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August 07, 2019 Wednesday 02:03:02 PM IST

Ageless Love“MOTHER, Who is This Man ?”

3rd Eye

The present column, for a change, has reference to Teenage Love by Roy Abraham and Soumya Thomas featured in the July issue of Pallikkutam. The authors in this case have unpacked the theme for us in the light of contemporary science. Here I attempt to do the exact opposite: take the help of ancient literature. My focal text is Kalidasa’s masterpiece, Sakuntala. By the way, a knowledge of the text of the play, while desirable, is not necessary to follow my arguments below.

To me, one of the saddest questions in world literature is in this play. It is raised by child Bharata, son of Dushyanta and Sakuntala. Here’s that heart-wrenching question:

Child: “Mother, who is this man?”

The question is posed by the child in respect of his father. To the best of my knowledge, this question has gone unheeded in the Kalidasa canon. Sakuntala is revered as a classic on romantic love, which it is. But it is more than that. It is also an exposition of holistic love. That exposition is woven into the contrast between two models of ‘love’.  The contrast is not between ‘teenage love’ and ‘mature love’; though the heroine could well have been in her teens at the time of encountering Dushyanta. It is between love, and what is mistaken for love, but isn’t really love.


A chase

Kalidasa hitches Dushyanta’s ‘accidental’ visit to Kanva’s hermitage to a chase. The king is in hot pursuit of a deer, which he is about to shoot. The interruption of the kill paves the way to his meeting Sakuntala. The chase involves a relationship; an episodic one that affords fleeting pleasure at the expense of another. It is clear that Kalidasa wants the spectators to be aware of it; the reason why the chase is portrayed graphically with the spotlight on the predicament on the terrorized deer, which is unmatched in world literature. The identity of the hunter is emphasized. He is a king: a political personage.  Contextually, a parallel is created - delicately and suggestively- between the deer and Sakuntala.

The poet portrays the deer in fright as contracting or being reduced in figure and function. This contracting impact is then paralleled in his impact on Sakuntala, which leads to her getting cursed by Durvasa. Till her encounter with Dushyanta, Sakuntala was in a state of idyllic freedom, expressing herself through a gamut of tender, caring and spontaneous relationships with all ambient forms of life. Being in a state of ‘abstraction’ was alien to her, even from the lowliest form of life in nature. Her failure to discharge the duties of hospitality arises from this induced state of contracted awareness. 

A state of contraction


Sakuntala is not alone in such a state. The king too, in the chase, is in a state of contraction. He is as fiercely focused on the game, as Sakuntala would be, soon, on being with him, in the wake of their union. The difference is that the king’s mode of abstraction results from pleasure-seeking. Pleasure is a principle of contraction. It makes a person shrink into his or her little self. That is why it generates apathy - or, its sharper form, cruelty. Or, as Lord Buddha would say, suffering is the shadow of pleasure; suffering for oneself and for others.

This, then, is one mode of ‘love’. It is not inaccurate to call this, in our lingo, hormonal love. But it is certainly misleading and inaccurate to term this a ‘teenage’ thing. In a pleasure-seeking and pleasure-maximizing culture, such as prevails today, this mode of love casts its shadow over all age groups. Why, else, would we have this torrent of marital problems plaguing even ‘love-marriages’?

Power-play of sorts

Teenage love is power-play of sorts. The power of hormones, but power, nonetheless. Power is unilateral as pleasure also is. The outcome of power, as Kalidasa portrays it, is alienation. Unilateralism is its working principle. Forgetfulness inheres in its logic. In the pursuit and consumption of pleasure one forgets even oneself.


Sakuntala was already in love before Dushyanta stumbled upon her. She was in love with nature! As a lover, she is nourisher par excellence. It is in the nature of such love that it nourishes. Tenderness is the lingua franca of nourishing love. We can blame Sakuntala for yielding to the solicitations of the king-lover. But the text suggests that even in this she was a nourisher, not a consumer! This was precisely what the king didn’t have eyes to see. Through the image of the chase, with the cruelty that underlies it, the poet shows the king as lacking in self-restraint, as all pleasure-seeking persons are. Kings are used to owning and using others; to imposing their will on whoever they please. Dushyanta has till now been inured to the pleasure-seeking mode of love, of which the royal harem is the nocturnal hunting-ground.

