Vyasa at this stage narrates the celebrated story of Nala in more than 1000 stanzas (4000 lines) of poetry. One sage by name Brihadasva visits the Pandavas in the forest while Arjuna was away in search of weapons. Yudhishthira laments about his fate resulting from the game of dice. He asks the sage whether he has ever heard of a worse tragedy. In reply Brihadasva narrates the story of Nala. It has no other relevance to the main story of Mahabharatam. But, the story in itself is very touching and is one of the most widely known among Indian epics. It is quoted in some of the Vedic literature pointing out its antiquity. One of the five great classics in Sanskrit poetry, “Naishadham” by Sriharsha, is based on this story. Kathakali has one of the most popular plays on this. Hence, it may be worthwhile going into it, probably in five or six episodes.
There are four epochs (Yuga) in traditional Indian knowledge. They are, Kruta, Treta, Dwapara and Kali. Presiding deities of the last two appear in the story. It is said that moral decay gradually takes place as time passes to the second, third and fourth epochs. Kali Yuga is considered to be the period in which it reaches the climax. The four epochs repeat themselves in cycles until the great deluge put an end to creation.
There is enough reason to believe that we are in the sixth millennium after Kali set in. Krishna was born towards the end of Dwapara. The Mahabharata war took place in the beginning of Kali. It is said that great calamities befell on the earth whenever a new epoch set in.
The character Dwapara in the story has a passive role, merely that of an onlooker. Kali plays an active and evil role, consistent with the character of the epoch he represents.
The kingdom, Vidarbha, in the story is part of modern Maharashra. Nishadha of Nala is believed to be adjacent to it, probably to the north.
Brihadasva starts the narration with the birth of Nala.
Birth of Nala and Damayanti
There was a king of the Nishadha by name Virasena. He had a son who was named Nala. The prince was extremely handsome and became well known for his excellent character, learning and skill in warfare.
King Bhima ruled the land of Vidarbha at that time. He had a daughter by name Damayanti. She had all that one looked for in a woman, beauty, accomplishments and strength of character.
Nala grew up hearing about the qualities of Damayanti in the court of Nishadha. Gradually, soft feelings developed in the heart of the prince towards the Vidarbha princess. Similarly, Damayanti also used to hear about the handsome Nishadha prince and his accomplishments. Bhaimi (the daughter of Bhima) kept thinking of Nala right from hr childhood.
An Unusual go-between
Nala one day found several golden swans of astonishing beauty in the palace lake. He took a fancy to catch a few and managed to get hold of one. To his surprise he heard the swan speaking to him in human voice.
“Prince of Nishadha, what do you gain by keeping me in bondage? If I am set free, I may be of some service to you!”.
Nala asked, out of curiosity, “in what way?”.
The swan said. “There is a beautiful princess by name Damayanti in the land of Vidarbha. I shall go and talk to her in such a way that she would fall for you with all her heart”.
Of course, Nala was interested. He set the bird free.
The swan with Damayanti
In the garden of the Vidarbha palace the swans had a motive. They moved with special grace inviting the attention of the princess and her maids. It took no effort for the Bhaimi (Damayanti) to catch the most beautiful of the lot, the messenger from Nala. The princess was in all attention hearing the bird speak with human voice. It talked at length about the masculine grace of the Nishadha prince and of his exceptional character. What was merely a soft feeling in the heart of the princess for Nala now took firm root as deep love.
Damayanti struck with love sickness
Thoughts of her beloved obsessed the princess day and night. Gradually, she grew pale and thin. This was brought to the notice of Bhima, her father. The king thought that it was time that he got a handsome prince to marry his beautiful daughter. As was the custom, he wanted Damayanti to choose a prince of her choice (Swayamvara) from all those who would be invited.
Seekers from heaven
The marriage of Damayanti by Swayamvara was announced far and wide. Her fame was such that princes even from remote lands rushed to Vidarbha with hopes of winning her hands.
King Devendra (Indra) heard about the event from the wandering sage, Narada, in heaven. He talked about it with his colleagues, deities of the other directions, Agni (Fire, of the South East), Yama (South) and Varuna(West). All wanted to try their chances.
The gods meet Nala
Nala was on his way to the Vidarbha palace. He heard about the Swayamvara and had high hopes that his beloved would choose him. The golden swan would have accomplished the task as promised. He was thinking only about his sweet heart when he was interrupted in the middle by strangers. There were four of them. One spoke. “King of Nishadha, we need your help. You are famous for your word. Please promise that you will help us.”
Nala promised that he would do his best. Then, he asked, “who are you and what is my mission?”
The visitor spoke. “I am Indra. These are my friends from heaven, Agni, Yama and Varuna. We came seeking Damayanti’s hands in marriage. Please ask her to choose from one of us in the Swayamvara.”
Nala was in trouble. He replied. “This is unfair. I am already in love with the princess. I understand that she loves me, too. How can I ask her to marry one of you when our hearts desire otherwise?”
Indra said. “You cannot break your word given to us”
Nala asked, “how can I get to her, first of all, breaking through all the hurdles to the place where I can find her alone?”
The god replied that with his blessing he would accomplish just that.
Nala alone with Damayanti
Nala was surprised that he could enter all the way into Damayanti’s chambers without anyone blocking his way. Damayanti was pleasantly surprised to see her beloved in person alone in her front. Nala, then, conveyed the message from the divinities to her. Damayanti protested. “How is this possible? My heart is already given to you.” Nala tried to persuade her pointing out how better she would be as wife to a god as against being a queen to an ordinary mortal king. But, Damayanti stood firm in her resolve. She said. “Bowing to all gods, I shall choose you as husband”.
The time for Swayamvara came. Rulers from all known kingdoms were seated in suitably decorated thrones in the hall. Damayanti was lead by her maidens one by one in front of each of the suitors. Ignoring everyone else she proceeded ahead looking for her beloved. Then she was arrested by an unexpected sight. There was Nala right in front, not one, but five of them. All looked exactly alike. She remembered the message Nala carried to her from the heavenly suitors and decided that they must be putting her to test. She closed her eyes in prayer directed to the same Indra, Agni, Yama and Varuna.
When she opened her eyes she found a slight difference among the five Nalas. Four of them did not quite touch the ground where they stood. They stood blinking, without closing their eye lashes. They did not sweat at all and no dust would settle on them. Damayanti remembered that these are the qualities of divinity. She, in that way, could make out the real Nala. She gently placed the garland around his neck.
The four gods were pleased that Nala had kept his word. They were also impressed with Damayanti that she did not waver in her mind even in their presence. So, they blessed the couple, especially Nala for help at appropriate time, and disappeared.
The angry suitors
Kali and Dwapara arrived too late for the Swayamvara. They had designs of winning the princess. It was from the returning gods that they heard that Damayanti already chose Nala as husband. They were disappointed. Kali was furious. How did Nala dare to carry the princess off when the likes of Indra came for her? He wanted to teach Nala a lesson for his impunity.
We shall learn about it in the next episode