The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Dyuta Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
The Prophesy 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, Yudhishthir asks Vyasa a question.
‘Sage Narada has told us,’ he says, ‘that three kinds of portents appear as a result of a king performing the Rajasuya. These are the atmospheric, the celestial and the terrestrial.
‘We wish to know, O Rishi, if all those portents have come to an end with the fall of Shishupala, the king of Chedi.’
‘Yudhishthir, Lord of Indraprastha, Lord of the Earth,’ replies 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. In the meantime, the portents you speak of will awaken, come alive, and bear enormous consequences – both to you and to the world at large.
‘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.
‘You rule over the Earth with all the vigilance and patience that has been granted you by your actions.’
Saying so, Vyasa leaves Indraprastha.
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 passively pliant person, thinking that being conciliatory would remove conflict.
But it is this very vow that causes all the conflict that will lead to the Mahabharata war.
Meanwhile, Duryodhana stays back at the Maya Sabha for a while after all the kings have left.
During his stay, mistaking a crystal slab for a lake, the Kaurava disrobes and tries to jump in it. And then, thinking real water to be glossy stone, he stumbles into it and gets drenched.
Bhimasena laughs uproariously at this (no surprises there), but Arjuna and the twins – after a brief moment of mirth – send for servants to bring for Duryodhana a fresh set of clothes to wear.
But this is enough to fan the jealousy in Duryodhana’s heart, and as soon as they return to Hastinapur, he tells Shakuni, his uncle, of how much he is suffering.
Like anyone who has been smitten by envy, he becomes blind to all the blessings in his life (he is the eldest of the Kaurava princes, a future king to Hastinapur, a life in the lap of luxury etc) and learns to focus purely on the negatives.
‘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 is not proper of 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.’
‘Then do you think I should fight them?’ asks Duryodhana. ‘Perhaps that will settle once and for all who is superior to whom.’
Shakuni shakes his head. ‘The Pandavas, the Yadavas and the Panchalas make for very strong enemies, Duryodhana. At the current stage of their prowess, not even the celestials can defeat them. I would not advise open war, no.’
‘Then what must we do?’
‘I happen to know that Yudhishthir is much fond of the game of dice,’ Shakuni replies, ‘even though he knows not how to play it. Let us invite him over to Hastinapur to gamble with us, and I promise that I shall bring all of their wealth to you.’
The two of them then go to Dhritarashtra, and though the blind king is reluctant to obey his son’s words, he finally relents and orders for the construction of a hall in which the game of dice will be hosted.
Vidura is Sent
After a short while, Vidura is 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?’
‘The strong approaches the weak’
‘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 tries again to outwit Shakuni in the argument. ‘The way of honest men is to surmount their foes in battle, following all the laws of war, without crookedness or wiles.
‘Even enemies should not be vanquished, it is said, by means of deceitful play, and this game you have set up is the very epitome of deceit. I do not wish to make this a matter of winning and losing, for I believe I am among my own kinsmen.’
Shakuni smiles. ‘You speak well, Your Majesty,’ he says, bowing. ‘But all human interactions are desirous of victory of one sort or the other. When a high-born person approaches a lower-born, it is out of desire for social victory.
‘When a learned man approaches an ignorant one, it is out of desire for victory in the battle of knowledge. When a man skilled in weapons challenges another who is not, it is out of desire to exhibit his power.
‘The strong preys over the weak, O King, in all matters, out of desire to win. In the same way, a person skilled in the game of dice will approach a person who is not so, and his intention is to establish his superiority.
‘This is not immoral as you make it sound, Yudhishthir, but merely natural. As long as human beings exist, they will continue to battle with one another in these various ways.
‘If the challenge is unacceptable to you, refrain from it. No one here will think less of you.’
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.’
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.
Draupadi Poses a Question
The hall erupts in a medley of emotions. Vidura buries his head in his hands. Kripacharya, Drona and Bhishma perspire in their seats. Karna and Duhsasana roar in delight, and Duryodhana bellows out a laugh.
Getting up in his seat, he passes an order to the attendant to carry a message to Draupadi that she must make herself available in court in the manner fitting a waiting woman. ‘Tell her that her husband has lost her in the game of dice,’ he says.
The attendant does the prince’s bidding and goes to the women’s quarters. And on hearing about everything that had occurred during the game of dice, Draupadi asks, ‘If the king had already lost himself, by what right did he pledge me?’
This question, of course, dumbfounds the attendant and he carries it back to court. With the elders also seemingly stumped, Duryodhana once again springs to his feet, unwilling to let matters of logic overpower the fact that the Pandavas are now his slaves.
