Lust – Gateway to Hell
The following are the top level vikaras that most humans suffer from: कामा – kama (lust), क्रोध – krodha (anger), मोह – moha (attachment), लोभ – lobha (greed), ईर्ष्या द्वेष – irshya dvesh (jealousy) and अहंकार – ahankar (arrogance, ego). Sri Krishna has called out Lust as the foremost of all ‘vikaras’ or ‘evil defects’ that humans must constantly strive to overcome. He also explains why lust is evil in the Bhagavad Gita. Please read all about it in my book ‘Sri Krishna’s Commandments‘.
Here is a wonderful story from the Mahabharata, recited by the great sage Sri Vyasa Deva. This story illustrates how and why lust is evil and also differentiates that from love, which is all powerful.
This is the story of Nala and Damayanti. This is a very popular story and has been narrated by multiple authors. It is available in the public domain and if you search on Google you will find multiple websites that contain this story. This is a very touching and insightful story and I request you to read it till the end:
THE STORY OF NALA AND DAMAYANTI
Nala sat alone in his palace gardens. His mind wandered again to thoughts of Damayanti. From the first time he had heard of that princess he had felt his heart move. The court heralds had described her beauty as being exactly like the Apsaras, the mind-stealing consorts of the gods. No other woman like her could be found on earth, they said, and soon she would select her husband at a swayamvara ceremony.
Nala had already experienced a couple of those. They were fairly common for princesses. Hundreds of suitors would jostle about in huge arenas, all of them dressed in their finest silks and royal regalia. The maiden would then have the difficult job of selecting the best of them as they proudly postured and vied with each other for her attentions. Nala knew there was no certainty that Damayanti would pick him from out of the crowd. The only sure way might be to snatch her and then face all the other kings and princes in a fight. He had seen that tried a few times as well, not always successfully.
Sighing, Nala rose from the golden seat and began walking slowly around the gardens. The heady fragrance of blossoming creepers carried on the soft breeze. As he strolled about, the Nishadha king gazed vacantly at the neat rows of many-colored flowers running along the edge of the lake. He thought only of Damayanti. Having heard of her numerous feminine qualities, how she had been bestowed upon her father by the boon of the powerful sage Damana, and how she had grown up resembling the Goddess of Fortune herself, Nala had decided that she had to become his queen. But how would it ever be achieved?
As he rounded the lake he saw to his surprise a number of golden swans landing on the water. He stopped and gazed out at them as they flapped their wings, sending ripples across the lake. Their bright golden plumage was unlike anything he had ever seen before. He went to the edge of the lake and knelt down, and as he did so one of the swans came toward him. Nala reached out quickly and grabbed the bird, holding it firmly by its neck and legs so that he might examine it more closely. To his amazement, the bird began to speak.
“King of the Nishadhas, you should not capture me. I know what is on your mind and if you release me I will render you a great good. I will go at once to Damayanti’s palace. By speaking repeatedly of your many fine qualities, I will attract her to you. After hearing my praises, and how you are pining for her, she will not want to marry anyone else.”
Nala released the swan and stood up quickly. “Surely this would please me, magical bird. Go then to the Vidharbha kingdom and seek out that beautiful maiden. I desire none other than her.”
The swan rejoined its companions. Together they rose upwards from the lake, their wings beating rhythmically. Nala watched as they turned southward and soared away. When they were nothing more than specks in the distance, he walked slowly back into his palace, wondering at the movements of fate.
Late the next day the swans arrived at Vidharbha. They swept down from the sky and alighted in the gardens of the king’s palace. Damayanti, surrounded by her many maidservants, saw those golden birds and she cried out in delight. “Oh! Just see these beautiful creatures. Let us keep them in the palace for my father’s pleasure.”
The girls all ran after the swans, which fled in different directions. The bird chased by Damayanti led her into a solitary corner of the gardens and then began to address her in human speech. “Princess, I have a message for you.”
Damayanti stepped back quickly. “What kind of creature are you?” she exclaimed. “Who has sent this message?”
“I am here to do you good, do not fear. There is one among the Nishadha people named Nala, who is like a god. That hero is the king of his race and he is qualified in every respect. He has no equal among men or celestials. Fair one, if you become his wife then surely your life will be crowned with success. As you are foremost among maidens, so is Nala the best among men. You two are a perfect match in every way.”
Damayanti had already heard of Nala. His fame had reached her father’s kingdom. She had heard the ministers suggesting that her father try to form an alliance with him. “He is a man of peerless strength,” they had told the king. “It would greatly enhance our position to have him as an ally.” The swan went on glorifying Nala for some time. Hearing that he had
set his mind on her, Damayanti felt her own mind becoming attracted to the prince. As stirrings of love began to move her heart, she said to the swan, “Please return to Nala and tell him that I would have him as my lord. Speak of me to him in the same way as you have described him to me.”
“So be it,” replied the swan, and it soon left for Nala’s kingdom.
Reaching his presence, it informed him that Damayanti desired him as her husband. “As you now long for her, great king, so she longs for you.”
Nala smiled and thanked the swan. He began thinking of Damayanti’s swayamvara, which he heard had been set for a month’s time. The days would pass slowly.
Damayanti lay on her fine golden couch. She dismissed the maid who had fetched a bowl of choice fruits from the palace orchard. Since she had spoken with the swan her appetite had gone. She thought only of Nala. Discreet enquiries had revealed that he was a jewel among men. Accomplished at statesmanship and martial arts, gentle in behavior, and handsome like a resident of heaven. Would he come to her swayamvara? What if he did not? How could she select anyone else? She had practically given her heart to Nala simply by hearing of him. What if he came, but then was not attracted to her? Perhaps some other prince would snatch her away. That seemed to happen so often at swayamvaras. Then there would be a fight. Maybe Nala would be injured or even slain.
The princess got up and walked around the large chamber. Restless with anxiety she went out and entered the temple. She bowed before the great stone deity of Vishnu, praying that she might be united with Nala. As she stood to leave, the priest offered her a garland. She felt a sense of relief and hope. Perhaps this was a divine sign that her prayer would be answered. She went out of the temple accompanied by her nurse and servants, making her way to the gardens. Maybe the celestial swan would return with a message from Nala.
Damayanti’s maidservants informed the king of her condition. “She seems to be pining for someone, but who can it be? So far she has not seen a single man outside of her family.”
“Her swayamvara is approaching,” replied the king. “Perhaps she is just nervous. I am sure she will soon find a suitable match, and her mind will become peaceful. All the best men of the world will be here. Without doubt, one of them will win her heart.”
Within a month kings and princes began arriving from all parts of the globe. They had heard of Damayanti’s exceptional qualities. It was well known how the sage Damana had blessed King Bhima with offspring equal to the celestials. The wide streets of Vidarbha echoed with the clatter of chariot wheels and the roar of elephants, as the royal suitors came in all their finery to seek the hand of the princess. Bhima received them with honor and had them quartered in the mansions he had specially constructed for the occasion.
The sage Narada, who could move freely throughout the universe, had carried news of Damayanti’s swayamvara to the gods. He had described her flawless beauty and many qualifications and the gods then decided to attend the ceremony. The four guardians of the universe, known as the Loka-palas, descended to earth with the intention of seeking Damayanti’s hand in marriage.
As they came towards Vidharbha in their celestial chariots, drawn by various wonderful creatures, they saw Nala approaching the outskirts of the city. Struck by his bodily splendor, which seemed to them no less than that of Cupid, the four gods left their chariots in the sky and alighted near to the Nishadha monarch.
One of them, Indra, said, “Hail Nala, most exalted of kings, you are famous for your virtue and truth and we therefore seek your help. Please become our messenger.”
Seeing the four shining personalities before him, Nala at once bowed down to them. “You four appear like gods. Tell me who you are, and what you wish me to do. You can consider it done. Simply instruct me.”
Indra replied, “Know me to be Indra, king of the gods. This one is Agni, god of fire, by his side is the lord of waters, Varuna, and that one is Yama, death personified, the destroyer of all mortal beings. We have come here for Damayanti. You should inform that princess that we desire her hand and she should therefore choose one of us as her lord.”
Nala knelt before the gods and folded his palms. “O best of gods, I too have come here seeking Damayanti’s hand. I am already stricken with love for that maiden. How then can I represent your eminent selves to her? Please pardon me.”
Indra spoke commandingly. “Nala, you have already promised to fulfil our desire. Why then are you now declining? Are you abandoning truth?”
Nala knew he could not refuse. These four deities were the controllers of the universe. To offend them would be madness, and satisfying them would never prove unfavorable. But how could he reach Damayanti before the day of the swayamvara? She would surely be staying within the highly guarded inner quarters of the palace. No man would be allowed access there. Indra smiled. “Do not entertain this doubt, good king. By our power you will gain access. Go now with all speed.”
The four gods rose upward, leaving the astonished Nala to make his way toward Vidharbha. Reaching King Bhima’s palace, he dismounted from his chariot and walked up to the entrance. Mysteriously the guards stood aside and let him pass. He went through six other well-guarded portals in the same way and came at last to the inner chambers where the ladies lived. As he entered a spacious hallway he saw many beautiful maidens sitting on golden couches spread with silk covers. Seeing the Nishadha king they sprang up from their seats in surprise and gazed at him. They clustered together and began whispering to each other.
“Who is this man? How did he enter here? He resembles a god or a Gandharva. Such beauty and effulgence he possesses!”
Out of shyness the girls all looked away, but Damayanti stepped forward and asked, “Who are you? Your form is splendid like a celestial. Are you a god? How else could you have got past the guards, who are under strict orders to let no one pass?”
Nala stopped dead and gazed at Damayanti. Her radiant beauty rendered him speechless. The prince felt that her bodily splendor rebuked the light of the sun and the moon. His love grew all the more, but desirous of maintaining his truth he suppressed his rising passion. Looking only at her feet, he struggled to find his voice and said, “Know me to be Nala, king of the Nishadhas.”
Damayanti caught her breath. Nala! He was everything she had heard described. But how had he got into her apartments? What was he doing there?
Nala went on, “Respected lady, the four Loka-palas now seek you as their wife. By their mystic power I have been able to come here with their message. Surely your fortune is great, for you have been selected by those exalted persons.”
