The Brilliant Opening of the Raghuvamsa

  • By Indira Krishnakumar
  • November 24, 2023
  • An introduction to Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsha that also tells about the penance undertaken by kings of ancient Bharat.

Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsha, one of our five greatest Mahakavyas, describes the glories of the Suryavamsha starting with Vaivaswatha Manu and within whose fold was born Sri Rama. Raghu Rama was so known because he was the descendant of the illustrious Raghu who lent his name to the dynasty through his greatness. The vows undertaken by the childless Dileepa Maharaja and his royal consort Sudakshina Devi to beget a son like Raghu who would be a crown jewel in the line of the descendants tell us how much sacrifice has to be undergone into the fathering of a worthy son.


Raghu proved the efficacy of that all-consuming penance undertaken by his parents. Kalidasa makes a mention here of several kings in the Suryavamsha apart from Dilipa, Raghu and Sri Rama, like Aja, Dasaratha, Sri Rama’s son Kusa and so on. The narrative of the 21 kings detailed by the poet also includes Agnivarna, whose profligacy was a sure recipe to bring disgrace to that illustrious dynasty.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal.


The Raghuvamsa is composed of 19 cantos. The first canto comprising 95 stanzas narrates the incidents of a single day in the life of Maharaja Dilipa as he goes to meet his Kulaguru Vasishtha accompanied by his queen, in the latter’s hermitage, tucked away in a secluded spot in the forest, far away from the din of the capital city. The description of the wayside beauty that he witnesses is rejuvenating. The manner in which Dilipa pays respects to Guru Vasishtha, the enquiries the Guru makes about the welfare of Dilipa’s kingdom and the subjects, and the answers given—make us aware of a tradition we once held dear, but which is now lost with the passage of time. Kalidasa’s works abound in models. It is for us to readopt them.


The story starts with the eleventh stanza of the first canto. Each stanza of Kalidasa opens up a wonderful vista before the readers. Even so, the first ten introductory stanzas themselves are sufficient to tell us extensively both about the protocol followed by the writers of our land in olden times and the ideal of kingship based on the principles of Sanatana Dharma.


Keeping up the tradition of the land, the Mahakavya starts with the obeisance paid to the Almighty. Here the salutation is to the father and mother of the Universe— Parvati-Parameshwara—who remain ever united as a word and its meaning. A word is valid only when its meaning is in juxtaposition. A meaning or idea remains unexpressed if the word does shed light on it.


Our ancients recognised that if the word and its meaning had not illumined the world, it would have been engulfed in darkness. This thought is ingrained not merely in the psyche of our land. All over and at all times the significance of sound or word is recognised by the discerning. Here, we may recall the renowned Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure who said that in the absence of words or other sign systems the world would have been a chaotic jumble of undifferentiated ideas.


Poet Kalidasa, as he himself says, is setting out on an adventurous journey. Here he prays to Shiva-Parvati that just as they remain ever united, so should his words be in total harmony with their meanings. He is praying for a perfect comprehension of the means he is going to employ, in this challenging journey, namely words and their sense.




Even in the choice of the words describing Parvati-Parameshwara Kalidasa reveals what he considers to be the quintessence of poesy.


What an insightful ‘Mangalacharana’!


The beauty of the next four stanzas is inimitable and unique which amply validates the old saying (‘upama kalidasasya’). ‘None excels Kalidasa in the art of comparison.’


It was the practice of the poets of the old generation to pour down words expressing humility even while they were fully self-confident. In fact they were recognising the fact that their dexterity would bloom and earn acceptance, leading them to a sense of accomplishment, only by a touch of grace. Here Kalidasa wonders how to match the grandeur of the race that has originated from the Sun with his limited mental calibre. Raghuvamsha is a vast ocean and the competence called for navigating through it is gargantuan.


While what is required is a gigantic vessel what he has at his disposal is a mere raft or a small buoy. It is not the richness of the resources that makes him venture out, but it is merely his lack of wisdom, says Kalidasa. Driven by a lack of sagacity, using his fragile raft he is setting out on this arduous journey.



While in this stanza Kalidasa admits his lack of wisdom, in the next stanza, he confesses what according to him, is his ‘greed’. Motivated by a greed for fame as a great poet, he says, though a dull-witted person, he aims high. He aspires for an outcome that would be attainable only by a genius, just as a dwarf reaches out for a fruit that is accessible only to the tall.




In the next stanza, Kalidasa, in all humility, says that in charting this ocean he can take the help of his predecessors. Kalidasa finally decides to go ahead with the Mahakavya as his predecessors have already sculpted doors affording an entry into the grand stately domain of the race. When holes have been drilled into precious stones, normally resistant to manipulation, using a diamond pin, then, would it not be easy for a thread to pass through the same?




(Through the doors of words built by my predecessors I may get access to this edifice or race. My position is like a thread trying to enter a precious stone that had been pierced by a diamond-pin.)


These oft-quoted lines of Kalidasa defy comparison! The most endearing irony about this expression of humility is that Kalidasa was such an extraordinarily gifted genius, that humanity will have to wait an eternity before it is blessed with a poet of similar stature.


We get a clear picture of the severe austerities performed by the kings of ancient Bharat, in the gross as well as the subtle, for the welfare of their kingdom and their subjects, as we go through the stanzas from five to nine of the first canto. It would be more appropriate to say that life itself was a long penance for them rather than saying that they performed sacrifices or observed austerities as part of the chores. 


Kings of the Surya dynasty were immaculate even from their birth. They worked untiringly until the limits they set were reached. They had sway over the entire land skirted by the oceans. The paths of heaven were tracks for their chariots to roll on. They never failed to protect the fires that householders had to tend ritualistically. They were meticulous in observing the practices prescribed for each station or Ashrama of life they passed through. They earned wealth only to enable themselves to be charitable. They did not shy away from inflicting punishments on the guilty in proportion to their misdeeds. They were reticent in speech to uphold the truthfulness of their utterances. August thoughts couched in noble words! They approached their queens only when the couple was desirous of siring children. The sanctity of each Ashrama was maintained by them and the final glory came when they were able to give up the mortal coil through their yoga shakti.


How Kalidasa packed history and desiderata in these opening stanzas is a marvel! It gives us a foretaste of what follows. Let us enrich ourselves, diving deep into the heart of it to come up with nuggets of gold that only Poet Kalidasa can provide.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, November 16, 2023 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.

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