NALA AND GAMBLING
While Arjuna was away to secure special weapons from Indra, Bhimasena took Yudhishtira to task for having fallen victim to the temptation of gambling and losing his kingdom and being forced to spend twelve years in exile. He once again urged that they should cut short their stay in the forest and go to war with the Kauravas. As Yudhishtira was trying to convince Bhima against that proposal, Brhatasva, a great sage and Gandharva met them. Yudhishtira told him about his misfortune and lamented no king had earlier met with such misfortune, Brhatasva, head of an academy (bhagavan) told him that Nala, prince of Nishada, had suffered far more than Yudhishtira and his brothers did. Nala who lost to Pushkara in dice had to spend his life in exile along with his wife but unlike Yudhishtira without any supporters.
As Yudhishtira was curious to know about Nala and his wife, Damayanti, princess of Vidarbha, the sage dilated on how Nala gambled and suffered. Yudhishtira was afraid that the Kauravas might once again invite him for gambling and that he might again lose. (Ch. 49 to 77 Vanaparva)
Nala, son of Virasena and ruler of Nishada (in central India), was an expert equestrian and was also interested in gambling. He was known for his good conduct, generosity and scholarship. He encouraged scholars and jurists (Brahmans) and had taken the vow to speak the truth (satya). The expert archer who was desired by noble ladies was however not given to lust. He controlled his senses and was engaged in protecting the subjects (prajas) of his expanded social polity. Nala, ruler of Nishada, exercised powers similar to those of Indra who was the king of nobles (devas) and had influence over all social areas as Surya (Aditya) had. Besides controlling the treasury and the army he was also the head of the council of legislators, a position that Manu had. With these powers he excelled other kings.
Nala, as a cavalier and archer qualified to be a gandharva. He was however in the upper stratum of free men, naras, who were definitely though marginally lower than gandharvas, the cadres of free intellectuals and independent warriors but were definitely superior to the commoners, manushyas, who lived mainly by manual work and were bound by the codes of their clans and communities. While the gandharvas were not attached to any region or state and were mobile cadres, the naras were bound by the laws of the regions where they resided and were connected with its administration. Nala belonged to the pre-varna Vedic social order when puritanical laws based on the principles of truth (satya) rather than the liberal rules of dharma were in force. Nala was more handsome than those attached to the soil (bhumi).
Bhimasena, a king of Vidarbha (south of the Satpuras), was a ruler committed to the principles of dharma, which required that one should have sons to be eligible to hold positions of power and own property. Bhima had three sons and was a duly recognised ruler. Damayanti, his daughter, was more beautiful than the girls born in the families of nobles (devas) and rich plutocrats (yakshas) and other girls of the commonalty (manushyas). As one belonging to the upper stratum of the commonalty (manushyas), Damayanti was not as free as Nala who was a free man (nara) was. Reports about them inspired the two to long for each other.
Nala, though a king, belonged to the lower ranks of the society, which during the later Vedic times were represented by the Asvinidevas, Nasatya and Dasra. Nasatyas were those who were not allowed to take the vow (vrata) to speak the truth (satya) but could be trusted upon not to perjure. Dasra belonged to the class of dasas, who were loyal servants of the nobles (devas) and not free men. Though Nala belonged to these ranks no commoner (manushya) was equal to him in personal calibre.
Reporters told Damayanti that the nobles (devas), free warriors and free intellectuals (gandharvas), commoners (manushyas) of the core society and technocrats (uragas) and guards (rakshasas) of the forest society were not equal in personal calibre, charisma, to Nala (who was a free man, nara, and had risen from the lowest social ranks to become a king). [It is interesting to note that the chronicler, Brhatasva, would address Yudhishtira as chief of naras and as an ‘isvara’, a charismatic and benevolent leader who was essentially a free man, nara. Yudhishtira was then not presiding over any settled and organised population.]
The chronicler said that Bhimasena organised a programme where Damayanti would select her spouse on her own (by svayamvara) and invited other kings (who ruled agrarian tracts, bhumi) to witness the event. When this programme was arranged Narada and Parvata who were great scholars and were devarshis and were constantly on the move in all social worlds went from the social world of commonalty (manushyas) to that of the nobles (devas) and met its head, Indra. Indra asked them why the Kshatriya kings were not calling on him as guests.