Damayanti folded her palms and bowed her head in respect to the four principal gods. But she was not interested in marrying any of them. Glancing bashfully at Nala she said, “I am honored that the gods seek my hand, but it is you who has stolen my heart. I cannot choose another as my lord. Having heard of your unique qualifications, and now seeing you for myself, I have come under Cupid’s control. Therefore, accept me without delay. If you forsake me then I shall take recourse to fire, poison or rope.”
Tears pricked Nala’s eyes. If only he could accept Damayanti as his wife there and then, but how could he defy the gods and make his own words false? Taking a deep breath, he said, “Princess, how do you choose me, a mere human, when the best of the gods desire you? I am not even equal to the dust of their feet. Lead your heart toward them. By offending the Gods, men meet with death. Therefore, save me and do yourself good. Select one those great deities as your husband.”
Nala described the glories each of the four gods. If Damayanti chose any of them her welfare and happiness would be secured.
“Gentle lady, who lady would refuse Indra, the invincible king of the gods? Who would decline the greatly powerful Yama, lord of death, from fear of whom all men walk the path of virtue? Agni is the all-pervading fire- god, and Varuna rules over the vast netherworlds.
Nala paused. He wanted only to speak of his love for Damayanti. He glanced up at her face and saw the streaks of tears on her cheeks. Gathering all his strength, he said, “Noble princess, take my advice and accept one of these great lords of the universe as your husband.”
Damayanti’s broke into loud sobs. She shook her head. “Nala, I tell you truly that I desire you. Destiny has surely ordained our union, for I am drawn only to you. I offer all respects to the gods, but I do not want any of them as my husband. I cannot be swayed from this, for my heart is already lost.”
Nala reached out to hold the trembling princess’s hand. “I also desire you, gentle lady, but I fear the gods’ wrath. Having come here as their messenger how can I seek my own interests? I also fear sin. If there is a virtuous way for me to accept you as my wife, then I shall surely do it.”
Damayanti wiped her eyes with the end of her sari and said, “There need not be a problem. My swayamvara is already arranged. Simply ask the celestials to attend the ceremony. You too should come there and I will choose you. What blame will then be yours?”
Nala was not sure. It sounded too easy. What would the gods do if they were passed over for a mere mortal? The last thing anyone wanted was to make an enemy of the Loka-palas.
Seeing him hesitant, Damayanti implored him, “Do not fear, Nala. The gods are always virtuous. They will not oppose my decision, for it is the way of virtue for a royal maiden to select her own husband.
“Very well,” replied Nala. “Be it so. I will surely attend the ceremony. But it will not be easy to thwart the gods’ purpose. Let us see what they do now. I will return to them with your message”. Nala quickly left the chamber the way he had come, noting again how no one saw him pass by. He went back to the gods and bowed before them.
“Most powerful ones, I did as you asked and carried your message to Damayanti,” said Nala. “But the princess has settled her mind on me. She intends to choose me at her swayamvara. Do whatever you feel is necessary. I am your servant.”
“Very well,” said Indra, with a smile. “We shall attend the swayamvara. Let the maiden make her own choice.”
The ceremony was set for the next day and the gods said they would return at that time. They then vanished into the sky, leaving Nala to make his way back toward Vidharbha.
When the sun rose the following morning the royal heralds began blowing conches and bugles, summoning all the kings and princes to the huge stadium where the swayamvara was being held. Passing through the great golden gates they appeared like so many furious lions striding into their caves. Their jewelled earrings swung to and fro, flashing in the bright sunshine as they made their way to their seats. As they crossed the arena they flexed their sinewy arms, which resembled five-headed serpents, and they drew out their large chests, trying to catch Damayanti’s eye.
The princess herself sat on a raised platform next to her father. Seeing that fair-complexioned maiden, with her curling bluish locks and perfectly formed features, the kings were struck by Cupid’s arrows. Their eyes remained fixed on whatever part of her body they saw first. None had ever seen such radiant beauty. As they took their seats they glanced enviously at each other, each hoping that Damayanti would place the nuptial garland on him.
The princess looked around the assembly of monarchs, trying to pick out Nala. Her mind was set on selecting only him and she paid no attention to anyone else. As she looked around she saw on the southern side of the arena a man who appeared to be Nala, but next to him were four other princes with identical features. Looking from one to the other Damayanti was unable to distinguish any difference between them. They all looked exactly like Nala. Damayanti looked around in confusion. The gods must have taken forms similar to Nala. How would she ever be able to pick him out? What if she picked one of the gods, or worse, another prince? She would not be able to continue living.
King Bhima saw that all the kings had taken their seats and he turned toward his daughter. “You may now go forward and survey this assembly of royal suitors, dear princess. Informed of their lineage and qualifications, you may then choose the best of them as your lord.
Flanked by guards and servants, Damayanti rose from her jewelled seat and descended the flight of carpeted steps into the arena. The eyes of every king present followed her every step. By her side walked a servant holding the bright red garland on a golden tray. Not even glancing at the kings, the princess made straight for the southern side of the great amphitheatre. Reaching the five persons who all resembled Nala she began to examine them closely. She looked at the minister by her side but he shook his head slightly, indicating that he did not know their identities.
Damayanti thought carefully. There was only one way she could identify Nala. The gods were fixed in truth and were obliged to answer the prayers of their sincere worshippers. If she prayed to them to reveal themselves then she would be able to recognize Nala amongst them.
Fearful in case she may offend them, the princess bowed her head and, with folded hands, began praying aloud. “On hearing the words of the swan I resolved to accept only Nala as my husband. O gods, please honor my vow. I cannot swerve from Nala in either speech or thought. For the sake of that truth you should point him out to me. My heart and mind are already given to Nala and it is he alone I must accept. Mighty lords of the universe, I beg you to protect my honor. Please reveal yourselves.”
Damayanti saw four of the persons before her begin to smile. One of them said, “Excellent! We are highly pleased by your virtue. See now our true forms.”
The princess then saw the four Loka-palas standing before her, casting no shadows, their bodies not touching the earth and free from any blemish. They were adorned with unfading garlands and they looked at her with unblinking eyes.
In their midst she saw Nala, his face perspiring and his feet firmly on the ground. He stared at her with eyes full of love and she looked down in shyness. Pulling her sari over her head, she turned to her servant and took the garland. She then stepped forward and placed it around Nala’s neck.
Seeing her choose Nala, the other kings threw up their arms and cried out, “Alas! Oh!” But the gods praised her. So too did the many celestial sages who had gathered above the arena. From the sky they exclaimed, “Bravo!” as they witnessed Damayanti’s faithfulness toward Nala. They also praised Nala, who then began to address Damayanti.
“Blessed lady, as you have chosen a man to be your lord, rejecting all the gods, so I shall always remain devoted to you. I will always be ready to obey your commands and will afford you all protection for as long as I live.”
Damayanti also swore her dedication to Nala. Both of them then prayed to the gods for protection. All of the deities showed pleasure upon seeing Nala and Damayanti united and they each offered various boons to Nala. The gods then rose up to the heavens before the astonished eyes of all the kings. They looked in amazement at Nala and Damayanti, accepting their marriage as a divine arrangement. Pleased at having seen the all-powerful Loka-palas, who are hardly ever seen by men, the monarchs went back to their kingdoms.
Bhima then celebrated the wedding of his daughter with Nala, who agreed to remain for some time in Vidharbha. Finally, after a few weeks he received Bhima’s permission to leave and took Damayanti back to his own country, Nishadha.
As the gods were returning from the swayamvara they encountered Dwapara and Kali, the two deities in charge of the third and fourth ages of time. Indra asked them where they were headed and Kali replied, “My heart has been captivated by Damayanti and I am intent on gaining her as my wife. I am therefore going to her swayamvara.”
Indra laughed. “That ceremony is now over, Kali. The princess has selected Nala, virtuous king of the Nishadhas.”
The dark-complexioned Kali snorted. His reddish eyes seemed to blaze as he spoke. “You were there when this happened? How has Nala allowed himself to be selected in the presence of the gods? For this offence he shall have to suffer great miseries. Is this not fitting and right?”
Indra shook his head. “No Kali. It was with our permission that Damayanti chose Nala, even after Nala himself had recommended us. Surely the princess has made a wise choice. That king has all good qualities. He strictly observes vows, has studied all the scriptures, worships the deities, harms no one, and is truthful, forgiving, pure-hearted and free from anger.”
Kali, who presided over the fourth era of time, the dark age of quarrel, did not like to hear Nala glorified. He ground his teeth and looked away.
Indra went on, “Hear this, Kali. One who curses Nala will himself suffer great misery and sink into the vast, unfathomable lake of hell, filled with all torments.”
After saying this Indra continued on his way to heaven, followed by the other gods.
Kali continued to seethe. He said to Dwapara. “I cannot restrain my wrath. Nala must be punished. I shall make him lose his kingdom and wife, and she too will suffer for her crime against the gods. Listen Dwapara, you have to help me. I will compel him to play at dice and you must then ensure that he loses everything.”
Dwapara was unsure. “Did you not hear what Indra said? How can we do this to one such as Nala?”. “Indra was wrong,” said Kali, with a snarl. “He is too forgiving. Nala has offended the gods and must be punished.”
Pressed by Kali Dwapara finally agreed. Kali then made his way to Nishadha. He began to invisibly observe the king, looking for any fault. The vindictive deity knew that he could only possess Nala if the monarch broke some religious regulation. But Nala was extremely attentive to all his duties. Kali watched him as he scrupulously observed his kingly obligations, ruling the people with justice and compassion. Both Nala and Damayanti lived in great happiness. In course of time a son and daughter were born to them and they grew up like a pair of celestials. Nala became famous throughout the world for his goodness. He gave abundant charity to the all the holy men in his kingdom and ensured that everyone stayed on the path of virtue.
Twelve years went by in this way. Kali kept his unseen vigil, always waiting for the slightest slip from Nala. Finally, he got his chance. One day after Nala had urinated, he was about to say his evening prayers. He washed his hands and mouth but neglected to rinse his feet, as was the requirement. Seeing this Kali smiled and immediately entered Nala.
At that time the powerful Kali also entered the mind of Pushkara, Nala’s cousin. Kali knew that Pushkara envied Nala’s position, and especially he wanted Damayanti. The deity inspired him with the idea of playing at dice with Nala, filling him with the hope that he may win from his cousin his entire kingdom and even his wife.
