Mahabharat Episode 31: The Game of Dice
In this episode of the Mahabharat series, we reach one of the epic tale’s most iconic scenes, in which a loaded trap takes the form of a simple game of dice. Yudhishthira rolls away his possessions, his kingdom, his brothers, and even his own freedom, though Krishna’s protection saves his wife from total humiliation.
The dharma of those days was if you invited a Kshatriya for a duel or a game of dice, he could not say, “No.” He had to come. Shakuni said, “Yudhishthira has a weakness for playing dice, and he has absolutely no clue how to play. Let us invite him for a game of dice. I will play for you. With this game of dice, we will get their wealth, their kingdom, everything out of them. Just bring them here. I will take care of the rest.”
Duryodhana suddenly livened up – he showered, changed his clothes, ate, and full of vigor, went to his father and said, “Father, we must invite the Pandavas for a game of dice.” The moment Bhishma heard this, he stepped in and said, “No way.” For the first time, Duryodhana revolted openly against Bhishma and said, “You are an old man. You do not understand the politics of the day. Leave it to me.” Until then, no one had ever spoken deprecatingly to Bhishma. But now he got pushed aside by this young man. Everyone present was aghast, but no one had the courage to say anything.
Dhritarashtra said he did not like the idea, but he actually liked it. They sent the invitation to the Pandavas. Yudhishthira was such a good man that he said, “Our cousins have invited us. They just came to us as our guests. Now it is our dharma to go to them and be their guests.” Bhima said, “We would be utterly stupid to go back to that place and play a game of dice with them. They got something up their sleeves. They will once again try to eliminate us in some way.” Yudhishthira said, “No, it is our dharma. When they call me for a game of dice, as a king, I cannot say ‘No.’” And he liked to play, even though he did not know how to play.
The Game Begins
In full regal glory, the five brothers, their queen, and their whole entourage were set to journey back to Hastinapur. Duryodhana wanted to build an assembly hall for the game of dice that was equally good as the one the Pandavas had. He hired a local architect, and, in an effort to impress, made the hall horribly garish. Even his own brothers, who otherwise had no taste either, did not like the hall. And the Pandavas made the mistake of not informing Krishna, who had gone back to Dwaraka. They went there by themselves, thinking that, after all, they were just visiting their cousins.
The Pandavas arrived at the hall. The full assembly of the court was present to watch the game of dice. Yudhishthira sat down, ready to play. Then Duryodhana came, but he sat down away from the dice board. People looked a little surprised, and Duryodhana announced, “Shakuni, my uncle, will play for me.” A murmur went through the assembly. Everyone knew Shakuni was an uncanny dicer. Playing dice was all he was doing, all the time. And everyone knew these dice he had were occult-charged. People whispered, “This is not fair. Yudhishthira will lose.”
Yudhishthira said to Duryodhana, “I thought I was playing with you.” Duryodhana replied, “Brother, why are you afraid? My uncle is playing for me. What is the problem? We are of the same blood. Have you lost your courage?” Yudhishthira said, “No, it is okay. We will play.” They asked him, “What is your wager?” Yudhishthira bet his elephants, his horses – all kinds of things. Every time Shakuni rolled the dice, he got what he wanted and Yudhishthira lost.
From Kings to Slaves
Dhritarashtra, the blind king, had his assistant Sanjaya by his side to provide him commentary of the game. Every time Dhritarashtra heard the dice roll, he eagerly asked, “Who won? Who won?” Every time, Shakuni won. Yudhishthira lost the whole treasury. He lost his army. He lost his personal jewels. Then his brothers had to give the ornaments they were wearing, and he lost them. These ornaments had not only monetary value, but were objects of prestige. Losing them was almost like losing their status.
Then Yudhishthira put the kingdom at stake and lost it. People were looking on in dismay. Bhishma stood up and said, “Stop the game.” Duryodhana shouted him down, “It is not for you to stop the game. We are playing this game as per the dharma of the Kshatriyas. If Yudhishthira is afraid of playing the game, he may leave. No one else can stop the game.” Yudhishthira was not afraid of anything. He knew how to walk into any trap in the world. He lost the kingdom. Then Shakuni taunted, “I will give you one more chance. If you wager your brother Bhima, you can win back your kingdom and everything else.”
