कर्कोटकस्य नागस्य दमयन्त्या: नलस्यच
ऋतुपर्णस्य राजर्षे: कीर्तनं कलिनाशनम् |
Karkotakasya NAgasya DamayantyAha Nalasyacha
Rituparnasya RAjarshehe Keertanam Kali NAshanam.
Singing the glories of Karkotaka the Serpent, Nala Chakravarthy, RAni Damayanti, and Rituparna the RAja Rishi to annihilate Kali…
Yuddhishthira the great, skilled and royal PAndava King in exile whose bearing reflected his inner beauty shining out with the Tejas of Dharma glowing over his face was once given to an unusual bout of despondency while in exile in the forests with his younger brothers and wife Draupadi. Also known as DharmarAj as he never ever swerved from Dharma, he had a retinue of BrAhmins knowledgable in the VedAs and ShAstrAs, and his own Purohit too who all willingly went away to the forests with their beloved King when he got cheated in the game of Dice by the KauravAs led by their maternal uncle Shakuni. In this unusual frame of mind – unusual for he was not given to self-pity – he lamented that there could be no-one more unfortunate and miserable than him – he who had lost his all in a game of dice.
While the KauravA brothers indulged themselves in worldly and materialistic pleasures, the PAndavas spend their time in the forests forever in the company of SatPurushs as mentioned above. MahARishis visited them in the forest. Sri Krishna ParamAtma too often visited them. Already inclined to Dharma, they enriched themselves during these hard times in the forests. The mighty prowess and skill of Bhima and Arjuna are well known, but not many are aware that the eldest PAndava Yuddhishthira made good use of this time to further learn and practice finer intricacies of Dharma ShAstrAs. Already many steps above all, he further rose in stature with his SAdhana and Tapas in the forests. It is said that his chariot did not touch the grounds – thus was his unswerving love and practice for Dharma. As he once told Draupadi, his SahaDharmaChArini – I follow Dharma just for itself with no expectations whatsoever.
Such a King, a Royal who had performed the RAjasuya Yagna and had previously established himself as the undisputed Chakravarthy of BhooMandal was now in the forests having lost all including his kingdom in a game of dice – no, not because of his love for dice. He was neither overly fond of dice nor was he addicted to the game. No, it was because of a vow he had taken to keep away every strife from the family. He had taken the vow NOT to ever say NO to the head of the family – King DhritarAshtra. He took this vow when Sage NArada discussed the invariable downslide of the RAjasuya Yagna – conflicts and struggle for twelve long years on earth. As per ShAstrAs this counters the eternal life in DevaLok performers of this Yagna are granted. No matter how hard DharmaRaj tried to keep away Strife, and no matter how quietly he submitted to King Dhritarashtra’s royal order to the Game of Dice against his own counsel – as well aware of the pitfalls of the game he had discussed the same with Vidura the loyal Minister when summoned to play it – he found himself in yet another bigger conflict. As it goes – Peace can never be one sided.
Such an illustrious King DharmarAj was once thus downcast. Unto him, MahARishi Brihadashva asserts: Nay! Oh, King! You have the good fortune of the company of your brothers and your wife! Let me tell you the story of Nala Chakravarthy who underwent untold hardships and still upheld his Dharma. He suffered much more than you. Thus saying, he narrates Nala Damayanti Charitra that has striking similarities to RAjA Yuddhisthira’s circumstances.
Krita Yug – The Divine Ploy
This happened long before Sri RAma set foot on earth. It was the Krita Yug. This was the time when Divinity directly interacted with mortals on earth. With declining Dharma, over the ages this type of interaction became limited to people performing severe austerities (tapas) till it reached such a point in Kaliyug that it’s … unfathomable. Anyway, this was the time when there were amazing knowledge systems in the land of BhArata Desh. When severe austerities and tapas were not uncommon, where even animals and birds could interact with humans and could understand each other. Those were the days when tapas was performed to such a degree that could bestow unbelievable powers to mankind. Tapas…tapas that could be unwavering adherence to Dharma no matter what the circumstance – whether good or impossibly testing times. The mere words of such a person could either be a boon or a curse to another. Such were the times when…..