Pushkara then went to Nala and suggested they gamble together for a little entertainment. “We can lay some small stakes, just to make it interesting,” he said, putting his arm around Nala.
At first Nala was reluctant. Gambling was always fraught with misery.
Gamblers lost all good sense and were soon divested of everything they possessed. But Pushkara laughed. “Don’t worry, dear cousin. It’s just a bit of fun.”
Nala looked at Pushkara. He had never been peaceful in Nishadha. After Nala’s marriage to Damayanti, Pushkara had seemed especially disturbed and had gone to the forest, saying that he wished to practice asceticism. But after a short while he returned to the capital. Nala had given him everything he needed, a fine mansion, servants and large amounts of wealth. Still he seemed unhappy. Feeling sorry for him, and thinking that the dice game would offer an opportunity to spend some time with his troubled cousin, Nala finally agreed to play.
As the two cousins sat down to play, Dwapara entered the dice. By the power of that deity Pushkara began to win every throw. Although Nala was steadily losing, under Kali’s influence he kept increasing the stakes. By the end of the day he had lost a huge amount of gold and gems. Nevertheless, he arranged with his cousin to resume the game the following day.
In the evening his ministers came to him. They were anxious and they pleaded with Nala to stop. “Sir, you are losing everything. Cease now before it is too late. Do not let Pushkara take over the whole kingdom.”
But Nala said nothing. With Kali possessing his mind he could not be swayed by any argument. The ministers went away with downcast faces.
The next day passed in the same way as the others, with Nala losing continuously. No one could make him stop. Day after day the game went on, with Nala gripped by a gambling fever that impelled him to carry on staking everything he owned.
News of the game went round the city and, after it had been going on for a full month, a party of citizens came to the palace. They approached Damayanti with tears in their eyes and implored her to stop her husband playing.
Distressed and tearful, Damayanti went to Nala and said, “My lord, your ministers and all the citizens are filled with grief to see you losing everything. You know well the codes of religion. How then are you engaging in such play?”
Seated on his throne, Nala looked down at his queen but said not a word in reply. He appeared distracted and he breathed heavily. Suddenly getting up, he walked quickly out of the chamber, his many servants running along behind him with their fans, whisks and other royal paraphernalia.
Damayanti turned to the ministers and wept. Consoling her, they said, “Surely the king is not himself. He appears like a dead man. What can we do?”
When the game had carried on for almost three months, and Nala had lost almost his entire kingdom and wealth, the grief-stricken Damayanti thought carefully about the situation. It seemed that Pushkara would soon become the king of Nishadha. But he would not be as kindly disposed to Nala as the king had been to him. Damayanti had seen Pushkara’s envy of her husband, as well as the lustful glances he had cast upon her.
The queen decided to call for the royal charioteer, Varshneya. When he entered her room she said to him, “Good sir, you have always been well- treated by the king. He now needs your help. Surely he is in the grip of some demonic force. Heedless of any advice he seems bent on losing his all. I do not blame him for this, but I fear the consequences of Pushkara winning the kingdom. Quickly take my children on your chariot to my father’s city, Kundina. It will not be safe for them here if Pushkara is king. After taking them you may go wherever you please.”
Varshneya bowed to the queen and left her room. Going to the chief ministers he told them what she had said. They confirmed her instruction to him and, after they had brought the prince and princess out of the palace, he left at once for Kundina. When he had safely delivered the children into King Bhima’s care, he went out of that kingdom with a sorrowful heart. After wandering for some time he finally arrived at the city of Ayodhya, where he entered the service of King Rituparna as his charioteer.
Back in Nishadha, Nala had lost everything. Pushkara stood up from the gaming table and walked around the room. A slight smile played around the corners of his mouth. “Well, dear cousin, it seems you have nothing left to stake. Except, that is, for Damayanti. If you think it right, why not stake her and try to win back your wealth?”
Pushkara spoke sneeringly. Having gained the upper hand over his cousin he made no effort to conceal his actual feelings. Seeing Nala’s dejected expression he laughed. “Go ahead, mighty king. Stake Damayanti. Otherwise leave this kingdom and find some other place to live. Everything here is now mine.”
Nala clenched his fists in silent fury. His previous kindness to Pushkara had obviously been like feeding milk to a snake, achieving nothing more than increasing his poison. Slowly Nala removed his gold ornaments and jewels, which had all been lost. Even his royal robes were lost and he also removed them and placed them on the floor alongside his ornaments. But his love for Damayanti restrained him from placing her as a stake in the game. Attired in only a single piece of cloth he walked out of the palace, with his queen close behind. She too was dressed in only a single cloth, and the citizens cried out in despair when they saw their beloved king and queen in that condition.
Pushkara issued orders that anyone showing hospitality to Nala would receive severe punishment. Out of fear of their new ruler the people only watched as Nala slowly made his way out of the city, followed by Damayanti.
As evening fell they reached the woods surrounding the city, and they spent the night there by the side of a lake, sleeping on the bare earth. The next day they made their way into the woods, searching for fruits and roots to eat.
Some days passed with the couple living sparsely on whatever they could glean from the forest. Nala was stunned by the turn of events. With Kali still bewildering his mind, he could not decide what to do. As he sat one morning pondering his situation he saw a couple of large birds near him whose plumage shone like gold. Nala moved carefully toward them.
He was afflicted with hunger and, although he would normally abstain from flesh, he thought of killing and eating the birds. They would make a good meal and their feathers would surely have some value. Nala quickly removed his cloth and threw it over the birds, but they rose up from the ground taking the cloth with them.
Looking down at the naked king, one of the birds called down to him, “Nala, know us to be the dice. We were not happy to see you leave with a garment. After taking all your wealth we came here desiring to take the last of your possessions, this cloth.”
Nala sat down on the ground shaking his head in despair. Turning to Damayanti by his side, he said, “Just see how those cruel and wretched dice, which wrathfully deprived me of my kingdom, have now taken even my garment. I, your husband, have met with a great calamity and am no longer able to maintain you as I should. I am overcome by sorrow and unable to think straight. Listen to my words now, meant for your good.”
Damayanti knew what he was going to say. She moved closer to him, tears springing to her eyes. The thought of separation from her husband was unbearable.
Nala reached out and held her hand. “Most beautiful lady, you should not have to suffer like this. I cannot bear to see it any longer. Just over there lies the road to Kundina, your father’s kingdom. Go there and wait there until I am able to recover my wealth.”
Damayanti cried out. “This can never be! Even thinking about leaving you makes my heart tremble and my limbs seem to dissolve like sand in water. How can I leave you alone in the forest without even a cloth to cover your body? I will remain with you to give you solace. Surely thinking of your former wealth and position will cause you great grief. In all miseries there is no better medicine than the wife. This is the opinion of all physicians.”
Nala looked into his wife’s eyes. “What you say is surely true, beautiful one. There is no friend equal to the wife. I know this well. Why then are you fearful? I have no intention of forsaking you. Indeed, I could part with my own self before you. This will be only a temporary arrangement until I can restore my fortunes.”
Constantly shedding tears, Damayanti spoke imploringly. “Great monarch, if you do not wish to desert me then accompany me to Kundina. There my father will surely receive you with all respect and take care of us both. Let us live there in happiness together.”
Nala stood up shaking his head. “No doubt your father’s kingdom is the same as my own, but I cannot go there in my present condition. Formerly I would travel there in state, surrounded by troops and servants, bringing great wealth to give in charity. How can I go there like this and thereby give only grief to all my friends and relatives?”
Damayanti would not be convinced. She had no intention of leaving Nala under any circumstances. Finally, Nala desisted from trying to make her leave. He consoled and reassured her gently, and together they made their way along the forest paths.
Late that evening they reached the outskirts of a small village.
Exhausted and hungry, they sat on the ground near to an inn. It was dark and they decided to wait till morning and then enter the village. Perhaps someone would show them hospitality and give them something to eat. Nala prepared a makeshift bed for his wife from leaves and grass. She lay down and within minutes had fallen asleep.
However, Nala could not sleep. Fretting and sorrowful, he sat by his wife’s side wondering what he should do. He dearly wanted to remain with Damayanti, but feared she would only suffer all the more.
Clearly he was under the influence of bad fortune. What good could he do her now? He had become a wretched and hopeless man. Perhaps it would be better to take his own life. She would never leave him while he remained alive. But scripture always condemned suicide. No good could come from that. Perhaps the best thing would be to leave her now, while she slept. She could then follow the road to her father’s kingdom, while he waited till his misfortune had passed, as in time it surely would.
With his mind utterly confused by sorrow, and still under Kali’s malign influence, Nala finally decided to abandon Damayanti where she lay. He looked down at her face, soiled and tear-streaked, but peaceful now in sleep.
He prayed for her safety. Surely also her unflinching chastity would protect her from danger. No man would be able to approach her. Nala stood up to leave. Still naked, he looked down at Damayanti’s sari. Before he left he needed to take a piece of it to cover his loins. Looking around, he saw a sword leaning against the inn wall. He quickly took it up and cut off the end of his wife’s sari. Tying it around his waist he slipped away into the night. But he could not stop thinking of Damayanti. His heart was torn and after he had covered less than half a mile he turned back.
Finding his queen still sleeping he knelt by her side and wept. How could he leave her in this way? He began quietly lamenting. “My dearly loved wife, who deserves the best of palatial abodes, now lies on the cold earth. What will she do when she awakes to find herself alone and covered in only half her dress? How will she roam without me? What perils will she have to face?”
Nala again prayed for her safety. “Gentle princess, may the gods protect you. May the Supreme Lord, Vishnu, watch over you. May your own shining virtue also guard you from every danger.”
Nala walked slowly away from his wife, repeatedly looking back as he went toward the woods. But after he had gone a short distance he again returned. He felt as if he were bound to Damayanti by a strong cord. Again and again he went away and then returned, like a rocking cradle. Blinded by tears and feeling as if his heart would break, he finally managed to leave her and keep walking. His mind was stupefied by grief. With his intelligence bewildered by Kali, he could not exercise his reason. He wailed loudly and repeatedly called out his wife’s name. As dawn approached he found himself in the dense forest, wandering like a crazy man with no sense of direction.