First he put Nakula at stake, and lost him. Then he lost Sahadeva. Then he lost Arjuna. Finally, he lost Bhima too. Then Shakuni said, “This is your chance now, Yudhishthira. Put yourself at stake, and you can win back everything.” Yudhishthira rolled the dice and lost himself. The Kauravas roared with joy. “The Pandavas are our slaves now! They have to take instructions from us. Take off your upper garments!” This was a symbolism of slavery – a slave was not allowed to wear an upper garment. The Pandava brothers took off their upper garments and stood in shame. Just fifteen minutes ago, they had been kings. Now they stood there partially disrobed, as slaves, not knowing what to do next.
The Humiliation of Draupadi
Then Karna suggested, “You can wager your wife, your queen.” Draupadi was not present in the court. It was her time of the month, so she was in the private quarters. They tempted Yudhishthira. “This is your chance. You can win back your brothers, your kingdom, and everything. Your queen versus all that – if you win, you take everything. You will win, of course. This is your lucky time.” Yudhishthira wagered his wife, and lost her. Immediately, Duryodhana roared in delight. He said, “Draupadi is our slave. Bring her here.” They sent a messenger. A male messenger was generally not allowed into the queen’s chambers, particularly at this time of the month. When the messenger was turned back, Duryodhana told his brother Dushasana, “Who is she to say whether she can come or not? Go get her.”
Dushasana went, broke open the doors, entered the chambers, and said, “Come!” When Draupadi replied, “How dare you walk into my chambers!” he took her by the hair and dragged her away. Her clothes were stained with blood. She said, “I am in a single garment and I am in this condition. How can you touch me and drag me like this?” He said, “It does not matter. You are our slave,” and he just pulled her by the hair through the corridors of the palace and brought her into the court. A few people stood up and said, “This is not dharma. Never before in the court of a king has a woman been treated like this.” But Duryodhana said, “This is the law. She is a slave. I can treat her whichever way I want.”
Enraged, Draupadi sat up and pleaded with Bhishma to interfere, but he put his head down. Then she asked, “Did Yudhishthira wager me first or himself first?” They said, “Yudhishthira wagered himself first.” Then she said, “If he had already lost himself and he was already a slave, he had no right to put me at stake.” People asked Bhishma, the ultimate judge about questions of dharma, “Since Yudhishthira had already lost himself, could he jeopardize his wife?” The expert in law that he was, Bhishma gravely said, “According to the dharma, even a slave has the right over his wife. So even as a slave, he had the right to wager her.”
The law that was meant to be for the wellbeing of human beings became technical to a point where in establishing legality, humanity was lost. What happened there was the cruelest scene. And as if that was not enough, they started taunting Draupadi. According to ancient law, if a king or a Kshatriya had no children, with his permission, his wife could bear children from up to three other men. But if she went to a fifth man, she was considered a whore. Karna tried to shame Draupadi by saying, “She is living with five men. She is not a wife – she is a whore. We can do whatever we want with her.” And he told Draupadi, “Why only five – now you have a hundred!”
Then Duryodhana said, “Come, Panchali, sit on my lap.” Enraged, Bhima said, “Today, you pointed at your thigh and asked Panchali to sit there. One day, I will smash your thigh and kill you!” Their opponents said, “We will talk about killing later. Right now, disrobe the woman.” Dushasana went to pull her single garment. The situation turned from civilized to brutal. Those present turned into beasts.
Draupadi was helpless and enraged. But as Krishna had promised Draupadi, he protected her and ensured in his own way that she did not get disrobed. When they saw the miracle happen - that even though their intentions were to go all the way, they could not - fear seized Dhritarashtra’s heart.
For the first time during this whole event, Dhritarashtra rose to speak, and he said, “The game is over. Everyone gets back what they had before the game. Yudhishthira is still the king of Indraprastha. Let them go back in honor.” Duryodhana, Karna, Dushasana, and their whole clan got very angry. Duryodhana left the sabha. The Pandavas got back their kingdom, their freedom, their wealth, and everything else, but the burden of shame remained. With hanging heads, they started to walk towards Indraprastha.
Shakuni, Karna, and Duryodhana quickly took Dhritarashtra aside and said, “This is not right. Because of your intervention, what was a fair game resulted in an unfair outcome. We have to invite them for just one more game. The conditions will be these: If they win, we will go to the forest. They can have the whole empire. If they lose, they must go to the forest for twelve years and live incognito for one more year. After thirteen years, anyway, they can have their kingdom back. But there must be some kind of price for the game we played.”
Once again, Dhritarashtra got swayed by his son, and he sent out messengers to call the Pandavas back. The other four brothers initially refused to go back, but Yudhishthira said, “This is the dharma. They are calling us back. We have to go,” and he went back. Obviously, he lost the game, and they gave up their royal clothes, wore simple garments, and left for the forest.
To be continued
Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published in Forest Flower, August 2017.