Nala abandoned a sleeping Damayanti alone in the forest and started roaming in the jungle. He then came across a huge ball of fire. From within the fire, a voice called out to him, “O Nala, have no fear and come into this fire”. Mustering courage Nala entered the fire, and saw a huge coiled snake in it. The snake introduced himself as Karkotaka, and revealed that ages ago he had deceived Sage Narada, on account of which the muni had cursed him. The curse was that he would remain stationary and immobile in this ball of fire till Nala rescues him. The snake promised Nala, “If you lift me out of this ball of fire and free me, I will do a good turn to you.”
Feeling compassionate towards the snake, Nala lifted Karkotaka out of the fire. Karkotaka then told him, to not stop walking even after leaving the fire, and to count his steps. Nala did as he said and the moment he counted his tenth step saying “Dus”, the snake bit him. The Sanskrit word “dus” also means “bite or sting”. So when he uttered the word dus, it implies that Nala asked the snake to bite him.
As the snake’s poison started circulating in Nala’s blood, his entire appearance changed and he became deformed. He became short, ugly and his arms and legs contorted badly. The snake re-assures Nala, “Fear not, I have bitten you for your own good. Now no one will recognize you. Your misfortune befell you, because of Kali. Kali entered your being and controlled your thoughts and actions. You lost the game of dice and your kingdom because of Kali. But now, Kali will find staying in your body very painful and torturous, as my poison will keep burning and stinging him. Now, go to the kingdom of Ayodhya and approach its King Rituparna. He will not recognize you because of your changed appearance. He is an expert at the game of dice and knows all the strategies and secrets of winning. You are an expert with horses and know the secrets of speed. Exchange your knowledge with Rituparna, and once you have mastered the game of dice, go win back your kingdom. Also, keep this cloth and when you wish to regain your original form, put it on your shoulder.” Saying this, the grand snake vanished.
Let us interpret the story till here. We have previously seen that Nala fell from a high state of being to a lower one, when Kali or darkness entered his being. This resulted in the Nala- Damayanti separation, where Damayanti symbolizes the “power to resist”. So Nala lost his power to resist when Kali entered his being. For instance, we decide that we will not say anything hurtful to another person. However, no matter how much we try to maintain our awareness, when a challenging situation comes in front of us, once again we fall in the old habit, and involuntarily let a few hurtful words fly towards the other person. In retrospect, we realize that we were hypnotized by the situation, and we tend to repent.
The ball of fire symbolizes the fire of repentance burning within us. Now our repentance can take one of the two tracks: one is the right track which leads to remorse and the awakening of conscience within us. The other is the wrong one which most people follow and that leads to a state of guilt. Of course here we do not talk about the very large group of people who feel nothing when they commit an act of unawareness.
Guilt is counter-productive. In guilt, we lament over what we have done, blame ourselves and slip into a feeling of self-reproach or inferiority. With guilt nothing changes within us, and we tend to repeat the same mistake again, even though we do not want to. In remorse, on the other hand, we allow ourselves to burn in the flames of repentance, which awakens the light of conscience within. We are able to observe the pattern within our subconscious that is responsible for our action and discern the inner cause leading to the outer action. We take responsibility for our thoughts, words and actions and through the heat of purging ourselves we are able to free ourselves of the compulsive tendency and break the pattern. We pass through the purgatory within and reach a higher dimension of understanding and maturity within us.
In the story the snake Karkotaka represents our buried and dead conscience. The poison is the sting we feel when our conscience awakens. The snake makes Nala count to ten. Till nine, all numbers are single representing a state of non-duality. Ten is the first dual number and that is when the snake bites Nala. For our conscience to bite us there must be a struggle between two aspects - what is right and what is wrong. It is this struggle of the dual which leads to inner friction that give rise to the flames of repentance.
The process of remorse can again be divided into two steps. In the first, we allow the old pattern to burn in the flames. This leads to a higher state of consciousness and understanding which is not immediate but takes some time to digest. The snake gives Nala a different form as he had to learn the art of dice from King Rituparna, who would not have parted with this knowledge if he knew he was giving it to another King. The word Rituparna means ‘a seasonal leaf’. So this is a new turn for Nala, and is the second step, a period of healing and living incognito.
Nala did as Karkotaka advised and met King Rituparna in Ayodhya. Nala told the king that he is an expert at handling horses and he can reach any place very fast and quickly. He also told him that he is an expert cook and can bring out hidden tastes from food. Impressed, Rituparna tells him that he was always keen on speed and he can look after both his stables and kitchen. In the stables Nala sees his old charioteer Varshneya, who does not recognise his former king. Varshneya observed the way Nala handled the horses, and even though Varshneya knew that only Nala knew the art of handling horses this way; he could not recognize Nala as his former king because of the changed appearance.
Meanwhile, Nala couldn’t stop thinking of Damayanti, even though everything seemed to have settled outwardly for him. Gurdjieff calls this the state of “self-remembering”. In Indian bhakti yoga, the devotee pines to merge with God. Every night as he would go to bed, Nala would long for Damayanti and sing a song of how only a stupid person could have left his wife in the jungle all by herself.