MBK: 1.19: The Dice Game

After the Rājasūya, Indraprastha had become unlimitedly opulent. The roads, streets and lanes were sprinkled daily with perfumed water. Huge white mansions stood along the sides of the wide avenues. Jeweled gates and arches, golden waterpots at their sides, stood at the city’s crossroads. All the citizens were dressed in colorful silks and adorned with garlands and gold ornaments, and they felt secure under the Pāṇḍavas’ rule. Every day, more and more kings were arriving in Indraprastha from other countries, coming to pay tribute.

Yudhiṣṭhira sat in the Mayasabha with his brothers. When they were not engaged in affairs of state, they enjoyed hearing spiritual instructions from the Brahmins. As they were seated one day listening to the ṛṣis recounting ancient Vedic histories, a guard arrived to announce Vidura’s arrival. Yudhiṣṭhira immediately stood up to receive him. He loved Vidura, who had always shown them so much care from childhood. With tears in his eyes Yudhiṣṭhira bowed at his uncle’s feet. As he rose he saw Vidura’s expression and said, “O Khattwa, your mind seems disturbed. Do you come in peace? Is the king well? Are his sons obedient to their old father and the people obedient to his rule?”

Taking his seat close to the Pāṇḍavas, Vidura replied, “The illustrious monarch and his relatives are well. Surrounded by his sons and ministers he reigns like Indra. But he is bent upon his own aggrandizement. The king ordered me to first enquire after your welfare and then to inform you that he has constructed a hall equal to yours. He wishes you to come and see it and to enjoy a game of dice with your cousins.”

Yudhiṣṭhira glanced across at his brothers and then back to Vidura. He was immediately apprehensive. “O Khattwa, if we gamble, we shall probably fight. How can I possibly consent to the king’s proposal? What do you think I should do?”

“Gambling is the root of all misery,” Vidura said. “I tried to dissuade Dhṛtarāṣṭra, but he could not hear my advice. Thus he has sent me here to bring you to Hastināpura. It seems that Duryodhana desires a game in which Śakuni will match his skills with yours. The blind king has granted his permission and he now wishes you to come at once.”

Knowing that it was Dhṛtarāṣṭra who had sent the invitation, Yudhiṣṭhira felt obliged to go. He had vowed never to refuse his elders’ orders. Even though he was now emperor of the world, Dhṛtarāṣṭra was a respectable superior. He said, “I have no desire to gamble, but if I am challenged I will not be able to refuse, because the kṣatriya code is to always accept a challenge. Surely this world moves according to the will of supreme Providence. All-powerful fate deprives us of our reason and we move according to its dictates as if bound by a rope. I will come to Hastināpura on King Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s command.”

Yudhiṣṭhira knew that Śakuni was a gifted dice player. The Gandhara monarch was familiar with every secret of the game. But Yudhiṣṭhira also knew that he could only win if the Lord ordained it. No one moved independently of the Lord’s desire. If the Lord desired that Yudhiṣṭhira lose his wealth, then what could he do? He simply had to accept it as part of a divine scheme meant ultimately for his own good. He ordered his brothers to make themselves ready to travel.

* * *

The party left the following day. With the Brahmins walking before him, Yudhiṣṭhira proceeded on a golden chariot, followed by his brothers. Attired in royal robes and golden ornaments, they entered Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s palace, where they were greeted by the king and his sons, along with Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Karṇa, Kṛpa and the other kings whom Dhṛtarāṣṭra had invited. They were then shown to beautifully furnished rooms where they settled for the evening. After going through their daily physical exercises and their religious rites, they were offered the best of food. Dancers and singers entertained them as they ate. Then, after Brahmins had blessed them, they retired for the night.

The women from Indraprastha entered the ladies’ quarters. All of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s daughters-in-law were filled with envy to see their beauty and prosperity. After exchanging greetings with the Kaurava women, Draupadī and the other Pāṇḍava queens rested for the night on ivory beds covered with soft mattresses and spread with pure white silk.

