In ancient days, there was a mighty king of the Lunar dynasty by name Dushyanta. He was the king of Hastinapur. He once goes out a-hunting and in the pursuit of a deer comes near the hermitage of the sage Kanwa, the chief of the hermits, where some anchorites request him not to kill the deer. The king feels thirsty and was seeking water when he saw certain maidens of the hermits watering the favourite plants. One of them, an exquisitely beautiful and bashful maiden, named Sakuntala, received him. She was the daughter of the celestial nymph Menaka by the celebrated sage Viswamitra and foster-child of the hermit Kanwa. She is smitten with love at the first sight of the king, standing confused at the change of her own feeling. The love at first sight which the king conceives for her is of too deep a nature to be momentary. Struck by her beauty he exclaims:--
"Her lip is ruddy as an opening bud; her graceful arms resemble tender shoots; attractive as the bloom upon the tree, the glow of youth is spread on all her limbs."
Seizing an opportunity of addressing her, he soon feels that it is impossible for him to return to his capital. His limbs move forward, while his heart flies back, like a silken standard borne against the breeze. He seeks for opportunities for seeing her. With the thought about her haunting him by day and night, he finds no rest, and no pleasure even in his favourite recreation--sporting. Mathavya, the jester, friend and companion of the king, however, breaks the dull monotony of his anxious time. The opportunity which the king seeks offers itself. The hermits send an embassy to the king asking him to come over to the hermitage to guard their sacrifices. As he was making preparations for departure to the hermitage, Karavaka, a messenger from the queen-mother, arrives asking his presence at the city of Hastinapur.
He is at first at a loss to extricate himself from this difficulty but a thought strikes him and he acts upon it. He sends the jester as his substitute to the city. He is now at leisure to seek out the love-sick Sakuntala who is drooping on account of her love for the king and is discovered lying on a bed of flowers in an arbour. He comes to the hermitage, overhears her conversation with her two friends, shows himself and offers to wed her. For a second time, the lovers thus meet. He enquires of her parentage to see if there is any obstacle to their being united in marriage; whereupon Sakuntala asks her companion Priyambada to satisfy the king with an account of her birth. The king hearing the story of her birth asks the companion to get the consent of Sakuntala to be married to him according to the form known as gandharva.
Sakuntala requests the king to wait till her foster-father Kanwa, who had gone out on a pilgrimage, would come back and give his consent. But the king, becoming importunate, she at last gives her consent. They are married according to the gandharva form, on the condition that the issue of the marriage should occupy the throne of Hastinapur. She accepts from her lord a marriage-ring as the token of recognition.
The king then goes away, after having promised to shortly send his ministers and army to escort her to his Capital. When Kanwa returns to the hermitage, he becomes aware of what has transpired during his absence by his spiritual powers, and congratulates Sakuntala on having chosen a husband worthy of her in every respect. Next day, when Sakuntala is deeply absorbed in thoughts about her absent lord, the celebrated choleric sage Durvasa comes and demands the rights of hospitality. But he is not greeted with due courtesy by Sakuntala owing to her pre-occupied state. Upon this, the ascetic pronounces a curse that he whose thought has led her to forget her duties towards guests, would disown her.
Sakuntala does not hear it, but Priyambada hears it and by entreaties appeases the wrath of the sage, who being conciliated ordains that the curse would cease at the sight of some ornament of recognition.
Sakuntala becomes quick with child and in the seventh month of her pregnancy is sent by her foster-father to Hastinapur, in the company of her sister Gautami, and his two disciples Sarngarva and Saradwata. Priyambada stays in the hermitage. Sakuntala takes leave of the sacred grove in which she has been brought up, of her flowers, her gazelles and her friends.
The aged hermit of the grove thus expresses his feelings at the approaching loss of Sakuntala:--
"My heart is touched with sadness at the thought, "Sakuntala must go to-day"; my throat is choked with flow of tears repressed; my sight is dimmed with pensiveness but if the grief of an old forest hermit is so great, how keen must be the pang a father feels when freshly parted from a cherished child!"
Then he calls upon the trees to give her a kindly farewell. They answer with the Kokila's melodious cry.
Thereupon the following good wishes are uttered by voices in the air:--
"Thy journey be auspicious; may the breeze, gentle and soothing, fan the cheek; may lakes, all bright with lily cups, delight thine eyes; the sun-beam's heat be cooled by shady trees; the dust beneath thy feet be the pollen of lotuses."
On their way, Sakuntala and her companions bathe in the Prachi Saraswati, when, as Fate would have it, she carelessly drops the ring of recognition into the river, being unaware of the fact at the time. At last they arrive at Hastinapur, and send words to the king.
The king asks his family priest Somarata to enquire of them the cause of their coming. Whereupon the priest meets them at the gate, knows the objects of their coming and informs the king of it. The curse of Durvasa does its work. The king denies Sakuntala. At the intercession of the priest, she and her companions are brought before the king. The king publicly repudiates her. As a last resource, Sakuntala bethinks herself of the ring given her by her husband, but on discovering that it is lost, abandons hope. Sarnagarva sharply remonstrates against the conduct of the king and presses the claim of Sakuntala.
Gentle and meek as Sakuntala is, she undauntedly gives vent to her moral indignation against the king. The disciples go away saying that the king would have to repent of it.
Sakuntala falls senseless on the ground. After a while, she revives, the priest then comes forward and asks the king to allow her to stay in his palace till her delivery. The king consents, and when Sakuntala is following the priest, Menaka with her irradiant form appears and taking hold of her daughter vanishes and goes to a celestial asylum. Everyone present there is astonished and frightened.
After this incident, one day while the king is out on inspection, a certain fisherman, charged with the theft of the royal signet-ring which he professes to have found inside a fish, is dragged along by constables before the king who, however, causes the poor accused to be set free, rewarding him handsomely for his find.
Recollection of his former love now returns to him. His strong and passionate love for Sakuntala surges upon him with doubled and redoubled-force.
Indulging in sorrow at his repudiation of Sakuntala, the king passes three long years; at the end of which Matali, Indra's charioteer, appears to ask the king's aid in vanquishing the demons. He makes his aerial voyage in Indra's car. While he is coming back from the realm of Indra, he alights on the hermitage of Maricha.
Here he sees a young boy tormenting a lion-whelp. Taking his hand, without knowing him to be his own son, he exclaims:--"If now the touch of but a stranger's child thus sends a thrill of joy through all my limbs, what transports must be awakened in the soul of that blest father from whose loins he sprang!"
From the vaunting speeches of the boy, the king gathers that the boy is a scion of the race of Puru. His heart everflows with affection for him. A collection of circumstantial evidence points the boy to be his son. The amulet on the boy indicates his parentage.
But while he is in a doubtful mood as to the parentage of the refractory boy, he meets the sage Maricha from whom he learns everything. The name of the boy is Sarvadamana, afterwards known as Bharata, the most famous king of the Lunar race, whose authority is said to have extended over a great part of India, and from whom India is to this day called Bharata or Bharatavarsa (the country or domain of Bharata.)
Soon after, he finds and recognises Sakuntala, with whom he is at length happily re-united.