There was a kingdom by the name of Nishidha Desh. It was ruled by the eminent King Veerasena. He had a son by the name of Nala. Nala was a “RajaRshi” – one who if given a choice would anytime pick only Dharma – the righteous way of living over artha – wealth, and KAma – desire for anything including the mundane. Nala was a “BrAhmanya”. BrAhman being a person enriched by Tapas, and the knowledge of VedAs, Dharma, ParamAtma flowing through his very being, BrAhmanya is one who not only practices but also protects this treasure trove of knowledge. Nala had also been given the title “Punya Shlokudu” – meaning one’s doshAs (defects) could be washed away by merely thinking of him, or singing his glories with Shraddha – and instead his whole being is lit up with purity – the purity that we lost over years and years of recycling and rebirthing. It is said his beauty was without parallel radiating a golden hue.
There was another contemporary kingdom by the name of Vidarbha. The King was the illustrious Bheem. By the anugrah (grace) of Damana MahARishi, he was blessed with four children – Dama, DAnta, Damana, Damayanti – all named after the MahARishi whose grace helped him when he was bereft of children. Damayanti, his only daughter was very beautiful – very aptly considered Lokottara Soundaryavati – The most beautiful woman in the World. Not only was she beautiful to look at, she had an inner beauty that was all the more enhanced with divine attributes too. Devi Bhagavatam reveals Damayanti to be amsh of MAtAji and her very being was radiant with an inner glow.
Those were the times when travelers carried news from kingdom to kingdom – news of the lands they came from. And thus, Damayanti first hears about the illustrious Nala Chakravarthy – handsome too inadequate a description for him. She heard of his beauty – his outer beauty, his inner beauty, his immense knowledge, his wisdom, his intellect, his character, his gunAs (virtues). Around the same time, Nala too hears of Damayanti. And…they develop a mutual interest.
One early morning, having completed SandhyAnushtAn and ShivArchana, Nala enters the Royal gardens, and sees a flock of swans taking a stroll. One of them gets close to Nala, and the Chakravarthy playfully captures it. This, a Divine swan with Shiv-amsh had come with a covert ploy to play cupid between the two. Pleading to be set free, the swan then discloses how they being Divine were capable of even visiting Brahma Lok, how it itself had had discourses with Sri Brahma. Promising to do him good, it further divulges that Princess Damayanti was without parallel, and promises to sing his glories to her. Set free, this divine beautiful swan proceeds to Vidarbha, and plays the same game with Damayanti. Landing in sight of Damayanti, it wanders around till she finally gets hold of it. The Divine Swan then sings glories of Nala Chakravarthy – his towering character, his matchless gunAs, his magnificent bearing – how no prince could even remotely be his equal. Revealing her to be a Jewel amongst women, and Nala a Jewel amongst men, it proclaims how they would be perfect match if married. The unsuspecting Princess finally releases the artful swan after extracting a promise that it would extol her to Nala Chakravarthy. Assuring to do so without disclosing that this had previously been accomplished, the ingenious swan returns to Nala and informs him of all that had conspired. The divine ploy set in motion, they who had never ever set eyes on the other thus far, are enamored by the other’s radiant pure characters, and nurture a desire to get married.
Noticing this state of affairs and becoming aware of Damayanti’s yearning, her father Bheem – the king of Vidarbha, decides it’s about time to arrange a Swayamvara for his daughter as was the practice of those days. Princes from far and wide are invited, and among them Nala Chakravarthy too. As scores of princes set out for the Swayamvara, so does Nala with enthusiasm.
