Nala and Damayanti - Introduction





Nala and Damayanti


इतिहासम् इमं श्रुत्वा पुराणं शश्वद् उत्तमम् ।

पुत्रान् पौत्रान् पशूंश् चैव वेत्स्यते नृषु चाग्र्यताम् ।

अरोगः प्रीतिमांश् चैव भविष्यति न संशयः ।।        

 "Whoever listens to that ancient and excellent story will get everything that his heart desires, there is no doubt about it." (Mahahharata, Vanaparva, 79-16)*

A Lesson on Life

The story of Nala and Damayanti, as told in the Mahabharata, seems to begin and end like a fairy tale. Yet what happens in between is anything but a fairy tale — if we give to this word the meaning of something remote from real life. On the contrary, this is a universal story containing some of the deepest truths about life.      

  The story is about two human beings having immense qualities, placed in ideal circumstances: the king Nala and the princess Damayanti. It starts with a very pure love between them which is put to the test by the gods themselves, and then their marriage followed by a life of harmony and happiness. Then suddenly the
smooth path is interrupted. A crack appears in this beautiful picture widens more and more.


* Literally: "will get sons, grandsons, cattle, honour, health and happiness".



 An evil being named Kali enters the king, clouds his judgement and leads him to all kinds of disasters, including the loss of his kingdom, exile, the separation from his children, the abandoning of his wife in the forest, loneliness, suffering and servitude for both of them. Evil, doubt, pain,separation have appeared in the story of Nala and Damayanti, indeed as they often appear in our own life. For how many lives on this earth are not chequered lives? One rises, one falls; one gains, one loses. Rama is all set to be crowned King of Ayodhya and at that very moment he is sent into exile. Shakuntala awaits her marriage and then she is cursed by a Rishi and forgotten by her lover. Vishvamitra is about to reap the fruit of thousands of years of tapasya when he gets angry and loses everything in a second. Rare are the linear lives in which upheaval of some kind does not take place.

       What does one need for going undefeated through all this? What makes some people sink and other people emerge stronger? And if it is true that the life of a man is a "search after pure Truth and unmixed Bliss", what are the helps in this search? And if it is true that human life is susceptible to deviation, how can those deviating forces be conquered? Since it contains many secrets about these questions, the story of Nala and Damayanti is considered an invaluable lesson in human life.

       There is nothing surprising in the fact that this story, like all those to be found in the ancient epics of India, contains great knowledge. The poets who wrote them did not intend merely to tell a tale in a beautiful or noble manner or to create an interesting poem, although they did this with great success. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are itihasa, that is to say, they are "an ancient historical or legendary tradition turned to creative use as a significant mythus or tale expressive of some spiritual or religious or ethical or ideal meaning and thus formative of the mind of the people." Valmiki and Vyasa indeed shaped the minds of the Indian people. They were architects and sculptors of life. Their epics contain a deep reflection on life, on human psychology, on society, politics and religion. If the Mahabharata has been spoken of as a fifth Veda, it is because it is only a great poem, it is only a great poem, it is also a body of knowledge. 



धर्मे चार्थे च कामे च मोक्षे च भरतर्षभ।
यदिहास्ति तदन्यत्र यन्नेहास्ति न तत् क्वचित् ।।     

"Whatever is in this book, pertaining to the four human interests: dharma, personal gain, passion or liberation, is elsewhere [in the world]; whatever is not in the book does not exist anywhere [in the world]."* 

        The work of these epics was to popularize through stories the discoveries of the great minds and souls of India: "That which was for the cultured classes contained in Veda and Upanishad, shut into profound philosophical aphorism and treatise or inculcated in Dharmashastra and Arthashastra, was put here into creative and living figures, associated with familiar story and legend, fused into a vivid representation of life and thus made a near and living power that all could readily assimilate through the poetic word appealing at once to the soul and the imagination and the intelligence."

      The Vedic Rishis had spoken of life as a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. They had said that there are forces that help you in this battle, and there are forces that obstruct you. They had said that life is a sacrifice, and that as you burn your imperfections in the fire of sacrifice, you move upwards, you progress from untruth to truth. They had spoken of Rita, the right law of action originating in the vast consciousness of truth, and from that concept had come the idea of dharma. Those Vedic notions are present in the Mahabharata, brought out from an inner plane to an outer plane (ideas, ethics, politics), although in the tale of Nala and Damayanti (which is probably a very old story), they still keep their ancient and inner significance.

