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Mahabharata : Vana Parva Part 3

The sto­ry of Nala and Damayan­thi

Once, a rishi called Bri­hadaswa vis­its them. Bri­hadaswa is an expert in the game of dice. He says, “Do not wor­ry, Yud­hishthi­ra. The same hap­pened to Nala”. And imme­di­ate­ly, the curios­i­ty of the Pan­davas and Drau­pa­di is aroused. They ask him to nar­rate the sto­ry of Nala. And so Rishi Bri­hadastha begins his nar­ra­tion of the sto­ry of Nala and Damayan­thi.

Damayan­thi is an very beau­ti­ful princess. She is the daugh­ter of Bhi­ma, the king of Vidarb­ha (not to be con­fused with Bhi­mase­na, the Pan­da­va). She is excep­tion­al­ly beau­ti­ful. Swans that live in the lake near her place of dwelling bring her infor­ma­tion about the most hand­some man on earth, Nala, a Naisha­da, the king of Nisha­da. They also take the infor­ma­tion of the beau­ty of Damayan­thi to Nala. And hence, with­out their see­ing each oth­er, love devel­ops in their hearts for each oth­er. In fact, this is exact­ly what hap­pens with Arju­na and Sub­hadra as well. The same also hap­pens with Krish­na and Ruk­mi­ni. So, Nala and Damayan­thi have fall­en in love with each oth­er. When the swayam­vara of Damayan­thi is announced, all the kings of all the lands come there. The news of the swayam­vara reach­es even the celes­tials. Indra, Varuna, Agni and Yama — all of them aspire for the hand of Damayan­thi. On their way, they encounter Nala, and they make Nala their mes­sen­ger to Damayan­thi — to ask her to choose one among the celes­tials as her hus­band. Nala is giv­en celes­tial pow­ers and hence he enters unseen by the guards, and only Damayan­thi can see him. Nala explains that he has come as a mes­sen­ger for the celes­tials. He says to her, “Please choose one among the celes­tials.” Damayan­thi clear­ly says, “No, In my heart, I have already cho­sen you as my hus­band. At my swayam­vara, it is you I will gar­land. This is my deci­sion. You have done your job as a mes­sen­ger. ”

Nala leaves the place and informs the celes­tials of this. So, all the celes­tials assume the form of Nala, and when Damayan­thi has to gar­land Nala, she is flum­moxed. She can­not choose. She can­not dis­tin­guish Nala from among the per­sons present. And hence, she men­tal­ly prays to the devas, “If have been sin­cere and true in my love for Nala, please reveal your­selves. “The devas are con­strained by her prayer and they reveal their celes­tial forms- there is no dust on their bod­ies, their gar­ments are of celes­tial make, the flow­ers on their bod­ies do not fade, and their feet do not touch the ground. With such indi­ca­tions, Damayan­thi iden­ti­fies Nala, who is a human mor­tal. He has dust and sweat on his body, his flow­ers fade and his feet are on the ground. So she gar­lands Nala, and that’s how Nala mar­ries Damayan­thi. They live very hap­pi­ly. A son and a daugh­ter are born to them.

Now, before the swayam­vara, the demon Kali had desired Damayan­thi. The demons Kali and Dwa­para are the embod­ied forms of Kali yuga and Dwa­para yuga. On hear­ing that Damayan­thi is already tak­en by Nala, Kali is furi­ous. In his anger, he waits for an oppor­tu­ni­ty to take revenge on Nala. The oppor­tu­ni­ty comes after twelve years of their mar­riage-when Nala offers ablu­tions, he fails to clean the heels of his feet prop­er­ly. And Kali enters into Nala through his heels. From that time on, Nala begins to face so many obsta­cles, that a once very hap­py fam­i­ly starts to dis­in­te­grate. Dwa­para enters the dice of Pushkara, who chal­lenges Nala to a game of dice. Since Kali has entered Nala, and Dwa­para has entered the dice of Pushkara, and because of var­i­ous fac­tors, Nala los­es his entire king­dom. And hence, he and Damayan­thi have to leave to the for­est, and Pushkara assumes the throne.