In the morning the Pāṇḍavas were brought to the new assembly hall. Amid the sound of drums and other instruments, they took their places on jeweled seats covered with costly rugs. The hall was crowded with kings from many provinces, with Dhṛtarāṣṭra sitting at their head. Duryodhana and Śakuni sat opposite the Pāṇḍavas, both smiling. When Yudhiṣṭhira was settled, the assembly became silent and Śakuni said, “We have all been waiting for you, O King. The hall is full and we are eager to play dice.”

Yudhiṣṭhira answered, “O King, there is no prowess to be found in deceitful dice playing. Indeed, it is bereft of morality. Why then do you wish us to play?”

Śakuni raised his eyebrows. “We do not wish to be deceitful, O Yudhiṣṭhira. It is simply a friendly match. We can fix the stakes so that no one is injured.”

“The great Ṛṣi Devala has intructed me that one should not engage in playing with a professional gamester,” Yudhiṣṭhira replied. “O Śakuni, do not try to take from me the wealth with which I wish to serve the Brahmins. Even enemies should not be vanquished by desperate stakes in deceitful play. And I have no desire to win more wealth by gambling, so why should I play with you?”

Śakuni laughed. “O King, obviously one plays at dice to win something. If you are afraid of me, or if you feel I have dishonest motives, then do not play.”

Yudhiṣṭhira looked up at the Kuru elders. They were all sitting silently. Both Bhīṣma and Vidura sat with their heads down. After Vidura, Bhīṣma had also tried unsuccessfully to dissuade the king from allowing the match, and he had attended it reluctantly. Dhṛtarāṣṭra sat on his splendid throne, listening carefully to the discussion.

Yudhiṣṭhira said, “O Śakuni, when challenged I never refuse. This is my vow. Fate is all-powerful. We are all under the sway of destiny, and whatever is ordained will surely come to pass. With whom can I play in this assembly? Who can stake equally with me?”

Yudhiṣṭhira knew that Śakuni, although more skilled at the game, could not match his wealth and was thus not a suitable opponent for him. But Duryodhana said quickly, “I shall supply gems, gold and other wealth, O King. Let Śakuni cast the dice on my behalf.”

Yudhiṣṭhira raised his eyebrows. It was exactly as he had feared. Obviously this was no friendly match. He raised his objections in a firm voice. “I have never heard that one man plays while another stakes, O Duryodhana. This is not within the rules of the game.”

Yudhiṣṭhira again looked at the elders, but none of them spoke. Duryodhana laughed and repeated that if Yudhiṣṭhira was afraid then he need not play. Śakuni smiled and rolled the dice in his hands. The sound of the ivory dice striking together rose above the silence in the hall. Seeing Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s complicity, Yudhiṣṭhira said, “If it is your desire, Duryodhana, then let the play begin.”

The Pāṇḍava took a priceless string of pearls from his neck. “Here is my stake, O King. With what shall you wager against me?”

Duryodhana replied, “I have wealth counted in the millions and tens of millions but I am not proud of it. I shall equal all that you stake. Throw the dice, Śakuni, and let us see who wins.”

Śakuni called out a number and threw the dice. As the dice came to a stop on the number he had called, he cried out, “See, I have won!”

Yudhiṣṭhira said, “In a game contrived only for my defeat you have won by unfair means, O King. Do you feel happy? Let the game continue. I have many beautiful jars each filled with a thousand gold coins. These shall be my next stake.” Yudhiṣṭhira cast the dice and called his number, but they fell differently. Śakuni again took up the dice. He closed his eyes and held them tight, then called for an eight. The dice rolled across the polished wooden board and came to a stop on eight.

Śakuni pointed to the dice like an excited child. “See, I have won again.” His laughing voice echoed round the hall.