      Indeed this is how the story is presented to us in the


*Adiparva, 2.20.



Mahabharata: as an ancient tale containing secrets which can help men overwhelmed with doubt and sorrow; as an example pregnant with meaning; as a demonstration of the significance of life. From the story of Nala and Damayanti, it is said in the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira, like all men plunged in a great crisis, can draw benefit.

Why the Story was told

"Never was there a more miserable man than me", kept repeating Yudhishthira. He was a king, and he had lost his kingdom. He was the elder and the wisest brother; he was regarded as Dharmaraja, a model of moral rectitude, and now he was being accused of bringing misfortune upon himself and his family by not resisting the lure of gambling. Even his closest friends reproached him for-pledging his brothers, himself and even their wife, on the gambling board. Time and again that fateful scene would come back to his mind when, through his own fault, the proud Draupadi was dragged by her hair into the assembly hall and publiclyhumiliated, like no other woman had ever been. How could he sleep when he relived that moment, remembered his helplessness and the sarcasm of his enemies? He had been trapped by an expert in the art of cheating and made to play dice while he himself did not know the secret of this game (अनक्षज्ञस्य हि सतो 52.44). And what was in store for him now? He had gambled and lost; as per the agreement he had to live a life of exile in the forest along with his brothers and their wife. As if this was not enough, his dearest brother, the great Arjuna himself had left for a far-off region in the north in quest of the science of divine weapons. When would he return? Would he ever return? Yudhisthira felt so lonely. How much he missed the presence of the compassionate Arjuna! How unbearable to hear over and over the harsh words of his brother Bhima! And what should he answer when, impatient with what he saw as passivity, Bhima pressed him to break his word and take arms against their enemies? "You will gamble again anyway, this is certain.



Even after all that has happened, you will not be able to refuse the game!" taunted Bhima. It hurt so much! Sorrow and shame seared Yudhishthira's heart and dried his mouth. At night, unable to find rest, he kept tossing on his bed of torture and bitterly lamented over his misery. "No, indeed, never was there a more unfortunate man than me."

But one day a great sage, one of those Rishis who lived in the forest-hermitages of ancient India, appeared where the brothers lived. They all welcomed him according to the tradition. After some time, Yudhishthira found him alone. He sat at his feet and bared his heart to him. His pain, his worries, his doubts, his helplessness, he all confided to the great Rishi. And he concluded with the one thing that seemed to him a certainty in his ocean of miseries, "Was there ever a king more miserable than me?"

"Yes, there was", answered the Rishi gently. "Once upon a time there was a king who was more unfortunate than you. He was alone in the forest, separated from his wife, without brothers or friends, much more lonely than you are. He was not even able to reflect on dharma as you do, because his mind was clouded. If you want to listen to that ancient story, I will tell you about the king Nala who had to bear a greater ordeal than you and who triumphed over his miseries."

This is how the story of Nala and Damayanti is introduced to us by the great poet Vyasa in the Vanaparva of the Mahabharata: as a tale of courage and endurance in the face of adversity; as an example of what fate can do to man and what man can do to fate; a lesson of hope given to a man who is very close to falling prey to despair. Through this story, the Rishi wants Yudhishthira to have a deeper understanding of the play of invisible forces in life. He reminds him that there are times in one's life when one can become a plaything in the hands of some of those forces, which are out to obstruct and destroy; but he shows him how, even in these circumstances, one can be protected and guided by some other forces, and how one can get free from one's fear and destructive sense of guilt by surpassing one's limitations and ignorance. For the central idea in the poem is that of the spirit of degeneracy, the genius of the iron age:



this evil being suddenly takes hold of a man who till that day had been an ideal of purity and loyalty, brings all kinds of calamities into his life, but eventually is over powered by a steadfast conjugal love. Nothing more tonic and refreshing for the soul than this tale of two capable minds struggling with hardships and difficulties. Nothing more strengthening than the tale of this two-headed hero whose aspiring and unconquerable spirit ultimately triumphs. Nothing more elevating that the story of this unwavering love, pure and strong enough to make a man and a woman pass through some of the worst crises one can ever meet in life, and emerge victorious.