In the for­est, his clothes are snatched away by some fly­ing birds and he has to share the dress of Damayan­thi. Nala, who is a great king, a favourite among the devas and who is extreme­ly Dharmic, is put to such mis­ery. He feels that it is not right that because of him, his wife Damayan­thi should suf­fer. And hence while Damayan­thi is asleep, he leaves her. Damayan­thi is heart-bro­ken. She cries, “O Nala, why have you left me?” But there is no response. Nala has gone far away. Damayan­thi wan­ders like a mad woman. She asks the birds, the ani­mals, the moun­tains, the rivers-“Have you seen Nala? Have you seen Nala?”. She cries in mis­ery but she receives no response. Final­ly, she meets a group of traders in a car­a­van who are going to the Raja of Che­di for some busi­ness. She joins the crowd. But, to her mis­for­tune, when the crowd is rest­ing, a group of ele­phants which are mad­dened on look­ing at the domes­tic ele­phants of the traders, tram­ple over the chil­dren, women and the traders, and there is a huge mas­sacre. And every­body curs­es this woman, this mad woman who joined them and brought them ill luck.

When Damayan­thi reach­es Che­di, the queen of Che­di adopts her because she sees that even though the out­er form is dusty and unkempt, there is some­thing with­in, that is extreme­ly dig­ni­fied with this lady. The king of Vidarb­ha, know­ing what hap­pened to Nala and Damayan­thi, sends out var­i­ous mes­sen­gers all around the world, and one mes­sen­ger, on reach­ing Che­di, dis­cov­ers this woman and iden­ti­fies her as Damayan­thi. When the queen of Che­di comes to know of this, she is very hap­py, because she hap­pens to be the sis­ter of Damayanthi’s moth­er. In all roy­al dec­o­ra­tion, Damayan­thi is sent back to Vidarb­ha.

Mean­while, Nala is extreme­ly deject­ed and for­lorn. He hap­pens to hear some­one call­ing, “Nala, Nala!”, and turns to see blaz­ing flames of fire all around. That hap­pens to be Karko­ta­ka, the snake. Karko­ta­ka is stuck in the fire because of the curse of Nara­da. Nara­da Muni fur­ther reveals, that Nala would lib­er­ate him. Nala lib­er­ates Karko­ta­ka, and in return, Karko­ta­ka stings Nala and the ven­om enters his body. Nala is tak­en aback. He says, “For all that I did for you, this is how you repay me?” Nala is about to curse Karko­ta­ka, when the snake says, “No!Please lis­ten. Who­ev­er has entered your body and has caused you such harm, my ven­om will make him so mis­er­able, that he will suf­fer the entire time that he stays in your body. ” Because of the snake’s ven­om, Nala’s form los­es its lus­tre and he appears wrin­kled and shrunk, with­out the dig­ni­fied bear­ing that he orig­i­nal­ly had. Karko­ta­ka says, “In this form, you will not be iden­ti­fied as Nala. Please take this divine cloth that I give you. Upon wear­ing this, you will be able to regain your for­mer splen­dorous form. ” Nala wan­ders and reach­es the king­dom of Ayo­d­hya, where king Rit­u­par­na rules. So there, Nala is appoint­ed as the char­i­o­teer, because he is extreme­ly good at horse rid­ing.

