Snakes or serpents appear prominently in many ancient literatures around the world. In ancient Egypt, Ouroboros is the snake that eats its own tail, perhaps representing the renewal of order out of disorder. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh has a plant that rejuvenates his youth, effectively making him immortal, but one day while he is swimming, it is stolen by a snake. Snakes feature in the Tanakh, too, and most famously in the Book of Genesis, where the serpent tempts Eve into eating the fruit. The role and character of the snake appears to be straightforwardly evil. Interestingly, this story too is somewhat connected with the loss of immortality for Adam and Eve and shows a thematic continuity with Gilgamesh’s snake.
“But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.”[Genesis Book 3 Verse 3; KJV]
In Indian literature and mythology, too, we find snakes well-represented, but perhaps with distinctive and unique characters. Vāsuki is the snake which Śiva wears around his neck, whilst Viṣnu rests on top of Śeṣa-nāga. Classical Indian musical forms such as Rāga Ᾱsāvari, Rāgini Ᾱhiri and Rāga Rāmakali are typically depicted with scenes involving snakes in some way. In the Mahābhārata, there are some attempts to destroy Takṣaka and all the other snakes, such as the burning of the Khaṇḍava forest and the sarpa-sattra led by Janamejaya.
In the story of Nala and Damayantī, too, we encounter the snake Karkoṭaka, who has a rather positive role in the story. This story is found originally in the third chapter of the Mahābhārata (Vana Parvan). It was a popular choice for retelling as a standalone story, in the 12th century Naiṣadha-carita of Śriharṣa, one of the five Mahākāvyas of Sanskrit literature, and in many other works. We could speculate about whether it was an older story that was reworked into the Mahābhārata or a new story created as the Mahābhārata expanded in length.
In any case, it is brought up when Yudhiṣṭhira is despairing about his predicament and asked Ṛṣi Bṛhadaśva whether there was ever any other such unfortunate person as him. Like Yudhiṣṭhira, Nala also lost all his wealth and kingdom in a gambling match with dice against a rival who was his adversary, in Nala’s case, his brother Puṣkara. Similarly, Nala was somehow the victim of deceit in the gambling, although in both cases the nature of the deceit is not made entirely clear. Nala too was forced to wander destitute in the wilderness for a long period, setting off with his wife too, Damayantī, albeit there weren’t any brothers involved. The incognito stays of Damayantī in the Chedī kingdom (present-day Bundelkhand) and separately of Nala in Ᾱyodhya also seems to loosely parallel the incognito stay of Draupadī and the Pāṇḍava brothers in the kingdom of Virāṭa during their period of exile.
However, in other respects, the story of Nala is rather unlike that of Yudhiṣṭhira. Puṣkara also challenges Nala to stake the life of his wife, yet Nala doesn’t actually seem to go this far. On the other hand, Nala actually later abandoned his wife in the forest under the pressure of not being able to provide for her. Perhaps the most important difference is that for Nala, there is a triumphant ending, where he is happily reunited with Damayantī and wins back his entire wealth and kingdom in a rematch. For Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers, the result was rather less triumphant. Although they do win back their wealth and kingdom, this is not in a gambling rematch but rather through war, which results in massive devastation and loss of life. The total death total, including their own sons and close family members, means that the misery of battle far outweighs the joy of winning back the kingdom.
We first encounter the snake Karkoṭaka after Damayantī, abandoned by Nala, manages to find her way to the Chedī kingdom, where she is able to live peacefully for a while. Nala, wandering in despair, meets Karkoṭaka who is able to guide him as to what to do and reassure him as to his ultimate fate –
If I may, sir, I will explain to you the best way to defend yourself. I will be your friend. There is no other snake like me. … Lord of Niṣadha, go right away to the lovely city of Ᾱyodhya, and tell Ṛtuparṇa, who is skilled at dice, that you a charioteer named Bāhuka. That king will teach you the nature of dice in exchange for your knowledge of horses. Fortunate, and born in the lineage of Ikṣvāku, he will be your friend. When you become a knower of the dice, the you will achieve greater prosperity. You will be reunited with your wife and your mind will not grieve.[Mahābhārata Book 3 Chapter 63, verses 7,19,20,21; my own translation]
Karkoṭaka then transforms the appearance of Nala so he can travel without being recognised as Nala. It is interesting to see here how Karkoṭaka is in a position to know the future and to advise Nala accordingly. Indeed, everything does pan out broadly as Karkoṭaka predicted. The exchange of skills happens when Ṛtuparṇa is amazed at the incredible speed at which Nala drives the horse chariot to the swayaṁvara called as a ruse by Damayantī, as follows –
And seeing [Nala] drive the horses as fast as the wind, the wise king of Ᾱyodhya became totally amazed … And perceiving the power, strength, energy and effort with which [Nala] controlled the horses, he experienced a sense of supreme joy.[Mahābhārata Book 3 Chapter 69, verses 22,34; my own translation]
Seeing a Vibhītaka tree (Hindi: बहेड़ा), from the nuts of which gambling dice were made, Ṛtuparṇa seizes the oppportunity to impress Nala in turn with his knowledge of reckoning up numbers, and to hint at the knowledge swap and spoke to Nala as follows –
“Charioteer, now see my supreme power in reckoning up numbers. Everyone does not know everything, [and in fact] there is no person who knows everything … There are 101 more leaves and fruits fallen here than there are now on the branches of this tree. Now, there are 50 million leaves on its two main branches, together with all the other smaller branches. And there are 2,095 fruits as well.”[Mahābhārata Book 3 Chapter 70, verses 7-10; my own translation]
This leads to them agreeing to swap their skills. Particularly interesting is the idea that gambling with dice is not purely a game of luck, but is in fact a teachable skill, and is in fact connected with arithmetic and probability. Thus Prof. Ian Hacking has presented the salient features of the story and highlights the connection between the science of gambling and survey-sampling as follows –
“Rtuparna … flaunts his mathematical skill by estimating the number of leaves and of fruit on two great branches of a spreading tree. Apparetly he does this on the basis of a single twig that he examines. … Nala counts all night and is duly amazed by the accuracy of this guess … Before learning the science of dice the bewitched Nala was an obsessive gambler, but after mastering the science he is able to place bets so he can recoup his birthright. That is evidence that in India, long ago, it was recognized that there was a genuine science to master … More striking is the recognition that dicing has something to do with estimating the number of leaves on a tree. That indicates a very high level of sophistication.”[The Emergence of Probability, p.7]
It seems that in the Mahābhārata, gambling is considered to be a legitimate activity and a necessary skill to possess. In fact, Ṛṣi Bṛhadaśva seems to advise Yudhiṣṭhira that, on the one hand, he should accept with self-control the rapid changes in fortune that result from gambling, but on the other hand he also teaches Yudhiṣṭhira the skill of gambling so as to empower him to win in future. In a general sense too, perhaps, we are advised both to accept the vagaries of fortune as an inevitable part of life, rather than to expect our lives to follow a perfectly-ordered linear trajectory, but also to equip ourselves to succeed in an unpredictable world. We may end with the final words of Ṛṣi Bṛhadaśva in closing the story of Nala –
Observing the perpetual changeability of human fortunes, you should not feel comfort and sorrow when you encounter gains and losses. Those who repeatedly tell and listen to this important story about Nala, will not share in misfortune. They will achieve their aims and obtain prosperity.[Mahābhārata Book 3 Chapter 78, verses 11-12; my own translation]