Yudhiṣṭhira remained impassive. He had little chance of defeating Śakuni at the game. The Gandhara king had practically made dice his life and soul. He played always with experts. Backed by Duryodhana’s resources he would also be impossible to overcome at staking. Yudhiṣṭhira said, “I shall stake my sacred, victorious and splendid chariot, equal to one thousand other chariots. It is made of refined gold and covered with tiger skins. Its wheels resound like thunder when it is driven, it is adorned with a thousand bells, and it is drawn by eight steeds as white as moonbeams and swifter than the wind itself.”

It was Śakuni’s turn to cast first again. He called out his number and the dice fell as if at his command. “I win!” His voice mixed with the laughter of Duryodhana and his brothers. They taunted Yudhiṣṭhira, “What will you stake next, O Emperor?”

Yudhiṣṭhira sat surrounded by his brothers. All of them glared at Duryodhana. Arjuna reached over and touched Yudhiṣṭhira’s shoulder. He shook his head slightly as his elder brother turned toward him, but Yudhiṣṭhira said, “I have one hundred thousand serving girls who are all young and richly adorned with costly garments and gold ornaments, and who are all skilled in the sixty-four arts of service, especially dancing and singing. At my command, they wait upon celestials, Brahmins and kings. These shall be my next stake.”

“Consider it matched,” said Duryodhana with a smile. Once again Yudhiṣṭhira failed to throw the number he called, but Śakuni rolled the dice with consummate skill and won the throw. “Ha, I win again!”

On the royal podium Dhṛtarāṣṭra leaned forward and eagerly asked Vidura, “What was the stake? What has been won?” Vidura moved uneasily. He could not tolerate seeing the Pāṇḍavas being robbed by such deceitful means. He watched in pain as Yudhiṣṭhira lost throw after throw. The Pāṇḍava staked thousands of elephants, chariots, celestial horses and countless other draught animals. He put up hundreds of thousands of soldiers with all their weapons and armory. Precious stones, gold and other valuable metals were staked by Yudhiṣṭhira as he became gripped by the fever of the game. All that could be heard was Yudhiṣṭhira calling out the stake, Śakuni crying out, “I have won!” and then the Kauravas’ loud laughter.

Bhīma was seething with anger. From the time that Duryodhana had tried to poison him, he had longed to face the Kaurava prince in an open and fair fight. This kind of devious and cowardly antagonism was unbearable. Without Yudhiṣṭhira’s order, however, he could say or do nothing. Arjuna also longed to string his bow and challenge his guileful cousins to open combat, but he too felt constrained by Yudhiṣṭhira. He could only watch in agony as they were humiliated by the sneering Duryodhana and his brothers.

Vidura could tolerate no more. He stood up suddenly and, within everyone’s hearing, said to Dhṛtarāṣṭra, “O King, listen carefully. I shall say something which will be disagreeable to you as medicine is to a dying man. When the sinful wretch Duryodhana was born and he cried like a jackal, I told you then to reject him. You did not accept my advice, although it was clear he would cause the destruction of our house. Can you not now see that prophesy coming to pass?”

The game stopped. All the kings stared at Vidura. Duryodhana scowled, but his father remained silent. Vidura continued, “Hear the ancient advice of Sukra, the celestial ṛṣi. Those who seek to collect honey from a high place become so absorbed in their aim that they do not see the drop that awaits them. Ascending to dangerous heights they fall and perish. Your son, maddened by gambling, is the collector of honey. Creating hostilities with the powerful Pāṇḍavas, he does not see the fall which awaits him.”

Vidura looked straight at the blind king as he spoke. He reminded him of how the evil king Kaṁsa had been rejected and slain by his own people in order to save their dynasty. Similarly, the Kauravas should reject Duryodhana. The king should order Arjuna to kill him at once. “In this way, O King, purchase these peacocks, the Pāṇḍavas, at the cost of this crow. Do not sink into an ocean of grief for the sake of one crooked family member. There was once a bird that vomited gold. A foolish king obtained this bird and out of greed killed it in order to enjoy the gold more quickly. Thus he destroyed both his present and future happiness. O Dhṛtarāṣṭra, do not imitate that king by persecuting the Pāṇḍavas for the sake of their wealth. Instead, be like the flower-seller who cherishes his trees with affection and thus picks flowers from them continuously.”