Sakuntala’s love is instinct with ambivalence. There is, in the first place, the spiritual austerity of Kanva’s ashram: the setting of her nurture. There is also, at the same time, the maternal shadow of Menaka - the embodiment of the sensual-silhouetted in her horizon. Sakuntala is, hence, no bloodless abstraction. She embodies a dynamic blend of the spiritual and the sensual - the romantic encased in the ascetic, which fortifies passion with self-restraint; a theme central to the Shaivite tradition. This ambivalence holds the key to the discipline and responsibility enjoined on her would-be lover. It puts him to the test. If Sakuntala were univocal - embodiment either of the sensual or of the spiritual - the role of Dushyanta as the lover would have been merely run-of-the-mill.  Given what Sakuntala is, the king is tested through the way he deals with her.

It is against this background that the significance of the question that Kalidasa raises through the ‘child’ - “Mother, who is this man?”- needs to be weighed.  In the immediate context it would seem to mean, “Mother, who is this man to me?” Or, why does he treat me as he is doing? But, in the larger context of the play, it also means, “Mother, who is this man to ‘you’?” We could almost say, “Has he been a ‘man’ to you, mother?

Doing justice to loving a woman


So, here’s a question that every male - never mind his age - needs to ask: “Am I a ‘man’ in relation to the woman I ‘love’? This needs to be asked; for how can anyone do justice to loving a woman, if he is not a ‘man’? What is it that makes a male, a man? Strange it is, but true all the same; no male can in himself know for sure if he is a ‘man’. The profundity of Kalidasa’s treatment of this issue lies in the fact that a man can know himself as he truly is, and become who needs to be, only through the woman he loves, and only if he ‘loves’ her.

Love is the mother of knowledge. To love is to know the truth.  Lust keeps two individuals at selfish play with each other perpetual strangers. The proof that a man and a woman are in love is that they know each other in depth. Anything short of this is puppy love. (This malady is surely not age-bound.) At the time that Bharata, the child, asks this question: Dushyanta and Sakuntala are virtual strangers to each other. Yes, they made ‘love’ to each other; and Bharata is the living proof that they did. Ironically, it was without being in ‘love’ that they made love. Dushyanta needs to be schooled in love. You cannot take irony any higher than this: making the proof itself interrogate the fact! 

This illumines the irony embedded in Dushyanta’s first encounter with Sakuntala. He sees her almost as a voyeur does. He hides and watches her! This ‘hiding’ is no accidental expediency. It is suggestive of where he stands in relation to himself. He is in hiding in relation not only to Sakuntala but also to himself; for he wishes to stay incognito for the time being. This hiding is of a piece with the logic of forgetfulness, which is mnemonic hiding. It is not unlikely that the poet gives here more than a hint that in a power-driven scheme of things, man is in perpetual hiding. The hiding man cannot ‘be with’, which is the thirst of love. Forgetfulness eventuates from this incapacity.

Hiding man


The rest of the play is about bringing the ‘hiding’ man into the open. The essence of Kalidasa’s romance is that this ‘bringing out’ of the man from his hiding is cast in the mold of a second birth in which Sakuntala plays mother to him. Woman has to recreate the male. She has to take him into herself and give him a second birth, if she is to have a man who can love her. The agony and ecstasy that Sakuntala undergoes turns out to be a birth-pang. Appropriately, this re-birth does not take place in the palace. It would have violated the thematic logic of the play to make the court its natal setting. The palace is presented as the setting of the contraction of Dushyant’s capacity to love. Here’s a taste of how sees himself -

“My conduct is…as foolish as the fancies of a man who, when he sees an elephant, denies that it is an elephant… but concedes the fact only when it has passed forever from his sight, and left behind no vestige of its presence save its footsteps.”

What is often left out of the reckoning of the so-called teenage love is the tragic potential it holds for succeeding generations. Love without spiritual restraint and emotional depth - what makes individuals shrink for being consumers of pleasure, treating each other as de facto tools - has the potential to blight the generations to come. The crushing burden of it alights on tender shoulders. Read thus, Durvasa’s curse comes to have anthropological overtones. That curse, echoing through the centuries, keeps men and women, presumably ‘in love’, strangers to each other even decades into matrimony. Millions of children have asked, and billions more will ask, Bharat’s question about their progenitors: “Mother, who is this man?”

The life breath of parenting is a relationship of vibrant love between parents. Temptations and delusions abound in a materialistic age to substitute this with a host of other things; the pleasurable substitutes afforded by economic progress. The stark reality, then as now, is: parenting needs to be as deeply mutual between the spouses as love-making is. Parents will be arraigned, in the end, in the court of life presided over by children. There is no question more difficult for a parent to face than the one Kalidasa has put into the mouth of a child -


 “Mother, who is this man?”


Dr. Valson Thampu

Former Principal of St. Stephen's College, New Delhi

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