Narada told Sakra Indra that the Kshatriya kings had all gone to attend the svayamvara of Damayanti who was the most beautiful girl among the commoners (bhumi, manushyas). Agni and other nobles who were guardians of the different social worlds (lokapalas) went with Indra to attend that programme. On the way they saw Nala, the best of naras, and asked the king (rajan) of Nishada who also held the position of Indra in that state to be their messenger. Narada has been presented by later annotators as one who delighted in creating minor tiffs amongst friends.
The Four Officials of the Enlarged Core Social Polity
Nala asked them to tell him honestly who they were and what his mission was. He was a free man (nara) not bound by the social laws of any clan or community and unlike the commoners (manushyas) he was not subordinate to the nobles (devas). Unless it was within the framework of the laws based on truth (satya) he was not bound to carry out the mission they wanted to appoint him for. Indra, Agni, Varuna and Yama were four officials of the then enlarged social polity with the commonalty at the core. The interests of the commoners rather than those of the elite obtained greater attention in this polity that belonged to the period of transition. Indra asked him to inform Damayanti about their visit and tell her that she should marry one of them. Nala told them that as he too was one of the aspirants he should not be required to go on their behalf.
Addressing Nala as Naishada, a social outcast, Indra offered him a higher social position if he would obey the orders of the nobles (devas). During the Vedic times, the ruling elite (devas) rather than the sages and scholars had the power to determine the social statuses of individuals and groups of the commonalty. Nala would not dare to enter the well guarded palace. But as Indra repeated his order, he agreed to meet Damayanti.
On seeing him, Damayanti’s attendants wondered whether he was a deva or a yaksha or a gandharva. They thought that he belonged to one of the two wings (devas and yakshas, aristocrats and plutocrats) of the new integrated elite or to the free and upper middle class which had through their culture had access to them. He told her that he was Nala and had come on behalf of the four nobles (devas) with the request that she should marry one of them. But she rejected that suggestion and insisted that she would marry only him. Nala however wanted to know why she preferred a man like him and not one of the guardians of the social worlds. The lokapalas were also ‘creators’ of the social world (of commonalty) and were benevolent chiefs (isvaras) and his status was low. He was afraid of accepting her, as a commoner who displeased the nobles was liable to be put to death.
In Nala’s view the noble who was designated as Agni, was capable of compressing the enlarged commonalty and eventually wiping out its identity and separate existence and was hence the charismatic chief (isa) of the nobles (devas). [It may be noted that it was a stage when Agni and not Indra or Aditya headed the nobility. It retained the power to enforce civil laws but had no control over the treasury or the army or the executive. Agni could permit the commonalty to widen its territorial jurisdiction or restrict its activities to only the agrarian tracts.] Yama wielded coercive power (danda) over all cadres of living beings (pranis) especially those at the bare subsistence level and out of fear for him they adhered to the social laws, dharma. Indra who was superior to the other nobles was committed to those social laws and killed all feudal lords (daityas) and reprehensive plutocrats (danavas). If she so desired she might sincerely think of marrying Varuna.
The nobility could not at that stage of radical social change coerce the commonalty (manushyas), especially the free men (naras). The latter were no longer subordinate to Agni, the civil judge nominated by the nobility or to Yama, the awesome magistrate who could hand out death sentence to the guilty and the rebels. But the commonalty as well as the nobility had to consent to abide by the orders of Varuna who could take into custody any defaulter. The essentially agrarian commonalty was directed by Agni, Yama, Indra and Varuna on behalf of the nobles (devas) rather than the non-agrarian society that was guided by the new aristocracy and the judiciary represented by Indra and Kubera, Varuna and Yama.
Damayanti averred that she would accept him, a prthvipati, chief of the agro-pastoral commonalty, in the presence of the nobles and after saluting them. She told him, a naresvara, charismatic leader and free man to bring those guardians of the social worlds (lokapalas) along with him. As he conveyed to them her message, they agreed to the proposal and came along with Nala and all dressed like Nala. Damayanti was able to identify Nala and adopt him as her groom in accordance with the social laws, dharma. The nobles were pleased with her cleverness and they gave Nala eight privileges including a higher social status. After the kings left, Bhimasena arranged the marriage of his daughter with the Naishada (a social outcast) who had been granted the status of a leading commoner (manushya). He became entitled to perform asvamedha sacrifices and be approved by the nobles as an emperor.
While Indra and the other nobles were returning to their abodes they were accosted by two scholars, one representing the viewpoint of the dvapara epoch that was still on and the other the kali epoch, which was to soon set in. The latter protested against Damayanti accepting a commoner as her spouse discarding the nobles and said that this made her liable to undergo a major punishment. But the nobles argued that since they had permitted her to do so she could not be punished. Besides Nala was loyal to them and was an adherent of the principles of ahimsa (non-violence) and satya (truth). As a guardian of the social world of the commonalty (lokapala) Nala was equal to those officials of the nobility and had the abilities needed in a leading social leader (purushasreshta), they said.
