Ancient Indian literature, poetry and drama varied considerably to that of their western counterparts in that they didnot depend on physical tragedy, violence and horror to shock the being, as the Elizabethan drama (though it was useful as a form of catharsis) nor on the tragic moral problems that attracted the Greek mind, and still less on the problems of disease and neurosis that seems to be gaining popularity. The Elizabethan drama was aimed for a mixed, not very critical, audience and very popular for its vigorous and passionate depiction of life and its characters in a realistic way. Hindu drama and poetry was written by an accomplished and elite people for an educated, courtly audience which was well versed in the finer systems of poetics. Its aim was not to portray life realistically and for its own sake (the same as in the case of the visual arts) but to lift it with a fine passion harmoniously in a way that awakens and gratifies the aesthetic sense of the viewer. The Hindu mind could not have taken any aesthetic pleasure in sufferings and tragedies, partly because of its nature which has always been noble, generous and temperate even in times of its greatest crimes and sufferings and partly because it had been saturated, at that time, with the sweet compassion, gentleness and purity flowing from the soul of the Buddha. A note which always strikes us in the Hindu play is one of sunshine and flowers; terror and pity are used in order to bring out the finer feelings but not in order to lacerate them; clouds come in only to make more beautiful the sunshine and the flowers; and the play always end in peace and harmony, never in a tragedy.
Valmiki, Vyasa and Kalidasa are the three main representatives of the three periods in the development of the human soul and their poems are picures at once minute and grandiose of the three moods of the Aryan civilisation, the first one being predominantly moral, the second predominantly intellectual and the third predominantly material. They can be called the chief great poets because along with possessing of the highest and most varied of poetical gifts, their works are also a reflection of their times and bear comparison with the greatest world poets, with Homer, Dante and Shakespeare.
Valmiki lived in an age of approaching political turmoil and disturbance and of aristocratic violence; the Kshatriya caste in its pride of strength was asserting its morals as the one code of conduct for all; which was of a high chivalry but a little loose in sexual morality on the masculine side and a little too indulgent to violence. (It was in reaction to this state of the national life, that Buddhism ultimately began to grow in popularity) To Valmiki´s pure and sensitive moral temperament, this looseness and violence was shocking and abhorrent. His powerful imagination and idealistic vision created two great and marvellous worlds, one ideal world, which would exist if the actual materials existing in society were used to their best and purest advantage and an other non-human world where self-will, pride and lust reigned supreme and brought these two worlds to a great collision by the war between the two highest evolutions of the two worlds, Rama and Ravana and so created the grandest and most paradoxical poem in the world, the Ramayana.
While Valmiki was a soul out of harmony with his surroundings, looking back to an ideal past and who can be called as a conservative idealist, the poet of the Mahabharata, Vyasa, was a man completely of his time with a proud and strong spirit, full of its tendencies and vastly symapthetic to it, hopeful for it and looking forward to an ideal future; he can be called as a progressive realist. The tone of his poem is entirely masculine and intellectual, he subjects morality to casuistic tests which the more delicate moral spirit of Valmiki shrank from and boldly erects a higher code of conduct above ordinary ethics. The Mahabharata is a picture of a time of gigantic creative ferment and disturbance, the Ramayana of an ideal age of equipoise, tranquility and order.
Many centuries later, after about a thousand years, when this daemonic orgy of character and intellect had fulfilled itself and culminated in Buddhism, there arose the third great embodiment of the national consciousness in Ujjayini by the name of Kalidasa. Kalidasa was a true son of this predominantly materialistic age. It was an age where all of man´s best efforts were poured into the finer things of life, into the things of the senses; the arts of jewellery-making, gardening, painting, architecture, song and dance were brought to a high degree of technical perfection even as the laws and codes for all things were being laid down. This aristocratic civilisation very nearly resembled those of Europe´s in its material luxuries, aesthetic tastes, worldly wisdom, excessive appreciation of wit and learning, religion was something that pleased the intellect or the sentiment but didnot govern the soul. The ideals of morality were lower than that of the old and purity of life was less valued but the unconquerable monogamous instinct of the upper- caste Hindu woman seems to have saved the home from ruin which was was the result of a similar state of society in ancient Rome, Italy of the Renaissance, in France under the Bourbons and in England under the later Stuarts. The old spiritual tendencies however, were latent rather than dead, and the Hindu nature finally rebelled against this life of thse senses, and Bhartrihari was the poet of this phase, the phase of the setting in of the sickness and disillusionment and dissatisfaction which always follows a long burst of materialism.
Kalidasa was a true son of this vital and materialistic age, born in an aristrocratic family, used to and fond of the luxuries in life, passionately attached to the arts, well-versed in all the learning of his age, the sciences, philosophies and law. He was a Vedantist and perhaps a Siva worshipper, but more from convention than from a deep need in his soul. He accepted the elaborate morals of the society but seemed to have been destitute himself of the finer elements of morality. He has a proud and vigorous spirit and his writings show a keen appreciation for the lofty thought but he applies the same aesthetic standard to the things of the mind and the soul as to the things of the senses. His poetic genius is wide and varied – from lyric poems to dramas to epics and his greatest achievement is to have taken all great poetical forms and to have set them in a harmony of artistic perfection in the key of sensuous beauty. He is the supreme poet of the senses, of the emotions and of aesthetic beauty. He is keenly alert to all the senses, the delight of the eye, ear, smell, touch and palate and greatly observant and appreciative of all the moods of nature; the cycle of her seasons, the majesty of her mountains and seas, the wildness of her forests, the sacredness of her rivers, the simple life of the bird and beast, the life of the ascetic, the life of the householder, her villages, palaces and her courts, the sensuous passion and longing of lovers, the celestial nymphs and gods and goddesses of her myths and fables of yore. In his descriptive power, he stands unequaled by any in literature, he has a peculiar evocative ability to constantly make appear living, animated pictures before the eye. His poems are a paradise of beautiful things, each word chiseled like a sculpture, sparing in phrase but rich in depth and meaning. But for all this, his work does not dissolve itself in a a sensuous weakness, it does not swim in languor nor is it cloyed by its own sweetness like most poetry of the senses usually is. Kalidasa is saved from this by the chastity of his style, the energy in his phrase and his ever unsleeping artistic vigilance.