Abhijñānaśākuntala is one of the ripest fruits of Kālidāsa’s mature genius. The poet makes a candid confession in the prologue of this play:
न साधु मन्ये प्रयोगविज्ञानम् ।
मात्मन्यप्रत्ययं चेतः॥ (१.२)
I cannot be convinced of my skills as a dramatist until discerning spectators are satisfied. Even well-trained people are beset by self-doubt.
In seeking the satisfaction of his spectators, Kālidāsa is not anxiously looking for endorsement. The evolved poet is here caught in a self-critical mood. Kālidāsa is not entirely happy if his play pleases the laity. He wants the informed approval of the literati. The mind-set on display here perhaps relates to arocakīs, one among the literary critics that Vāmana mentions (Kāvyālaṅkārasūtravṛtti, 1.2.1).
In his spirited defence of artistic individuality in Mālavikāgnimitra, Kālidāsa comes across as a boisterous young poet. In inviting the attention of readers to Vikramorvaśīya, he comes across as a tactful artist. He seems entirely different in Abhijñānaśākuntala. His words here are straightforward; they emanate directly from his heart. In the other two plays he used various ruses—such as an adage, regard for people in love and consideration for a noble theme—to defend his self-worth. He does not use any of those here. This is certainly a mark of his growth.
A verse from the fifth act of this play is significant to literary theory:
रम्याणि वीक्ष्य मधुरांश्च निशम्य शब्दान्
पर्युत्सुकी भवति यत्सुखितोऽपि जन्तुः।
तच्चेतसा स्मरति नूनमबोधपूर्वं
भावस्थिराणि जननान्तरसौहृदानि ॥ (५.२)
Upon seeing charming sights and hearing sweet melodies, although one becomes happy, a strange wistfulness takes over. His mind unconsciously recalls affections from the past that live on in the heart.
This is a riddle-like verse. The heart of the riddle lies in the poet’s conclusion that we are tormented by a strange pensiveness even when a variety of things are making us happy. As though to lend support to this riddle, the poet has come up with another riddle-like statement: We apparently recall—without our volition—deeply felt friendships from our former lives. All of us know the first one from experience. We might not be able to reason it out; but we have surely felt it. That is not the case with the second one. It takes an evolved poet like Kālidāsa to draw our attention to it. The meaning of this verse will be lost on us unless we understand this bit correctly.
Abhinavagupta refers to this verse in explaining the rasa-sūtra of the Nāṭyaśāstra. According to him, the faculty of ‘recall’ that the verse mentions is not the same as ‘memory’ as the Tārkikas explain. It means ‘revelation’ – rasa revealed through a ‘flash’ (pratibhāna). It is not memory, but ‘re-cognition’ (pratyabhijñāna). During this process, likes and dislikes dissolve and pure, unqualified enjoyment remains as experience. This experience is neither worldly (laukika) nor delusional (mithyā). To put it in a nut-shell: worldly depression is invariably tinged with self-interest; it therefore causes anguish. Melancholy associated with art, on the other hand, is meta-worldly (alaukika). Because self-interest has no bearing at this level, it does not cause pain, but instead brings about serenity of the mind (citta-viśrānti).
The regular logic of cause-and-effect dictates that enjoyable objects bring about happiness and disagreeable objects cause unhappiness. If we probe a little beneath the surface, we realize that this logic does not hold good beyond a point. That is why Kālidāsa avers that we turn pensive—instead of experiencing the usual pleasure—upon seeing charming sights and hearing sweet melodies. He does not mean that a beautiful picture suddenly turns ugly or that a melodious tune suddenly becomes jarring. When we perceive worldly objects with self-interest, we become happy or unhappy depending on their nature – happy if they are pleasurable, unhappy if they are distasteful. If we remove self-interest from the picture, the uncertainty based on the nature of the object vanishes and pure enjoyment remains. To erase self-interest, one should become a disinterested witness to things. The features that characterize such disinterest are indifference, saturation and a sense of unordinary abandon. Kālidāsa collects these features under an umbrella term: paryutsukatva.
When the finite desires to embrace the infinite, a sense of ‘enjoyable agony’ emerges, which describes the experience that we are discussing. In the process of art experience, emotional aberrations in the form of personal likes and dislikes disappear; impersonal rasa arises, absorbing us completely, leaving nothing to be known for the moment (vigalita-vedyāntara). We cannot describe the state of rasa by such words as merriness and excitement. It is certainly not delusion. It is paryutsukatva. It develops when a being (jīva) attempts to let go off restrictive feelings such as ‘I’ and ‘mine’ caused by primal ignorance (avidyā). The finite experiences a strange agony when it tries to segue into the infinite. Agonizing this might be; it is essential to have a taste of aesthetic experience. When a caterpillar outgrows the cocoon to emerge as a butterfly, when a bud expands its petals to grow into a flower, when a river merges into the sea by dissolving its identity, when couples mate to unite, ‘enjoyable agony’ reveals itself.
Through this verse, Kālidāsa has given us incredible insights into not just literary theory, but the whole science of art appreciation. This verse is similar to an Upaniṣadic utterance in that it reveals newer and newer nuances every time we think of it.
 अत्र हि स्मरतीति या स्मृतिरुपदर्शिता सा न तार्किकप्रसिद्धा। पूर्वमेतस्यार्थस्याननुभवात्। अपि तु प्रतिभानापरपर्यायसाक्षात्कारस्वभावेयमिति। सर्वथा तावदेषास्ति प्रतीतिरास्वादात्मा यस्यां रतिरेव भाति। तत एव विशेषान्तरानुपहितत्वात् सा रसनीया सती न लौकिकी न मिथ्या नानिर्वाच्या न लौकिकतुल्या न तदारोपादिरूपा। ... सर्वथा रसनात्मकवीतविघ्नप्रतीतिग्राह्यो भाव एव रसः॥ (अभिनवभारती, सं, १, पृ. २७८–७९)