King Nala’s Rivals
Oriental Department, November, 1896
MAHABHARATA, iii, vi, 53, 5.
When a fair time had come, and a lucky day and hour, King Bhima called the lords of the earth to the choosing. Hearing it, the lords of the world, all afflicted with love, swiftly assembled, longing for Damayanti. The Kings of men entered the arena, bright with golden pillars and majestic archway, as mighty lions go forth to the mountains. There the compellers of the earth were seated on their several seats, wearing well-scented garlands all, and circlets of polished gems. There were seen strong arms like bars of iron, and men, smooth-skinned, like serpents; lustering locks very beautiful, well-formed noses, eyes and brows. The faces of the Kings shone like the stars of heaven.
That august assemblage of Kings, full of tigers among men, as the underworld is full of serpents, or the mountain cave of tigers, radiant Damayanti approached, entering the arena. The eyes and hearts of the Kings were stricken by her sovereign beauty. The sight of those great-souled, falling on her limbs, was fixed there, nor moved, of them beholding.
Then, when the names of the Kings had been announced, the daughter of Bhima beheld five men of equal form and stature; and, gazing at them, as they stood, all alike in feature, the Vidarbhan princess, doubted, not recognizing Nala the King. For whichever of them she looked at, she thought that he was King Nala; and the lady, thinking and wondering in her heart, “How shall I know which of them are gods? How shall I recognize Nala the King?” thinking thus in herself, the princess of Vidarbha, greatly troubled, called back to memory the signs of the gods, as she had heard them. “The signs of the gods, that I heard from the old men, I see not at all, in any of these who are standing here on the ground.”
She, pondering much, and again deliberating, thought that the time had come to appeal to the gods. Paying them reverence with voice and heart, with hands joined suppliant, and trembling, she spoke: “Hearing the voice of the swans, the King of Nishadha was chosen by me for lord,—by my truth in this, may the gods reveal him to me! In heart and word I have been faithful to him,—by my truth in this, may the immortals reveal him to me! The King of Nishadha was chosen my master by the gods,—by my truth in this, may the gods reveal him to me I This vow was taken by me, winning King Nala,—by my truth in this, may the gods reveal him to me! May the Kings of the spheres, the mighty lords, take their own forms, that I may know Nala the King of men!”
Hearing Damayanti’s troubled pray, and seeing her firm and perfect faith and love for Nala, her pure heart and soul, and her devoted love for Nala, the gods did as she had said, ssuming their powers and proper forms.
She beheld all the immortals, sweat-less, steady-eyed, their garlands fresh, nor dust stained, standing, yet touching not the ground. But the King of Nishadha with a shadow, his garland faded, stained with dust and sweat, standing on the ground, revealed by his moving eyelids. And gazing at them, the gods and King Nala, the daughter of Bhima, faithful, chose the Nishadhas’ King; and with dark eyes downcast touched the border of his robe, and set her splendid garland on his shoulders.
Thus she, fairest of women, chose him for her lord, and immediately a murmur of praise broke forth from the lords men. And the gods and the sages, wondering, broke forth in words of honor, praising Nala the King of men. And the King of men, the son of Virasena, spoke comfortable words to Damayanti the slender-waisted, rejoicing inwardly in his heart: “As thou, lovely one, lovest a man, though gods are present, therefore know that I shall cherish thee, ever delighting in thy words. And as long as life shall keep me in this body, O thou of sweetest smile, so long shall I be thine; this truth I declare to thee.”
Thus with joined, hands rejoicing Damayanti with his words, they two, full of joy in each other, seeing the gods with Agni as their leader, heartily took refuge in the gods. And when Bhima’s daughter had chosen the King of Nishadha, all the lords, of the spheres, mighty in their brightness, heartily rejoicing, bestowed eight gifts upon Nala: To see him visibly in the sacrifice, and a bright and excellent path; these were the gifts of Indra, of Shachi’s lord, in his gladness. And Agni gave his own presence, wherever the King of Nishadha should desire it, and that consumer of sacrifice made all the spheres luminous for him, with his own brightness. Yama gave him the essence of food, and firm steadfastness in the good law. And the Lord of the waters granted to him the waters, wherever he should desire them. Thus each gave him a twin gift, and garlands rich in excellent fragrance. And after giving him their gifts, the gods departed to the triple heavens.
And the lords of the earth, when they had thus taken part in the marriage of the King and Damayanti, full of wonder and exaltation, returned as they had come. And when the Kings were gone, great-hearted Bhima, full of joy, fulfilled the marriage-rite for Damayanti and Nala; and the King of Nishadha, dwelling there as long as was his pleasure, went forth to his own city, chiefest among. men, with the good will of Bhima.