Vidura warned the king of the consequences of forming an enmity with the Pāṇḍavas. Not even the celestials could face them in battle. “If the gambling continues there will be war wherein the Kauravas and all their allies will be destroyed. You will be the cause of this war, O King, because you alone have the power to stop your son. Still you remain silent. I can see that you are enjoying your son’s success. A man who follows another’s heart even against his own better judgment sinks into affliction, like a man going to sea in a boat guided by a child. Do not, O King, follow a wretch into the terrible fire that has blazed forth. When Ajātaśatru and his brothers are robbed of their kingdom and become angry, who will be your refuge in that hour of confusion? Why do you seek the Pāṇḍavas’ wealth? You can earn as much as you like without gambling. Win instead these tigers among men who are worth more than any amount of wealth! Send Śakuni back to Gandhara. Do not wage a war that will destroy you to your roots.”

Duryodhana could take no more. He leapt to his feet. Seeing that his father remained silent, he rebuked Vidura harshly. “Now we can see your true nature. Rejecting those who maintain you, you side with the enemy. O Khattwa, there is no greater sin than injuring one’s supporter. How do you not fear this sin? You are shameless, ungrateful and disobedient to your elders. Why do you accuse me? Where is my fault? As water flows downwards, so I act how my nature dictates. I have received my nature from the Supreme. He controls all men’s actions. You may go wherever you please. We cannot shelter enemies or those who are envious of their own protectors. An unchaste wife, however well treated, always forsakes her husband.”

Vidura shook his head in despair. He again addressed Dhṛtarāṣṭra. “O King, tell me honestly what you think of those who reject the advice I have given? Surely a king’s heart is unsteady. They grant protection one moment, then strike with weapons the next.”

Vidura turned toward Duryodhana. “O prince, you consider me foolish, but consider instead him to be a fool who ignores a well-wisher’s advice. There are plenty of sinful men in this world who will speak agreeable words, but one who speaks what is disagreeable but beneficial is rare. Such a man is a king’s true friend who, without considering what is agreeable or not, speaks and acts only according to virtue.”

Duryodhana laughed derisively. “Fie on old Khattwa! What good can he do for us?”

Ignoring Duryodhana’s rebuke, Vidura pointed to the Pāṇḍavas. “Here are five enraged serpents with venom in their eyes. Do not rouse them further. O great King, drink that which is drunk by the honest and shunned by the dishonest: humility. Humility is a bitter, pungent, burning, unintoxicating and revolting medicine, but drink it deeply and regain your sobriety. I bow to you and wish you well. Act swiftly to avert the calamity that has arrived at our door.”

Vidura took his seat near Dhṛtarāṣṭra, but still the blind king remained silent. Duryodhana laughed and turned back to the game. He told Śakuni to continue and the Gandhara king asked Yudhiṣṭhira, “O King, you have lost much wealth. Tell me, do you still have more which you can stake?”

Yudhiṣṭhira replied, “O son of Suvala, I have gold counted in tens of thousands, millions, tens of millions, billions, hundreds of billions and even more. All of this I shall stake here now. Throw again.”

Śakuni smiled and cast the dice. As if charmed, they fell upon whatever number he called. Again and again his voice rose above the silence in the hall. “I have won!” Yudhiṣṭhira played like a man possessed. He seemed intent on losing everything. He staked all of his innumerable cows, horses, goats, sheep and other animals. Having lost his entire wealth, he then staked his kingdom itself. That too was lost and Śakuni said, “It appears that you have lost everything, O King.”

