Introduction and Meaning of Nala and Damayanti

Brihadasva, a rishi, came to the Pandavas during their exile. ‘Brihad’ means large or whole, where everything is one and ‘asva’ literally means a horse, the deeper meaning being the senses or emotions. ‘Asva’ also means time. At the time of the rishi’s coming, Yudhisthira was going through deep anguish and suffering. He explained to the rishi that he could not recollect any other person being in such pain. The rishi then narrated to him the story of the ancient king Nala, who went through even greater suffering than Yudhisthira. Here, we see how Brihadasva represents the higher emotional centre within us where everything is one whole or large, with no duality. On the contrary, Yudhisthira is identified in his lower emotions. In times of deep pain and torment, if we can connect with this higher centre within us, then a communication of understanding could come from that centre. This elevates us to a higher level of consciousness from where we see our suffering in a different light. Here, the higher communicates with the lower in the form of a story, as described herein.

Virasen, the king of a country called Nishada, had a handsome son Nala. He was full of lustre, like a sun and very brave. He was deft in the handling of horses (asva) and knew their deeper secrets. An expert archer, his attention was one-pointed and was always generous and truthful.

At about the same time, Vidharbha was ruled by Bhimasen, who had no children. A rishi called Daman came to his kingdom and the king, along with his queen, went to pay respect and ask the saint to favour them with a child. The rishi granted the king’s wish and a beautiful daughter, together with three sons, was born to the queen. The daughter was named Damayanti in honour of the rishi through whose grace she was born. She grew up to be the most beautiful princess in the land. She was wise, generous, and her actions pleased everyone, including the gods. Many kings longed for her hand in marriage but there was only one other person who matched and complemented her and that was Nala.

Even though they did not know of each other, they were made for each other. In Nala’s court, everyone praised the qualities of Damayanti, and in Vidharbha Damayanti’s maids always talked of Nala. Hence, even before they had met, an invisible attraction grew between them. Nala could not understand this fire that was growing within him and went to sit alone in the garden to meditate. Here, he saw a pair of beautiful white swans whose wings were lined with gold. He caught hold of one of them. The swan cried out, “O king, please let me go. I will do some good for you. I will go to Damayanti and speak about you in such a way that she will think about you and none else.

Nala released the swan that immediately flew to Vidharbha and sat in the garden of the king’s palace, along with a group of swans. Damayanti was playing with her maids when she saw the swans. She wanted to catch them and each of her maids ran behind one. The one that Damayanti ran behind was the same swan that had met Nala. The swan addressed Damayanti, “In the country of Nishada there lives a king called Nala, he is handsomer then all the other kings put together. If you marry him, this life of yours will be fulfilled. I have seen gods, demigods, and other forms but there is none like him. You are a jewel among women and him a lion among men.” Damayanti told the swan “Please go and tell the same words to Nala.” The swan flew back to Nishada and recounted to Nala all that had happened.

After her meeting with the swan Damayanti thought of Nala all the time. She hardly ate or slept and her face became pale and her body weak. She always looked up to the sky and was lost in dreams all the time. Her maids read the signs and went to her father (the king) and told him of it. Bhimasen realised that his daughter had come of age and that it was time to seek a suitor for her. He sent his messengers throughout the land inviting all the kings to participate in her ‘swayamvara’. When the kings heard that the beautiful Damayanti was to choose a husband, all of them started coming in large numbers to the kingdom of Vidharbha with the desire to wed Damayanti.

While this was happening, Narada and Parvan, two great rishis, went to Indra’s court in the heavens. Indra welcomed them with respect and asked what was happening on earth. They told him of the swayamvara of Damayanti. After hearing the rishis description of the beauty and virtues of Damayanti, the gods Indra, Agni, Varuna, and Yama, decided to go to earth and vie for Damayanti’s hand. They were sure that she would choose one of them above mere mortals.

Now let us understand the story thus far. ‘Nala’ means to bind, that within us that holds together our being – the controller or the soul, the seer within us. He is the king of Nishada; ‘Shada’ means to fall and ‘Ni’ + ‘shada’ means not to fall, one that is rock solid or that which is not fallen – the structure of the soul is always high, eternal, and solid. But it is asleep, immersed in the hypnosis of life, and identified. It has to wake up from this identification. To wake up, it has to use the mind and develop the capacity to wake up – the capacity to hold and control. This power to resist and control is called ‘dam’, which is the root of the word Damayanti. So Nala is the soul who now desires freedom and Damayanti is his power to walk towards that moksha or freedom. The soul must marry its power and work to increase its intensity, which we call as will. This work is sadhna or austerity and requires years of practice. This practice leads the seeker through many of life’s tribulations, deep pain, and suffering, the secrets of which are hidden in this wonderful story, which we shall continue in the next article.