The Dynasty of Raghu is an epic poem in nineteen cantos. It consists of 1564 stanzas, or something over six thousand lines of verse. The subject is that great line of kings who traced their origin to the sun, the famous “solar line” of Indian story. The bright particular star of the solar line is Rama, the knight without fear and without reproach, the Indian ideal of a gentleman. His story had been told long before Kalidasa’s time in the Ramayana, an epic which does not need to shun comparison with the foremost epic poems of Europe. In The Dynasty of Raghu, too, Rama is the central figure; yet in Kalidasa’s poem there is much detail concerning other princes of the line. The poem thus naturally falls into three great parts: first, the four immediate ancestors of Rama (cantos 1-9); second, Rama (cantos 10-15); third, certain descendants of Rama (cantos 16-19). A somewhat detailed account of the matter of the poem may well precede criticism and comment.
First canto. The journey to the hermitage. — The poem begins with the customary brief prayer for Shiva’s favour:
God Shiva and his mountain bride,
Like word and meaning unified,
The world’s great parents, I beseech
To join fit meaning to my speech.
Then follow nine stanzas in which Kalidasa speaks more directly of himself than elsewhere in his works:
How great is Raghu’s solar line!
How feebly small are powers of mine!
As if upon the ocean’s swell
I launched a puny cockle-shell.
The fool who seeks a poet’s fame
Must look for ridicule and blame,
Like tiptoe dwarf who fain would try
To pluck the fruit for giants high.
Yet I may enter through the door
That mightier poets pierced of yore;
A thread may pierce a jewel, but
Must follow where the diamond cut.
Of kings who lived as saints from birth,
Who ruled to ocean-shore on earth,
Who toiled until success was given,
Whose chariots stormed the gates of heaven,
Whose pious offerings were blest,
Who gave his wish to every guest,
Whose punishments were as the crimes,
Who woke to guard the world betimes,
Who sought, that they might lavish, pelf,
Whose measured speech was truth itself,
Who fought victorious wars for fame,
Who loved in wives the mother’s name,
Who studied all good arts as boys,
Who loved, in manhood, manhood’s joys,
Whose age was free from worldly care,
Who breathed their lives away in prayer,
Of these I sing, of Raghu’s line,
Though weak mine art, and wisdom mine.
Forgive these idle stammerings
And think: For virtue’s sake he sings.
The good who hear me will be glad
To pluck the good from out the bad;
When ore is proved by fire, the loss
Is not of purest gold, but dross.
After the briefest glance at the origin of the solar line, the poet tells of Rama’s great-great-grandfather, King Dilipa. The detailed description of Dilipa’s virtues has interest as showing Kalidasa’s ideal of an aristocrat; a brief sample must suffice here:
He practised virtue, though in health;
Won riches, with no greed for wealth;
Guarded his life, though not from fear;
Prized joys of earth, but not too dear.
His virtuous foes he could esteem
Like bitter drugs that healing seem;
The friends who sinned he could forsake
Like fingers bitten by a snake.
Yet King Dilipa has one deep-seated grief: he has no son. He therefore journeys with his queen to the hermitage of the sage Vasishtha, in order to learn what they must do to propitiate an offended fate. Their chariot rolls over country roads past fragrant lotus-ponds and screaming peacocks and trustful deer, under archways formed without supporting pillars by the cranes, through villages where they receive the blessings of the people. At sunset they reach the peaceful forest hermitage, and are welcomed by the sage. In response to Vasishtha’s benevolent inquiries, the king declares that all goes well in the kingdom, and yet:
Until from this dear wife there springs
A son as great as former kings,
The seven islands of the earth
And all their gems, are nothing worth.
The final debt, most holy one,
Which still I owe to life — a son —
Galls me as galls the cutting chain
An elephant housed in dirt and pain.
Vasishtha tells the king that on a former occasion he had offended the divine cow Fragrant, and had been cursed by the cow to lack children until he had propitiated her own offspring. While the sage is speaking, Fragrant’s daughter approaches, and is entrusted to the care of the king and queen.
Second canto. The holy cow’s gift. — During twenty-one days the king accompanies the cow during her wanderings in the forest, and each night the queen welcomes their return to the hermitage. On the twenty-second day the cow is attacked by a lion, and when the king hastens to draw an arrow, his arm is magically numbed, so that he stands helpless. To increase his horror, the lion speaks with a human voice, saying that he is a servant of the god Shiva, set on guard there and eating as his appointed food any animals that may appear. Dilipa perceives that a struggle with earthly weapons is useless, and begs the lion to accept his own body as the price of the cow’s release. The lion tries sophistry, using the old, hollow arguments:
Great beauty and fresh youth are yours; on earth
As sole, unrivalled emperor you rule;
Should you redeem a thing of little worth
At such a price, you would appear a fool.
If pity moves you, think that one mere cow
Would be the gainer, should you choose to die;
Live rather for the world! Remember how
The father-king can bid all dangers fly.
And if the fiery sage’s wrath, aglow
At loss of one sole cow, should make you shudder,
Appease his anger; for you can bestow
Cows by the million, each with pot-like udder.
Save life and youth; for to the dead are given
No long, unbroken years of joyous mirth;
But riches and imperial power are heaven —
The gods have nothing that you lack on earth.
The lion spoke and ceased; but echo rolled
Forth from the caves wherein the sound was pent,
As if the hills applauded manifold,
Repeating once again the argument.
Dilipa has no trouble in piercing this sophistical argument, and again offers his own life, begging the lion to spare the body of his fame rather than the body of his flesh. The lion consents, but when the king resolutely presents himself to be eaten, the illusion vanishes, and the holy cow grants the king his desire. The king returns to his capital with the queen, who shortly becomes pregnant.