Yudhiṣṭhira’s head hung down and sweat covered his face. Surely it was time to end the game, but something within him impelled him to continue. He thought of Kṛṣṇa. If only He was present, He would certainly save the situation. But Kṛṣṇa was the supreme controller of everything. Perhaps He may still arrange for him to get back all that he had lost. Yet what was there left to stake? Yudhiṣṭhira looked at his brothers.

The hall remained silent as Yudhiṣṭhira replied to Śakuni, “Here is the youthful and fair-complexioned Nakula, adorned with gold and jewels and shining like a celestial. This mighty-armed prince shall be my next stake.”

Moments later Śakuni’s voice was heard again, “Lo, I have won him.”

Yudhiṣṭhira breathed heavily. By his side Bhīma and Arjuna both clenched their fists in silent fury as Yudhiṣṭhira turned toward Sahadeva. “This handsome prince Sahadeva administers justice exactly like Yamarāja and has acquired a reputation for learning in this world. Although he does not deserve to be staked, still I shall play with such a dear object as my stake.”

The dice were rolled and the monotonous voice rang out again, “See, I have won him also.”

Śakuni looked at Yudhiṣṭhira with cunning in his eyes. “It seems that Bhīma and Arjuna are more dear to you than Mādrī’s sons, for they have not yet been staked.”

Yudhiṣṭhira’s eyes turned red with anger. “Fool! Disregarding morality you sinfully try to create disunion among us who are all of one heart.”

Śakuni, not wanting the game to end, replied hastily, “O King, in the excitement of play a gambler may say things which he would never otherwise utter. I bow to you. You are senior to me in every way. Let us now continue.”

Yudhiṣṭhira looked at Arjuna. Surely Kṛṣṇa would not allow His own dear friend to be lost. “He who takes us like a boat to the other shore of battle, who is ever victorious over foes and who is the greatest hero in this world--with that prince as my stake do I now play.”

Duryodhana leaned forward eagerly as Śakuni threw the dice. Karṇa sat silently next to him. He was happy to see his friend winning the game, but he would have preferred a fair fight with the Pāṇḍavas on the battlefield. Dushashana and the other brothers of Duryodhana rubbed their hands in glee as the dice stopped and Śakuni cried, “I have won!”

Śakuni gathered up the dice and looked at Yudhiṣṭhira, who sat downcast and shocked. “We have now won this foremost of bowmen, O King. Stake the powerful Bhīma, the only wealth you have left.”

Yudhiṣṭhira shook his head. There was no turning back. Slowly he replied, “Although he does not deserve to be staked, I now play with this prince, who is our leader, who fights like the thunder-wielder Indra. This illustrious hero with the lion-like neck, arched eyebrows and expansive eyes, who cannot tolerate an insult, whose prowess is unmatched in this world, and who grinds all foes--he is now staked. Roll the dice.”

Bhīma looked at Duryodhana with narrowed eyes. He longed to grasp the sneering prince by the neck, but without Yudhiṣṭhira’s permission he remained still. The dice rolled inexorably onto the number called by Śakuni. Bhīma was lost.

Laughing again, Śakuni said, “O King, you have lost your gold, your jewels, your animals, your kingdom and even your brothers. Is there anything still remaining that you can stake?”

Yudhiṣṭhira looked up at Śakuni. “I alone am left, the eldest of my brothers and beloved by them all. If you win me, then I shall do whatever a slave is obliged to do.”

Śakuni released the dice and called out, “You are won!” He turned to all the kings in the assembly and proudly boasted how he had won the Pāṇḍavas one by one. Then he smiled at Yudhiṣṭhira and said, “You have lost even yourself, O King, an act worthy of a sinful man. When you still have wealth, you should not stake yourself. You still have one stake dear to you. Bet Draupadī, the princess of Pañchāla, and with her win yourself back.”