"In the same way as Nala regained his kingdom, you also will meet good fortune again," promised the Rishi to Yudhishthira after telling the story. "Considering that men's gains are always unstable, one should not be perturbed by success or failure."

अस्थिरत्वं च संचिन्त्य पुरपार्थस्य नित्यदा ।
तस्योदये व्यये चापि न चिन्तयितुमर्हसि ।। 79.12

"The apprehension you have that you will be again invited by an expert in the game to play dice, that fear I will destroy."

भयात् त्रस्यसि यच्च त्वमावयिष्यति मां पुनः ।
अक्षज्ञ इति तत् तेऽहं नाशयिष्यामि पार्थिव | | 79.18

The lesson will not be lost on Yudhishthira: he will express his desire to learn from the Rishi Brihadashva the science of dice and also the science of horses, thereby taking the initiative in the battle of life and getting rid of his fear.






Damayanti, "the one who subdues, or conquers", is the name of Nala's wife. And she does conquer; by the purity and sincerity of her love, the tremendous strength of her will-power, her deep insight into the complexities of life and knowledge of the right action, obstacles are removed, seemingly insurmountable difficult ties are surmounted, evil forces are defeated. There is a special quality to all her actions, a certain golden touch as it were. At each turn of the story Damayanti solves the inextricable, straightens what is bent, snatches victory from the jaws of defeat.

Her love for Nala is no ordinary love, it is a love of the soul as symbolised in the image of the swan, the golden-winged messenger through which the two lovers speak to each other. The truth of this love is so deep that it even won over the gods.

Here it may be interesting to ask ourselves the question: what made Damayanti choose Nala over the gods? Indra, Agni, Yama and Varuna had asked for Damayanti's hand. They had even used Nala as their emissary, and Nala, although a suitor himself, had faithfully helped them. Yet Damayanti chose Nala, a man, over the gods. Why? What does Nala have that the gods do not have? Here, a clue to the question is hidden in the beautiful image of the four gods seated along with Nala at the swayamvar ceremony. The gods have managed in such a way that the five beings seated side by side look exactly the same. Where is Nala? How is Damayanti going to recognize him and select him as her husband? Damayanti directly addresses the gods — तेन सत्येन विबुधास्तमेव प्रदिशन्तु मे — and the truth of her love is so compelling that it forces them, as it were, to show her who is Nala, thus accepting her choice. Suddenly she is able to perceive the differences between the five figures in front of her. The gods are not soiled by dust or sweat. Their garlands are unfading, their eyes unwinking. Their feet do not touch the ground. They cast no shadow. But Nala's feet stand on the ground, he has a shadow, his garland is fading, one can see sweat on his forehead and dust on his body, and his eyes blink. What does this symbolic language  signify?



Gods are stable, immobile, always luminous, invariably harmonious. Time does not change them, struggle does not affect them. In a word, these gods belong to a static, non-evolutionary world. Nala's world, on the contrary, is the world of the earth, which his feet touch; it is an evolutionary world, not all glorious and harmonious, consisting of light and shadows, of sweat and dust, of struggle and impurity. A world where everything moves and changes, in the same way as his garland fades with the passing of time. Yet in that imperfection, there is an urge towards a higher and more many-sided perfection. This urge, this aspiration is the sign of the soul. Gods are not thirsty. The human soul is. It searches for truth, freedom, unmixed bliss. It is that thirst, that aspiration that leads the soul in its voyage towards greater and greater lights. And this is the experience Damayanti seeks: the travel of the soul towards greater and greater perfection. It is why she chooses Nala. Not for her a static and contented perfection. Her robust soul seeks the adventure and the struggle and an all embracing triumph.

