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The playwright and poet Kalidasa
Why did he call himself "Servant of Kali"?

The plays and poems of Kālidāsa (कालिदासः), "Servant of Kālī", are classics of Indian and world literature. His life is not well documented, but historians date his work around fifteen hundred years ago, and textual evidence suggests that he lived in the kingdom of Ujjayinī (Ujjain) in central India.

Kālidāsa is especially remembered for his play Abhijñāna Śākuntala, which is a love story based on material from the Mahābhārata. Its central characters are Śakuntala, a young woman raised in a forest hermitage, and the king Duṣyanta, who meets her while he is hunting deer.

Kālidāsa also wrote Kumārasaṃbhava, about the courtship of Śiva and Pārvatī; Raghuvaṃśa, about Rāma and his kindred; and Meghadūta, in which a lonely male spirit (yakṣa) asks a raincloud to journey across India, bearing a message to his lady.

Opinions about what the name means…

As I suggested in Ferment several years ago, 1 Kālidāsa’s name says something about the way Kālī has been perceived in India. If a great creative writer declares himself to be Kālī’s servant, is it not natural to think of Kālī as a goddess of creative writers?

A twentieth century Indian scholar, Govinda Gopal Mukherjee, writes of "...the name of the great poet Kālidāsa, which clearly indicates that during his time Kālī must have assumed an honoured position in the Hindu pantheon, for otherwise he could not have been so named." 2 Thomas B. Coburn, author of a study of the Devī Māhātmya, is impressed by the fact that the author of the Kumārasaṃbhava "the peerless Kālidāsa, should call himself 'the slave of Kālī.' " 3 (The Devī Māhātmya is a Goddess-oriented work which modern scholars think was written around the time of Kālidāsa.)

A note of caution is sounded in a letter I received from Geoffrey Samuel of the University of Newcastle (Australia):

Kālidāsa’s name certainly implies that Kālī was a goddess one could be named for or dedicated to in his time, but it does not necessarily imply that she was a ‘mistress of the creative mind’ - unless one can establish that he specifically adopted this name in relation to his poetic activity. There is apparently a legend that he was ‘a dull and ignorant man who was given miraculous skill by the goddess Kālī’ and subsequently took the name Kālidāsa (I take this from Hank Heifetz’s intro to his translation of the Kumārasaṃbhava, p.3), but there is no reason to assume that this was historical - it could as well be a later attempt to explain his name. ‘Kālidāsa’ might simply have been a personal name given in childhood. It could even be compatible with the fierce destructive side of Kālī - i.e. it could have been a name given as a protection against Kālī for a sickly child or one where there seemed a threat of divine attack for some reason.4

What is said about Kālī and Kāla by Kālidāsa himself?

What does Kālidāsa himself tell us about his understanding of his name? One verse in Kumārasaṃbhava mentions a Kālī garlanded with skulls, whose appearance reminds the poet of a rain cloud with cranes flying in front of it. This Kālī is pictured as distinct from Pārvatī. She walks at the back of Śiva’s wedding procession, but the lightning of her radiance flashes far in front of her.5 Can we conclude from this verse, as David Kinsley does, that Kālī "was still quite a minor deity" at the time of Kālidāsa? 6

A fuller picture emerges when we remember that the name Kālī consists of two elements: the noun stem kāl (काल्) and the suffix ī (ई). The first of these has a double meaning: "blue-black"; or "time, destiny, death". The second denotes feminine gender.

Does Kālidāsa recognize ī (ई), the feminine principle, as an integral part of the divine? Consider the first verse of Raghuvaṃśa, which invokes Pārvatī and Parameśvara as the jagataḥ pitarau, Mother and Father of the world. They are said to be inseparably united like the word and its meaning, a unity the poet seeks to realize in his work. 7

What about kāl (काल्)? In Meghadūta we find a series of verses about the temple of Mahākāla in Ujjayinī. The name Mahākāla consists of mahā (महा) "great", kāl, (काल्) and the masculine suffix a (अ). The god worshipped in the temple is introduced as the master of the three worlds. He has a blue throat and a spear, implying that he is Śiva (though that name is not used). There is also a feminine power in the temple, named in one verse as Caṇḍī, and in another as Bhavānī. Fragrant gardens surround the temple. At sunset there is drumming, and courtesans (veśyā-s) dance. The master of the three worlds is a dancer too. He likes to wear an elephant’s hide wet with blood, but other red things also please him: hibiscus flowers, a cloud at twilight... 8

The sober lexicographer V.S.Apte describes the verses about Mahākāla's temple as "very beautiful". 9

What is said about Kālī and Kāla in other works of the same period or before?

Association between the words or names Kālī (feminine) and Kāla (masculine) is found in the Mahābhārata 10 (several centuries before Kālidāsa) and also in the Devī Māhātmya 11 (which is roughly contemporary with him). In the Devī Māhātmya there is the idea of a single world-pervading Goddess, who can also appear as multiple goddesses.

What conclusions can be drawn?

Perhaps the most likely reasons that the poet and playwright signed himself "Kālidāsa" are...


1 November 1999.

2 pages 42 to 43 of Mukherjee, Govinda Gopal, "The Spiritual Heritage of India: the Tantras"; in Lokeswarananda, Swami (ed); Studies on the Tantras; Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1989. (Adapted from Bulletin of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Vol XXXII.)

3 Coburn, Thomas B.; Devī Māhātmya: Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition; Motilal, Delhi, 1984; p 113.

4 Letter, April 2, 2000.

5 Kale, M.R. (ed, trans); Kumārasaṃbhava of Kālidāsa [Sanskrit and English]; Motilal, Delhi, 1981; chapter VII, verse 39.

6 Kinsley, David; The Sword and the Flute; University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977; p 94.

7 Nandargikar, G.R. (ed,trans); Raghuvaṃśa of Kālidāsa; Motilal, Delhi, 1982; chapter 1 verse 1.

8 Nandargikar, G.R. (ed,trans); Meghadūta of Kālidāsa; Bharatiya Book Corporation, Delhi, 1979; Pūrvamegha, verses 37 to 40.

9 Apte, V.S.; Student’s Sanskrit English Dictionary; Motilal, Delhi, 1970. The passage is mentioned as part of the entry for mahā.

10 Mahābhārata 10.8 verses 64 - 67, 69. Cited in Sanskrit, with an English translation, in Coburn;Devī-Māhātmya: Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition; pp 111 – 112.

11 Jagadiswarananda, Swami (ed, trans); Devi Mahatmyam [Sanskrit and English]; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1953; chapter 12 verse 38. This verse is discussed in our article A God for the Goddess.

Article first published in Ferment April 2004.
Revised for the Web 2011.
Article © Colin Robinson 2004, 2011

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