This is an anectode about the most important incident in KALidAsa’s life that gave him his name. Wikipedia says KAlidAsa’s place in SAnskrit literature is tantamount to that of Shakespeare in modern English.
KAlidAsa was born as a stammering and brainless Brahmin boy. One of the most commonly quoted stories about KAlidAsa is an incident where he sits on the branch of the tree that is trying to cut. While many people laugh at him, one passerby takes pity on him and warns him that he is going to fall down if he continues cutting that branch. And true, KAlidAsa fell. After falling, he quickly ran to that passerby and praised him for being such a great astrologer. Was that sheer intelligence?
The princess of the kingdom where KAlidAsa lived was known to be a very learned women, who haughtily rejected many suitors after she defeated them in philosophical debates. Some of her suitors were very learner scholars themselves and wanted to teach the princess a lesson for being so haughty. When they heard about the stupid KAlidAsa, they decided to masquerade him as a learned pundit and impress the princess. But KALidAsa was to keep his mouth shut all the time.
The princess was told that a great guru was seeking to debate with her. But since he was on a silence vow, his disciples would interpret his sign language. The princess also decided to use sign language. She showed one finger up – indicating the principle of Advaita and one Brahman. KAlidAsa was stupid. He thought she meant “I will poke your eye”. He raised two fingers thinking “I will poke both your eyes”. The so-called disciples interpreted thus “Though there is only one God, the jIvAtma and the paramAtma are different. They are realized by people in different stages of spiritual development.” The princess was impressed. In a similar fashion, when the princess lifts her palm up indicating that this sriSti is made of the five elements – air, water, fire, earth and ether, KAlidAsa thinks “She is going to slap me. Let me punch her”, and he shows a fist. The thrilled interpreters translate this into “Even though the universe is made up of the five elements, during praLayAm, everything that is manifested, merges into the Brahman”. The princess was impressed with KAlidAsa’s scholarship and immediately fell at his feet. KAlidAsa continued to remain silent and he found himself married to this beautiful princess very soon. Not until after the marriage did the princess realize how she had been fooled. She insulted KAlidAsa and cried in pity for herself. KAlidAsa was deeply hurt when his wife insulted him thus, and sadly he left the palace to kill himself. But when he went to the river to drown, he saw how the stones were eroded by the river. He realized that if the river could erode something as hard as stone, then Mother KALi could easily erode his ignorance.
When he went to the temple, he found that the idol was barren and lifeless – KALi was on rounds in the city. KAlidAsa was very sad and he hid inside the temple and locked the doors. When KALi returned, she could not get into the temple. KAlidAsa asked her to first give him some wisdom before he would let her in. Even though she tried coaxing him to let her in first, he was not going to do that yet, because he knew if he let her in first, KALi would run and hide in her idol and not come out ever until KALidAsa stops asking for wisdom. (KAlidAsa’s innocence is portrayed here). Instead, he asked her to write something on his tongue (the tongue is where Sarasvati – the Goddess of Knowledge- resides), so that he becomes wise. KALi decided to write “OM” on his tongue. He was instantly transformed to the wise KAlidAsa and he wished to spread this wisdom and eternally remain the servant of KALi, and hence adopted the name.
KAlidAsa went on to produce legendary works of literature. Among some of his very popular plays – which still remain the most popularly staged plays in SAnskrit- were Meghadūta, Abhijñānashākuntala, Mālavikāgnimitra, Vikramōrvaśīya and Kumārasambhava.
It is unfortunate that many educated Indians, ridden with the Macaulay-inspired inferiority complex, compare the legendary KAlidAsa, with lesser counterparts in another languages (example, Shakespeare in English), in order to extol him.