantī phenam vasanamiva samraṃbha-śithilam,
padāviddham yāntī skhalitamabhisandhāya bahuśo
nadībhāveneyam dhruvamasahanā sā paṛṇatā.

(The wavelets reminding quivering eye-brows, the flock of white cranes in serried flights appearing like the girdle of pearls round the waist, the foam-embroidered waters flowing back as if the frills of her skirt are withdrawn, the winding zig-zag course reminding her quick steps indicating exasperation at my lapses— all these make me believe Ūrvaśī has assumed the form of the river).

Kālidāsa has here represented Purūravas, the hero, as searching for his sweetheart and mistaking the river for his partner. Apart from the beauty of the imagery, one cannot be lost to a sense of sameness in both Ūrvaśī and the river that the king entertains by this comparison. Kālidāsa could feel with as much intensity of sympathy for true lovers in their pangs of separation as he would for the Chakravāka pair lost to each other by the blinding darkness of the night. They only forcibly remind us of the poet’s expansive heart ready to embrace the entire life within him. A truer Advaitin in experience is hard to imagine.

One may perhaps dismiss this as pure imagination, beautiful no doubt, but possessing nothing more in it to convey a consciousness of the Unity of Spirit in all life around. Still, one can provide stronger evidences to prove how Kālidāsa unmistakably tries to show that life around is one and the same except that it has assumed different forms and shapes. Everything proves, on ultimate analysis, to be permeated by no less a spirit than what the human beings imagine they exclusively possess. A situation is created by the poet in the play, Śākuntalam, when the kokil's voice is chosen in reply to the sage’s request by the forest creatures, especially trees, to shower their benediction on the young wife leaving her parental abode for her husband’s.

anumatagamanā śakuntalā tarubhiṛyam vanavāsabandhubhiḥ,
parabhṛtavirutaṃ kalaṃ yathā prativachanīkṛtamebhīrīdṛśam

(Śakuntalā has been permitted to take her leave by these her kinsfolk of forest-dwelling trees; with the kokil’s sweet note, the reply of these trees has been signified).

It is worthy of notice that the words used are vanavāsabandhubhiḥ, the forest-dwelling trees who are her kin. They certainly convey the normal attitude of the poet towards insentient beings as having very little of a difference so far as their behaviour is concerned, from that of the humans. In this context it may be fruitful to recollect the verse in the Śrīmad Bhāgavata where Vyāsa while chasing his son Śuka cries ‘My son’, ‘Oh my son’, which cry was replied to by the trees, which bespeaks of their identification with the sage Śuka owing to the indwelling spirit being the same:

putreti tanmayatayā taravo’bhineduḥ.

The consciousness of an immanent Spirit in all creatures, dumb as well as vocal, animate as well as inanimate, influenced the poet’s outlook so much that whenever an opportunity presented itself for his emphasis of it, he showed no tardiness or indifference to declare it. He did if in his own way, which is the poetic way, singularly refreshing both in its choice of subject and picture of portrayal. To add one more instance how nature and man reciprocate each other and how sympathy in joy and sorrow can be shared w i th each other, we can take the scene where Aja, at the sight of his queen’s sudden passing away, was plunged in the deepest gloom, while the birds in the neighbourhood were affected by his pathetic condition.

ubhayorapi pārśva-vartinām tumulenārtaraveṇa
vejitāḥ, vihagāḥ kamalākarālayāḥ samaduḥkhā iva tatra chukruśuḥ.

(When the attendants about the royal pair raised their wail of pain, the frightened birds dwelling in the nearby lotus-pools expressed by their clamorous sounds their sympathy in his bereavement).

It is Kālidāsa’s own inimitable method of comparing the beauty of the human with that of other beings in nature, point by point even, and with a sense of adequacy in having comprehended all life by such a soulful survey. We know that the Yakṣa, pining for his beloved in a distant land, could not but decipher his love’s varied charms distributed, as it were, among many objects in nature.

