Her legend is described in the epic Mahabharata and in Kalidasa's play the 'Recognition of Shakuntala'. Shakuntala means one who is brought up by birds. When she was an infant, she was found in a forest fed by birds after her mother, Menaka left her.
There is a mythical story that relates the birth of Shakuntala. She was born of the union of sage Vishwamitra and the Apsara Menaka. Menaka was sent by Lord Indra, to distract the meditation of Sage Vishwamitra by seducing him. Menaka succeeded in her task and bore a child by him. When Vishwamitra came to know of this he was infuriated. He penances himself by discarding his child and his wife. Manaka, the celestial nymph realized that she could not leave the baby girl with Vishwamitra. So before returning to heaven she left the infant Shakuntala on the banks of the Malini River which rises in the Himalayas.
Rishi Kanwa found the baby Shakuntala surrounded and protected by birds and thus she was named 'Shakuntala'. King Dushyanta first met Shakuntala while travelling through the forest with his armed forces. King Dushyanta had hit an arrow at the deer and the deer was wounded. Near the hermitage of Rishi Kanwa, Shakuntala nursed the wounded deer that was her pet. Dushyanta saw Shakuntala and fell in love with her at first sight. King Dushyanta generously begged her forgiveness for harming the deer and stayed at the ashram for some time. They both spent time together and Shakuntala also fell in love with the King. King Dushyanta married Shakuntala there in the hermitage. Before departing Dushyanta gave Shakuntala a royal ring that is a mark of their love, promising her that he would come back for her.
After King Dushyanta left, Shakuntala spent many hours of the day dreaming of her new husband and was often seen in her fantasy world. One day, a powerful Rishi, Durvasa, came to the hermitage.
Shakuntala was in her daydream and forgot to greet the Rishi properly. The sage Durvasa was infuriated at her task and cursed Shakuntala, saying that the person she was dreaming would forget her.
After cursing when the angry sage Durvasa was about to depart the ashram then one of Shakuntala's friend hurriedly explained to him the reason for her distraction. The Rishi realized his mistake of and change his curse by saying that the person who had forgotten Shakuntala would remember and recall everything again if Shakuntala showed him a personal token that had been given to her. Shakuntala gave birth to a son named Bharata.
Many days passed and Shakuntala was speculating why King Dushyanta did not revisit her. Then one day she decided to go to the city with her father where Dushyanta was the emperor. On the way, Shakuntala and Rishi Kanwa had to cross a river by a small boat. They drowned in the water of the river, Shakuntala ran her fingers through the water and her ring slipped off her finger without her notice.
Shakuntala went to King Dushyanta's court but the king could not recognize her or recall any incidence. Shakuntala was hurt and disheartened. She returned to the forests and taking her son, settled in an inner part of the forest by herself. The place was isolated and devoid of the communication of the outer world. Shakuntala spent her days with her son Bharata. Surrounded only by wild animals, Bharata grew to be a strong boy as he was always surrounded by wild animals. He was famous to play with furious animals like tigers and lions, opening their mouth and counting their teeth.
One day a fisherman found the royal ring of Shakuntala given by King Dushyanta. The fisherman was surprised to find a royal ring in the stomach of a fish he had caught. The ring had a royal seal, so the fisherman took the ring to the palace of emperor Dushyanta. Seeing the rings, Dushyanta immediately realized that it belonged to Shakuntala. Dushyanta memories of his lovely bride came rushing back to him. He instantly set out to find her and arrived at Sage Kanwa's ashram. Dushyanta came to know that she had left the place long ago and does not stay there. He went in search of Shakuntala deep into the forest and came to see a surprising scene in the forest. The king saw a young boy, Bharata opening the mouth of a lion and was busy counting its teeth. The king Dushyanta greeted the boy. He was astonished by the boy's courage and strength, and asked his name. The King was surprised when the boy replied him that he was Bharata, the son of King Dushyanta. Bharata took him to Shakuntala, and thus both the King Dushyanta and Shakuntala reunited.
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