The Birth of the War-god is an epic poem in seventeen cantos. It consists of 1096 stanzas, or about 4400 lines of verse. The subject is the marriage of the god Shiva, the birth of his son, and the victory of this son over a powerful demon. The story was not invented by Kalidasa, but taken from old mythology. Yet it had never been told in so masterly a fashion as had been the story of Rama’s deeds by Valmiki. Kalidasa is therefore under less constraint in writing this epic than in writing The Dynasty of Raghu. I give first a somewhat detailed analysis of the matter of the poem.
First canto. The birth of Parvati. — The poem begins with a description of the great Himalaya mountain-range.
God of the distant north, the Snowy Range
O’er other mountains towers imperially;
Earth’s measuring-rod, being great and free from change,
Sinks to the eastern and the western sea.
Whose countless wealth of natural gems is not
Too deeply blemished by the cruel snow;
One fault for many virtues is forgot,
The moon’s one stain for beams that endless flow.
Where demigods enjoy the shade of clouds
Girding his lower crests, but often seek,
When startled by the sudden rain that shrouds
His waist, some loftier, ever sunlit peak.
Where bark of birch-trees makes, when torn in strips
And streaked with mountain minerals that blend
To written words ‘neath dainty finger-tips,
Such dear love-letters as the fairies send.
Whose organ-pipes are stems of bamboo, which
Are filled from cavern-winds that know no rest,
As if the mountain strove to set the pitch
For songs that angels sing upon his crest.
Where magic herbs that glitter in the night
Are lamps that need no oil within them, when
They fill cave-dwellings with their shimmering light
And shine upon the loves of mountain men.
Who offers roof and refuge in his caves
To timid darkness shrinking from the day;
A lofty soul is generous; he saves
Such honest cowards as for protection pray,
Who brings to birth the plants of sacrifice;
Who steadies earth, so strong is he and broad.
The great Creator, for this service’ price,
Made him the king of mountains, and a god.
Himalaya marries a wife, to whom in course of time a daughter is born, as wealth is born when ambition pairs with character. The child is named Parvati, that is, daughter of the mountain. Her father takes infinite delight in her, as well he may; for
She brought him purity and beauty too,
As white flames to the lamp that burns at night;
Or Ganges to the path whereby the true
Reach heaven; or judgment to the erudite.
She passes through a happy childhood of sand-piles, balls, dolls, and little girl friends, when all at once young womanhood comes upon her.
As pictures waken to the painter’s brush,
Or lilies open to the morning sun,
Her perfect beauty answered to the flush
Of womanhood when childish days were done.
Suppose a blossom on a leafy spray;
Suppose a pearl on spotless coral laid:
Such was the smile, pure, radiantly gay,
That round her red, red lips for ever played.
And when she spoke, the music of her tale
Was sweet, the music of her voice to suit,
Till listeners felt as if the nightingale
Had grown discordant like a jangled lute.
It is predicted by a heavenly being that she will one day become the wife of the god Shiva. This prediction awakens her father’s pride, and also his impatience, since Shiva makes no advances. For the destined bridegroom is at this time leading a life of stern austerity and self-denial upon a mountain peak. Himalaya therefore bids his daughter wait upon Shiva. She does so, but without being able to divert him from his austerities.
Second canto. Brahma’s self-revelation. — At this time, the gods betake themselves to Brahma, the Creator, and sing a hymn of praise, a part of which is given here.
Before creation, thou art one;
Three, when creation’s work is done:
All praise and honour unto thee
In this thy mystic trinity.
Three various forms and functions three
Proclaim thy living majesty;
Thou dost create, and then maintain,
And last, destroyest all again.
Thy slow recurrent day and night
Bring death to all, or living light.
We live beneath thy waking eye;
Thou sleepest, and thy creatures die.
Solid and fluid, great and small,
And light and heavy — Thou art all;
Matter and form are both in thee:
Thy powers are past discovery.
Thou art the objects that unroll
Their drama for the passive soul;
Thou art the soul that views the play
Indifferently, day by day.
Thou art the knower and the known;
Eater and food art thou alone;
The priest and his oblation fair;
The prayerful suppliant and the prayer.
Brahma receives their worship graciously, and asks the reason of their coming. The spokesman of the gods explains to Brahma how a great demon named Taraka is troubling the world, and how helpless they are in opposing him. They have tried the most extravagant propitiation, and found it useless.
The sun in heaven dare not glow
With undiminished heat, but so
As that the lilies may awake
Which blossom in his pleasure-lake.
The wind blows gently as it can
To serve him as a soothing fan,
And dare not manifest its power,
Lest it should steal a garden flower.
The seasons have forgotten how
To follow one another now;
They simultaneously bring
Him flowers of autumn, summer, spring.
Such adoration makes him worse;
He troubles all the universe:
Kindness inflames a rascal’s mind;
He should be recompensed in kind.
And all the means that we have tried
Against the rogue, are brushed aside,
As potent herbs have no avail
When bodily powers begin to fail.