śyāmāsvaṅgam chakitahaṛṇīprekṣaṇe dṛṣṭipātam
vaktrachchhāyām śaśini śikhinām barhabhāreshu keśān
utpaśyāmi pratanuṣu nadī-vīchishu bhrūvilāsān
hantaikosmin kvachidapi na te chaṇḍi sādṛśyam asti.

(Oh thou petulant one! Nowhere do I find all the different charms gathered up in a single being as in you; because the tender creepers bear only the delicacy of your figure; the deer share the tremulousness of their eyes alone with yours; the moonlight partakes the glow of your ivory cheeks; the burden of the peacock’s plumes reminds your heavy tresses, the ever dancing wavelets have caught the quiver of your brows).

Unless one has experienced so great an intensity of life as to feel an absence of completeness without actively mixing in spirit with all, he could not have set a great store by the companionship and sympathy with others, even if they happened to be insentient beings. Sage Kaṇva is represented as one whose power was in no way less than that of a Viśvāmitra, if he wanted to create things. But what happened actually was, the spirits of the forest endowed Śakuntalā with costly silks, fine cosmetics and bright jewels—all because of their eagerness to participate in the parental fondness of Kaṇva for bestowing on his loving daughter, at her departure, the good things of life.

Not satisfied with the gifts of the forest-spirits to the maiden whose parting caused such a wrench in the hearts of the forest dwellers, the poet would move us to the core by the rarer gift of sympathy from the mute world around, when he makes the deer swallow not their mouthfuls of grass, the peacocks complete not their dances and the creepers restrain not their tears in the falling of leaves on the ground.

udgalita-darbha-kavalā mṛgyaḥ parityaktanartanā mayūrāḥ,
apasṛta-pāṇḍupatrāḥ munchantyaśrūṇīva latāḥ.

This is Kālidāsa in his fullest measure of comprehension of the one Universal Spirit pervading all life.

May be an unimaginative critic or a stickler for accuracy will require more specific instances to show the poet’s unshakable belief in the Advaitic thought. We can satisfy all such doubters by pointing to them the many verses of his where he refers to the One indivisible and inscrutable Ātman, which yet for t he sake of apparent manifestation assumes the Trimūrti aspects of creation, protection and annihilation.

namo viśvasṛje pūrvam viśvam tadanu bibhrate,
atha viśvasya saṃhartre iubhyam tredhā sthitātmane.

(You create the world first, then you strive to guard it against danger and finally destroy it—all these are your own triple aspects.)

Again he describes the Supreme Spirit in these words:

rasāntarāṇyekarasam yathā divyam payo’śnute
deśe deśe guṇeshvevam avasthāstvam avikṛyaḥ.

(Just as the rain, however tasteless, acquires varied tastes by falling on different spots of the earth, so also changeless as you are, you still assume attributes according to your own pleasure).

One can perceive that this idea is not far removed from the statement in the Kaṭhopaniṣad (ii, 15):

yathodakam śuddhe śuddhamāsiktam tādṛgeva bhavati
evam muner vijānata ātmā bhavati gautama.

(O Gautama, as pure water poured on pure water becomes verily the same, so also does become the Self of the man of knowledge who understands).

If Advaita postulates the supreme merit of knowledge as by itself the goal of all life’s strivings, then Kālidāsa unerringly suggests such an achievement. When he wrote of Raghu campaigning against the Persians and leading his army by the land-route, he observes:

pārasīkān tato jetum pratosthe sthalavartmanā,
indṛyākhyāniva ripūn tattvajñānena saṃyamī
(Raghuvaṃśa, 4-60).

(Then he set out to conquer the Persians by the land-route even as a disciplined person would seek to conquer his senses by the power of reasoning and deliberation).

Mark the word tattva-jñānena, (by knowledge of Truth) used by the poet. No greater indication is required to prove that the path of knowledge (vichāramārga) was preferred by the poet. Apart from the knowledge of geography he had, the fact of the existence of perhaps a sea-route also to reach the same place gives the further emphasis of a choice by him of the route which was less risky or more advantageous to travelling.