Nala was committed to the laws of the Vedic times which required every one, whether an Arya or not, to take the vow to speak only truth and abjure perjury and refrain from harming any being (satya and ahimsa). The nobles too were committed to these laws. By appointing Nala as a lokapala, the nobility had recognized the autonomy of the commonalty and permitted him to rise to the status of a prominent social leader (purushasreshta). Even one in a lower rank as a nishada could rise to that high position.
Indra and other nobles had consented to the new system of marriage by which a girl of the commonalty was not constrained to marry one of the nobles who ranked higher than her in social status and might choose to marry any independent commoner (nara) without being required to marry a person nominated by her clan. The nobles had loosened their hold on the commonalty. However the scholar who represented the new age (kali) was not convinced with this claim and he prevailed on the other scholar who represented the then prevalent social orientations (dvapara), to play dice with him to decide which outlook was valid. (Ch.49 to 55 Vanaparva)
The Two Outlooks—Dvapara and Kali
The two agreed to test the validity of the claim that the principles of unrestrained speculative economy (kali) were better than the policy of emphasising the value of the efforts of the commoners backed by the wealth and overruling powers of a liberal aristocracy (dvapara). Kali (a member of the school of Rshabha) arranged a contest between Nala, the ruler of Nishada who had lost the support of the nobles (devas) for having taken the stand that all progress was because of human endeavour as characterised by entrepreneurship (speculation being one of its traits) and the ruler of Pushkara who did not deny the intents and financial assistance of the nobles (devas) any role in productive economy. [It is imperative to interpret the event in a rational way and not hold that ‘daivam’ meant ‘god’s will’ or as ‘luck’.]
Nala lost all his wealth in the foolish venture (gamble). The citizens of his capital whose projects (karya) came to an abrupt end, along with the ministers went to meet the king, Nala, who knew the codes, dharma and artha (which both disapproved all forms of gambling). Damayanti appealed to him on behalf of the scholars (Brahmans) and traders and loyal ministers to abandon the misadventure (gamble) but Nala would not listen to her. Damayanti asked her governess to find out how much the king had lost. On learning that he had lost all she sent her two sons away with Nala’s charioteer to her father in Vidarbha. The charioteer (who belonged to the cadre of Vrshnis) left his vehicle and trekked to Ayodhya to earn a living under its king, Rtuparna. (Krshna too was a Varshneya and was Arjuna’s charioteer.)
Nala lost all his wealth and Damayanti’s ornaments and left his capital with no clothes on. Only Damayanti had a single cloth to protect her modesty. Pushkara warned the townsmen against entertaining Nala. Nala and Damayanti had to live on roots and fruits while going through the forest. Nala told her, the path to Vidarbha and prevailed on her to go back to her father but she refused to leave him alone. While she was sleeping he cut off their single cloth and left her hoping the nobles, Adityas, Vasus, Rudras, Maruts and Asvinidevas would protect her.
After wandering in the dangerous forests for many days in search of Nala, she once came across some ascetics. She told them how Nala who was devoted to the principles of truth (satya) and the broadly accepted social laws (dharma) fell a victim to gambling and was deceived and had to leave his capital and wander in the forests along with her. They assured her that she would be reunited with him and then disappeared leaving her to wonder whether it was a dream or whether those ascetics were real. Damayanti then met a group of nomads and asked them whether they had seen Nala but they had not. They wondered whether she was a woman belonging to the commonalty (manushyas) or was (the wife of) a forest chief (devata) or that of a forest guard (rakshasa) or of a noble (deva).