It is this aspiration towards perfection, as manifested by her love for Nala, that guides Damayanti and leads her to victory. When, finding herself alone in the jungle, she cursed the evil being that robbed Nala of his senses, it is the purity of her love that made of her curse an effective weapon,, potent enough to ultimately strike at the evil force and deliver Nala from its influence. Kali himself will later confirm this,

इन्द्रसेनस्य जननी कुपिता माशपत् पुरा ।
यदा त्वया परित्यक्ता ततोऽहं भृशपीडितः ।।72.34

"Indrasena's mother, Damayanti, cursed me in anger when she was abandoned by you. Therefore I have been suffering greatly."

It can be observed that there is not the slightest taint of egoism in this love: Damayanti never ever feels sorry for herself, never indulges in self-pity: even alone in a wild and dangerous forest, even in the grasp of a huge python, she thinks only of



Nala's suffering, she grieves only for Nala, she has compassion only for Nala.

And again it is this psychic love that finally would indicate to Damayanti more surely than any external sign that she was going to be reunited with Nala. Back in her father's home, one day she felt a sudden and tremendous joy; this is the language of the soul, making her understand more clearly than with any spoken word that, at last, she was going to meet her beloved.

According to the ancient Indian science of yoga and its knowledge of the subtle body, the centre of the will is located between the eyebrows. It is interesting to note that Damayanti is said to have a birth sign between the two eyebrows. Could this physical sign be a symbol of Damayanti's indomitable will? One is inclined to believe so, for Damayanti's will-power is indeed unshakable: either the gods' offer prior to the swayamvar, nor Nala's departure, nor her grief or her fear made her deviate for one second from her path, which is the path of total self-giving to Nala. Once she gave herself to Nala, — and that was even before she ever saw him, — she was ready to die rather than live without him. And once she was separated from Nala, she lived with only one aim, to find him again. When after her adventures she finally returns to her parents' house, the author does not describe her relief at being again reunited with her family and children, he does not linger on domestic scenes of happiness. There is no rest or respite for Damayanti. She is still the same woman Nala abandoned in the forest: she is clothed with only one garment; her hair is untied; she is covered with dust; and she thinks only of one thing: how to find Nala, how to let him know that she is waiting for  him, how to make him come back to her. She respects her elders like any educated woman of the time and, before acting, she asks her parents for their permission, but her will is so strong, her intention is so clear that her parents cannot but let her act the way she has decided to. In this way, she is a totally free woman, and one can sense the empathy of Vyasa's "granite mind" with the formidable strength of this character.

More than her purity and sincerity, more than her will-power,



what makes Damayanti an exceptional human being, is her deep understanding of human life coupled with her knowledge of the right action. She was a young girl whose universe till her marriage must have been confined within the walls of the palace, and yet she felt and acted as if she had lives and lives of experience behind her. Right from the beginning of the tragedy she had understood that Nala was not himself, that some dark force had taken hold of him and that he was a victim; it is why she never ever blamed Nala. She could perceive that his judgment was clouded, that he was mohita and unable to decide clearly and freely. Similarly, when they wandered in the forest, on her insistence Nala promised that he would not abandon her, but she knew that although he meant what he said, he would not be able to keep his word since he was not master of his mind anymore.

अवैमि चाहं नृपते न तु मां त्यक्तुमर्हसि ।
चेतसा त्वपकृष्टेन मां त्यजेथा महीपते । 161.33

"I understand, 0 king, you could not leave me. But because of your mind which is pulled in another direction, you could very  well abandon me."

She did not put a name onto the hostile force, she did not know that it was an evil being called Kali, but she was, aware of its presence.

Not only does she know the power of love and truth, as we have mentioned already when we noted that she forced the gods to accept her choice, not only does she know the power of dark forces such as the one which took possession of her husband, not only is she conscious of the battle between those contradictory pulls, but she is also desha-kaal-jnaa: (60.12) she knows how to act decisively at the right moment and at the right place. While Nala gambled and one by one lost all his possessions, she, foreseeing what was going to happen, acted swiftly and saved her children. Back in her father's capital, after more than three years of ordeal, she devised ways to find Nala and, once he was found, to make him come. The detailed instructions she gave to her envoys



and each word of the message she wanted them to spread, the idea of the second swayamvar and the announcement made at such a short notice, the four tests she made Nala go through in order to be able to declare irrefutably that this ugly charioteer indeed was Nala, all her plans and the way she carried them out reveal the extraordinary gift of Damayanti: emotions never come in the way of action; she has a clear vision of what has to be done and she executes the action calmly, thoroughly, with an utmost care and with a great attention to detail.