Yudhiṣṭhira ground his teeth in silent anguish. His thoughts were in turmoil. How could he stake Draupadī? But there was nothing else left. His kingdom was gone and he had cast his brothers and even himself into slavery. That had been a terrible mistake. How had he let himself get so carried away? Now Draupadī was his only chance to turn things round. He had to bet her. What else could he do? What shelter did she now have anyway? All her husbands were lost. Confused and praying fervently to Kṛṣṇa, the Pāṇḍava looked up at the laughing Śakuni.

“I shall now stake she who is neither short nor tall, neither lean nor corpulent, who has bluish-black curly hair and whose eyes resemble the leaves of an autumn lotus. That princess whose fragrance is like a lily and who is as beautiful as the goddess Lakṣmī, who possesses every accomplishment, who is the last to take rest and the first to rise due to caring for us all, and who is such that anyone would desire her--she shall be my final stake.”

When Yudhiṣṭhira said this his brothers were horrified. The Kuru elders loudly called out, “Fie! Fie!” The whole assembly became agitated and the pious kings present there began to grieve with tears flowing from their eyes. Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Kṛpa were all covered in perspiration. Vidura sat sighing like a snake. But Dhṛtarāṣṭra, glad at heart, was unable to conceal his emotions and he asked repeatedly, “Is the stake won?”

Śakuni’s face was flushed with excitement. Once more the dice obeyed his command and he shouted, “She is won! She is won!” Duryodhana and Karṇa laughed and slapped their hands together. Mocking the anguished Yudhiṣṭhira, Śakuni jeeringly repeated again and again, “You still have one stake dear to you. Bet her, O Yudhiṣṭhira,” rolling the dice as he spoke.

Duryodhana turned to Vidura. “Come, O Khattwa. Bring Draupadī, the Pāṇḍavas’ dear wife. Let her be forced to sweep the chambers. Let the unfortunate woman now live with the serving maids.”

Vidura retorted, “O wicked man, you do not see that by such words you are tying a noose around your neck. Do you not realize that being but a deer, you are provoking the anger of so many tigers? You have placed on your head five venomous snakes. Do not agitate them further or you will soon go to Yamarāja’s abode.”

Vidura looked around the assembly as he continued. “Draupadī cannot be considered a slave because Yudhiṣṭhira lost her after losing himself. He was therefore not in a position to stake the princess. Like the bamboo which bears fruit on the point of death, the foolish Duryodhana wins treasures at dice. Completely intoxicated, he does not see the terrors that this game will bring.”

Vidura went before Dhṛtarāṣṭra. “You should check your son now, O King. Only low-class men utter painful words which offend others. Kuntī’s sons never use the kind of harsh speech in which Duryodhana indulges. His behavior is condemned by those who are learned. Stones may float and boats may sink, but this foolish prince will never heed good advice. He does not see that dishonesty is one of the fearful gates to hell through which he is leading his brothers and the entire Kuru race. He will certainly be the cause of our destruction.”

Duryodhana laughed. “Fie on Khattwa,” he sneered. Looking around he saw the chief servant of the palace and he called out to him, “Pratikamin, bring Draupadī here. You have nothing to fear from the Pāṇḍavas. It is only Vidura who raves in fear.”

The Pāṇḍavas sat with their heads bowed. In the presence of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Bhīṣma and Droṇa, Yudhiṣṭhira remained silent, as they had done. He was stupefied with sorrow. His attachment for gambling had brought about utter ruination. Now, before everyone’s eyes, the chaste Draupadī was about to be humiliated. Yet what could he do? With the sole exception of Vidura, his elders were saying nothing. If they, and especially Dhṛtarāṣṭra, approved of Duryodhana’s acts, then he was helpless. He had never transgressed their orders. To him, his superiors were as good as God. He accepted their commands as coming directly from the Supreme Lord. The terrible events unfolding must somehow be the Lord’s arrangement. Seeing Yudhiṣṭhira sitting silently, his brothers also remained passive, although they yearned to stop Duryodhana from his intention to insult Draupadī.