Captivated by solitude and environmental tranquillity, the poet never tires of taking his kings to the forest for a life of rest and meditation after they had had their fill of worldly enjoyment and material comforts. Moreover fascinated by yoga as a sure disciplinary method for the attainment of liberation, he invariably talks of some of the monarchs resorting to the practice of yoga for attaining ultimate release from all earthly bonds:

ragkurāptaiḥ samiyāya yogibhiḥ.

(For securing the timeless life, Raghu sought the company of Yogis of genuine calibre).

One can trace a suggestion in the Pañchadaśī of Vidyāraṇya, that Yoga may be equated to an upāsanī tor reaching the Nirguṇa-Brabman (Formless One).

nirguṇabrahmatattvasya na hyupāsterasaṃbhavaḥ,
saguṇabrahmaṇīvātra pratyayāvṛttisaṃbhavāt.

(Upāsanā is not impossible because of its application to nirguṇa Brahman. For, as in the case of Saguṇa, Upāsanā can be practised, but only by the method of frequent and repealed dwelling upon it.)

For obtaining self-knowledge, Śāstra requires the seeker to attempt first total destruction of all pūrva-saṃskāras (past deeds) by the fire of one’s own knowledge. Kālidāsa very pertinently points out how Raghu tried to have himself purified in the fire of his own thought.

itaro dahane svakarmaṇām
vavṛte jñānamayena vanhinā.

(The other [Raghu] attempted to bum out every bit of his accumulated past saṃskāras in the fire of his knowledge).

One has only to remember the Gītā verse in order to be convinced of the accuracy of the poet’s observation.

yasya sarve samāraṃbhāḥ kāmasaṃkalpavarjitāḥ,
jñānāgnidagdha-karmāṇam tamāhuḥ paṇḍitam budhāḥ
. (4-18)

(One whose actions have all no personal motives of self-advance and whose past deeds have all been burnt in the fire of knowledge, him alone would the wise call a sage, the best-equipped).

The road to salvation is not a smooth one. It is beset with many a pitfall. The traveller needs poise of mind and a balanced judgment if he has to tread it with safety and sureness of purpose. The mind of a Sthitaprajña has been deemed as of utter need if one wants even in this life the satisfaction of Realisation. For that he must strive to be unaffected by both joy and sorrow, gain and loss, pleasure and pain. Kālidāsa has made a Sthitaprajña of Raghu by his constant reminder of the idea of gold and mud as of no different consequence to him.

raghurapyajayat guṇatrayam prakṛtistham samaloṣṭakāñchanaḥ,

(Raghu with equal disdain of both gold and a clod of clay, conquered the three Guṇas by adopting a changeless outlook).

Perhaps it may be said that Kālidāsa felt sannyāsa-āśrama as of dire need for a seeker of the Immortal Self. Otherwise he would not have referred to the king’s taking to sannyāsa:

so kilāśramamantyamāśrito nivasannāvasathe purādbahiḥ,

(Having entered upon the last āśrama [sannyāsa], he began staying away from the city outskirts).

We are not sure whether Kālidāsa shared the view of some of the Advaitins who have chalked out a course of preparation wherein Sannyāsa occupies prominence for attainment of liberation.

ātmajñāna-śeṣatvāchcha saimyāsasya
sarvatrātmajñānaprakaraṇe sannyāsasya
vihitatvāt śravaṇādyaṅgatayā cha
ātmajñānaphalatā sannyāsasya siddhā.
Calcutta Sanskrit Series, p. 694)

(It is affirmed that for Self-realisation in its context the efforts of listening, contemplating, etc., will have their fulfilment only through sannyāsa).

One senses even a crowning thought in Kālidāsa towards the state of Brahma-bhāva. Speaking of a later monarch of the Raghu line by name Kauśalya, he writes describing his final resolve to become a Brahmaniṣṭha by pursuing meditation and tapas.

yaśobhiḥ ābrahmasabhaṃ prakāśaḥ sa brahmabhūyaṃ gatimājagāma.