‘Why do we allow a mere waiting woman to question the orders of the king? Duhsasana, go and bring Draupadi here, with or without her consent.’
Duhsasana thus drags Draupadi back to the by her hair. Here, she places the question formally in front of all the attending men.
Support from Vikarna
Vikarna, one of the Kaurava brothers, stands up and speaks. ‘There are many illustrious people in today’s court,’ he says, looking around.
‘Kripacharya. Dronacharya. Bhishma. Dhritarashtra. And yet no one has answered Draupadi her question. Well, then. If they will not, I will! Listen to my words.
‘There are four matters of consideration here. First: the king staked Draupadi while being under the influence of dice. And gambling is said to be one of the four great vices. People do not consider decisions taken while under the influence of a vice to be of authority.
‘Second: Draupadi is not the sole property of Yudhishthir. She is the common wife of all five Pandavas. So Yudhishthir did not have the right to pledge her in the way he did, as if she belonged solely to him.
‘Third: Yudhishthir placed Draupadi as stake not of his own free will but in response to the cajoling of Shakuni. This act, therefore, does not carry the same authority as one performed by the king on his own.
‘Fourth: As Draupadi herself has pointed out, the king lost himself first and became a slave with no possessions of his own. At that very moment, he lost every right he ever held over Draupadi. So he could not have pledged her.’
Taking all these four factors into consideration, says Vikarna, Draupadi remains free.
The person on the other side of this debate, interestingly, is Karna.
‘You speak with all the immaturity of your age, Vikarna,’ he says, standing up at his seat. ‘You say that the king was under the influence of dice.
‘But he was not placed under its influence by force. Indeed, the king of Suvala offered him the choice to withdraw from the challenge right at the beginning. Yudhishthir did not take it, and therefore entered the game of his own free will.
‘As for your second point, it is true that Draupadi is not the sole property of Yudhishthir. But she is the queen, and in that position, Yudhishthir has more of a right to her than anyone else.
‘Why, during the Rajasuya, did she not sit next to him and perform all the necessary rites? And by the time he pledged Draupadi, he had lost all four of his brothers, so they had no right on her whatsoever.
‘Your third point once again places the responsibility completely on Shakuni, whereas in reality, once Yudhishthir entered the game, he had to play it until it is called to an end, either by one of the elders of the court, or by mutual acceptance of the players.
‘Neither happened. If he knew in advance the rules of the sport and he entered it willingly, how does the question of force or cajoling arise?
‘And then you say that Yudhishthir lost himself before pledging Draupadi. This does not mean, however, that he has lost her. Even slaves have some rights; they have wives and children, and possessions of their own.
‘Why can such a slave, then, not gamble with his wife as stake?’
After rebutting all of Vikarna’s points, Karna makes one final conclusive statement.
‘And for those of you who think that bringing a woman here out into the open in a single piece of cloth is improper, remember that all our scriptures have ordained just one husband for one woman.
‘Indeed, it has been said that a woman who takes five paramours is equivalent to a prostitute. Such a woman is already unchaste, and it is not at all an unchaste act to bring her into the open view of men in an assembly such as this.
‘Even if she is dressed in a single cloth! Even if she is menstruating!
He then proceeds to order Duhsasana to remove the clothes of Draupadi and the Pandavas.
And now the scene gets a dose of divinity.
With Duhsasana taking it upon himself to disrobe Draupadi, she begins to sing the praises of Krishna, who hears her all the way from Dwaraka and arranges for vast swathes of clothes to appear miraculously to clothe Draupadi’s naked body.
Even as Duhsasana continues to pull reams of garments off Draupadi, more and more appear magically to cover her.
After Duhsasana fails to disrobe Draupadi, the elders of the Kuru court debate the matter of her question.
The Passing of the Buck
The question worms its way around the court, pausing for a moment each at Drona and at Kripacharya, and finally coming to a stop at Bhishma’s feet.
Draupadi salutes the grandsire and asks him, ‘Tell me, Father of the Kurus. Have I been won or not? Whatever you decide, I shall accept with good grace.’
But Bhishma says, ‘My dear, the tenets of morality are ever-changing. Indeed, he who holds the most power in the world makes the rules. What he says is just is.
‘He who is weak might say the most righteous things, but he does not have power to bring other people to obey him. Today, you stand in the position of a weakling, and you ask another weakling about what is right.
‘What you and I think is irrelevant, Draupadi.
And here he makes a surprising suggestion. ‘Yudhishthir is the one among us who knows all the laws of ethics. Perhaps we should ask him.’
