By Kālidāsa
Translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao & David Shulman

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How Úrvashi was Won (Vikramorvaśīya) is one of the three surviving plays by Kali·dasa (fifth century CE), universally acknowledged as the supreme poet in classical Sanskrit; like the other two works, this play is a masterpiece of lyricism, subtle characterization, and the working through of a bold theme. It tells the story of King Purúravas and his love for an immortal woman, the dancer Úrvashi, who normally lives in the heaven of the gods but who has come down to earth in order to realize her passion for the all-too-mortal king. The sources of the story are very ancient; the tragic love of this asymmetrical couple was described already in the Rg Veda and later expanded in the Brahmana literature and in the classical puranic collections of myth. Kali·dasa has reworked the narrative so as to depict a goddess in the process of becoming fully, and dangerously, human — since only human beings (at their best) are, in Kali·dasa’s vision, truly capable of the depths and intricacies of loving. In the course of her dramatic transformation, Úrvashi is temporarily lost to her lover, who goes mad in her absence; the fourth act of the play, one of the high points of Sanskrit literature, shows us the crazed king searching furiously, mournfully, for his lover in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Lear. In this act, the mad king sings mostly in Prakrit lyrics of great intensity and simplicity; the translators have tried to capture the poetic power of these remarkable verses.

This play also presents us with one of the great clowns of the Sanskrit theater — the king’s bumbling companion and alter ego, who manages to create a major contetremps vis-à-vis the king’s official Queen, who naturally strives to thwart her husband’s new love for the heavenly dancer. As in the Sakuntala, here, too, there is a love-token — the Reuniting Ruby — the token meant to unite the separated lovers, which, however, tends to work toward the opposite eventuality, fully articulated in the climax of the play in which the fragility and ultimate transience of human love is shown in a manner unique to the Sanskrit tradition. This great work speaks to the human condition generally in highly nuanced verses,  accessible to any modern reader.

300 pp.  |  ISBN-13: 978-0-8147-4111-5  |  ISBN-10: 0-8147-4111-8  |  Co-published by New York University Press and JJC Foundation

About the Translator

Velcheru Narayana Rao is Krishnadevaraya Professor of Languages and Cultures of Asia, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
David Shulman is Renée Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His most recent publications include Spring, Heat, Rains: A South Indian Diary.