After Damayan­thi reach­es Vidarb­ha, she has mes­sen­gers sent all over the world with spe­cif­ic shlokas. The brah­mana who reach­es the court of Rit­u­par­na finds a man, a char­i­o­teer, respond­ing to the shlokas that he nar­rates. He car­ries this infor­ma­tion back to Damayan­thi. Hence Damayan­thi forms a plan. With­out inform­ing Bhi­ma, her father, she takes her moth­er into con­fi­dence, and sends the brah­mana (the brah­mana who dis­cov­ered her at the queen of Chedi’s) with a spe­cif­ic mes­sage of her swayam­vara — her sec­ond swayam­vara — to King Rit­u­par­na. Now, there a hun­dred yojanas between his king­dom and her fathers’. Damayan­thi has made her plan in such a way that only Nala, who has the abil­i­ty to dri­ve the char­i­ot that fast, would be able to reach Vidarb­ha on time for the swayam­vara. So the brah­mana reach­es Rituparna’s court and announces, “The sec­ond swayam­vara of Damayan­thi will take place at the king­dom of Vidarb­ha. Please come there. It is going to take place tomor­row. ” Rit­u­par­na seeks the help of his char­i­o­teer, Nala, who agrees to take him. Nala is actu­al­ly heart-bro­ken on know­ing that Damayan­thi has sought a sec­ond swayam­vara. But he makes up his mind, and they go to Vidarb­ha the fol­low­ing morn­ing. Nala dri­ves the char­i­ot so fast, through land and water and air, that Rit­u­par­na is amazed and wants to learn char­i­ot­ing from Nala. On the way, Rit­u­par­na says that there are cer­tain num­ber of leaves on the tree. Nala does not believe him. He stops to count the exact num­ber of leaves and branch­es on the trees and finds, that Rit­u­par­na is on the mark! Hence, in exchange for the sci­ence of hors­es, Nala wants to learn the sci­ence of dice from him.

The sci­ence of dice was to do with math­e­mat­ics in those times. It was based on pre­dic­tive capa­bil­i­ties and prob­a­bilis­tic mechan­ics. So Rit­u­par­na teach­es Nala the game of dice. Both of them reach the court of Bhi­ma. Bhi­ma is sur­prised. For no rea­son, why would a king of Ayo­d­hya come to his court? But he is wel­comed appro­pri­ate­ly. Rit­u­par­na is shocked to see that no arrange­ments have been done for the swayam­vara, and hence he knows that some­thing is amiss. So he pre­tends like he has not come there for any swayam­vara. They are all accom­mo­dat­ed. On see­ing Rit­u­par­na hav­ing been safe­ly accom­mo­dat­ed, and the char­i­o­teer being led to the sta­bles to teth­er the hors­es, Damayan­thi sends her maid to find out about the char­i­o­teer. She asks her to find out what hap­pens when he tries to cook. Nala sim­ply shows a piece of grass to the sun and it catch­es fire. He has the sup­port of all the celes­tials, and hence all the ele­ments work as per his will, and his wish. The water starts boil­ing on its own. Every­thing hap­pens almost mirac­u­lous­ly. She rep­re­sents all this to Damayan­thi. Damayan­thi then sends her chil­dren, and the reac­tion of the char­i­o­teer is one of a father react­ing to his chil­dren. Damayan­thi is now con­vinced that this is Nala. But when she sees him, his form is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from the form she knows as Nala’s. When she reveals her inten­tions to the char­i­o­teer, he once again assumes his orig­i­nal form using the cloak that was giv­en by Karko­ta­ka-and there, lo and behold, is Nala! Damayan­thi imme­di­ate­ly hugs Nala and they are hap­pi­ly reunit­ed.

Nala goes back to Pushkara, chal­leng­ing him again to a game of dice. And there, Kali final­ly leaves Nala. On see­ing him, Damayan­thi and Nala are about to curse Kali, but he begs their par­don and he is let off. Nala, now equipped with the knowl­edge of the sci­ence of dice, wins the game, gets back their king­dom and they live hap­pi­ly ever after. Rishi Bri­hadastha, after nar­rat­ing this sto­ry, teach­es Yud­hishthi­ra the sci­ence behind the game of dice, so that Yud­hishthi­ra would nev­er lose a game of dice hence­forth.

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