And, gaining thus the pearl of women, that prince famous in song, dwelt with her in happiness, as India with his consort Shachi. The King was beyond measure exultant, radiant like the rayed sun. And the King showed great love to his people, guarding them well with equal sway. And he offered the sacrifice of universal sovereignty, that had been offered of old by Vayati the son of Nahusha. And many other oblations and gifts he offered also, in his wisdom. And many a time among the woods and groves, very beautiful, Nala wandered with Damayanti, like to one of the immortals.
THE LEGENDS OF THE BARDS
I have translated the story of King Nala’s rivals, not for any esoteric or spiritual meaning it may possibly contain, nor in any way for the purposes of moralizing, but simply because it is an admirable piece of poetry, an image of life full of dignity and beauty. Yet we may use this story to point a moral in quite another way. It is an example, and an excellent one, of the element of bardic tradition which fills so large a place in the literature of ancient India. These songs of the bards were recited at the courts of the princes and kings, for their pleasure and delight, just as the poems of Homer were, when they were originally composed; and, in very many cases, the subjects of these recitations were chosen from the family traditions of the prince in whose presence they were chanted or sung; and this is the cause of the element of delicate and courtly flattery almost always present with them. For what could be more flattering to a prince than to say, that he was chosen by the loveliest of women, even when the four great gods were his rivals? What could be more flattering to the princess than to say that these great gods became suitors for her hand, and only relinquished their suit from admiration of her constancy and truth? Again, what could be more delicate than the suggestion that Nala’s misfortunes were brought upon him, not by his own infatuation, but by the direct interference of a malignant demon,—as the story goes on to tell.
This story of Nala, at its first recitation, must have owed the largest part of its interest to the fact that it touched on traditions still fresh in the memories of its hearers, and was recited before the immediate descendants of the hero and heroine, if not, indeed, as is very possible, in the presence of Nala and Damayanti themselves, in the fair autumn of their life, after all their misfortunes were safely past. It must be extremely ancient, as far as its subject and original composition are concerned, for the gods are those of the most ancient Vedic period, and there is no allusion at all to the later deities who afterwards eclipsed the old Vedic immortals, in the minds of the people. But, as in ancient Ireland, the songs of the bards were subject to continual revision, by the substitution of more easily understood words and phrases, when the old words, becoming obsolete and time-worn, were dropping out of use. At the same time, though, the bards adhered very strictly to the form, structure, and color of the old traditions, so that it may very easily be that we have the story of Nala’s rivals to-day in the very same form, though not in the same words, that Nala himself first heard, in the evening of his life.
There are numbers of these old songs of the Rajput Kings, of their courtly dignity and valor; so much so that the praise and honor of the princes contained therein, and the generous estimation of the princely race, did not pass uncensured by the ambition of the Brahmans; with the result that almost every one of these songs has a Brahmanical postscript, to the effect that, though the Rajput hero was a very fine man, a friend of his, a pious Brahman, was a much finer; and that much of the fortune of the kingly hero was, due to the fact that he made costly birthday gifts and New-Year’s gifts and sacrificial gifts to his friend the Brahman,—with the transparent moral: “go and do likewise.”
The Mahabharata, as it has come down to us, has over and over again suffered from these didactic interpolations in honor of the Brahmans, and part of the burden of their song invariably is, that it is time to take up the collection. Thus, in the present tale, we find it added, as a proof of Nala’s magnificence, that he offered many sacrifices, and gave many gifts; and the word used for the latter is invariably to be understood as “gifts to Brahmans.” Again, we are informed that Damayanti was bestowed on her loving parents, because they hospitably entreated a certain peregrinating Brahman, and gave him great feasts. Thus the Brahmanical editors and revisers of the bardic songs sought to lead the princes along the good way.
But, it is needless to add, whatever is of real poetic worth in these songs we owe to the bards and not to the Brahmans or, even more, perhaps to the princes who set the example of knightly courtesy and valor, which is the theme of the bardic recitations. In just the same way, we find that whatever is of highest value in the philosophic systems of India owes its origin to the princely teachers whose wisdom is enshrined in the Upanishads, while the doctrinal and theological part, which has far less human interest, is the handiwork of Brahman elaborators.
In the Bhagavad-gita, for instance, the earliest chapters, as Krishna himself tells us, embody the mystic traditions of the kingly sages, while sections towards the end, such as the classification of the four castes, the three kinds of gifts, and so on are as clearly the work the Brahman editors. The genius of these editors, it will be seen, was in no sense creative. The Brahmans did not create any of India’s greatness whether in poetry or philosophy. Their tendency was essentially for order, beginning with the hierarchic structure of their own caste, and the arrangement of class-relation but also effecting an orderly grouping and preservation of the old Indian works. Their formal and dogmatic instinct, which we may see to have done great harm to India in many ways, yet brought with them this compensation, that it made them good librarians and tenacious preservers of texts.