Introduction to the story of Nala and Damayanti

In the coming articles we will try to unravel the hidden meanings and symbology in the story of Nala and Damayanti. Rishi Vyas (the author of the Mahabharata), at regular intervals, introduces side stories that not only support and integrate with the main theme, but are also rich in deeper meaning. It is in these small stories that the height and versatility of the author is revealed. One such story is that of Nala and Damayanti. Among all the stories in the Mahabharata, I would personally rate this as one of the best. It is rich in esoteric and alchemical meaning. For a seeker on the spiritual path, it is a small story which contains the secrets of holding the highest states of consciousness.

Here I would like to digress a little and mention a personal episode. Last year, a friend invited me to have lunch with him and also meet his eighty-five year old mother, who had come to stay with him for a few days. She had been my library teacher in 1965. I was nine then and had just joined a boarding school. The first class I attended was hers and she had narrated the immensely enjoyable story of Nala and Damayanti. When I met her, she asked me what I was doing with my life. I reminded her how she had introduced me to Nala and Damayanti and forty-five years later, I was still studying the same. Jesus said that the first step is the last – nothing changes but still everything changes.

The ancient Aryans lived a nomadic life in which animals played a prominent role. Apart from the normal uses of domesticated animals, they intuitively saw the role of animals at a higher level. Even today in India, remnants of this ancient wisdom exist in the form of omens. Say, if someone is going on an important errand and sees a black cat, one may postpone that work for a day. These are just fragments of an ancient system of wisdom which the rishis divined. They felt that everything in life was inter-connected and events which come to meet us come from a higher dimension, take place in our lives and once the event is over, return to where it came from and wait to manifest again as an event in our or someone else’s lives.

The seers said that the animals were able to know in advance the kind of event which was waiting for us. We have seen evidence of this in nature where the behaviour of animals changes before an earthquake or a storm. They said that whenever an animal comes into our lives, it comes with a message and if we are able to read that, then we would know the outcome of what is yet to happen. Suppose, one wants to propose to a girl he loves and while this thought is in the mind, a crow flies in front of him, then maybe he would know her answer even before asking. Usually, when we walk down the road we are so identified with our thoughts that we fail to observe what is happening around us. To observe and intuit requires a different level of awareness and sensitivity. By paying attention to the animals that we come across, we may be able to feel the hidden messages they send to us. The same is also true for animals seen in dreams.

In our story there is a very important role played by a swan. The word for a white swan in Sanskrit is Hamsa. This means not just the bird swan, but also its deeper meaning – the supreme soul. When we go into the derivation of the word we come across different meanings, such as a smile of satisfaction. This happens when the soul communicates with the brain. Many great writers, artists, and scientists get these flashes of communication from a higher dimension. A swan is a very graceful bird, it glides across the water symbolising our emotions, which currently are mainly negative. When we are full of anger, jealousy, greed, self-love, and desire, we are ugly and our emotional centre is like a stormy sea. Through hard work and self-observation, we purify our emotions and the water becomes calm and we, like swans, glide across gracefully. In the famous fairy tale of the Ugly Duckling, the duckling is ugly (like our negative emotion) but later is transformed into a swan. Thus, the swan is a symbol of self-transformation. Swans normally have only one partner; they pair for life. Yoga means to join and the supreme yoga is the pairing of spirit and nature, the two become one.

Nala means to bind – that which controls. In the Upanishads, this controller is known as Yama (the god of death) or to resist. It is also the first of the eight steps of yoga. In every seeker, this controller is asleep and has to be awakened. Once he is a little awake he starts developing the power to control. For example, there are many things I would like to do and one of them may be to get up early to do my practices. On getting up, I just go back to sleep – the controller is there but he does not have the capacity to control. This capacity to control is called will, not just will power, but a relaxed will that is born of understanding. Damayanti comes from the root ‘dama’ which means to tame, or to calm down. So she is the power and Nala is the controller, and they must marry each other.

In the story, we will see all the pain and suffering that Nala goes through to acquire Damayanti. The setting of the story is very indicative. The five Pandavas have been banished to the forest after losing the famous game of dice. Arjuna has gone to acquire the divine weapons. At this time, Yudhisthira is in deep pain and anguish as to the turn of events. A rishi called Brihadashva comes and tells him this story which transforms the suffering of Yudhisthira.

The great rishi Vyasa has written in the Mahabharata that those who read this story of Nala and Damayanti, mentate upon it, and understand the depth of the message it conveys, will be free from suffering and happiness and prosperity will follow them.