Not long after Nala had left, the sun rose and Damayanti awoke. She sat up and looked around. Not seeing Nala she stood up suddenly and called out, “Nala! My master, my lord, mighty sovereign! Where are you? Please show yourself to your most devoted servant.”
She looked toward the inn. Perhaps Nala had gone in there. Or maybe he was in the village, seeking assistance. But how could he have just left her lying alone on the ground? Having sworn before the gods that he would always stay with her, how could he have abandoned her now? It was not possible. He must surely be somewhere close by.
But as she looked all around the area where she stood Damayanti began to realize that her husband had gone. She noticed that her dress had been cut and saw his footprints in the earth leading into the woods. Feeling certain that he had left her, she dropped to the ground in a swoon. After some moments she came back to consciousness and began to cry out.
“Nala! Best of men! Where did you go? It is only because mortals do not die until their appointed time that your beloved wife still lives. Great hero, come out and show yourself. Enough of this joke! I am frightened and confused.”
Running toward the woods, the queen imagined that she saw Nala. He seemed to be standing behind every tree she saw. Her anguished voice rang out in the still forest. “You are found! You are found! Nala! Come out now. Why do remain in hiding? Please come here and console me.”
Damayanti ran from tree to tree but there was no sign of her husband anywhere. She called out to him and listened for his voice, but only the sounds of birds could be heard in reply. There were no other signs of life. Everything seemed vacant. Damayanti sank to the ground and wept for some time, grieving in pitiable tones.
The queen got up and began running about here and there. Sometimes she would fall to the ground, and at other times she would suddenly stand up. She hid herself behind trees and buried her head in her hands. Crying and wailing, and considering that Nala’s suffering must be the result of some curse, she spoke out in anger.
“May that sinful wretch who has cursed the pious Nala suffer a far greater grief. May he be forced to live a miserable life, enduring every kind of pain.”
She ran into the forest, trying to follow her husband’s tracks. But she could not discern which way he had gone and soon she was completely lost in the dense woods. Running zigzag along the forest paths, she appeared like an insane person, as she cried out to Nala. Roots and creepers lay across the paths and Damayanti repeatedly fell to the ground as she ran. Suddenly, as she rolled on the path after falling over a large tree bough, a huge serpent seized her.
Pressed within the grip of that snake, King Bhima’s gentle daughter called out to her husband for help. “Nala, my protector! Why do you not save me? This terrible creature is swallowing me. Why have you left me alone in this desolate wilderness? Oh save me, save me!” Damayanti closed her eyes in terror as the serpent prepared to devour her. She thought only of Nala. Surely he had not been himself when he left her. It could only be the effect of some curse or the influence of the gods that had made him act so out of character. Maybe the gods had been angered when she passed them over. Perhaps they had bewildered Nala’s mind. But now as a result his dear wife was about to die. When he was finally freed from the curse and restored to his senses, how would he feel? How would he continue living without her, and blaming himself for her death?
As she thought in this way, a hunter suddenly appeared. Seeing her plight, he ran over and quickly killed the serpent with a sword. He raised Damayanti from the ground and consoled her. “Most beautiful maiden, how have you come to be alone in this wilderness?” he asked. “Who and whose are you? Dear lady with the eyes of a gazelle, I am highly surprised to find you here.”
Damayanti explained everything to the hunter. As she spoke in a soft and pleasing voice, he looked at her closely. Her scantily covered body resembled that of a goddess. As he gazed at her the hunter was struck by desire. Her shapely limbs were perfectly formed and her complexion was as white as the moon. She looked at the hunter with her large eyes covered by long dark lashes and his mind was captivated. He began to address her in smooth words, speaking comfortingly, but Damayanti soon understood his purposes.
The Nishadha queen pulled away from the hunter and spoke reprovingly. “Hear me now, huntsman. I am not to be won by you or anyone else. Indeed, I am the wedded wife of another. Do not harbor such sinful thoughts or you will surely be destroyed.”
But the hunter was overpowered by passion. He lunged forward and seized hold of her. Damayanti became infuriated. She broke free and ran to a distance from the hunter. Seeing that he was still pursuing her, and that he was beyond the point of being checked by words, she cursed him.
“If even in my mind I have never thought of anyone but the Nishadha king, then let this wretched one, who lives by killing animals, fall dead.”
Damayanti seemed to blaze forth in anger as she spoke. No sooner had she uttered her curse than the hunter was consumed by fire. Within moments his charred and lifeless body fell to the ground.
Shocked and utterly lost, Damayanti stumbled on, not knowing which way to go, her mind thinking only of Nala.
After leaving Damayanti, Nala went deeply into the forest. His heart felt as if it might break at any moment. Blinded by tears he crashed through the thick bushes. Birds rose up from the trees with loud cries, and small forest creatures fled away in fear as he passed. Tigers roared, some of them looking warily at the king as he rushed through the woods, but Nala was oblivious to everything. Immediately regretful that he had left his queen, he somehow forced himself to carry on, telling himself that she would only suffer more if he stayed with her.
After he had gone some distance into the jungle he heard shouts ahead of him. As he made his way toward that sound he also heard the crackle of a fire. Bursting through the bushes he suddenly came upon a large snake lying amid the blaze. It called out to him, “Come quickly! Save me!”
Nala stopped in surprise. What was this? A snake that could speak?
Realizing that it must be a celestial creature of some sort, Nala ran into the fire and dragged it clear. As he did so it assumed a semi-human form, with the head and torso of a man.
Folding his palms, the snake thanked Nala and said, “Surely you are King Nala. The great sage Narada informed me you would come here. I am Karko-taka, a leader of the celestial serpent race of Nagas.”
Nala stared at the unusual creature. He had heard of the Nagas, powerful beings that dwelt far beneath the earth, but this was the first he had seen. He listened as Karko-taka continued.
“Once I foolishly deceived the sage Narada and he cursed me to lie in this desolate forest, without the power of movement, and scorched by unending flames. I begged for lenience, and he said the curse would end when a certain King Nala carried me out of the forest. It seems that time has come.”
Nala was curious. How had Narada known he would come here?
Somehow everything that was happening to him must be under the gods’ control. But what did they want of him?
The Naga went on, “Noble sir, I can do you much good. Please take me away from this place for I still cannot move. I shall make myself small and easy to carry.”
Nala watched in wonder as Karkotaka reduced himself to a size no larger than his hand. He then picked him up and ran into the forest, away from the fire. After travelling for some time with the Naga, he finally left the forest and came to the outskirts of a city.
“Where shall I take you now, mighty snake?” Nala asked.
Karkotaka said, “Here is Ayodhya. You may leave me here. I now desire to help you. Place me on the ground and walk away, counting your steps aloud as you go.
Nala did as he was asked and as he reached his tenth step Karkotaka suddenly bit him on the leg. Nala pulled away in pain. “What help is this?” he exclaimed. “Why did you bite me?”
The Naga then assumed his original celestial form, dressed in flowing robes and brilliant ornaments. Nala also felt his own form change at the same time. He ran his hands over his face in astonishment. It seemed to have become strangely disfigured.
Karkotaka said, “I have made you unrecognizable. This will be for your good until your misfortune has passed. My powerful venom will also suppress the influence of the person who now dwells within you and who has needlessly caused your distress.”
Nala looked at his arms and legs. They had mysteriously shortened and his hands had become club-like, with stubby fingers. He looked up at Karkotaka. What did he mean when he said that someone was living within him?
Who was it, and why was he causing him so much trouble?”
Karkotaka continued, “All will be revealed in due course. As long as this one stays inside of you he will have to live miserably, suffering from my poison. But you will not yourself feel any discomfort. Furthermore, you need have no fear from any serpent, nor indeed from your enemies.”
Karkotaka then told Nala to go into Ayodhya and approach its king, Rituparna. “Introduce yourself as Bahuka, a charioteer. Befriend the king and in time he will teach you his incomparable skill at dice in exchange for your knowledge of horses. This will surely prove useful to you in future.”
The Naga handed Nala two garments. “When you wish to regain your own form you need only put on these clothes and take ten steps, thinking again of me. On the tenth step you will be restored to your original handsome body, dressed in the finest robes.”
Nala took the two pieces of cloth. Karkotaka then vanished from the spot. Looking around in amazement, Nala began walking into Ayodhya. He made his way to the king’s palace and told the guards that he wished to see the king.
“Tell him that I am Bahuka, a skilled manager of horses, without an equal on earth. If it pleases him, I shall become his charioteer and horse keeper. I can also cook excellent dishes and will perform that service as well.”
Upon receiving this message Rituparna ordered that Bahuka be brought before him. He went with him to his stables and saw for himself how his horses were expertly controlled by Nala. By handclaps and softly spoken commands he made the animals obey his every order.
Impressed, Rituparna said, “I appoint you the superintendent of my stables on a salary of ten thousand coins a month.”
Nala thanked the king with a bow, folding his hands and saying, “Your animals will be well cared for by me.”
Rituparna said, “There is one other thing, Bahuka, I greatly enjoy travelling at high speeds in my chariot. Train my horses in such a way that they will become very fast.”
Nala bowed. “It shall be as you desire, good king.”
Nala then began to live in the palace as the head of the stables. He thought continuously of Damayanti and composed a verse of poetry about her which he would recite each evening before he rested. One night one of his assistants, Jivala, heard him softly singing,
“Where now lives that gentle lady, plunged in pain and misery?
Wracked by hunger, tired and thirsty, does she still think of he,
the fool who abandoned her heartlessly? Who now protects that frail one,
so cruelly left alone?”
Jivala was curious. “Who is this of whom you sing, Bahuka? Every day you lament for this mysterious lady.”
Nala sighed. “There was a wretch who lost his senses and gave way to gambling, losing his all. That foolish man had a famous and beautiful wife but he left her. Separated from his beloved partner he roamed about like a madman, burning with grief and unable to sleep by day or by night. Thinking of her, alone and unprotected in the dangerous jungle where she was abandoned, he sings this verse each night.”
Nala lay down on his bed. Repeating the verse again and again, he gradually fell asleep, leaving the mystified Jivala sitting by his side.