(With his fame reaching even the Brahmaloka, he followed the path to become actually one with Brahman).

Detachment and selfless action which alone can lead one gradually to the acquisition of the true spirit of Advaita are frequently dwelt upon by this national poet of India. In two epithets he describes Dilīpa, the earliest king of the Raghu line, thus:

agṛdhnuvādade so’rtham asaktaḥ sukhamanvabhūt

(One who earned wealth without avarice and enjoyed life without attachment).

He feels detachment is the only passport to the shining land lit by the eternal sunshine of Ānanda.

Unique as was Kālidāsa’s perception of love, his sense of values did not abandon him even in a situation of conflicting ideals. It is evident, from his narration of the love-episode of Śiva and Umā having its summation in a spiritual union, how the moorings of his culture aided him on to prefer purity to the appeal of the flesh, constancy to the lure of passion. At the same time he was not for renunciation and austerity without the necessary preparation of a mature mind. In a verse of his where Vaśiṣṭha counsels Aja to get reconciled to the inevitability of fate’s workings, there is an intriguing thought expressed by the poet in the line:

tadalabdhapadaṃ hṛdi śokaghane
pratiyātamivāntikamasya guroḥ.

(His heart crushed under the sorrow did not receive the words of consolation; they [the words of advice] returned, as it were, to the preceptor himself).

Evidently Kālidāsa was amused at the sage advice of Vaśiṣṭha without his finding out whether premature consolation would work its way into the heart of the king, lacerated as it was by grief. Further, it is clear that the poet wants to impress on his readers that however wise Vaśiṣṭha might be, he could not really comprehend the depth of true love practised as a Yoga by both Aja and Indumatī. Otherwise the poet would not have ended their love episode as having its culmination in their regained union in the halcyon bowers of svarga. The purpose of Kālidāsa in presenting the picture of Aja’s love may be to remind us that mere austerity and renunciation by themselves will not always take one to any great Understanding. There may be other paths such as that of love which should not be forgotten by those who pin their faith on Knowledge. Tolerance has, according to him, a place in any scheme of striving for the higher life, especially to one imbued with the spirit of Advaita.

Even as Vālmīki and Vyāsa before him had conceived of a greater glory awaiting man treading the straight path of Dharma, Kālidāsa harped on the significance of a full life, which would not discard intense living and yet would care for the watch-word of ‘Ripeness is All’. Ānandavardhana, the arch-priest of literary criticism, has not in vain placed Kālidāsa along with the two epic poets. It is true Kālidāsa like Shakespeare lifts his head to the Heaven of heavens and only “spares the cloudy border of his base to the foiled searching of mortality”.[8] In appreciating Kālidāsa we cannot forget the culture in which he was born and brought up. Dr Radhakrishnan recalls the culture that was given to Kālidāsa thus:

“This culture is essentially spiritual in quality. We are ordinarily imprisoned in the wheel of time, in historicity, and so are restricted to the narrow limits of existence. Our aim should be to lift ourselves out of our entanglement to an awareness of the real which is behind and beyond all time and history, that which does not become, that which is, absolute, non-historical being itself—The end of man is to become aware by experience of this absolute reality”.[9]

No other poet known to us in Sanskrit had so well benefited by this culture. No other thinker ever has enabled generations after him to ruminate with profit on this superior culture which gave Kālidāsa insight into a world that is seemingly diversified, yet remains One.

Footnotes and references:


The Foundations of Indian Culture, p. 344.


Kālidāsa by Śrī Aurobindo, p. 14.


Kumārasaṃbhava , II, 11.


Ibid., II, 15.


Bhagavad-gītā , iv, 24.


Vikramorvaśīya, IV, 28.


Śākuntalam, iv, 10.


Shakespeare (Sonnet), by Mathew Arnold.


Introduction by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan to Sushil Kumar De’s edition of Meghasandeśa, p. 12.

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