Yudhishthir, of course, does not say anything to this, simply preferring to take refuge in silence. Seeing Draupadi entreat her husbands to answer her question, Duryodhana makes a play to drive a wedge between the Pandavas.
‘If Bhimasena and Arjuna admit in front of this assembly hall that Yudhishthir is not their master and lord,’ he says, ‘I shall grant Draupadi her freedom right this moment.’
But Bhima, despite his earlier anger, does not rise to the bait. ‘If Yudhishthir, our king, or lord,’ he says, ‘had not been our elder brother, then this assembly would have seen much bloodshed today.
‘It is bound by reverence to him that I am not doing anything terrible, and nothing will make me say the words that Duryodhana wants me to utter.
‘King Yudhishthir has been our master all our lives, and he will remain one until our deaths.’
Duryodhana Strikes his Thigh
Karna once again gets up and says to Draupadi, ‘Let us not waste the time of this assembly with pointless talk of this sort. I have already given you your answer, O Panchali, that you are a slave girl that belongs to the Kauravas now.
‘Retreat into the inner chambers of Duryodhana, and select for yourself a husband that will not pledge you away in a game of dice in the future.’
Duryodhana uncovers his thigh, in order to encourage Karna and instigate Bhimasena. And slapping his thigh meaningfully at Draupadi, he makes a gesture.
Bhima, with his eyes red with fury, looking up at the skies, speaks at the top of his voice: ‘Let Vrikodara not attain the regions of his ancestors until he has broken that thigh with his bare hands.’
‘Ah,’ says Duryodhana, waving him away. ‘Let me ask Arjuna the same question. If he would say that Yudhishthir is no longer his master, I shall even now grant Draupadi her freedom.’
With all eyes on him, Arjuna replies in a soft voice, ‘King Yudhishthir was our master at the time he started the dice game. But now, he has lost us and he has lost himself too. Now it is right for the Kauravas to decide whether or not he is the master.’
At these words, the people in the assembly hall draw a deep breath, because this is the first evidence of fissures among the brothers.
A variety of natural ill omens make an appearance at this point. This scares Dhritarashtra into calling a halt to what is happening.
Dhritarashtra decides that enough is enough. All this while he has been watching (in a way) mutely as events unfolded in the assembly; now he raises a hand for silence and addresses Draupadi.
‘I do not know the answer to your question, O Panchali,’ he says. ‘But I do know that as the queen of the Pandavas, and the daughter-in-law of this esteemed dynasty, you have suffered much in the hands of my son.
‘Let this gathering be called to a halt right now. Along with my apology, I give you a boon. Ask for anything.’
Draupadi says, ‘If you grant me any wish, O King, let it be that my husband, Yudhishthir, be freed from slavery. May it not happen that my son, Prativindhya, be called the son of a slave by the unthinking men of the world.’
The Two Boons
‘Then make it so, Your Highness,’ replies Draupadi, ‘that Bhimasena, Dhananjaya and the twins are all freed from bondage, and that everything they have lost in the game of dice be returned to them.’
Again Dhritarashtra is surprised because Draupadi puts her husbands’ welfare before her own. ‘It shall be so!’ he says. ‘But my heart desires to give you yet another boon, Draupadi, my child.’
Draupadi now joins her hands and bows. ‘It has been said, O King, that a Vaisya is deserving of just one boon, a Kshatriya lady of two, a Kshatriya male of three, and a Brahmin of a hundred.
‘I have already used up my two boons, and I think I have done so wisely. My husbands are no longer slaves; they will achieve all that they desire in life now through their own acts.’
Karna speaks up now, in a tone of anger mixed with admiration. ‘We have not seen or heard of such an act performed by any woman in the world. With the sons of Pandu lost and sinking in an ocean of distress, Krishnaa has become the boat that rescued them.’
With Bhimasena wondering out loud whether he should start killing everyone present in the assembly (now that he is not a slave anymore), Yudhishthir soothes him and goes up to Dhritarashtra.
Still true to his vow, he pays the old man his respects and says, ‘O King, we are like your sons, forever eager to do your bidding. What do you wish us to do now?’
Dhritarashtra advises Yudhishthir then to take his wife and brothers back to Indraprastha. ‘My son Duryodhana is not amenable to advice, Yudhishthir,’ he says.
‘But you are. With wisdom comes the ability to display forbearance. I wish that you find it within your heart to forgive your cousins, O Pandava, and treat them with the same brotherly love of the past. May your heart forever be tethered to the path of virtue.’
Thus the Pandavas mount their chariots, and along with their retinue of servants and attendants, set out for Indraprastha.
This brings the Dyuta Parva to a close.