After escaping from the hunter, Damayanti entered deeper into the woods. The forest abounded in numerous kinds of wild beasts. Lions, tigers, bears, buffalo, deer and many other animals cried out in that dense jungle, filling her with fear as she struggled on, looking for her husband. She saw lakes covered in lilies and lotuses, streams, rivers and waterfalls cascading down mountainsides. Countless varieties of colourful birds flew in and out of the tall trees as she went further and further into the forest.
She repeatedly called out for Nala; her voice, like the piteous cry of a female osprey, mixed with the shrieks of the forest creatures. Not knowing which way to head, she went blindly forward, sometimes finding tracks and paths, and at other times moving with difficulty through the thick undergrowth.
Distracted by grief, Damayanti became fearless as she pressed ahead into the jungle. She saw a tiger moving through the bushes and she called out to it, “King of beasts, know me to be Damayanti, princess of Vidharbha and the wife of the Nishadha king. Tell me if you have seen that monarch in these woods. If you have no news of my husband, then devour me at once. I have no further use for life.”
The tiger was thirsty and heading toward a stream. It only glanced at the queen as it moved past her. She kept going and soon saw a mountain rising ahead of her in the distance, its bluish peaks shrouded in wispy clouds. She called out to it, again asking if it had seen Nala.
In her sorrow, Damayanti asked trees, birds, deer, lakes and rivers if any of them had seen her husband. Hearing in reply only the forest sounds she became even more sorrowful. She kept moving and suddenly found herself on a broad and smooth path. It seemed to be laid with stone and led into a beautiful clearing. As she entered the clearing she saw a large number of thatched dwellings along the bank of a gently flowing river. Flowers of every season and all colors bloomed there. The ground was covered by soft grass. Tall trees, heavy with golden produce, surrounded the whole region.
Damayanti looked around in amazement. It seemed she had been transported to the gardens of heaven. All around that celestial region she saw many hermits. Some were seated in meditation, some stood on one leg, some had their arms raised above their heads, while others sat making offerings into sacrificial fires. The air was filled with the melodic sound of chanting as the forest sages worshipped Vishnu and the gods.
Seeing Damayanti, some of the sages came forward to greet her. One of them introduced himself as Bhrigu and said, “You are welcome here. Please be seated and tell us what we may do for you.”
Throwing back her long black tresses and trying to cover her head with her torn cloth, Damayanti introduced herself and politely enquired, “Is everything well with you sinless men? Are your religious practices bearing fruit? Does righteousness always attend you, and are you coming closer to God.”
Bhrigu replied, “Gentle lady, by the Lord’s grace we flourish in every respect. But who are you? We are astonished to see your shining beauty. Are you the goddess of this forest, or perhaps the goddess of the mountain?”
Damayanti introduced herself. “Know me to be the daughter of King Bhima and the wife of King Nala. My virtuous husband, ever attentive to his duty, was challenged to play at dice by his envious and wicked cousin. He has lost everything and now wanders alone somewhere in these woods. I fervently seek him with a sorrowful heart. O wise ones, please tell me if you have seen that hero pass this way? If I do not soon find him then I shall surely give up this body.”
The sage spoke consolingly. He assured Damayanti that she would eventually find her husband and again become happy. “This I can see with my inner vision. You will see your royal husband freed from all pain, decorated with gems, again ruling his country, the terror of his enemies, the destroyer of his friends’ grief, and crowned with blessings.”
As the sage finished speaking he and all the others suddenly vanished, along with their dwellings, fires and everything else. Even the trees and the river disappeared. Damayanti’s eyes opened wide and she ran around the site looking for signs of the sages. Finding none, she sat down in amazement and began wondering at what she had seen. Was it all a dream? Where had the hermits gone? Where was the river, and where were the fruit trees and the pleasant landscape? Had it all been a hallucination or wishful thinking on her part?
Damayanti sank to the earth and wept. It was hopeless. She had no idea where she was and now it seemed she was losing her mind. After some time, she slowly stood up and carried on walking. It was late in the afternoon and she was fatigued, hungry and thirsty. Just before sunset she came upon a river. She saw there a large caravan of traders who were preparing to camp for the night. The princess apprehensively approached the traders. She was soiled and still covered in only half her dress. Her hair was disheveled and she appeared pale and emaciated.
Seeing her suddenly emerge from the forest, some of the traders were afraid and they fled. They feared she might be a Rakshasi, a female demon or some other kind of evil spirit. Others laughed at her and some made threatening gestures at her to scare her away.
However, some traders showed her kindness and asked, “Tell us, good lady, who and whose are you? Why are you in this deep and dangerous forest? Are you human? Your strange appearance is frightening. We think you must be a forest spirit. Perhaps you are the goddess of this region. Please accompany us and protect us from any danger.”
Damayanti replied, “Greetings to you, good traders. I am a human being, the daughter of a king and wife of a king. I seek my husband, the ruler of the Nishadhas, King Nala. Pray tell me if you have seen him in your travels?”
The caravan leader stepped forward and said, “Noble lady, I am the guide of this party. I have not seen any man called Nala. In this uninhabited wilderness we have seen only wild beasts. You are the first human we have seen for days.”
Damayanti asked where they were headed and the merchant replied that they were going to the Chedi province to sell their goods. He invited her to travel with them and gave her food and a place to sleep in one of his tents.
For some days the caravan went along the riverbank, then it entered the forest. After going deeply into the woods they stopped to rest for the night near to a rivulet. When they were all asleep a herd of wild elephants came to the stream to drink. Seeing the domesticated elephants belonging to the traders, those wild beasts became infuriated. Hundreds of them began charging toward the caravan, intending to kill their elephants.
The traders, suddenly awoken by the screaming elephants, got up and rushed about in a panic. The great beasts killed many of them as they trampled their camp. Horses, camels and men were slain as the elephants charged. Damayanti woke up and saw that scene of carnage and confusion. She dashed toward the trees for shelter and stood there shaking.
The caravan was wrecked and after the elephants had gone the surviving traders came together to discuss what to do. Surveying the damage, they said, “It seems we have somehow incurred the wrath of some deity. Have we not properly worshiped Manibhava, the god of travel, or Kuvera, the lord of wealth? Or could it be that some other deity has become displeased with us? We are ill-starred and stricken by calamity.”
Other traders suggested that Damayanti had caused their misfortune. “This mad looking woman must surely be a Rakshashi, or a dreadful witch. From her has come all this evil. Where is she now? If she comes back we must kill her at once. She is a cruel slayer of merchants.”
Damayanti was still behind the trees and she overheard the merchants speaking. Fearful for her life she at once ran into the forest. When she had gone some distance away from the caravan, she sat gasping beneath a tree and began to censure herself. “Oh what a sinful person I must have been in some previous life. Now I am suffering the certain results. Even my presence brings disaster to others. First my husband, then the traders have had to endure great miseries as a result of me. I think I have offended the gods by not selecting them at my swayamvara. Just see how they are visiting me with all kinds of misfortune.”
Bewailing her fate, Damayanti moved on through the woods. The caravan had almost reached Chedi when the elephants had attacked it, and by evening the princess found herself on its outskirts. She made her way into the city, a sorry sight in her torn cloth, smeared with dust and mud, and appearing weak and helpless. A group of young boys followed her, laughing and mocking, thinking her to be a crazy woman.
Confused and trembling, she went along the road toward the king’s palace. As she approached the palace the queen mother, Bindumati, was standing on her balcony. Hearing the commotion of the crowd that had gathered around Damayanti, she looked down and saw the Vidharbha princess. She could see that Damayanti, although soiled and disheveled, was obviously from a royal line. Her noble features, beauty and graceful form still made her stand out despite her sorry state. She sent a servant out to fetch Damayanti into the palace.
The servant went outside and, dispersing the crowd, brought Damayanti into the royal chambers. Bindumati looked at her in amazement. “Tell me, delicate one, how have you been reduced to such a condition?” she asked. “Your beauty illuminates my room like the rising sun. Surely you are a celestial. Who are you and to whom do you belong? How were you able to tolerate so much antagonism?”
Damayanti told the queen only that she was a woman who had been separated from her husband. Too pained by grief, she felt unable to fully explain everything about herself. She finally said, “Without my lord I care not for anything. I only maintain my life in the hope that I will again see him, who resembles a god and who has fallen upon evil times.”
Looking compassionately at the weeping Damayanti, Bindumati said, “Blessed lady, stay here with me. I shall send men to search the forest for your husband. Perhaps he will even arrive here himself in the course of his wandering. Live here for now and I am sure you will soon get him back.”
Damayanti wiped her eyes with the handkerchief the servant gave her. She thanked Bindumati and said she would stay there, but only under certain conditions. “Please, good queen, I must never be asked to speak with other men. If anyone tries to win me as his wife then he must be punished at once, even with death if he will not desist. Otherwise I shall die.” Bindumati agreed. She then summoned her daughter, Sunanda, and said to her, “See that this royal lady is given an excellent room and maidservants to take care of her. Become her companion and ensure that she has whatever she wants.”
Sunanda led Damayanti away and she began to live in the palace, thinking always of Nala and praying that he would soon reappear. News of Nala’s misfortune had reached King Bhima. When he heard that both Nala and Damayanti had left their kingdom with only the clothes they were wearing, he beat his chest and cried out in sorrow. Calling for a number of learned priests, he said to them, “I will give great wealth to any man who discovers the whereabouts of Nala and Damayanti and fetches them here. Even if you return with only the news of their present location I will reward you handsomely.”
The priests began travelling in all directions to search for the Nishadha king and his wife. Eventually one of them, named Sudeva, came to the Chedi capital. Entering the temple in the king’s palace he saw Damayanti seated next to Sunanda, dressed as a servant. When he saw her startling beauty, and noticed that she was pale and weak, presumably from grieving, he guessed at her identity.
Sudeva looked at Damayanti closely, reasoning carefully within himself.
Surely she was Nala’s wife. She resembled the Goddess of Fortune and seemed to dispel the darkness in all directions. But she was obviously in distress. Separated from her husband, she appeared like a lotus wrenched from a lake and smeared with mud. Grief must have emaciated her, like a river dried up by the summer sun. Although appearing as a servant-maid, without gems and ornaments, she was nevertheless clearly worthy of occupying the finest jeweled palaces.
