Nala and Damayanti: The story which redeemed Yudhisthira
Stories are powerful. They can change our mood, our belief and our perspectives. Storytelling has the power to engage, influence, teach and inspire listeners. Tell a story to a person who has lost hope & is in despair. Tell a story when a person is in self-doubt since skilful storytelling is therapeutic. This science of storytelling is not something new but has been endorsed as art since antiquity by wise mentors and teachers.
In the Varna Parv of Mahabharat, sage Vrihadaswa uses this method to raise the confidence of Dharmaraj Yudhisthir, who was under severe self-doubt and seemed to quit his duty. The sage Vrihadaswa understands the criticality of the situation and acts immediately by narrating to him the story of Nala and Damayanti. Had Rishi Vrihadaswa not done this, then probably Yudhisthir would have gone into deep self-doubt, lost his confidence and purpose for the future. After Yudhisthira had lost everything in the dice game and was forced into forest exile, he was visited by sage Vrihadaswa. Sage observes the self accusative state of mind of Yudhisthira and the feeling of deep self-doubt. Vrihadaswa decides to tell him the story of Nala and Damayanti.
Damayanti, the princess of the Vidarbha kingdom, was flawless and known for her unmatched beauty & intelligence. Stories of her beauty were widespread among Gods, demons and humans. Many Gods had heard about her qualities, and among them were many suitors for Damayanti. There was an equally extensive list among the earthly kings wanting to marry her.
At the same time, there lived king Nala of Nishad kingdom. Nala was a good looking and successful ruler as his kingdom prospered under him. He was an able administrator, versed in Veda, a skilled charioteer and a cook par excellence. One day Nala found a swan with golden wings in the garden of his inner quarters and caught him by his hand. The swan desirous of being freed made an offer to King Nala. Swan said that if Nala frees him, it will fly to Damayanti and speak to her about the illustrious Nala and how Nala was the best suitor for her amongst all men, God, Gandharvas and demons. Swan told Nala about the beautiful Damayanti, who even the Gods wished, but Nala would be the right husband for her.
The goose, as promised, described the valour and beauty of Nala to Damayanti, and Damyanti, hearing about Nala, wishes to meet and marry him. After some time, King Bhima, Damayanti's father, announces her swayamvar. There is excitement among humans, celestials, and the Gandharvas, who all desire to win Damayanti.
Nala leaves for the kingdoms of Vidarbha to participate in the swayamvar. He meets the guardian of the universe, Indra and other Gods- Agni, Varuna, Yama, on his way. All the four Gods requested him to be their messenger to Damayanti and tell her that the celestials are desirous of obtaining her and will be participating in the Swayamvar. Though Nala was himself wishful of Damayanti and pleaded to the Gods that he wouldn't be the right choice to be the messenger, still the Gods asked him to go ahead and be their messenger. Damayanti, upon knowing the feelings of Gods, was shaken but still, her desire to choose Nala did not change and instead strengthened when she saw him, in reality, standing in front as the messenger of the celestials. Nala conveyed Damayanti's message to Gods that she was only interested in choosing Nala as her husband. On the day of swayamvar, all the four Gods assumed the look of Nala and sat along with him. Damayanti was confused to see five Nala, and in extreme anxiety, she prays to those Gods that since she is only desirous of Nala as her husband, they must guide and bless Damayanti to choose the right Nala. Gods, moved by her love for Nala, blessed her to identify the original Nala.
However, her swayamvar to Nala did not go down well with one of the demons, Kali. Kali vowed to take revenge. He stayed with Nala like Shadow and waited for twelve years to find a weakness in Nala and overpowered him. Kali, after possessing Nala, guides him to play the dice game with his brother, Pushkara. Nala lost everything in the dice game. He and his wife were deserted and took refuge in a forest. Still possessed by Kali, he abandoned his wife, Damyanti, in the woods. After wandering for some days, Damyanti finds refuge in the court of King Chedi.
Meanwhile, Nala moved into the deep jungle where he met a serpent Naga who bit him, and the bite turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The bite changed his look like a dwarf man with short arms and assumed a new name, vahuka. However, the Naga blessed him with a cloth to wear to get his original look back whenever he wished so. In disguise as Vahuka, he found refuge at King of Ayodhya, Rituparana, a skilled dice player.
Soon Damyanti's father, King Bhima, found her and took her to his palace. Damayanti could not forget Nala and was keen on finding him. She sent Brahmins and spies to find Nala's whereabout. Through one of the Brahmins, She got an idea about someone in Rituparna's kingdom who is a great charioteer and a cook. She was sure that this could not be a coincidence that someone has both the qualities peculiar to Nala.
Damayanti resolved to bring back her husband planned a trick. She announced her swayamvar again and ensured that Rituparna got the message. She sent the message that after the Dawn of the Sun the next day, King Bhima will organise Damayanti's Swayamvar. King Rituparna, having heard of the beautiful and intelligent Damayanti, decided to participate in the swayamvar. He took his most skilled charioteer, Nala, to ride him to king Bhima's palace as there was not enough time for the swayamvar. Nala (vahuka) drove Rituaprna to the kingdom of Vidharba. Damayanti, alert to all the guests coming to the kingdom for the swayamvar, identified the hoof of Nala's horse, who was the charioteer of King Rituparna. However, still in doubt, the second confirmation came from the message that king Rituparna had denied the hospitality of king Bhima as he would prefer eating the food prepared by his skilled cook, Vahuka. Now sure of Nala's identity, Damayanti confronted Nala. On seeing Damayanti in front of him, Nala could not control himself and assumed his original look.
King Rituparna understood the situation, empathised with Nala and Damayanti, and appreciated their deep love for each other. He promised to help them get their kingdom back. Nala stays with Rituparna for some more days and learns the art of dice from skilled Rituparna. Once confident about his dice skills, Nala offered Pushkar to play the game again. Pushkara, not fully satisfied with his previous win, since then he could not win Damayanti, accepts Nala's offer. Pushkar, who was not supported by Kali this time, loses the game, and finally, Nala gets his kingdom and stays happily ever after.
The story was wisely put forth by Sage Vrihadaswa when he found Yudhisthira at a very critical juncture in his life. Vrihadaswa, a wise mentor, knew the art of counselling through storytelling. Through relevant stories, People undergoing a state of crisis and hopelessness get the feeling of not being alone or not being the only one to have faced a similar situation. It sends a powerful message to a defeated mind that there are ways out of the complex and challenging situation, and people have fought more difficult situations than theirs in the past.