Why does Yudhishthir gamble Draupadi?

Why does Yudhishthir gamble Draupadi - Featured Image - Picture of a pair of dice.

Draupadi is the most prominent female character in the Mahabharata. Her given name at birth is Krishnaa, but since she is the daughter of Drupada she is called Draupadi. She is also known as Panchali – or the ‘daughter of Panchala’.

Draupadi is often considered the primary reason for the destruction of the Kuru dynasty. She takes birth as a grown young woman in a sacrifice performed by Drupada, in which the king asks for a ‘weapon’ with which the Kurus can be defeated.

In this post, we will answer the question: Why does Yudhishthir gamble Draupadi?

At the dice game, Yudhishthir first stakes and loses all his four brothers, and then himself. He says to Shakuni, ‘I have lost everything.’ But Shakuni reminds him that he still has Draupadi. It is then that Yudhishthir – cornered into playing the game to the end – stakes Draupadi and loses her.

Read on to discover more about why Yudhishthir gambles Draupadi in the Mahabharata.

(For answers to all Draupadi-related questions, see Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.)

Yudhishthir’s Vow

The episode of the dice game begins with a prophecy by Vyasa that the Kuru dynasty is about to destroy itself by infighting. The sage makes this prediction at Yudhishthir’s hall soon after the Rajasuya has come to an end.

Yudhishthir is struck with despair at Vyasa’s words. He knows that the Kauravas and Pandavas have never been friends, but he had thought that with the division of the kingdom into Indraprastha and Hastinapur, the cousins would eventually find a way to coexist amicably.

Now, Vyasa’s vision of the future dashes those hopes.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 15: The Rajasuya.)

Yudhishthir is determined, though, to do his best to prevent the dire scenario from occurring. He takes an oath that he will not disobey any of Dhritarashtra’s words from that day hence.

‘For thirteen years from now,’ he says, ‘I shall obey every command of King Dhritarashtra so that there will not be any fighting between the two families.’

Yudhishthir’s intention behind this vow is a noble one: by become completely obedient to Dhritarashtra, he hopes to remove conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. But ironically, it is this vow that directly leads to the dice game.

The Invitation

Upon receiving an official invitation from Dhritarashtra to play a game of dice with Shakuni, Yudhishthir and the Pandavas hold an internal meeting to guess at the motivations behind the enemy’s move.

All of them are certain that Duryodhana is up to no good. Bhima and Arjuna advise Yudhishthir to turn down the request. Yudhishthir, however, warns them that by saying no to an invitation, the Pandavas may inadvertently worsen relationships between Indraprastha and Hastinapur.

Also, he has taken a vow that he will obey Dhritarashtra unconditionally. He takes the decision, therefore, to accept.

Some modern commentators have theorized that Yudhishthir is addicted to gambling and therefore cannot help himself when invited to a game. But the story clearly depicts him accepting the invitation while in full control of his senses.

Indeed, he even acknowledges that they may be walking into a trap. In order to defer Vyasa’s doomsday prediction, however, he says yes.

Rules of the Game

The rules of the game as laid out by Shakuni at the beginning are as follows:

  • The game will be played to the ‘end’ – until one of the players has lost everything to the other. Neither party will be allowed to stop playing in the middle of it.
  • The game will have Yudhishthir on one side and Duryodhana on the other. Shakuni will cast the dice on Duryodhana’s behalf.
  • The only other way in which the game can be declared finished is if the king – Dhritarashtra – calls an end to it.

The above rules seem quite standard for such events. Elsewhere in the story, we read about King Nala of the Nishada race who loses his kingdom to his brother in a game of dice as well.

Generally, both parties that agree to play a game of this sort do so only if they trust the witnessing king to be impartial, and to stop the game before it goes too far.

Also, when played with an unloaded set of dice, the game is essentially random, so both parties keep swapping wealth back and forth. It rarely happens that one player is ruined and the other wins everything.

Staking the Pandavas

Things start unravelling pretty quickly for Yudhishthir after he sits down opposite Shakuni.

We’re not told explicitly if it is magic, skill or luck that allows Shakuni to beat Yudhishthir so comprehensively, but in no time at all he has stripped the eldest Pandava of all the wealth he had accumulated in the past twelve years, and during the expedition that immediately preceded the Rajasuya.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 18: Yudhishthir Loses Everything.)

Soon, Shakuni begins to suggest each of the Pandavas a possible stake in the game. Yudhishthir does not challenge this – partly because Dhritarashtra does not either, and partly because his younger brothers, strictly speaking, are his ‘property’.

He stakes his brothers in ascending order of seniority, starting with Sahadeva and ending with Bhima.

At the end, he stakes himself as the proverbial final move in the game – hoping that his luck will turn. And he loses that move as well, completing his rout.

Shakuni’s Suggestion

As the game progresses, it is worth noting that Dhritarashtra betrays his excitement at witnessing the downfall of the Pandavas. Leave alone calling the proceedings to a halt, he keeps asking his attendants on every move: ‘What has been won? What has been won?’

Bhishma, Drona, Vidura and Kripa – the designated elders of court – defer to Dhritarashtra’s wishes. Vidura especially tries to warn Dhritarashtra of the calamities in store for them if the game continues, but the king refuses to listen.

After Yudhishthir loses himself, therefore, he thinks that the game has reached its conclusion. He has been utterly ruined. So he says to his opponent, ‘I have lost everything.’

Then Shakuni reminds him: ‘You still have Draupadi, O King. It is time to play her.’

Could Yudhishthir have said no?

Legally speaking, there is nothing irregular about Shakuni’s suggestion. After all, if the four younger Pandavas are all Yudhishthir’s property, so is Draupadi. As long as he has Draupadi, it cannot be said that Yudhishthir has lost ‘everything’.

The game, in other words, has not yet come to an end.

Here, we should also remember that the other four Pandavas have wives too. For instance, is Subhadra now a slave to Duryodhana or is she a free agent? What about Ulupi and Chitrangada, the other two wives of Arjuna?

(Suggested: What Happens during Draupadi’s Disrobing?)

We don’t know the actual answer to these questions. But from Draupadi’s question (‘Did he lose me first or himself?’) and the ensuing brouhaha, we can guess that these are complex, debatable points.

Having said all this, could Yudhishthir have said no? Could he have rejected Shakuni’s suggestion? Not under the rules of the game that he agreed to at the start, and certainly not under the strength of the vow he had himself taken.

Rights of a Slave

Because of the order of the above events – specifically the order in which Yudhishthir loses himself first and Draupadi second – the discussion in the hall quickly evolves into a generic point on what the rights of a slave are.

Does a slave own his wife and children? Does he own his possessions, his house, his clothes? Or do they all belong to the slave’s owner?

Does the slave’s wife and children have rights of their own? Are they free beings or are they mere objects owned by the head of the household?

These matters are debated at length between Vikarna and Karna in the presence of Dhritarashtra, and it is decided that Draupadi – despite being the wife of a slave – had to be played as a separate stake in order to be won.

This leads to Draupadi’s disrobing, and eventually to the exile of the Pandavas.

Further Reading

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