Seeing Damayanti’s grace and poise, and her noble bearing, Sudeva became convinced she was Bhima’s daughter. He felt pained to see her woeful condition. Deciding to console her with news of her father, he waited for an opportunity, then approached her and said, “Gentle lady, I believe you to be the beloved daughter of King Bhima. I am Sudeva, sent out to search for you.”
Damayanti recognized Sudeva and at once began to cry as she remembered all her relatives in Vidharbha. “Sudeva, gentle brahmin. I am so glad to see you. How are my father and my dear children?”
“Your father is well, as are all your other relatives. All of them, especially your son and daughter, are longing to see you. Hundreds of brahmins are wandering the world in quest of you.”
Damayanti asked him in detail about each of them and lamented bitterly. As she spoke in private with the priest she was seen by Sunanda, who was saddened to see her friend so upset. She went to her mother and informed her of the brahmin’s appearance. Bindumati then called for him and began to question him.
“Learned man, this lady came to me a while ago, suffering grief due to separation from her husband. It seems you know her. Tell me all about her. How has she fallen upon such sorrow?”
Damayanti had still not told Bindumati the truth about herself, and the queen mother listened as Sudeva explained everything in detail.
Hearing that the mysterious arrival at her palace was Bhima’s daughter, Bindumati turned to her and exclaimed, “Why did you not tell me this before? You are my niece. My father, King Sudaman, gave your mother to Bhima while I was given to Virabahu, the king of this province. Most beautiful lady, you are not fit to be a servant. This palace should be to you the same as your father’s.”
Damayanti bowed at her aunt’s feet. “I have lived here happily, even though you did not know my identity. I too was unaware that you are my aunt. Forgive me, for I have been distracted by grief. I must now go to my father’s house. My two children are hard pressed with sorrow on account of my absence and I should not neglect them any longer.”
Bindumati immediately ordered that a chariot be prepared to transport both Damayanti and Sudeva home. Guarded by a force of soldiers they left that same day and soon arrived at Vidharbha. Bhima was overjoyed to see her and he rewarded Sudeva with great wealth, as he had promised. After bowing before her father and mother, Damayanti tearfully embraced her children.
Seeing that everyone was well, she felt a little pacified, but her heart still burned in separation from Nala. The day after her arrival she spoke with her mother.
“Dear mother, if you desire me to live then you must find that hero among men, Nala. I cannot survive without him for much longer.”
Damayanti fell to the floor and wept. Her mother was also choked with grief and could make no reply. She too dropped down onto the fine silk rug where her sobbing daughter lay. Embracing Damayanti, she wept along with her.
All the many servants present wailed in sorrow to see the state of the queen and her daughter. Some of them ran to fetch the king and he quickly came to the inner chambers.
Regaining her composure, the queen said to Bhima, “See here the condition of our beloved daughter. We have to find her husband. Send out even more brahmins to look for him.”
Bhima gently consoled his wife and daughter and said that he would do everything in his power to track down Nala. He then called for the brahmins and said, “Go to every quarter of every country and ask everyone you see if they have seen Nala,” said the king. “Let me know anything you discover that may lead us to him.”
The Brahmins, before departing, went to Damayanti to ask if she had any message for her husband that would help them identify him. They realized that he must be living incognito, and might even be in disguise. No doubt he was feeling shame for having lost his kingdom and abandoning his wife. He would not want anyone to recognize him.
Damayanti said to the Brahmins, “Wherever you go, amid assemblies of men, you should say the following: ‘Beloved one, who gambled everything away, where are you now? Why did you forsake your dear wife, tearing off half her cloth and leaving her in the dangerous wilderness? Surely the wife is always to be maintained and protected by the husband. You are righteous and honest. How then have you abandoned your chaste and faithful spouse? Still obedient to your command that grief stricken lady desperately longs for your return. You should show her kindness now, for she has learned from you that kindness is the chief of all virtues. Somehow she still lives, blaming her own bad fortune for this terrible turn of events.’”
Becoming hopeful that the Brahmins might find Nala, Damayanti went on eagerly, “If anyone should answer this message then find out everything about that person. Come back quickly and tell me all you have learned. I shall then know if he is Nala or not. Do not tell him that you have spoken with me, or that you are returning to me, for I fear that he will further conceal himself out of shame.”
The brahmins committed her message to memory and then left Vidharbha, heading for all parts of the world. They searched everywhere for Nala, in cities, towns, villages, hermitages, and all other inhabited regions.
After many months a brahmin named Parnada returned to Vidharbha with what he felt was news of Nala. He went to Damayanti and said, “In the course of my travels I reached Ayodhya, that ancient and sacred city. There I was admitted to King Rituparna’s court, where I repeated your words before the king. Neither he nor any of his ministers or courtiers said anything in reply, regarding me with mystified expressions. However, when I left the court the king’s horse-keeper and cook, Bahuka, who had heard of my message, approached me. His appearance was extraordinary, a short thick body with a broad chest and powerful arms, and an unusually deformed face. He came before me with tears in his eyes, sighing repeatedly and clearly possessed by grief. After asking after my welfare, he addressed me with the following words.
“‘Although fallen into great calamities, chaste women still protect themselves by their own virtue. In this way they attain heaven in the end. Even if forsaken by their husbands they never become angry with them. She should therefore not be angry with that fool who abandoned her, who himself was overtaken by distress and not in his proper state of mind. That ever- youthful lady should forgive him, whose cloth was taken by birds. She should not be angry with him, especially as he is now deprived of his kingdom and burning with woe.’”
Parnada concluded, “As soon as I heard this I left Ayodhya and made my way back here with all speed. You should inform the king of all this.”
Tears flooded Damayanti’s eyes. Surely this Bahuka was Nala. But it did not sound like his description. Somehow his appearance must have been changed. Who else could have had the information he gave Parnada?
Perhaps, though, Bahuka had heard those things from Nala. The only way to know for sure would be to bring him to Vidharbha. But it would have to be done carefully. It seemed that Nala was now fearful she might reject him. He would be unwilling to come to her while still suffering misfortune, especially if he did not even look like his former self. It would require some ploy to bring him to Vidharbha.
Damayanti thanked Parnada profusely and gave him much wealth. She then went to see her mother in private.
In an excited voice Damayanti said, “I think I have learned of Nala’s whereabouts. I think we should not yet inform my father, as any open approach to Nala may well scare him away. He has already made it clear that he does not desire to come here while divested of his fortune. That pious man does not wish to give distress to his friends and relatives.”
Damayanti suggested that they once again employ Sudeva, who had successfully found her. Her mother agreed and he was summoned to the inner chambers. Damayanti spoke imploringly. “Sudeva, it seems my husband has been seen in Ayodhya. Please go there at once and announce to the king that Damayanti is holding a second swayamvara to select another husband.”
It was well known that Nala had abandoned Damayanti. He had been gone for some years. Although it was almost unthinkable for a chaste woman like Damayanti to remarry, it was not unprecedented. She knew that Rituparna would come to Vidharbha if he heard she was seeking another husband.
Damayanti continued, “When you reach Ayodhya inform the monarch that my swayamvara will be held the next day. Believing Nala to be dead, I will choose another husband.”
Damayanti knew the journey from Ayodhya to Vidharbha could not be completed in one day by any ordinary charioteer. Only Nala had the ability to manage horses in such a way. If he brought Rituparna in time it would be further confirmation of his identity.
Sudeva left at once and made his way to Ayodhya. He approached the king early in the morning and delivered Damayanti’s message. Remembering Damayanti’s incomparable beauty, which he had seen on the occasion of her first swayamvara, Rituparna felt moved by desire. He was surprised to hear that she wanted to remarry, but could not resist the opportunity to again try for her hand. The king recalled how even the gods had attended her last ceremony. She was an exceptional woman.
Rituparna spoke with his charioteer. “Bahuka, I have heard that the divinely beautiful Damayanti desires to remarry. She is to select another husband tomorrow at noon. Can you reach there in time?”
Nala was dumbstruck. He stared at the king in disbelief, trying hard to conceal his feelings. His heart felt as if it would burst with grief. How could Damayanti remarry? She must have given up all hope of ever seeing him again. Still it seemed incredible. It was completely out of character for her. Perhaps she was doing it to punish him for his stupidity and irresponsibility in leaving her. But that also seemed improbable behavior for the gentle- minded Damayanti. Had her love for him died? The thought of that made Nala shake with sorrow. He could not accept that it was possible. Nor could he believe that she really would marry again. After all, she had two children by him. The scripture clearly stated that is was wrong for a woman with children to marry again. Such a woman was declared to be the enemy of her own children.
Nala decided that the news of her swayamvara must be a false rumor.
But he had to make certain. He said to King Rituparna, “If we leave immediately we may make the swayamvara in time.”
The king smiled, anticipating the thrill of such a high-speed journey. “Then get the chariot ready at once, good sir. I am ready.”
Nala went to the stables and carefully selected four horses endued with extraordinary strength and energy, and unmarked by any faults. He yoked them to the chariot and brought it before the king.
“Climb aboard, my lord, and we shall set off at speed,” said Nala, pulling up the chariot next to Rituparna.
Seeing the horses chosen by Nala, which were unusually lean, the king was surprised. “How do you expect these skinny beasts to undertake such a long journey in such a short time?” he asked.
Nala pointed to certain markings on the horses. “Do you see these marks, my king? They are mentioned in Vedic texts on horsemanship, and they indicate that these horses are capable of the task at hand. But if you would prefer some others then select them and I will yoke them up at once. Whatever steeds you select I will do everything in my power to make the journey in time.”
Rituparna, who had seen Nala’s matchless ability with horses, deferred. “No, Bahuka, I shall accept your opinion. You are conversant with every aspect of the science of horsemanship. Let us leave immediately.”
The king mounted the chariot and Nala took his place at the front, along with the king’s charioteer Varshneya, who had not recognized Bahuka to be his former master. The chariot moved off and Nala began giving commands to both the horses and to Varshneya. Under his expert guidance the steeds soon reached a great speed. They seemed to be rising up from the ground and flying. Rituparna was astonished. He gripped the side of the chariot, feeling a powerful sense of exhilaration as it raced along the road toward Ayodhya.
Hearing the thunderous rattle of the wheels and seeing Nala’s skill with the horses, Varshneya thought that he must surely be Matali, Indra’s celestial charioteer. It also occurred to him that he might even be Nala. It added up.