Such is the character portrayed so powerfully and yet with such remarkable simplicity by Vyasa.

It would be tempting to declare that she is the main protagonist  of the story, and that her role is even more important than that of Nala. But this would be unfair to the man Damayanti chose of her own will amongst gods. In fact, Nala and Damayanti were attacked by the same enemy, waged the same battle, although through different means, and they both won.


Nala's purity and truthfulness are equal to those of Damayanti. Lest we be inclined to think of Nala as a husband who betrays his wife, right at the beginning of the story we are shown how firm he is in his clinging to the truth: he promised the gods to help them and he will do it, whatever the consequences for himself. He is entirely transparent, and speaks nothing but the truth, be it in front of the gods or in front of Damayanti. In fact, he is so pure and sincere that Kali, after resolving to take possession of him, had to wait for twelve full years as he could not find any opening, any flaw that would allow him to sneak in. After twelve years, a minuscule fault was committed that gave Kali the opportunities he sought. From then onwards, Nala was not himself.

However, in his diminished condition with his mind confused and torn, the one thing that remained always present, albeit in the background, and acted as a protection was his love and



respect for Damayanti. Like Yudhishthira, he was invited to stake his wife on the gambling board. Nala's only answer, recounts Vyasa, was to silently remove all his ornaments and walk out of the palace. Even when he agonised over the action to be taken, even at that moment when his mind was dola iva, pulled like a swing in two opposite directions, he never questioned the purity and fidelity of Damayanti and knew that those would be her protection.

In the concluding chapter of the story, Nala fully conscious of what happened to him, pointed out to Damayanti,

मम राज्यं पणष्टं यन्नाहं तत् कृतवान् स्वयम् ।
कलिना तत् कृतं भीरू यच्च त्वामहमत्यजम् | | 76.17

  "That my kingdom was lost and that I abandoned you was all the work of Kali, it was not my doing.

"Kali, adds Nala, was burnt by Damayanti's curse "like fire burnt by fire", and "was defeated by my endeavours and tapasya"  — मम च व्यवसायेन तपसा चैव निर्जितः 73.20.—. 

What were Nala's efforts to defeat Kali and overcome the deep crisis in which he had been plunged? It would be too long to list all of them but we would like to underline three stages in his tapasya that were crucial in his battle against darkness and which were all the more heroic because undertaken in the backdrop of extreme sorrow, overwhelming feeling of guilt and physical distress.

The first is the easiest to detect: the act of compassion towards another being. In the jungle, Nala succours the Karkotaka snake caught in a ring of fire. Due to a curse this cobra could not move. He is encircled by flames, cries for help and finally is saved by Nala who carries him to a safer place. Then a strange thing happens: in return for this kindness, Karkotaka bites Nala. This apparent act of ingratitude is in reality a great boon, as the serpent himself explains it to Nala. Firstly, the poison that has entered Nala will torment Kali so much that ultimately he will have to come out of him. Secondly, this bite has the immediate



effect of transforming Nala's appearance. His beauty has disappeared. His face has become black. And this is for Nala's own good, as is clear from Karkotaka's utterance:

ततः कर्कोटको नागः सान्त्वयन् नलमब्रवीत् ।
मया तेऽन्तर्हितं रूपं न त्वां विधुर्जना इति । | 66.14

Then reassuring Nala, the cobra Karkotaka told him: 'I have made your form disappear so that no one can recognize you.' "

So it is clear from the text itself that Nala did not become ugly because of Kali's entering him. The change in Nala occurred much after this event, and it was effected by the snake with the specific purpose of helping him. In fact, this transformation is the beginning of the process of recovery. From that moment, "no one can recognize you", said the snake. This leads us to the second stage in Nala's tapasya.