The Divine Play – Nala Tested
Damayanti being no ordinary princess, MahARishis NArada and Parvata carry news of the forthcoming Swayamvara to Swargalok. Discussing the upcoming Swayamvara, the DevAs then shift focus to Nala Chakravarthy who having earned several titles was also famed as “Nitya Satya Vrata” by virtue of his steadfastness to Truth. This prompts the DevAs Indra, Agni, Yama, and Varuna to put to test his unwavering Truthfulness. They set off for Damayanti’s Swayamvara, intentionally making certain their paths cross with Nala’s who too was on his way. Seeing them and recognizing Divinity though still not aware of their identities, Nala who having been blessed with vision capable of seeing them for no mortal eyes could otherwise perceive them, pays his respects and questions their identity. Introducing themselves to the trusting Chakravarthy, they request him to act as their Doot (messenger). Nala readily agrees to do so, and then asks what needed done. The DevAs instruct him to proceed to Damayanti’s Kingdom and not only inform her how they all were interested in her, but also bid him to personally direct Damayanti to choose one of them in the Swayamvara. Stunned, Nala questions the propriety of this appeal as they were well aware of his own intention to marry the Princess. Promptly reminding him of his earlier commitment, they retort smartly saying he should have checked before assuring help. “You who are “Nitya Satya Vrata” are famed never to go back on your word”.
Astounded though by such a request, but true to his word Nala sets out to do as instructed by the Devas against his very own self-interest. By the grace of the DevAs, the Prince is immediately within the presence of the Princess in her Antahpur invisible to all but Damayanti. Immediately recognizing her, the thought flashes through his mind how no description could ever do justice to her. The Princess on her part suspects his identity though she had never ever set eyes on him before. Requesting his identity, at the same time surmising he might be a MahAtma for who else could enter her fortress like inner quarters, the Princess waits for his response.
At the very outset, courteously, Nala Chakravarthy introduces himself as DevaDoot. Then and then only as Nala. Disclosing the purpose of his visit and doing full justice to his role of a Doot at the moment, he being true to his word to the DevAs, speaks completely on their behalf. Advising the Princess to choose one of them and be contented, he further rests his case saying the DevAs were any day a more befitting match for her.
A shocked Damayanti questions him the fairness of his request. “I who worship the DevAs every day, how can I even think of wedding one of them? I belong to you and you alone and will marry none else. If you refuse, I will no longer live.” At this point, Nala reminds how one’s life too is in the hands of the DevAs. Asserting again that she is blessed, he further reminds her of the immortality of the DevAs. Highlighting his insignificance, he observes he is not equal to even the dust on their feet.
Eyes brimming with tears, the Princess briefly closes them. Quickly controlling herself, Damayanti thinks and swiftly makes her decision. She sends him back, pointing out that he had been true to his word to the DevAs. Directing him to participate in her Swayamvara, she also has him convey to the DevAs her resolve to marry him, and none else. Returning, Nala fully discloses to the Devas of what had transpired. Smiling, the DevAs continue on their way. All including Nala reach the Swayamvara.
The Divine Play – Damayanti Tested
The day of the Swayamvara dawned. The beautifully attired Princess comes to the Swayamvara hall… And is shell shocked. She might have had some plans to attempt and convince the DevAs of her desire to wed none other but Nala. But she is totally unprepared for what’s before her eyes. Amongst the assembled Kings and Princes, she is shocked to see not one Nala, but five of them. She realizes that only one is truly Nala, the Chakravarthy. The other four were the DevAs sitting there to confound her.
Damayanti is a strong willed, cool headed, quick thinking Princess maintaining her calm even in the most difficult situations. Facing the five who all look like Nala – the Chakravarthy who she wishes to marry, she prays to them in her heart – to the very Devas who are out to perplex her. She prays to them for Nala to become self-evident if at all she had been truly wed to Nala in thought, word and deed since she first heard of him. She prays for their grace out of the predicament if her mind had never ever strayed to another. She prays to them that if they had already predestined and blessed her marriage with Nala let him clearly stand out amongst you. With humility, and shraddha she thus pays her respects to the DevAs seeking their help out of the tricky situation. Beautifully showing her own Satyam and Dharma in return.