Bahuka had often been seen lamenting for some unknown lady. He had seemed overcome by sorrow when he heard about Damayanti’s swayam- vara. His skills at horsemanship were unrivalled. And now he was driving the horses toward Ayodhya in a way that few men on earth apart from Nala could do. His face was set in lines of determination as he managed the steeds.
Surely he was Nala in some kind of disguise. It was not unknown for great men to be forced to wander the earth incognito, suffering the effects of misfortune.
The king also marveled at Nala’s skill. He had never seen anything like it. The horses seemed to be possessed by some divine power. The passing countryside flashed by in a blur; it was impossible to take in any details.
People ahead on the road leapt aside as they heard the chariot’s thunderous approach. They stood open-mouthed by the roadside, watching the chariot career past them and off into the distance in a matter of moments.
As the chariot rushed ahead, the king’s shawl was caught in the wind and torn from his body. It fluttered away onto the road and the king immediately asked Nala to halt the chariot so that he might recover it. Nala replied, “Sire, your garment is already some miles behind us. It is impossible to recover it now.”
The amazed king looked behind him, but there was no sign of his shawl.
He looked back at Nala, who seemed to be singing out commands to the steeds which carried on racing forward without any signs of tiring. The king strongly desired to learn from Nala his skills at horsemanship. He asked Nala to stop for a moment and as the chariot slowed down he pointed to a nearby tree. “Bahuka, do you see that tree over there? Let me show you a skill of my own. There are many mystical sciences explained in the Vedas, such as your knowledge of horses. I too am acquainted with the science of calculation. Listen as I demonstrate that skill.”
The king then told Bahuka the exact number of leaves and fruits to be found on the tree. “The two main boughs of the tree will be found to hold two thousand and ninety-five fruits. You may count them for yourself.”
Nala stopped the chariot next to the tree. He looked up at the many gold colored fruits hanging from its branches. How could anyone accurately assess their number? He turned to the king in disbelief. “I will take down those two boughs and count the fruits, as you suggest, for it is hard for me to accept that you are correct.”
The king was worried they may be late arriving for the swayamvara, but Nala reassured him. “You will certainly see the next sunrise in Vidharbha, king. Allow me to verify your assessment and then we shall immediately continue.”
The king nodded and Nala took a sword and cut down the two branches. He quickly counted the fruits and found to his amazement that there was the exact number stated by Rituparna.
“This is most wonderful,” he exclaimed. “I desire to learn this skill of yours. Can you teach me? In exchange I will impart my knowledge of horses.”
The king smiled. “I will gladly teach you this skill, as well as the subtle skills of dice playing, with which I am fully acquainted.”
Nala’s eyes opened wide. He remembered Karkotaka’s words. “Dice playing? You can teach me this too?”
“Surely. You will be impossible to defeat, for I know the mystical science of how to command the dice.”
“Then teach me this at once, good king, and I will tell you all I know about horse-craft.”
The king replied, “Later you may teach me your knowledge of horses, for there is little time now. Listen as I explain how I was able to count the fruits on this tree.”
Rituparna taught the eager Nala the skills of calculation and dice playing in less than one hour. When he had finished they prepared to resume their journey. Before setting off Nala went into the woods to relieve himself. As he was washing his hands in a stream Kali suddenly emerged from his body. At the same time Karkotaka’s poison gushed out of his mouth. Nala felt as if a great weight had been lifted from him. Seeing the dark- bodied Kali standing before him, he was shocked. “Who are you?” he asked.
“I am Kali, lord of the dark age.”
“Why did you possess me?” asked Nala, frowning.
Kali bowed his head. “Out of envy I foolishly entered you and caused you to lose everything, King Nala. But I myself have been greatly pained by the Naga’s poison flowing through your veins. Surely no creature can avoid the suffering ordained for him by destiny, as a result of his own deeds.”
Nala fumed. He thought of cursing Kali. Seeing him in that mood, Kali folded his palms and begged forgiveness. “Noble king, restrain your wrath and I will give you great fame. Damayanti has already cursed me on the day when you left her. As a result of that curse I have lived most miserably in your body, unable to escape. I seek your protection, Nala. If you do not curse me then in future anyone attentively repeating your story will be free from my influence.”
Nala controlled himself with difficulty. Kali had placed him in the greatest possible misery. There was no certainty that he would ever get back his kingdom or his wife. He had not seen his children for some years and he was wandering as a penniless servant of others. But Kali had left him. He now knew the skills of dice playing and could perhaps challenge his cousin to another game. And soon he would again see his wife and children. He had with him the pieces of cloth that Karkotaka had given him and, if the situation seemed favorable, could resume his own form when he reached Vidharbha. Perhaps his fortunes were about to change. He said to Kali, “You may go.”
Nala went back to the king, who had not witnessed Kali’s appearance and was waiting on the chariot with Varshneya. Enthused and hopeful, and feeling his energy increasing now that Kali had gone, Nala began commanding the steeds and the chariot moved off. Again reaching astonishing speeds they completed the journey to Vidharbha by evening.
After gaining the permission of King Bhima, the chariot entered the city, filling the road with the loud rattle of its wheels. The citizens came out of their houses to see who was passing. They were reminded of Nala, who used to visit the city years ago, his chariot sounding very similar to Rituparna’s.
As the chariot came near Bhima’s palace Damayanti heard its approach. She was struck with wonder. It sounded as if the king of the gods was coming along the highway in his celestial chariot drawn by its thousand steeds.
Surely it must be Nala. Who else could drive a chariot in such a way?
In the king’s stables stood the four horses that had brought Nala’s children to Vidharbha. They pricked up their ears as Rituparna’s chariot entered the palace compound, neighing loudly as they sensed the approach of their former master. Agitated by the tremendous noise of the chariot, the king’s elephants cried out, along with his peacocks. The whole palace became a clamor of sound and all its residents were astonished.
Damayanti ran to her balcony. She saw Bahuka and Varshneya on the chariot, with Rituparna standing behind them. But Nala was not visible anywhere. Her heart sank. What had happened to her husband? Was he one of these men? Everything she had heard indicated that it must be so. But how had he changed so much? Would he still love her? Damayanti’s eyes flooded. Her hopes had been raised. If she did not soon see Nala she would die. If the lion-like Nishadha king did not accept her back into his embrace, then her life would be useless. But how could it be otherwise? Nala had never been known to stray from truth. He was gentle, forgiving and liberal. He would never give way to sin and he never even glanced at other women. It was only remembering his numerous virtues that she had been able to survive in his absence.
Damayanti watched as the three men alighted from the chariot. Bahuka released the horses and he and Varshneya led them toward the stables, as Bhima’s ministers received Rituparna. Rituparna looked all around him in surprise. There were no signs of a ceremony. A festive atmosphere always marked a swayamvara. The city would be decorated with festoons and many visiting monarchs would be seen. None of that was visible in Vidharbha. Had he been misinformed? He followed the ministers into the palace and was brought before Bhima, who made respectful offerings to him. Bhima was also surprised to see his royal guest. “What brings you here, good sir? A distinguished person is hardly ever obtained without a proper occasion.”
Rituparna felt embarrassed. Certainly there was no swayamvara. Someone had tricked him. But he could not possibly tell that to Bhima, revealing that he had come there in the hope of winning Damayanti’s hand. Folding his palms, Rituparna bowed slightly and replied, “I have come here to offer you homage.”
Bhima looked at him in amazement. He had travelled over eight hundred miles, passing the provinces of several other kings. It could not be true that he had come to Vidharbha simply to offer respects. There was surely some other cause for his visit. Noting Rituparna’s embarrassment, Bhima decided not to press him any further to discover that cause. No doubt all would be revealed with time. He placed an arm around his shoulder and said, “I am highly honored by your presence. You must be weary after such a long journey. My servants will show you to suitable quarters. Let us meet again in the morning.”
After he had unyoked the horses and had them stabled, Nala sat on the edge of the chariot with Varshneya. Like Rituparna he too had seen that there were no signs of any ceremony in the city. Perhaps the news of Damayanti’s swayamvara had been a hoax of some sort. But who would have wanted to do that? Nala looked around the great palace courtyard. Where were Damayanti and the children? How would he be able to see them? Should he resume his own form right away? Probably not. It would be better to first find out Damayanti’s feelings toward him — but how?
From her high balcony Damayanti looked down at the courtyard. She saw Bahuka and Varshneya seated on the chariot. She recognized Varshneya, but the other man was unknown to her.
The princess turned to her maidservant Keshini. “Dear girl, please render me a service. Look over there at Rituparna’s chariot. Do you see that unsightly and unusual looking fellow sitting on its edge? I am wondering at his identity. It may be that he is Nala, somehow reduced to that state by misfortune. Please go to him and try to find out his identity. Tell him the words that were spoken by Parnada when he went to Ayodhya. Then tell me how he responds.”
Damayanti also asked her servant to question Varshneya to see if he knew anything about Nala. Keshini went down to the courtyard and approached Nala. Knowing her to be a royal servant, Nala’s heart leapt as she came up to him. He stood to receive her and she said, “Welcome to Vidharbha. I have come from Damayanti. She politely asks who you are and why you have come here.”
Hearing his wife’s name, Nala felt tears come to his eyes and he was momentarily choked. Taking a deep breath, he replied, “The monarch of Koshala heard that your mistress was to hold a second swayamvara. He commanded me to bring him here with all speed. Gentle lady, here too is Varshneya, who was formerly Nala’s charioteer.”
Keshini turned toward Varshneya. “The princess sends you her regards and is highly pleased to see you returned here. After you brought her children here did you learn of Nala’s whereabouts? My mistress pines day and night in his absence.”
Hearing this, Nala looked up quickly. Replying on behalf of Varshneya, he said, “Good lady, this charioteer knows nothing of Nala. Surely no one
knows about that unfortunate man, for a king in distress roams about the world in disguise. Only Nala himself knows Nala, apart from she who is his second self. That noble lady will also recognize him by the marks that only she knows.”
Keshini then repeated the message Damayanti had given to Parnada.
Feeling sure that Bahuka was Nala, she said to him, “Tell me again the words you spoke to Parnada when you first heard this message. If you know the truth about Nala then tell me at once, or else I fear the princess will not survive.”