We seek a leader, O our Lord,
To bring him to his just reward —
As saints seek evermore to win
Virtue, to end life’s woe and sin —
That he may guide the heavenly host,
And guard us to the uttermost,
And from our foe lead captive back
The victory which still we lack.
Brahma answers that the demon’s power comes from him, and he does not feel at liberty to proceed against it; “for it is not fitting to cut down even a poison-tree that one’s own hand has planted.” But he promises that a son shall be born to Shiva and Parvati, who shall lead the gods to victory. With this answer the gods are perforce content, and their king, Indra, waits upon the god of love, to secure his necessary co-operation.
Third canto. The burning of Love. — Indra waits upon Love, who asks for his commands. Indra explains the matter, and asks Love to inflame Shiva with passion for Parvati. Love thereupon sets out, accompanied by his wife Charm and his friend Spring. When they reach the mountain where Shiva dwells, Spring shows his power. The snow disappears; the trees put forth blossoms; bees, deer, and birds waken to new life. The only living being that is not influenced by the sudden change of season is Shiva, who continues his meditation, unmoved. Love himself is discouraged, until he sees the beauty of Parvati, when he takes heart again. At this moment, Shiva chances to relax his meditation, and Parvati approaches to do him homage. Love seizes the lucky moment, and prepares to shoot his bewildering arrow at Shiva. But the great god sees him, and before the arrow is discharged, darts fire from his eye, whereby Love is consumed. Charm falls in a swoon, Shiva vanishes, and the wretched Parvati is carried away by her father.
Fourth canto. The lament of Charm. — This canto is given entire.
The wife of Love lay helpless in a swoon,
Till wakened by a fate whose deadliest sting
Was preparation of herself full soon
To taste the youthful widow’s sorrowing.
Her opening eyes were fixed with anxious thought
On every spot where he might be, in vain,
Were gladdened nowhere by the sight she sought,
The lover she should never see again.
She rose and cried aloud: “Dost thou yet live,
Lord of my life?” And at the last she found
Him whom the wrathful god could not forgive,
Her Love, a trace of ashes on the ground.
With breaking heart, with lovely bosom stained
By cold embrace of earth, with flying hair,
She wept and to the forest world complained,
As if the forest in her grief might share.
“Thy beauty slew the pride that maidens cherish;
Perfect its loveliness in every part;
I saw that beauty fade away and perish,
Yet did not die. How hard is woman’s heart!
Where art thou gone? Thy love a moment only
Endured, and I for ever need its power;
Gone like the stream that leaves the lily lonely,
When the dam breaks, to mourn her dying flower.
Thou never didst a thing to cause me anguish;
I never did a thing to work thee harm;
Why should I thus in vain affliction languish?
Why not return to bless thy grieving Charm?
Of playful chastisements art thou reminded,
Thy flirtings punished by my girdle-strands,
Thine eyes by flying dust of blossoms blinded,
Held for thy meet correction in these hands?
I loved to hear the name thou gav’st me often
‘Heart of my heart,’ Alas! It was not true,
But lulling phrase, my coming grief to soften:
Else in thy death, my life had ended, too.
Think not that on the journey thou hast taken
So newly, I should fail to find thy track;
Ah, but the world! The world is quite forsaken,
For life is love; no life, when thee they lack.
Thou gone, my love, what power can guide the maiden
Through veils of midnight darkness in the town
To the eager heart with loving fancies laden,
And fortify against the storm-cloud’s frown?
The wine that teaches eyes their gladdest dances,
That bids the love-word trippingly to glide,
Is now deception; for if flashing glances
Lead not to love, they lead to naught beside.
And when he knows thy life is a remembrance,
Thy friend the moon will feel his shining vain,
Will cease to show the world a circle’s semblance,
And even in his waxing time, will wane.
Slowly the mango-blossoms are unfolding
On twigs where pink is struggling with the green,
Greeted by koïl-birds sweet concert holding —
Thou dead, who makes of flowers an arrow keen?
Or weaves a string of bees with deft invention,
To speed the missile when the bow is bent?
They buzz about me now with kind intention,
And mortify the grief which they lament.
Arise! Assume again thy radiant beauty!
Rebuke the koïl-bird, whom nature taught
Such sweet persuasion; she forgets her duty
As messenger to bosoms passion-fraught.
Well I remember, Love, thy suppliant motion,
Thy trembling, quick embrace, the moments blest
By fervent, self-surrendering devotion —
And memories like these deny me rest.
Well didst thou know thy wife; the springtime garland,
Wrought by thy hands, O charmer of thy Charm!
Remains to bid me grieve, while in a far land
Thy body seeks repose from earthly harm.
Thy service by the cruel gods demanded,
Meant service to thy wife left incomplete,
My bare feet with coquettish streakings banded —
Return to end the adorning of my feet.
No, straight to thee I fly, my body given,
A headlong moth, to quick-consuming fire,
Or e’er my cunning rivals, nymphs in heaven,
Awake in thee an answering desire.