Seeing the smiling Devas, in a flash she distinguishes the glaring differences between them and the mortal Nala. With not a bead of perspiration, their eyes un-blinking, their feet above the ground with absolutely no contact to the ground, and their garlands of flowers with not the slightest trace of wilt – the DevAs shine out. Nala, though with identical features, being the only human in their midst stood out, thus helping the Princess out of her dilemna.
The Prince and Princess get married with blessings showered by all assembled including the DevAs. Those very DevAs who are invoked through wedding MantrAs to bless couples had come in their Divine forms to bless Nala Chakravarthy and Damayanti. Their Divine test had brought forth and shown the world the best in Nala’s character where not even self interest could swerve him from being truthful to his word, and Damayanti’s own steadfastness to Nala and her wisdom. Besides they are granted very special boons. Indra promises the prosperity of their kingdom. Varuna and Agni assure their Kingdom would never ever want for either water or fuel. Yama adds that they themselves would never ever swerve from the path of Dharma whatsoever be the circumstances.
Following the marriage, everybody disperses. As the DevAs set off, they meet Kali Purush – that very Kali Purush whose very presence creates conflicts and strife amongst people, and DwApara Purush coming in the opposite direction. Every Yug – Krita, Treta, DwApara, and Kali – has it’s own adiDevatA (presiding Devata). It being Krita Yug the very first Yug, both DwApara and Kali Purush with nothing much to do had set out to attend the Swayamvar. And are dismayed on hearing about the already concluded ceremony. In the discussion that followed, the two take a vow to ascertain that Nala Damayanti would not live happily together. When the DevAs point out the impossibility of this task because of Nala Damayanti’s dhArmic nature, they take it as a personal challenge and set out to achieve their goal.
Kali Purush and DwApara Purush
Both Kali Purush and Dwapara Purush set out in an earnest attempt to accomplish their task. Putting together their resources they work out a plan. Deciding to split up and get to work effectively, DwApara Purush goes over to Nala’s relative RAja Pushkar and firmly establishes himself in RAja Pushkar’s Dice.
As for Kali Purush, he decides to work his way through Nala. But Nala never falters in practicing Dharma and sadAchAr as ordained in ShAstrAs. Kali Purush waits very patiently for his moment as it’s next to impossible for him to sneak into such a person. It takes a very, very long time. In the meantime blissfully unaware of the conspiracy, Nala Chakravarthy and Damayanti are blessed with a son Indrasena and daughter IndrasenA. One day finally in the twelfth year, in a moment of absent mindedness Nala performs Sandhya Puja without appropriate Suchi. That gives the much needed opportunity to Kali Purush – he gains entry into the Prince, and affects his Buddhi.
The stage is now all set. DwApara and Kali Purush work in tandem. RAja Pushkar invites him for a game of Dice. Per RAjadharma one does not refuse an invitation for a game of Dice especially when done so by another king. Besides Nala did enjoy playing the game, without the unhealthy tinge of addiction. This time though everything is stacked up against him. The DwApara loaded dice goes against him every single time. And with Kali Purush playing with his buddhi, he is in dire straits. In-spite of his Ministers’ and Damayanti’s advise to call a halt to the game, he continues. Seeing her very loving and wise husband’s uncharacteristic behavior, very quickly it dawns on Damayanti that they are going through a bad phase. Overcome with grief, and dreading the worst, she calls for their Charioteer VArshneya, and sends her children over to her mother’s place. And then patiently waits for the inevitable. Nala Chakravarthy loses every single possession including his Kingdom in the game.
Damayanti and the now humiliated Nala with head bowed low in shame set out of the palace, then Kingdom with absolutely nothing but for the clothes on their backs. To add to their plight, not one acknowledges them – not even people who had previously benefited from his benevolence.
The two silently walk along. Not once does Damayanti rebuke him. Remembering his ever-loving words and glances, she does not once chide him sensing that kAl was against them. With nothing to eat for three days straight, Nala sees a flock of strange birds. Hoping to catch one for their meal, Nala takes off his garment and tries to catch one with it. But is stunned to see the birds flying away with it. Assuming a form high up in the skies, announcing themselves as the Shaktis that had enveloped the dice they unequivocally state that they had shown up to snatch away his one and only garment.
