Asti Kashchit Vaag-visheshah
This post is not directly about Hindu mythology, but rather about a man who made parts of the mythology immortal by molding small skeletal reference stories into classical literary masterpieces - a man who himself is subject to more colorful myths than anyone else - this post is about Mahakavi Kalidasa.
Kalidasa wrote poems of epic proportions for music and dance and he is regarded as the most outstanding writer of classical Sanskrit. The typical works that are attributed to him are:
1. Abhijnana shakuntalam - or simply Shaakuntalam ("The Recognition of Shakuntala")
2. Malavika Agnimitra, and
1. Raghuvamsa ("Dynasty of Raghu") - Epic poem
2. Kumarasambhava ("Birth of the War Lord") - Epic poem
3. Meghduta ("The Cloud Messanger") - Lyric poem
4. Ritusamhara ("The Exposition on the Seasons") - Lyric poem
These seven are considered usually to be his original works.
Nothing is known with certainty about Kalidasa apart from his works. Some say he lived in Ujjain (most likely), some say Vidharbha, some say Kashmir, some even say that he spent his later years in Sri Lanka (Ceylon). In all likelihood, he was a part of the Navratnas (nine gems) at the court of king Vikramaditya of Ujjain around 600 AD. Most historians believe that he resided at the court of the Gupta king Chandra Gupta II in Pataliputra (Patna).
Anyway, the pieces that are interesting of his life are legendary and almost surely made up, but hey, they make for a great story. My 8th Standard school text book for Sanskrit had a chapter with the same name as the title of this post, and most of what I am sharing with you is from that. So I do not claim any originality or historical accuracy here.
The Mostly Inaccurate Account of why he is called Kalidasa
The first interesting part of the story / myth / whatever you may want to call -- is that Kalidasa was exceptionally dull to begin with, even as much as to suggest mental handicap !!!
The story goes that the Princess of the kingdom he lived in at that time --- her name was most probably Vidyottama (lit. One with great knowledge) --- was a vidooshi (learned lady) and would defeat all pundits in the debates on scriptures. As she became invincible, her arrogance grew no bounds. When it was time for her marriage, she would insist on having a public debate with the prospective groom, and in the debate when the poor chap would lose, she would humiliate him and laugh at his plight.
A couple of ministers, who found themselves at the butt of this cruel joke once, decided to teach the lady a lesson for life.
So they went in search for some complete idiot. They found a man sitting on the branch of a tree, and cutting the same branch with an axe. Naturally, when he finished cutting the branch, he fell down with it. The ministers were happy that they had found the pawn for their scheme. They taught the fool (who later became Kalidasa) to only communicate in sign language, and brought him along with them to the city palace.
They told the princess that the fellow accompanying them was a renowned pundit from North, but he has taken Maun Vrat (vow of silence), so he will only respond to her in sign language. The lady believed in their story and agreed to debate with the fool.
The princess showed him one finger [ her meaning was 'shakti is one' ]. He thought she will poke his one eye, so he showed her two fingers [ meaning he will poke both her eyes ]. She accepted it as a wonderful response, since 'shakti' is manifest in Duality (shiv-shakti, nar-nari, etc.).
Then she showed her palm with fingers extended [ meaning 'the world is made of five elements' ]. He thought she is about to slap him and in return showed her the fist. She accepted it as a response to her question. [meaning the same five elements - earth, water, fire, air, and void - make the body ].
After more such extremely hilarious exchanges - which are most probably later additions - The lady accepted her defeat and married the dimwit. The ministers were successful in their scheme. Of course, after marriage, the secret could not remain hidden for long and when the princess discovered that her husband is not a pundit but a fool, she got outraged and drew him out of the palace.
The poor man wandered around, found a temple of Kali and made it his home. He worshipped Goddess Kali and - in some versions of the story - cut his tongue off and offered it as a sacrific to Kali. Kali was appeased with him and granted him profound wisdom -- Thus he took the name Kalidasa ("Devotee of Kali").
When he returned to his house, his wife asked the following famous question, "Asti Kashchit Vaag-visheshaH?''
[ Asti = is, Kashchit = any, Vaag = language / knowledge, Visheshah = speciality ]
Her meaning was -- "Have you got / learnt anything special now?"
In response to her question, Kalidasa wrote three works of exceptional literary beauty, all three peoms -- starting with the three words of her question:
With Asti = asti-uttarasyaam dishi = Kumara-sambhavam (epic poem)
With Kashchit = kashchit-kaantaa = Meghdoot (lyric poem)
With Vaag = vaagarthaaviva = Raghuvansha (epic poem)
Now that is a suitable answer to the question !!!
Kumara-sambhavam is one of my personal favorites. Especially the first few stanzas of the poem, which describe the Himalayas are so beautiful that every time I travel in the Himalayas, I am bound to think of and ruminate on them.
Kalidasa and Hanumad Ramayana
The other interesting reference of Kalidasa is related to Hanumad Ramayana. I will discuss the case of Multiple Ramayanas in a post to follow separately. But let's talk about Kalidasa's reference here.
It is considered that Lord Hanuman originally scripted a version of the Ramayana on clay tablets - even before Valmiki did - in fact Hanuman was the first person to write the story of Rama - recording every detail of Rama's deeds, and brought them to Rama for his blessings of that narrative.
But Rama, out of modesty, declined to do anything with it, saying that he was only doing his duty and so there was nothing spectacular to be noted and told to others. Dejected by this, Hanuman is said to have brought these clay tablets to the seashore, recited each verse, broken each tablet on his knee and thrown it into the sea.
The other version of the story is that after the victory of Rama over Ravana, Hanuman went to the Himalayas to continue his worship of the Lord. There he scripted a version of the Ramayana on the Himalayan mountains using his nails, recording every detail of Rama's deeds on clay tables. When Maharishi Valmiki visited him to show him his own version of the Ramayana, he also saw Lord Hanuman's version and became very disappointed.
When Hanuman asked him the cause of his sorrow, he said that his version, which he had created very laboriously was no match for the splendour of Hanuman's, and would therefore, go ignored. At this, Hanuman took those rocks / clay tables on one shoulder and Valmiki on the other, and went to the sea. There he threw his own version into the sea, as an offering to Rama.
In any case, this version, called the Hanumad Ramayana, has been unavailable since then.
But one tablet is said to have floated ashorecame ashore, during the period of Mahakavi Kalidasa, and hung at a public place to be deciphered by scholars. Kalidasa is said to have deciphered it and recognized that it was from the Hanumad Ramayana recorded by Hanuman in an extinct script, and considered himself fortunate enough to see at least one foot of the stanza.
Kalidasa is supposed to have translated the foot of the stanza from the ancient script, which said:
"Oh! Ravana, those your ten heads, on which you lifted of Mt. Kailah, the abode of Shiva, are now bumped on battlefield by the claws of crows and eagles, know what has happened to your high-headed Decahedral pride, at the hands of virtue..."
Of course, like the other parts of story, this one too seems to be completely a figment of imagination, but just goes on to prove how strong the legend of Kalidasa has remained in this land!
(Ref: Shashikant Joshi, http://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/kalidas.html)