The second step in his tapasya is his period of Ajnaatavaas.On the advice of Karkotaka, Nala goes to Ayodhya. There, under the name of Bahuka, he proposes his services to the King Rituparna. He will look after the horses of the King. So here is Nala, unrecognizable, with a different face, in a foreign land, among strangers. It seems to us that these periods of retreat described by the Indian epics, when one hides in an unknown place under an assumed identity, symbolically indicate an inner movement of introspection, a time devoted to a deep inner quest and renewal. All energies are necessary, a great concentration is necessary, a dialogue with the innermost part of one's being is necessary. Space and time are required, solitude is a help. The last thing one needs is interference from others, howsoever good-intentioned they may be. Karkotaka has made sure that "no one can recognize" Nala; his living in a distant land makes it impossible for him to be confronted with past acquaintances. He is alone, facing his own life, engaged in a dialogue with his soul. And each evening he sings his love for his beloved: a single verse, a beautiful and simple shloka, repeated again and again, as a mantra, a cry from his heart:



क्व नु क्षुत्पिपासार्ता श्रान्ता शेते तपस्विनी ।
स्मरन्ती तस्य मन्दस्य कं वा साद्योपतिष्ठति । 167.10

"Where resteth she that roamed the wood
Hungry and parched and worn, but always true?
Doth she remember yet her faultful lord?
Ah, who is near her now?"

      The third decisive step for Nala was the decision to learn the science of counting from the King Rituparna. Both the King and Nala are on their way to the capital of Vidarhha. They have heard that a second swayamvar ceremony for Damayanti will take place shortly. On the way, Nala asks Rituparna to teach him the science of counting. As soon as he learnt it. Kali came out of him — तस्याक्षहृदयज्ञस्य शरीरान्निसृतः कलि: — . This is also a symbol and one presumes that the science of counting indicates the quality of discrimination acquired by Nala. After all, samkhya (number) is the name of a branch of Indian yoga. The choice of the tree itself, whose leaves and fruits Nala is taught how to count, is significant since it is the Vibhitaka tree, "the tree which removes fear", also called "the dice tree", its fruits being used in the game of dice.:;" By learning discrimination, by widening his consciousness Nala had gotten rid of his fear. The tale of Nala and Damayanti has the charm of a beautiful fairy tale and the fierce and stern power of an epic. While portraying the characteristics of Vyasa's poetry, Sri Aurobindo dwelt at length on the characteristics of two works which are not parts of the original Mahabharata and are yet by the same hand, Nala and Savitri. Says he: "Here we have the very morning of Vyasa's genius, when he was young and ardent, perhaps still under the


" Terminalia belerica. Sanskrit names: Bibheetaka or Vibheetaka (regular use eliminates fear of disease), Aksha (the seeds are used in a game of gambling, Kalivriksha (the tree of Kali), Bhootavas (animals take shelter in its shade). See Ayurvedic Pharmacology and Therapeutic Uses of Medicinal Plants by Vaidya VM. Gogte, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, 2000, p.438-39.



 immediate influence of Valmiki (one of the most pathetic touches in the Nala is borrowed straight out of the Ramayana), at any rate able, without ceasing to be finely restrained, to give some rein to his fancy. The Nala therefore has the delicate and unusual romantic grace of a young and severe classic who has permitted himself to go a-maying in the fields of romance. There is a remote charm of restraint in the midst of abandon, of vigilance in the play of fancy which is passing sweet and strange. ... This then is the rare charm of these two poems that we find there the soul of the pale and marble Rishi, the philosopher, the great statesman, the strong and stern poet of war and empire, when it was yet in its radiant morning, far from the turmoil of courts and cities and the roar of the battle-field and had not yet scaled the mountain  tops of thought."*

While this story contains the wonders and the touches of the miraculous that pertain to a fairy tale, it has for subject, like all Indian epics, a struggle between two ideal forces, universal and opposing. One can read the story as a parable which by means of very ancient symbols tells us the adventure and battles of man's inner being led from darkness to light by the sheer power of love.What Nala and Damayanti experienced at the very start of the story, the deep emotion that caught hold of them, as wonderful and fresh and miraculous as the blooming of a flower, as undeniable and compelling as the sunrise, was the promise of their attaining an even greater joy, widened, deepened and illumined by the fire of their aspiration


* Sri Aurobindo, Notes on the Mahabharata, Vol III, Centenary Edition, Pondicherry, 1972, p 153-4.



Back to Content