With not even a cloth to cover himself, Nala’s mortification is beyond words. Damayanti quietly shares her very long garment with Nala. Draped together in a single cloth, they continue till they reach a fork in the road – one leading to her parents’ home, and another to her maternal relatives’.
Nala advises Damayanti to take either one of them. Refusing to do so, she enquires about his plans. Nala reveals he would walk off into the forests for now, perform tapas as pApa-prakshAlanam (wash away pAp / repentence) for the game of dice, and in due course try to regain his Kingdom. In the meantime he wishes for her to live with her parents as he could not bear her to suffer any hardships as she was bound to if she followed him. Reiterating her position by Nala, whatever be his fortune, she does not forsake him. Reminiscing all their good times, his thoughtfulness to her, his ever-loving nature, she does not give up on him with the advent of their very first adversity. Asserting unwaveringly her duty to him in his hour of need, as was her just right to enjoy the luxuries he had provided so far, she enters a dense forest with Nala.
Night sets in. They find shelter under a tree on the bare ground. With her husband by her side, Damayanti goes off into a sound sleep. She who had always slept only on the finest of beds lay equally peacefully on the forest floor – her strength being her husband Nala himself. On the other hand Nala is unable to sleep. He is tortured at the sight of his beautiful Queen lying in such a pitiable state all because she married him trusting him to do her good. Lying wide awake his mind goes back and forth. The influence of Kali Purush on his Buddhi is strong. At one point he decides to leave the Queen there itself, reasoning she would search for a while and when unsuccessful, would ultimately set off for her parents’ Palace. This he figured was a far better fate for her than following him into the unknown future through the forests. On the other hand his conscience rebukes him for even considering this. He shudders at the thought of leaving her alone in the forest at the mercy of the unknown wild. His Kali effected Buddhi swings back and forth. Time and again standing up to leave, he sits down by her side repeatedly. Finally Kali wins and quietly tearing the sari they had draped together right in the center, Nala leaves the sleeping Queen to fend for herself in the wild.
The Travails and agnyAtvAs of Damayanti
Damayanti wakes up to find Nala is no longer by her side. Bewildered, and upset she sets out in search into the wilderness. Walking under the scorching sun and intermittently pouring rain, over sharp stones and thorns, blisters forming on her delicate feet, she plods her way on. Alternately lamenting, and weeping, she cries out for Nala.
Wearily, resting her head against a tree trunk, she jolts back to awareness as a gigantic python grabs her and starts coiling around. In this moment, too she cries out in concern for Nala, not for herself. As fortune would have it, that very moment a hunter passing by strikes dead the snake with his hunting knife. But alas, the evil hunter attempts to assault her. With not a person in sight, Damayanti takes recourse to her Tapas – and cries out – if I have been true to my Dharma in thought, word and action may this hunter drop down dead! Lo and Behold! Her words bear fruition.
Granted a slight reprieve, despairing though the Princess carries forward. Several days later, abruptly and unexpectedly she finds herself right in the middle of a beautiful Rishi VAtika beside a clear waterbody – a divine place wherein she sees Rishis of the stature of Vasishta, VAmadeva and NArada performing Tapas – some chanting VedAs, others performing Yagna, some living solely on air, others on leaves and roots, yet others in SamAdhi oblivious to the outer world. Stepping as if into an oasis, she looks around at the wondrous sight. In response to their question, she simply introduces herself as the wife of Nala Chakravarthy – the one who never swerved from Dharma, and who were now separated by the dictates of fate. Further narrates her story, not laying any blame on Nala. Reassured by the Rishis who could foresee their re-union, she closes her eyes in gratitude. On opening them, she finds herself once again surrounded by the wilderness as before with absolutely no trace of the Rishi VAtika. The divinely beautiful and dhArmic Queen had just been granted a glimpse into a Sookshma world of Rishis and SAdhakAs. This was a balm to her sore and battered heart.
In a happier, lighter frame of mind Damayanti sets off again. Coming across a group of merchants on their way through the forests, and introducing herself simply as Nala’s wife Damayanti, she enquires if they happened to see her husband who she got separated from. Replying in the negative, the merchants howsoever encourage her to join them in their journey to Chedipur from where she could conduct a search for him. Sadly, the group is attacked at night when asleep by a herd of wild elephants leaving many dead, and many others scattered and lost. The Queen safe, though despondent is left wondering miserably how much better had she died in place of all the others who had so much to live for.
Carrying on after this mishap, the remaining merchants finally reach the next Kingdom Chedipur ruled by the King SubAhu. As they walk through the RAjaMarg, the RAjamAta’s eyes settle on Damayanti, and quick as lightening a thought flashes through her mind – how beautiful is she, even with adversities clearly having taken toll on her, even with her mud stained clothes and body, and unkempt hair, she looks like Lakshmi Devi with all her Tejas shining forth.
Immediatley her heart reaching out to Damayanti, RAjamAtA calls for her. Damayanti narrates her tribulations without revealing her identity. The RAjamAta kindly advises her to live with them, further offering help in her search. When Damayanti offers to take up the position of a Sairandhari, the RAjamAta lovingly agrees giving her complete freedom to do whatsoever she liked. “My very own daughter Sunanda though will care for you. You may just guide her on the right path”.
Nala’s ordeals and agnyAtavAs
What was Nala doing all this time? Since having left Damayanti, Nala wanders deeper into the forest. Suddenly, he hears himself addressed by name with cries for help. Making his way towards these sounds, he sees a raging forest fire and discovers the sounds coming from inside. Leaping inside he finds himself face to face with an enormous coiled up serpent crying for help. Introducing itself as belonging to the family of Divine serpents Karkotaka, the serpent then goes on to narrate how NArada’s curse had made him immobile for a misdeed committed in the past. Continuing further he implores Nala as Nala Chakravarthy alone could liberate him from his curse as already foretold by NArada. As Nala wonders what he could do to help, Karkotaka requests him to carry him out of the fire. Quickly assuming a very small form, the serpent enables Nala to easily lift him out from the fury of the fire.
Out of the blazing fire, Karkotaka now offering to help Nala in his distress, instructs him to move several feet away from him, and before Nala could anticipate his next move, Karkotaka draws back and strikes out at Nala. A stunned and dazed Nala instantaneously assumes the form of a misshapen, deformed, hunchbacked person with twisted limbs and dull complexion with not a wink of resemblance to his prior Divine figure. Astounded at this degree of thanklessness, Nala questions Karkotaka. The Divine Serpent responds by saying he had in fact helped him out in his hour of need. With this distorted form Nala is free to go where-ever he wishes to, without any threat of disgrace that recognition would have brought in it’s wake. Karkotaka also further advises him to reach Ayodhya and work for the RajaRshi Rituparna.
Any time he no longer felt the need for this appearance, merely thinking of Karkotaka would regain him his past gloriously radiant visage and royal stature. He further reassures Nala that his fortune would very soon take a turn for the good.
Armed with a new form and a new name BAhuka, Nala makes his way to Rituparna’s Kingdom. Amongst the many VidyAs he is blessed with, he avails of two special VidyAs that bestow him extraordinary skills – pAka Hrudaya Vidya for culinary skills and ashwa Hrudaya Vidya for horseriding skills. As advised by Karkotaka, he gains employment as not only the chief Chef of the Palace but also as the chief of the horse stables. Coincidentally, he finds his own Charioteer VArshneya working in the very same stables who now continues as his Assistant.
Having gained employment in Ayodhya, Nala puts his skills to good use. But has sleepless nights with dreams of his Queen…
His heart cries out for Damayanti, forever chastising himself…
(Picture credit: unclekatha.com, original by Raja Ravi Varma)
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