As it happens every so often in these ancient tales, Nala and Damayanti are pre-attracted to each other. They have heard rumours of each other's beauty, their mutual suitability and whether they feel it or not, the suta makes us feel they are fated for each other.
The pace of the romance picks up a notch when Nala is ambling in his palace garden and he chances upon some swans. Nala grabs one of them but the swan implores Nala not to kill him. In return for sparing his life, the swan promises to fly with his flock to Damayanti's garden and whisper sweet nothings about Nala in her ear.
I had to read that passage a few times to fully grasp its import: why would a king randomly grab a swan with the intent of killing it? Surely it's not for food or even for the sport of killing a big mammal. Were these Kshatriyas so fond of killing that they couldn't stop themselves from slaughter even while relaxing?
I don't that was the point of the story, but it does illustrate the principle of debt. By the time the Jaya is written, all trees and animals are in debt to man; if he chooses, an entire forest can be sacrificed to Agni and replaced by marble palaces. Nature is in permanent debt to us and every time it falls back on its payments, we lop off an appendage or two to show who's boss.
The swan, unlike other men, keeps his word. He alights in Damayanti's garden and starts singing Nala's praises. Before we know it, she's has fallen in love with him, sight unseen. I don't know what to make of that act: is it the most romantic thing I have heard or a silly gesture? Either way, it's an impossible act to commit today with our constant access to Tinder and Snapchat.
How can we tell the story of their falling in love, making sure to keep the magical elements while giving the improbabilities a modern garb?
Once upon a time, the gods lived on earth. Then they left for the heavens. We don't know why. Perhaps the dinosaurs weren't welcoming enough. Perhaps the last ice age was too cold. Perhaps they were bored. It's hard to tie the gods down; they're nomadic by nature, the original sramanas. We don't know much about this time, since the Jaya begins with the Ikshvaku race of kings, after the gods have left.
However, the Jaya tells us that the gods haven't left entirely. They are still fond of earthly pleasures. In modern terms, this is the age of micromanagement; the factory has been moved from Pittsburgh to Guangzhou but the bosses back home want to keep close tabs on the assembly line. In this era, the gods pick favourites, they fight over women (and sometimes over men), they instigate wars and keep kings in their place.
But these men frighten them; some of them are more beautiful, more powerful, more cruel and more cunning than the gods. Damayanti's beauty is so intense that both the gods and kings beat a path to her swayamvara. Except that the gods know their cause is doomed: Nala is so clearly superior to them in wit and wisdom that they have no chance against him. Indra, Varuna and Agni have a brilliant idea: why not make Nala into their messenger? He's desperate to cast his eyes on his love and will do anything for that occasion. Clever trick.
Nala lives in a world in which the gods have left but their traces are still scratched on every bark. One day, the traces will vanish, leaving only a monotheistic God who's so distant that we can only pray to him to send his son to us. Then that son also recedes and all we are left with is a human world for which we aren't prepared.
Is Dharma infinitely flexible? Are there any rules or patterns or is it completely made up? Is it so context dependent that we can never hope to systematise it? These questions attain peak importance during the war parvas, but the Nala-Damayanti story introduces them in a very different context.
First, let's start with the gods. Damayanti is desired by Indra, Agni, Varuna and Yama but those four gods are worried about losing out to Nala. In their cleverness. their devadharma, they ask Nala to take their case to Damayanti, using his desire to set his eyes upon her as a pretext to draft him in their cause. How can he claim Damayanti for himself if he's their representative?
Damayanti is no fool. When asked by Nala to choose one of the gods, she says they are deserving of worship but her love is Nala's alone. You can see that the gods are already a little estranged from human affairs - even as they desire us, we are no longer willing to give of ourselves in the way they desire. I am reminded of Ramakrishna's famous statement about merging with the divine: "I want to taste the sugar, not become sugar."
Damayanti has a counter offer: she says she only wants Nala but since he has become the divine yenta, she wants all of them to come to her swayamvara, where she will choose her true love. The caveat being: she'll marry whoever she believes to be Nala and if she's in error and chooses one of the gods, so be it. The story of Sukanya develops this idea even further.
Unlike bhakti which reveals the divine through intense love, kama reveals a human soulmate. Damayanti is confident that Nala will be revealed by her kamadharma. In this passage alone, Dharma is revealed to have both game-theoretic and contractual aspects. I am sure it's not possible to capture it in a small set of laws, but with any luck the Jaya as a whole is a comprehensive exposition.
What if Damayanti was in error? It's not the first time we have been blinded by love. I am wondering whether the gods would have fought each other over Damayanti if she had chosen one of them instead. Or perhaps we can imagine her marrying all four of them, like a divine Draupadi. We will never know, since Damayanti's love was true in every sense of that term.
There are so many ways of being bound. Nala is bound to the devas once he's asked by them to be their representative. Damayanti is bound to Nala because of the swan's whispered promises. Who's bound to Damayanti? Perhaps Nala; perhaps the kama inflamed devas, but possessive love can unspool as quickly as it binds.
As it often happens, the hardest task falls on woman. Having given her heart to Nala, Damayanti has to find a way to be bound to him and not to a fickle divinity. It's a test of her cleverness as much as her love. She's the hero of the story so far, not her lover in waiting.
There's a north Indian festival called Raksha Bandhan when women tie strings around their brothers in return for their support. The brother, like the father before him, is a "licensed protector," a man who's more likely on average to take her side than her assailants. The brother plays an important role because he's likely to be alive for longer than the father which means that he can intervene when things go wrong with the in-laws.
Of course, that depends on the woman knowing her place and not asserting herself. She's liable to be killed by the licensed protectors if she raises her head or her voice too much as the recent honor killings have shown. Raksha bandhan is a symbolic protection racket in which security is offered in return for submission.
When I was a child and young adult in Delhi there was this practice of pre-emptive raksha-bandhaning where women would tie a rakhi around the wrists of the local thugs and bullies with the hope that they would see themselves as protectors rather than assailants. It was a reasonably successful solution because of the strong cultural codes around the ritual.
Damayanti's clever interpretation of the dharma reminds me of the preemptive strikes by the neighbourhood girls; like Damayanti, they used an acceptable interpretation of dharma to achieve a measure of safety and independence. We can do better though.