Tears ran down Nala’s face and he shuddered with sorrow. Somehow suppressing his grief, he repeated the words he had spoken to Parnada. He lost control himself as he spoke, and he wept bitterly, collapsing back onto the chariot.
Keshini went back to Damayanti and informed her of what had happened. The princess felt tears spring to her own eyes. This had to be Nala. But how had he come to look the way he did?
Sighing mournfully, Damayanti said to Keshini, “Go again to Bahuka.
Observe him closely, as far as possible, and then tell me what you saw.”
Keshini returned to Nala, telling him what Damayanti had said. Nala nodded understandingly and beckoned the maidservant to follow him as he went into the palace kitchen to cook for Rituparna. After she had watched him for some time, she again returned to Damayanti. She spoke to her in amazement.
“With great wonder I saw that whenever Bahuka picked up an empty vessel to fetch water, that vessel immediately became filled up. I also saw that when he wanted to light the cooking fire he simply held up a handful of grass and it immediately burst into flame. He placed his hand right into the fire but was not burnt. After this he took up a handful of flowers and ran his hand over them, whereupon they seemed to bloom and grow more fragrant.”
Damayanti remembered the gods’ blessings on Nala. The fire-god had given him control over fire, the god of the waters had told him that he would never want for water, and Indra had bestowed upon him a life-giving touch.
Damayanti had virtually no doubt that Bahuka was her husband. Taking Keshini by the shoulders, she said tearfully, “Quickly go to the kitchen and fetch me some food cooked by Bahuka.”
The maid did as she was asked and when Damayanti ate it her mind was filled with remembrance of her husband. She had many times tasted his cooking and the food fetched by Keshini had the same subtle flavours she knew so well. All doubts left her mind. This was Nala. Dropping to the floor Damayanti cried profusely. She said to Keshini, “Take my children to Bahuka and allow him to embrace them.”
Damayanti was still not certain if her husband would accept her back.
He had not yet revealed himself. Perhaps he was too embarrassed. The princess waited apprehensively as her servant took her children to Nala. Surely he would give up his disguise when he again saw them.
Keshini brought the children before Nala as he was leaving the kitchen. As soon as he saw them he cried out and fell to his knees. He called them by name and they looked at him in surprise. Who was this strange man who seemed to know them? Keshini ushered them toward him and he embraced them tightly, with tears flowing down his face. He repeated their names again and again and spoke to them in a soft voice. Looking up at Keshini, he said, “These two resemble my own children who I have not seen for a long time.
Therefore, have I been overwhelmed in this way.”
Breaking away from his children, Nala stood up and asked Keshini to leave. “I fear that people will speak ill of you, gentle maiden. You are an unmarried girl. Take these children and go back to the princess. I shall soon have to leave this place.”
Nala felt unable to go before his wife. Although it seemed that she was not seeking another husband, he felt too ashamed. Three years had now passed since he had left her. He still had not recovered his wealth and would have to live on her father’s charity if he stayed in Vidharbha. Sighing, he felt the pieces of cloth given to him by Karkotaka, which were always with him. When would he again be able to show himself to Damayanti? How could he leave Vidharbha now?
Keshini went back to Damayanti and said, “When Bahuka saw your children he was overcome with emotion. He dropped to his knees with tears flowing from his eyes.”
“There is no doubt that this is my long lost husband,” Damayanti replied, whispering a prayer of thanks to the gods. “Even if he keeps this strange form I will not abandon him, for such is the duty of chaste women. Indeed, he surely needs me more now than ever, fallen as he is upon hard times.”
Damayanti went at once to her mother. “Please give me your permission to speak with Bahuka, for I know him to Nala in disguise.”
The queen agreed and the next morning Damayanti arranged a meeting.
As soon as they again saw each other both of them were overwhelmed. Neither could speak for some time. Nala looked down in shame and shed tears incessantly. Damayanti, whose hair was matted and unkempt in her husband’s absence, and who was clad in only simple dress, felt unbearable pain to see his grief. She addressed him in a choked voice.
“Bahuka, did you ever hear of any man who, although known as virtuous and truthful, would abandon his chaste and faithful wife in the forest? What offence did I give that monarch, for which he forsook me when I was overpowered by sleep? I chose him after rejecting even the celestials. He took my hand in the presence of fire and all the gods, swearing to protect me. Where has that pledge gone now?”
Nala stood with bowed head. Still weeping he replied, “Dear one, it was only through Kali’s evil influence that I left you alone in the woods. It was that jealous celestial who also caused me to lose my kingdom.”
Nala described his discussion with Kali, and then said, “Now I am free from his control I have come here hoping to get you back. But how can a wretch like me deserve your love? Furthermore, it was only due to hearing that you would be selecting another husband that Rituparna came here. Are there not messengers now travelling the earth with news that you, like an unchaste woman, are holding a second swayamvara?”
Damayanti trembled with fear. How could Nala even imagine that she would do such a thing? She folded her palms and knelt before him. “My lord, know me to be wholly devoted to you. Even though forsaken by you I will never give up that devotion. The news of a swayamvara was simply a contrivance to bring you here. There are no other messengers and there will certainly be no swayamvara.”
Damayanti looked up into her husband’s eyes. “Here now my solemn vow. If I have even once thought of marrying another then let the all- pervading air take away my life. Let the brilliant sun of limitless rays, or the moon that witnesses all acts take my life at once. Or let them attest to my innocence here and now.”
As Damayanti stopped speaking the wind-god replied, his powerful voice filling the sky. “Nala, your wife has committed no sin. By her great chastity the honor of your family has increased. The gods will bear witness to this fact. Her only thought in announcing her swayamvara was to bring you here. O king, you should unite with your consort again.”
A shower of flowers fell from the sky and drums resounded in the heavens. All of Nala’s doubts about his wife disappeared. He took out Karkotaka’s garments and put them on. Thinking of the Naga he took ten steps and assumed his original form.
Damayanti ran up and embraced him. She buried her face in his chest and wept. Nala stood in silence, sighing repeatedly with mixed feelings of sorrow and joy. His two children came and embraced him along with their mother, and all four of them cried for some time.
The following day, having spent the night telling each other their experiences while separated, the reunited couple went before Bhima. The king laughed with joy. He immediately arranged for a festival in the city. The citizens were delighted to see Nala returned and they decorated Vidharbha with countless flags and festoons.
Rituparna, seeing the actual identity of his horse keeper, said to him, “Please forgive me if I have offended you in any way.”
Reassuring him, Nala said, “I have lived with you as if I were in my own house. Now I shall return to my own kingdom. You have taught me your skill of calculation and dice playing. I still owe you my knowledge of horses. Take that now.”
Nala taught his skills to Rituparna who then left Vidharbha. Varshneya stayed with Nala, thanking the gods for his safe return. They remained in Vidharbha for another month and then Nala received Bhima’s permission to return to his own city. He travelled swiftly on a great chariot given to him by Bhima. The Vidharbha king also sent a force of soldiers mounted on horses and elephants. Surrounded by those troops Nala entered his city, looking for Pushkara. It was time to settle a score.
As Nala and his entourage moved along the main highway toward the king’s palace, they sent up clouds of dust and made the earth tremble.
Pushkara came out and received Nala. With a slight smile, he said, “So my cousin, you return with your fortunes restored, it seems.”
Nala bit his lip and his eyes blazed. “Indeed, Pushkara, and I am here to challenge you at dice one more time.”
“Oh, you want to lose still more?”
“I will stake whatever I have, this time including even Damayanti. It is my duty to recover my kingdom, and it behooves you to give me the opportunity. This is quite in accordance with the codes of virtue.”
Pushkara cared little for the codes of virtue, and he was not keen to risk losing his position as king, but the mention of Damayanti aroused his interest. “You will stake even your most beautiful wife?”
Nala’s heart pounded and he breathed harshly. “Certainly, cousin. Either play me at dice or bend your bow in battle. Let one of us find peace from single combat, or let us stake everything on the throw of the dice.”
Pushkara could see that Nala was boiling with rage. It would not be wise to take him on in a fight. But the warrior codes did demand that a challenge never be refused.
Pushkara smiled. “I will accept your challenge at dice, dear cousin.
Long have I waited for this chance. I think that soon the divine Damayanti will be mine.”
Nala’s hand gripped the hilt of his sword, and his eyes were bloodshot.
He was ready to take off Pushkara’s head then and there, but he somehow managed to smile. “Very well, let the game begin,” he said.
The two men entered the palace and sat at an ornate ivory table. The dice were brought and Pushkara handed them to Nala, bidding him to begin the play.
Nala thought of the secret incantations that Rituparna had taught him. “Stake everything on this throw, Pushkara. I say the dice will fall on eight. The odds are in your favour. The kingdom for Damayanti. What do you say?”
Pushkara laughed. He remembered how Nala had not won a single throw the last time they played. “Go ahead, cousin,” he said.
Nala released the dice and they fell immediately on eight. Pushkara jumped up. “How has this happened?” he exclaimed.
Nala stood up with him. “No one can prosper for long by giving pain to others,” he said. “Now this ancient kingdom is again mine, and, Pushkara, you cannot even look at Damayanti.”
Pushkara hung his head in shame and defeat. He said nothing. Nala went on, “Actually, although I suffered at your hands, foolish cousin, I know it was not your doing. Kali was to blame. I shall not therefore punish you. Live happily in this country. I grant you life and indeed a portion of our ancestral kingdom.”
With his victory, Nala’s anger had completely subsided. Seeing his cousin shamefaced and sorry, he felt compassion for him. He placed an arm around his shoulders. “Pushkara, you are my brother. Live long and enjoy life. Do not lament. But never again covet another’s property.”
Tears of joy fell from Pushkara’s eyes. He embraced Nala. “You are truly virtuous, dear cousin. How did I ever envy you?”
Folding his palms, Pushkara bowed low before Nala and said, “May you too live long and prosper, dear Nala. May your fame live forever.”
A festival was declared in the Nishadha kingdom to celebrate Nala’s return. After a short time he rode in state to King Bhima’s capital, fetching back Damayanti and his children. As they all entered their palace, a flock of golden swans was seen rising up into the heavens, and a shower of flowers fell from the skies.
End of the story.
Do remember to read my book “Sri Krishna’s Commandments” to gain a deeper understanding about the right way of life and secrets to succeed in life and attain happiness, peace, joy and liberation.