This book examines the emplotment of India in the Western literary imagination. Basing her discussion on the reception of an emblematic Sanskrit text, Kalidasa's SAakuntala, Figueira studies how and why this text was distorted in translation, criticism, and adaptation, and isolates the linguistic errors and cultural distortions that can be grouped into trends and patterns. The unique situation of SAakuntala's reception affords the author the opportunity to look at the way Europeans projected their cultural needs upon India. The author puts into perspective an entire social and intellectual history of Europe's encounter with Indian culture, an examination of its cultural and political consequences, and a philosophical inquiry into differences between Eastern and Western world views.
The figure of Sakuntala appears in many forms throughout South Asian literature, most famously in the Mahabharata and in Kalidisa's fourth-century Sanskrit play, Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection. In these two texts, Sakuntala undergoes a critical transformation, relinquishing her assertiveness and autonomy to become the quintessentially submissive woman, revealing much about the performance of Hindu femininity that would come to dominate South Asian culture. Through a careful analysis of sections from Sakuntala and their various iterations in different contexts, Romila Thapar explores the interactions between literature and history, culture and gender, that frame the development of this canonical figure, as well as a distinct conception of female identity.