Third canto. Raghu’s consecration. — The queen gives birth to a glorious boy, whom the joyful father names Raghu. There follows a description of the happy family, of which a few stanzas are given here:
The king drank pleasure from him late and soon
With eyes that stared like windless lotus-flowers;
Unselfish joy expanded all his powers
As swells the sea responsive to the moon.
The rooted love that filled each parent’s soul
For the other, deep as bird’s love for the mate,
Was now divided with the boy; and straight
The remaining half proved greater than the whole.
He learned the reverence that befits a boy;
Following the nurse’s words, began to talk;
And clinging to her finger, learned to walk:
These childish lessons stretched his father’s joy,
Who clasped the baby to his breast, and thrilled
To feel the nectar-touch upon his skin,
Half closed his eyes, the father’s bliss to win
Which, more for long delay, his being filled.
The baby hair must needs be clipped; yet he
Retained two dangling locks, his cheeks to fret;
And down the river of the alphabet
He swam, with other boys, to learning’s sea.
Religion’s rites, and what good learning suits
A prince, he had from teachers old and wise;
Not theirs the pain of barren enterprise,
For effort spent on good material, fruits.
This happy childhood is followed by a youth equally happy. Raghu is married and made crown prince. He is entrusted with the care of the horse of sacrifice, and when Indra, king of the gods, steals the horse, Raghu fights him. He cannot overcome the king of heaven, yet he acquits himself so creditably that he wins Indra’s friendship. In consequence of this proof of his manhood, the empire is bestowed upon Raghu by his father, who retires with his queen to the forest, to spend his last days and prepare for death.
Fourth canto. Raghu conquers the world. — The canto opens with several stanzas descriptive of the glory of youthful King Raghu.
He manifested royal worth
By even justice toward the earth,
Beloved as is the southern breeze,
Too cool to burn, too warm to freeze.
The people loved his father, yet
For greater virtues could forget;
The beauty of the blossoms fair
Is lost when mango-fruits are there.
But the vassal kings are restless
For when they knew the king was gone
And power was wielded by his son,
The wrath of subject kings awoke,
Which had been damped in sullen smoke.
Raghu therefore determines to make a warlike progress through all India. He marches eastward with his army from his capital Ayodhya (the name is preserved in the modern Oudh) to the Bay of Bengal, then south along the eastern shore of India to Cape Comorin, then north along the western shore until he comes to the region drained by the Indus, finally east through the tremendous Himalaya range into Assam, and thence home. The various nations whom he encounters, Hindus, Persians, Greeks, and White Huns, all submit either with or without fighting. On his safe return, Raghu offers a great sacrifice and gives away all his wealth.
Fifth canto. Aja goes wooing. — While King Raghu is penniless, a young sage comes to him, desiring a huge sum of money to give to the teacher with whom he has just finished his education. The king, unwilling that any suppliant should go away unsatisfied, prepares to assail the god of wealth in his Himalayan stronghold, and the god, rather than risk the combat, sends a rain of gold into the king’s treasury. This gold King Raghu bestows upon the sage, who gratefully uses his spiritual power to cause a son to be born to his benefactor. In course of time, the son is born and the name Aja is given to him. We are here introduced to Prince Aja, who is a kind of secondary hero in the poem, inferior only to his mighty grandson, Rama. To Aja are devoted the remainder of this fifth canto and the following three cantos; and these Aja-cantos are among the loveliest in the epic. When the prince has grown into young manhood, he journeys to a neighbouring court to participate in the marriage reception of Princess Indumati. One evening he camps by a river, from which a wild elephant issues and attacks his party. When wounded by Aja, the elephant strangely changes his form, becoming a demigod, gives the prince a magic weapon, and departs to heaven. Aja proceeds without further adventure to the country and the palace of Princess Indumati, where he is made welcome and luxuriously lodged for the night. In the morning, he is awakened by the song of the court poets outside his chamber. He rises and betakes himself to the hall where the suitors are gathering.
Sixth canto. The princess chooses. — The princely suitors assemble in the hall; then, to the sound of music, the princess enters in a litter, robed as a bride, and creates a profound sensation.
For when they saw God’s masterpiece, the maid
Who smote their eyes to other objects blind,
Their glances, wishes, hearts, in homage paid,
Flew forth to her; mere flesh remained behind.
The princes could not but betray their yearning
By sending messengers, their love to bring,
In many a quick, involuntary turning,
As flowering twigs of trees announce the spring.
Then a maid-servant conducts the princess from one suitor to another, and explains the claim which each has upon her affection. First is presented the King of Magadha, recommended in four stanzas, one of which runs:
Though other kings by thousands numbered be,
He seems the one, sole governor of earth;
Stars, constellations, planets, fade and flee
When to the moon the night has given birth.
But the princess is not attracted.
The slender maiden glanced at him; she glanced
And uttered not a word, nor heeded how
The grass-twined blossoms of her garland danced
When she dismissed him with a formal bow.
They pass to the next candidate, the king of the Anga country, in whose behalf this, and more, is said:
Learning and wealth by nature are at strife,
Yet dwell at peace in him; and for the two
You would be fit companion as his wife,
Like wealth enticing, and like learning true.
Him too the princess rejects, “not that he was unworthy of love, or she lacking in discernment, but tastes differ.” She is then conducted to the King of Avanti:
And if this youthful prince your fancy pleases,
Bewitching maiden, you and he may play
In those unmeasured gardens that the breezes
From Sipra’s billows ruffle, cool with spray.
The inducement is insufficient, and a new candidate is presented, the King of Anupa,
A prince whose fathers’ glories cannot fade,
By whom the love of learned men is wooed,
Who proves that Fortune is no fickle jade
When he she chooses is not fickly good.