By Swami Harshananda
Nala of Rāmāyaṇa
Nala, the son of Viśvakarma was a monkey chieftain in the army of Sugrīva who assisted Rāma in conquering Rāvaṇa. He had received a boon from his father that whatever object he would throw into water, would float and not sink. This boon came in handy when Rāma was to build the bridge across the sea to reach Lañkā.
Nala of Mahābhārata
In the Vanaparva of the Mahābhārata there is an interesting story of Nala, the king of Niṣadha country. He married Damayantī, the daughter of the king Bhīma of Vidarbha. Once he came under the influence of Kalipuruṣa, the presiding evil spirit of the Iron Age and lost his all in a game of dice, to his own younger brother, Puṣkara. Then he retired to a forest along with his wife. One night, he deserted his wife who was sleeping. Damayantī, meanwhile, managed to return to her father.
Nala, while traversing through the forest, tried to save the serpent Kārkoṭaka who had been trapped in a forest fire. Kākoṭaka was saved and expressed his ‘gratitude’ by biting Nala, as a result of which his physical form became ugly. Assuming the name Bāhuka, he went to Ayodhyā, where he secured an appointment as the charioteer of the king Rtu-parṇa.
When the king Bhīma arranged for a second svayamvara a ritual wherein a princess can choose her husband from among the assembled princes for Damayantī, Rtuparṇa started in his chariot driven by Bāhuka for Vidarbha. On the way, Bāhuka taught him aśvavidyā and in return learnt akṣavidyā.
After reaching Vidarbha, Rtuparṇa discovered the truth, but was treated as an honored guest by the king Bhīma. Damayantī too, after a few clever tests, got her belief confirmed, that Bāhuka was Nala himself. Nala regained his original from by wearing the new special dress given earlier by Kārkoṭaka, whereupon Kalipuruṣa too left his body. He then returned to his kingdom, challenged Puṣkara for another round of the game of dice, won it and regained his sovereignty. He pardoned Puṣkara and allowed him to retain his original kingdom and rule over it. In the annals of paurāṇic accounts, Nala has been eulogized as an ideal king and Damayantī as a paragon of wifely virtues.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore