Mahabharata Episode 17: The Game of Dice

Game of Dice - Featured Image - Picture of winter snowflakes blowing across the canvas, representing the arrival of winter

In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.

(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 16: Krishna Kills Shishupala. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

Here’s what we will cover in this episode:

Prophecy of Vyasa

As the Rajasuya draws to a close, Vyasa comes to Yudhishthir to take his leave. After the sages had blessed the Pandavas and are about to set out to the mountains of the north, Vyasa gives Yudhishthir a warning.

‘Yudhishthir, Lord of Indraprastha, Lord of the Earth,’ says Vyasa. ‘Over the last few months, all the Kshatriyas of the land have come together in your name. But I foresee a moment in time thirteen years hence when they will all be destroyed in your name.

‘You will see Shiva in your dream, O Yudhishthir, atop the Nandi, attired in tiger skin, gazing unceasingly toward the south, and drinking blood off a human skull.

‘If this vision visits you, Your Majesty, do not grieve, for it is all happening as ordained. The Destroyer awaits the day of annihilation, for he is the one who must oversee it.’

Yudhishthir’s Decision

Yudhishthir is left in a state of despair at these words. ‘Perhaps I must kill myself,’ he muses out loud, ‘for what good is a life that is destined to cause the death of so many kings?’

‘No, Brother,’ Arjuna tells him then. ‘Killing oneself is never the answer to predicaments on the Earth. Indeed, whoever has heard of an emperor performing the Rajasuya and then giving up his life before the fires have been put out? Refrain from these thoughts, O King, and let us give more consideration to the matter.’

Yudhishthir does so, and then takes a decision. ‘For thirteen years from now, I shall never speak a harsh word to my brothers or to any of the kings in Aryavarta. I shall live under the command of my relatives, always obeying what they say, and by thus banishing disagreement from our lives, we will prevent war at all costs.’

The rest of the Pandavas agree to this, and in presence of all his astrologers and priests, Yudhishthir takes a vow to this effect.

It is said that we meet our destiny on the road we take to avoid it. Yudhishthir, in his effort to prevent Vyasa’s prophesy from coming true, transforms himself into a passive follower of orders, thinking that being conciliatory would remove conflict.

But as we will see, the vow has a reverse effect.

Duryodhana Slips into a Pool

While embarking upon a tour of the palatial mansion of Yudhishthir during the Rajasuya, Duryodhana mistakes a pool of water for a slab of marble and steps into it.

Bhimasena laughs uproariously at this (no surprises there), but Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva – after a brief moment of mirth – send for servants to bring for Duryodhana a fresh set of clothes to wear.

Exactly what happens during this incident is not clear, because it is told three times – first as the incident occurs, by the omniscient narrator, a second time when Duryodhana narrates it to Shakuni, and a third time when he narrates it to Dhritarashtra.

What effectively comes out of the whole thing, though, is that Duryodhana is enormously humiliated. At least some of that humiliation is caused by the Pandavas’ reaction at his fall, but equally, some of it is caused by Duryodhana’s own inner sense of envy.

Also, Duryodhana has learnt a thing or two from Shishupala: he has seen how the king of Chedi had almost single-handedly caused the Rajasuya to be called off. But for Krishna’s presence, Yudhishthir may not have been crowned emperor in the first place.

So he takes all of this back to Hastinapur, and has a consultation with Shakuni (his maternal uncle, brother to Gandhari).

The Game of Dice

‘How do I bear to see myself in such destitution while my foes are enjoying such prosperity?’ he asks Shakuni. ‘Day by day, it seems, the sons of Dhritarashtra are decaying like a corpse while the sons of Pandu and Kunti are growing like trees.

‘Even though I know it does not behoove me to be jealous, I cannot help myself, Uncle. Will you please tell my father of my condition and exhort him to do something about it?’

Shakuni then consoles his nephew, telling him that he had no reason to be envious. ‘You have all the great warriors of the Kuru race on your side, O Prince,’ he says. ‘Drona, Kripacharya and Bhishma still fight under the banner of Hastinapur, not that of Indraprastha.

‘The kingdom of Suvala is yours any time you wish it so, and Anga, ruled by Karna, will forever be your ally. So it is not true that you are powerless, though it might seem that way now, in the shadow of the great Rajasuya.’

Shakuni now gives Duryodhana much the same advice: if one has to defeat the Pandavas, one must look beyond might and brawn.

‘I happen to know that Yudhishthir is fond of the game of dice,’ says Shakuni. ‘Perhaps if we lure him here on the pretext of playing, and if we can entice him into pledging his wealth, all his wealth will be ours.’

Thoughts on Shakuni’s Plan

Our first inclination upon hearing this plan between uncle and nephew may be to sneer contemptuously at them and say, ‘How villainous!’ But we must remember that there is nothing illegal about their idea.

In a world of kings and kingdoms, where the question of what is proper and what is not is ambiguous, playing dice with an enemy and winning some of his wealth is not unethical. There are plenty of ‘soft’ ways in which power can be grabbed from someone who has it: a game of dice is one of them.

(Incidentally, another king called Nala – the husband of Damayanti – also loses all his wealth to a brother over dice. So this sort of thing happened with some regularity at the time.)

It is therefore contingent upon the wielder of power – the king himself – to be careful about such approaches. Kings are routinely advised to remain on guard against such invitations. The standard response is ‘no, thank you’.

‘No, thank you’ is what you must say if you’re a king and if someone:

  • Challenges you to a single combat
  • Invites you to a game of dice
  • Gives you women or servants as gifts – because they are likely to be spies
  • Etc.

So in making this plan, Duryodhana and Shakuni are not engaging in anything particularly devious. What makes the situation dire is that Yudhishthir, at the same time, has vowed to say yes to every request that came from Dhritarashtra.

Did Draupadi laugh?

Shakuni and Duryodhana go to Dhritarashtra after their first meeting, and they try to convince the old king to send an invitation to the Pandavas. The king is reluctant at first, but Duryodhana persuades him.

In doing this, Duryodhana narrates the events of the Rajasuya to Dhritarashtra. Here he complains that the Pandavas have become arrogant with all their newfound wealth. Indeed, he says, when he fell into the pool, Draupadi and her companions laughed at him.

There is no record of Draupadi even being present at the scene when Duryodhana actually falls in. Among those who have laughed, only Bhima seems unapologetic.

That is not to say that Draupadi was not present and did not laugh at Duryodhana. The narrator who first tells us about the scene may have omitted the fact. Duryodhana, of course, will remember the details of his humiliation more clearly.

On the other hand, Duryodhana is trying to convince Dhritarashtra to invite the Pandavas over. He is trying to paint the Pandavas and Draupadi in a bad light to his father. So it is entirely possible that he merely invents this little detail.

As readers, therefore, we are not clear whether Draupadi did or did not laugh at Duryodhana.

The likely possibility is that she did not, and that Duryodhana invented it after the fact to tarnish the image of the Pandavas. This line of thought agrees with the characters of Duryodhana and Draupadi, and also with what we know of human nature. After all, when you and I speak of people we don’t like, don’t we paint unflattering pictures of them?

An Invitation to Play

Vidura is dispatched to Indraprastha from Hastinapur to invite Yudhishthir for a game of dice.

‘If we accept this invitation,’ says the king, ‘there is high likelihood that we will quarrel. What do you think we must do?’

‘I have tried to dissuade my elder brother from making this arrangement, O King,’ Vidura replies. ‘You are no longer a prince. You know as well as I what must be done in all situations. Please take your decision accordingly.’

‘I have taken a vow that I will not disobey any of my relatives’ words, Uncle,’ says Yudhishthir. ‘If I refuse this invitation, it might be construed as disrespect, and used against us in the future. Perhaps it is better that we go to Hastinapur.’

Saying so, the Pandavas and Draupadi set out to the newly constructed palace where the dice game is meant to happen. Once there, in the presence of all the assembled kings and elders, Yudhishthir questions Shakuni.

‘Deceitful gambling is sinful, O King of Suvala,’ he says. ‘There is neither Kshatriya prowess in it nor does it contain a shred of morality. If you would like to vanquish us, why do you resort to such devious means instead of facing us in battle?’

‘It is not the dice that is at fault, O King,’ Shakuni replies in his cunning way. ‘It is the act of placing stakes that might harm us. Otherwise, this is a game like any other. If drawing a bow and letting an arrow fly into the air is sport, so is this.

‘If twirling a mace about with the muscles of one’s arms is a definition of valour, so is this, where a player has to show great control over the muscles of his mind. So let us not tarry in this manner; let us start the game for which we have assembled here.’

Yudhishthir Loses

Yudhishthir looks at Dhritarashtra, who does not interfere in the matter. Shaking his head, he says, ‘I have taken a vow that whatever my elders tell me to do, I shall do it without a murmur of protest.

‘It is clear that this game has the implicit permission of King Dhritarashtra, and therefore, under his command, I shall sit for a game of dice with you, O Shakuni, even though I consider the practice sinful.’

(Notice here that Yudhishthir here is far from the crazed inveterate gambler that he is portrayed as in some retellings. He is in full command over his senses. He makes it very clear repeatedly that the only reason he is sitting down to play the game is because Dhritarashtra has ordered him to do so.)

After the two kings sit down, things unravel quite quickly for Yudhishthir. At first the stakes are low – pearl necklaces, jewels and such – but they rapidly escalate until the king had lost the kingdom of Indraprastha itself to Shakuni.

Then he begins to stake his brothers, one by one, starting with Nakula, followed by Sahadeva, Arjuna and Bhimasena.

After all of them have been lost, Shakuni asks him, ‘What else have you got, O King?’

‘What else have I got?’ echoes Yudhishthir. ‘I have myself.’

And then he loses himself too, becoming a slave to Duryodhana. It is at this point that Shakuni reminds him that he has Draupadi as well among his possessions that he has not yet staked.

Yudhishthir, now in a daze, loses her too.

Why does Yudhishthir not stop?

A commonly asked question about this incident is why Yudhishthir does not stop after a certain point in the game. The answer is quite simple: the rules of the game dictate that it should be ended only if one of the following events occurs:

  • The two players decide mutually that the game can be stopped.
  • One player wins everything that another player has. The modern equivalent of this is that a poker player plays as long as he has chips to play with. The game ends (for him) when he runs out of chips.
  • The overseeing elder – in this case Dhritarashtra – decrees by his authority that the game ought to be ended.

What are the consequences, though, if Yudhishthir decides to stand up anyway and say, ‘This has gone on for long enough. I refuse to continue?’ What may have happened?

This is purely speculation, but one imagines there are codified consequences of an abandoned dice game. Maybe the defaulter foregoes everything he has to the winner. At the very least, there will be a fight or a quarrel between the two parties about just how the winnings should be distributed.

And since Yudhishthir has taken a vow to prevent a quarrel at all costs, we can understand his unwillingness to stop.

The Issue of Draupadi

Though Yudhishthir loses everything in this game against Shakuni, the order in which he loses his possessions becomes a sticking point.

Because he stakes and loses himself before he pledged Draupadi, a point of logic emerges from the whole chaos. On one hand is the view that the moment Yudhishthir lost himself, he lost all rights over Draupadi so his pledge of her is null and void.

On the other hand is the view that even after a man loses himself, he still maintains ownership of his wife. This is the point on which tempers fray irrevocably.

We will examine this in more detail in the next episode.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!