After a tiring hunt, King Dushyant of Hastinapura found himself riding through a dry desert. He yearned to see water and greenery again. Finally, he came to the beautiful living area of the forest rishis. Peaceful ashrams dotted the landscape. Peacocks danced and cuckoos called in the trees. Bees buzzed among dazzlingly colourful flowers. Streams and waterfalls filled the air with the sweet sound of their rushing flow. Dushyant felt he had come to Paradise. He stopped at the ashram of the great rishi, Kanva. But the sage was not home. Instead, a young maiden gave him a warm welcome.
“I am King Dushyant. Who are you?” he asked her.
“I am Shakuntala, the adopted daughter of Sage Kanva. He found me, a baby, left in the forest, and being cared for by shakunts or birds. He named me Shakuntala, the One Protected by Birds.”
Dushyant was charmed by her story, her grace and her beauty. The season and the surroundings had done something to him. He fell deeply in love with Shakuntala. In her eyes too, he saw the light of love. “Shakuntala, you… have stolen my heart. Will you… become mine… right here and now?”
“I feel for you, as you do for me. But we should wait for my father. He will give me to you,” Shakuntala replied.
“We alone know what is best for us. You have no closer friend than yourself. Take your own decision and agree to become mine.”
Persuaded by his words, Shakuntala gave in. “I will marry you, but I lay one condition. The son born of us should be the heir to your throne. Will you promise me this?”
“Yes, I promise,” the lost-in-love Dushyant replied.
And Dushyant married Shakuntala by the simple Gandharva form of marriage. They were filled with happiness.
Dushyant had to return to his kingdom. He bid Shakuntala goodbye. “I will send for you as soon as I can,” he assured her.
But as he neared his palace, he paused. He and the kings of his dynasty had always taken any important step in life only after consulting their gurus and elders. “I have broken a long-honoured tradition by marrying in this way. What will my priests and people think of me? What should I do? Tell them, or not? … No… I will tell this to no one.” His mind was in turmoil as he took this decision.
Meanwhile, in the forest, Sage Kanva had returned to the ashram. Shakuntala stood with bent head before him, too shy to speak. But through his spiritual vision, Kanva divined what had happened.
“You married Dushyant in secret, Shakuntala, but it is for the best. He is a brave and noble man. The son born of both of you will be one of the greatest rulers on Earth,” Kanva prophesised.
Shakuntala gave birth to a handsome child. She and Kanva lavished every affection on him. By the time he was six years old, he had gathered immense strength and bravery.
“Look what I’ve brought, Mother,” he called out to her, one day. Shakuntala stared in amazement. Her son had caught a big lion and an elephant, and was tying them to a tree. They looked as scared and timid as kittens.
“Son, you’ve performed a great feat. Now, please, let them go.”
“All right, but tomorrow, I’ll come riding on a tiger and bring a huge buffalo.”
Their neighbours and friends gave the little boy the name Sarvadamana — He who Subdues All.
Shakuntala watched her son grow. She was puzzled that Dushyant had not yet sent for her. All this time, she had been totally immersed in caring for her child. But now, she said to him, “The time has come to take you to your father.” Kanva requested his disciples to take them to Hastinapura.
Mother and son entered Dushyant’s court. Shakuntala said, “Do you remember me? I am your wife, and this is your son. Accept him as your heir.”
Dushyant had never forgotten Shakuntala. But now he did something unexpected. He looked coldly at her. “No, I do not remember,” he replied. “Have you no shame, woman of common birth, to come before me like this?”
Shakuntala stood frozen with shock. Anger blazed through her, but she controlled herself. Her eyes red with disbelief and sorrow, she said, “You say you do not remember, when you remember very well. Your heart knows the truth and is your best guide. Yet you lie, but do not see the fault in this. You see faults in others, though they may be small like a mustard seed. But you don’t notice your own faults, though they are as large as a vilva fruit.
“Do you think only you know what happened between us? No, God also knows and sees everything. The Sun, the Air, Earth and Water are all witnesses to the actions of men. If you speak untruth, God will not bless you, nor will your own soul, where God lives. I am your wife, and a wife is a man’s first friend. But you deny me.”
Shakuntala drew a trembling breath. “When a man looks at his child, it is as if he is looking in a mirror; as if he is seeing his own reflection in the waters of a clear lake. Look at your son. See how wistfully he looks at you, hoping you will embrace him and take him on your lap. But you will not accept your child whose place is on your throne. Don’t break the promise you made to me.”
Dushyant replied, “It is you who lie, immodest woman. Go away.”
Shakuntala could bear it no longer. Taking her son’s hand, she turned to leave. Dushyant watched with dread and misery. But just then, Fate intervened to save Dushyant’s character from taint and Shakuntala’s purity from stain.
A voice rang out from heaven and spoke to Dushyant. “Do not be cruel to Shakuntala. She has spoken the truth. The boy is indeed your son. Accept and cherish him.”
Dushyant was overjoyed. “Shakuntala, my one true love; my Goddess. I was praying for this to happen. My people may not have readily accepted you and our son. But now…” He lifted up his child and held him close. “… the gods themselves have given their approval to the marriage we held in secret. They have bid me to accept and cherish this child born of our love, which is why, my son, you will be called Bharat, the Cherished One.”
Shakuntala and Dushyant forgave each other for the hurtful words they had spoken. Their love had come through a great test of fire. Dushyant declared Bharat crown-prince.
In the years to come, Bharat would give his name to a long dynasty of mighty kings, and our land too came to be called by his name.
Retold from The Mahabharata.