Stranger in the Sacred Grove: Nature and Sexual Politics in Shakuntala

Women have been associated with nature for many reasons: throughout time, both have been muses and conquests for men. The terminology we use to refer to nature, like “mother nature,” “virgin,” “fertile,” and “barren,” all allude to female sexuality. In Kalidasa’s play Shakuntala, the main character, the King, enters sacred land on the hunt for a deer, but finds love instead. There are multiple scenes where he conceals himself from her behind trees, lying in wait as if she is his prey. He often monologues about her, and sometimes her friends, to himself, comparing their bodies to silent, unassuming natural features. Throughout the play, nature is used as a device to sexualize the bodies of these young women.

When the King first encounters the girls in the sacred grove, he admires them from afar.

King (listening). I think I hear some one to the right of the grove. I must find out. (He walks and looks about.) Ah, here are hermit-girls, with watering-pots just big enough for them to handle. They are coming in this direction to water the young trees. They are charming!
The city maids, for all their pains,
Seem not so sweet and good;
Our garden blossoms yield to these
Flower-children of the wood.
I will draw back into the shade and wait for them. (He stands, gazing toward them. Enter Shakuntala, as described, and her two friends.)

“Shakuntala,” Kalidasa, pg. 8

This passage highlights the youth of the young hermits, referring to them as “girls” and “flower-children.” The young girls are pious hermits living in the forest, a place that has often been considered sacred, spiritual, and pure, just as the girls are. The standard of the ideal woman has also required them to be pious and moral, a grounding force for their husbands. The king also deems them more “sweet and good” than city maids, contrasting the purity of the forest and its girlish inhabitants to the trammeled land of the city and, presumably, of city women’s bodies. City women are not as good, in the King’s eyes, as the virgin young women living on sacred virgin land.

            In another scene, the King again looks on from a distance at Shakuntala and her friends before approaching.

Shakuntala. Oh, Anusuya! Priyamvada has fastened this bark dress so tight that it hurts. Please loosen it. (Anusuya does so.)

Priyamvada (laughing). You had better blame your own budding charms for that.

King. She is quite right.
Beneath the barken dress
Upon the shoulder tied,
In maiden loveliness
Her young breast seems to hide,
As when a flower amid
The leaves by autumn tossed—Pale, withered leaves—lies hid,
And half its grace is lost.
Yet in truth the bark dress is not an enemy to her beauty. It serves as an added ornament. For
The meanest vesture glows
On beauty that enchants:
The lotus lovelier shows
Amid dull water-plants;
The moon in added splendor
Shines for its spot of dark;
Yet more the maiden slender
Charms in her dress of bark.

“Shakuntala,” Kalidasa, pg. 9

Priyamvada makes an embarrassing joke about Shakuntala’s developing body, and the King takes it much further. He considers her body in uncomfortable detail, drawing particular attention to her “maiden loveliness” – her virginity and “pure” body – and her “young breast,” which he accuses of hiding from him under her bark dress. The bark is her protector here, keeping her safe from peeping eyes, and yet the King continues to ogle her body. He compares her to lotus flowers, which open to expose their seed pods, and the moon, whose cyclical nature has been compared to the menstrual cycle. Both images allude to newfound sexual maturity.

An open lotus flower. It has soft pink petals and its exposed seed pod is bright yellow.
Source

Shakuntala herself even compares young women to Jasmine flowers:

Shakuntala (approaches and looks at it, joyfully). What a pretty pair they make. The jasmine shows her youth in her fresh flowers, and the mango-tree shows his strength in his ripening fruit. (She stands gazing at them.)

“Shakuntala,” Kalidasa, pg. 10

She also plays into the idea that all women are delicate flowers, and the girls take the sight of the jasmine-wreathed mango tree as an omen of Shakuntala’s future marriage. This excerpt takes the stance that one of the most valuable things about a woman is her youth, which is still a prevalent idea. For example, in 2015, a 37-year-old actress Maggie Gyllenhaal was told she was “too old” to play the love interest of her 55-year-old male counterpart. Women aren’t allowed to age peacefully, constantly bombarded by anti-aging products and a lack of representation of older women in media. We are instead all inundated with images of increasingly younger women in suggestive styles and poses. While it’s important for teenage girls to have agency and to not e ashamed of how they express themselves, it raises red flags when a young girl like Millie Bobby Brown was named in an article called “Why TV is Sexier Than Ever” when she was only 13 years old.

            The King, in another scene, makes a simple inconvenience of Shakuntala’s into an oddly sensual situation.

Shakuntala (excitedly). Oh, oh! A bee has left the jasmine vine and is flying into my face. (She shows herself annoyed by the bee.)King (ardently). As the bee about her flies,
Swiftly her bewitching eyes
Turn to watch his flight.
She is practising to-day
Coquetry and glances’ play
Not from love, but fright.
(Jealously.) Eager bee, you lightly skim
O’er the eyelid’s trembling rim
Toward the cheek a-quiver.
Gently buzzing round her cheek,
Whispering in her ear, you seek
Secrets to deliver.
While her hands that way and this
Strike at you, you steal a kiss,
Love’s all, honeymaker.
I know nothing but her name,
Not her caste, nor whence she came—You, my rival, take her.

“Shakuntala,” Kalidasa, pg. 11

The King finds himself envious of a bee for apparently stealing away the girl he loves. In this scene, she is simply annoyed by a bee flying around her head, but the King makes it sensual, claiming she is instead “practicing coquetry” by just following the bee with her eyes. He continues in jealousy, making a simple occurrence into a whole affair and imagining this young woman that he has yet to get to know using suggestive language like “quivering” and “trembling.” He can’t help but obsess over her every glance and tremble of her lip, seemingly unable to view her as just a young girl as opposed to an object of desire.

            Although Shakuntala reciprocates the King’s feelings for her, the imbalance of power and difference in age between them still gives the relationship between them an uncomfortable dynamic. She is painted as a part of the scenery, there to be passed from her father to her lover and advance the narrative. She lacks agency, and many of the ways she and her friends are portrayed reinforce traditional gender roles and encourage the sexualization of young women, which is unfortunately only a worsening issue today.

Works Cited

Child, Ben. “Maggie Gyllenhaal: At 37 I was ‘too old’ for role opposite 55-year-old-man.” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/21/maggie-gyllenhaal-too-old-hollywood. Accessed 26 Nov. 2020.

Harding, Rebekah. “Millie Bobby Brown Named Sexiest Actress by W Magazine, Once Again Promoting Pedophilia.” Affinity Magazine, http://culture.affinitymagazine.us/millie-bobby-brown-named-sexiest-actress-by-playfm-once-again-promoting-pedophilia/. Accessed 26. Nov 2020.

Kalidasa. “Shakuntala.” In parentheses Publications, Cambridge, Ontario, 1999. http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/shakuntala_ryder.pdf

2 thoughts on “Stranger in the Sacred Grove: Nature and Sexual Politics in Shakuntala

  1. I noticed that your perspective of this is really persuasive. I think that your comparison with nature and sex is spot on. The flirtation between the two themes almost seem synonymous. You conveyed your ideas and made me feel as if that it is the case. Amazing job!

  2. You did a great job providing passages rich in language that ties together sexuality and nature. For a couple years I’ve been trying to figure out the relationship between sexuality and nature in literature, and for some reason I just can’t fully wrap my head around its significance. I understand how they go hand-in-hand, but I can’t understand the desired effect of using nature to describe human sexuality. I think since we romanticize nature so much, using nature to describe people makes us automatically consider them beautiful and graceful and full of life. It’s an interesting way to go about characterization, and I think your essay (or unessay) underlines that wonderfully.

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