Forest dwellers and beasts – a hunting scene in the Mahabharata (Sakuntala narrative)

And in this wood, which teemed with herds or deer and beasts of prey that stalk the forest, Duhsanta, tiger among men, with retainers, escort, and mounts wrought havoc, killing game of many kinds. Many families of tigers he laid low as they came within range of his arrows; he shot them with his shafts. Those that were in the distance the bull among men shot down with his arrows; others that came up close he cut down with his sword; and antelopes he brought down with his spear, the powerful spearman, who also knew all the points of the circular club swing and whose courage was boundless. He stalked about killing wild game and fowl with javelin, sword, mace, bludgeon, halberd. And when the wondrously valiant king and his warlike warriors raided the great forest, the big game fled it. The herds of deer, their flocks dispersed, their leaders killed, cried out for help everywhere. The river they sought out was dry; and thin with despair for water, their hearts exhausted with exertion, they dropped down, unconscious. Overcome by hunger and thirst, they fell prostrate on the ground, exhausted. There were some that were eaten raw by starving tiger men; other woodsmen built a fire, lit it, cut their meat in proper pieces, and ate it. There were mighty elephants that were wounded by swords and ran mad; turning up their trunks, they panicked and stampeded frantically. Dropping dung and urine and streaming with blood, the wild tuskers trampled many men. The forest, darkened by a monsoon of might and a downpour of arrows, its big game weeded by the king, now seemed overrun by buffalo. […]

Having killed thousands of deer, the king with his plentiful mounts entered into another wood in search of deer. Supremely strong, though hungry and thirsty, he penetrated by himself into the depths of the forest till he came to a vast wilderness that was dotted with holy hermitages, a joy to the heart and a feast for the eye. He crossed beyond it and made for still another wood where a cool breeze was blowing, a wood sprinkled with blossoming trees and most prosperous grasslands. It was a wide woodland that echoed with the sweet warblings of birds.

Source: Romila Thapar, Chapter 2 “The Narrative from the Mahabharata” in Sakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories. Kali for Women, New Delhi 1999, p. 18

Abused elephants are dangerous as many retaliate. According to figures compiled by the Heritage Animal Task Force, captive elephants killed 526 people in Kerala alone in 15 years. There have also been numerous incidents in Tamil Nadu in which frustrated captive elephants have killed their mahouts. | Learn more >>

Traditionally Shakuntala is interpreted as the passive female who suffers for the king’s amorous pursuit, and must depend on her male child with imperial birth marks to be ultimately recognized. […]

Shakuntala is referred to as the ‘deer’ who ‘enticed the hero of our play’ signalling an elision of categories. Through the play we encounter nature and the heroine exchanging places, standing in for each other and avoiding easy symbolisms. […]

While the deer cannot speak, the narrative suggests that the deer is pursued because it makes the king chase it. This causal relationship is always inverted in the hunt: the hunt derives its meaning from the intended prey, and is a kind of destructive agency- a posthumous agency; an agency granted to foreclose it in the event of its death.

In the romantic play as a genre, hunting is the king’s supremely male sport to capture and conquer the inferior female. In such a genre, it symbolises love in its trajectory of pursuit and submission. It is a fairly easy way for establishing kingly qualities as part of a character by showcasing the hero as possessing admirable qualities such as courage and masculinity. The hunt is a spectacle for the others to witness the hero, and his powers of capture/conquest/victory. […]

In a reading that is conscious of the authority of the established logic in the text and the authority behind such a logic, it becomes easier to voice the unvoiced. For instance, the hunt has historical dimensions that as Thapar has pointed out, is much gentler than in the Epic because however serene the forest of Kanva’s Ashram is, it is still one that has been tamed by military conquest and administration. […]

Source: “Consider the Deer, and Other Explorations Nature in Kalidasa’s Sakuntala” by Susan Haris in Bharatiya Pragna: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Indian Studies (Vol. 2, No. 2, 201), p. 64
Date Visited: 30 March 2022

The structure and ideologies of ancient monarchies and the modern Indian nation state are very different. A few fundamental issues remain the same, but they are addressed in different ways. All states have to mask, justify and legitimise their use of violence through some sort of ideology. The purpose of this ideology is to present the state’s violence as necessary force. In ancient times, the state presented this violence as necessary to uphold the kingdom. Today it is presented as necessary to uphold the nation. […]

Another difference is that ancient Indian thinkers were very conscious about the tension between the principle of nonviolence and the need for the state to indulge in a certain amount of violence. Re-engaging with this important debate requires two things – that we recognise political violence as a serious problem, and consider nonviolence as a desirable positive value in the political domain. […]

Source: Upinder Singh (Department of history at Delhi University and author of Political Violence in Ancient India) interviewed by Upinder Singh in “What Political Violence in Ancient India Tells Us About Our Past and Present” (The Wire, 9 November 2017)
Date Visited: 30 March 2022

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“The forest was never far away from habitation. For instance, excavations of the settlements at Atranjikhera and Hastinapur, which are not too far from Delhi, have yielded evidence of a large variety of forest trees. The Buddhist Canon states that aside from the village and its outskirts, the rest of the land is jungle. Travelling from one town to another meant going through a forest. Therefore, when in exile, the forest was not a physically distant place, although distant in concept. – Romila Thapar (Emeritus Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University) in “Forest dwellers in early India – myths and ecology in historical perspective” | Learn more >>

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