The first salutation in the Mahabharata of Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa is to Nara and Narayana. Of course, as is explained later in the great epic, Arjuna is believed to be Nara as a companion to Narayana as Krishna. Maharishi Veda Vyasa offers his first salutation to Nara and Narayana before he embarks on his journey as an epic poet.
Nara and Narayana are regarded as the primordial manifestations of Vishnu, and are the incarnations, again and again, on this earth to uphold the aspect of dharma and are the embodiment of rightful living, rightful thought and rightful action. While Nara is the aspect of the human soul, the body is the companion and divine aspect as Narayana.
In the Mahabharata, Nara as Arjuna and Krishna as Narayana represent the aspects of inseparable knowledge and action. While the mortal Arjuna is thoughtful and hesitant, he is unquestioning in following the path of dharma through action, as shown by the divine Krishna. Finally when Arjuna hesitates on the battlefield, after having been instructed through the geetasaara, Krishna willingly shows the infinite vision of himself as Narayana. It is thus, in understanding the great play of the two companions, the divine teacher and his accepting pupil, that Veda Vyasa takes us to accept them as primarily eternal, as singularly divine and to be respected, before beginning to journey through the Mahabharata.
As divine sages, Nara and Narayana are known to habit the upper reaches of the hidden Himalayas where no normal mortal can reach, above Badri and Kedar. They meditate in these higher regions and conduct their austerities for the preservation of dharma, being born of their father.
There is a rare and little known story of how Nara and Narayana had to unite to fight and defeat a powerful enemy called Sahasrakavacha - he with a thousand armours. Sahasrakavacha is thought to have reincarnated as Karna in the Mahabharata, with divine armour – kavacha - and ear rings – kundala. And once again, Krishna and Arjuna had to unite to defeat Karna and kill him. Krishna is shown to be steadfast in the battle and never allows Arjuna to know that Karna is his elder brother, for if he would have known, the battle would not have been fought. Krishna knew of Karna’s promise to Kunti, that he would kill only one Pandava, and she would continue to have five of her sons after the great battle at Kurukshetra.
There is a rarer story of the aspect of their encounter with Maheshwara at Kedar. Shiva knew that the divinity of Nara and Narayana was supreme, and he wanted this to be known to the three worlds. He arrived at the upper reaches of Kedar, and as Nara and Narayana, the divine sages were engrossed in their determined meditation and austerities, Shiva hurled the most dangerous of his astras – the Pashupatastra - at them. The most powerful of all weapons that the gods had ever known, lost all its potency in the face of its conflict with the intense meditation energy of Nara and Narayana. Thus did Shiva recognise them and proclaimed them to the three worlds that these divine sages, Nara and Narayana were jnanis of the highest order – and were declared as jnanis in eternal nirvikalpa samadhi.
Dr. Bharat Bhushan