The ‘nomads’ were subordinate to Manibhadra, a plutocratic ruler (yaksharaja). They said that they were traders going to Cedi and asked her to accompany them. On their way through the forest, wild elephants killed many of them. Some of the traders opined that her presence amidst them had led to that carnage. She wondered whether she was being punished by the lokapalas for having insulted them and chosen Nala as her spouse. With the help of some Vedic scholars (Brahmans) she reached the capital of Subahu, king of Cedi and his mother took her under her protection. We would bypass the events that led to Nala being aided by a dreaded Naga to hide his identity and enter the services of Rtuparna of Ayodhya as Bahuka, a charioteer, the svayamvara arranged by Sudeva for his adopted daughter, Damayanti who was under the guise of a masseuse (Sairandri), and the reunion of Nala and Damayanti. (Ch.63 to 75 Vanaparva)
The two reached the capital of Bhimasena in Vidarbha and with a small contingent returned to Nishada and challenged Pushkara for another round of ‘dice’. Pushkara lost and Nala regained his wealth and country. He returned to Pushkara, his native country. The chronicler implied that it was wrong on the part of Nala to have staked his traditional wealth and country and the wealth of his wife. He was eligible to use only what he had personally earned as capital in his enterprises and speculative ventures. His sufferings and experiences taught him this lesson. Pushkara too lost all his wealth, hereditary as well as earned. But Nala honoured the laws of his times (dvapara yuga) by which hereditary property could not be staked by its owner or annexed by others. The people of the city (pura) and the rural areas (desa) of Nishada accepted Nala back as their ruler. He brought Damayanti and their children from her father’s place.
The chronicler drove home this lesson to Yudhishtira through the Nala-Pushkara episode. He did not find Yudhishtira playing another round of ‘dice’ with the Kauravas to regain his kingdom wrong. Brhatasva taught him the tricks of dice (akshahrdaya), that is, the game, as it ought to be played. Nala was a social outcast (nishada) though his birth entitled his father, Virasena, to be eligible to be a king. Nala stole a march over the four officials, Agni, Indra, Varuna and Yama, and married Damayanti, daughter of Bhimasena of Vidarbha. Neither Nishada nor Vidarbha was then treated as a rich agrarian tract. ‘Nishada’ was part of a reclaimed ravine that was under the overlord, Prthu, a prthvipati, with no pretensions to association with aristocracy.
In order to make Yudhishtira overcome his sense of despair, the chronicler then narrated the biography of Harischandra, son of Trisanku. Harischandra too was a social outcast born to Trisanku, who had failed to fulfil his social and economic obligations and had been cast down from his position as an administrative king. Brhatasva (or the later chronicler who added this episode as an epilogue to the Nala-Damayanti saga) does not seem to have been aware of all the details of the fall and rise of the famous ruler, Harischandra of Kasi. The description that Trisanku was a king of kings and a charismatic personage does not fit in the reality. The chronicler claimed that because Trisanku performed rich and important sacrifices, Harischandra, a noble person, was born to him.
Harischandra who was eulogised as a pious person who spoke the truth gently and sweetly was a prominent leader (purusha) of the social world (loka) of commonalty. He married Satyavati, foster-daughter of Rajarshi Usinara, in a svayamvara. This scholar-king who followed the Rajarshi constitution was not a Kshatriya. He was one of the free men (naras) of Usi, a district in central India. Satyavati born to an agriculturist (attached the soil, bhumi) was his foster-daughter. The practice of a girl selecting her own spouse was in vogue in most sections of the society.
Only among the Brahmans, the girl was given away (dana) in marriage as a virgin (kanya) by her father before she attained the age of consent. Among the other sections of the population, especially among the free men, naras, svayamvara was the norm. It was not necessary that the woman whose marriage was proclaimed by this method was a virgin. She might have been even a divorcee or a widow and entitled to exercise this right. It is necessary that several stereotypes that have been floated during the last two centuries about the Hindu traditions need to be discarded and a rational outline of ancient Indian social polity be presented and insisted on.
According to the chronicler, Harischandra, a protector of the agro-pastoral plains (a bhupala), married Satyavati, who preferred him to other kings, and took her to his country. Lohitasva was ‘born’ to the two. According to this version Harischandra was not an emperor and was only an administrator of a small agrarian territory around Kasi. The people of this social periphery were autonomous and were not governed by the social laws that were incorporated in the dharmasastra. He belonged to the transitional stage when the puritanical laws based on truth (satya) were in force in all areas.
It would appear that this boy was a gandharva child and might not have been a natural son of Harischandra and Satyavati. Brhatasva, himself, a gandharva, might not have wished to dwell on Lohita’s (Rohita’s) dilemma. He referred to the yajnas (sacrifices) performed by Harischandra along with his queen and the foundling under the guidance of the greet sage, Vasishta, the advocate of the code based on the principles of truth (satya). Vasishta, Vamadeva and Visvamitra were present at an assembly of nobles (devas) presided over by Indra where the names of the kings who adhered to the laws based on truth (satya) were mentioned. Vasishta was happy that Harischandra’s name was mentioned. But it did not please his rival, Visvamitra.