What type of game did Shakuni and Yudhishthir play? They had no counter and no game-board. Both sides would announce stakes and throw the dice. He whose throw was greater won. The dice-game chapter of the Sabha Parva (Book of the Assembly Hall) states that on each occasion after hearing Yudhishthir announce the stake, Shakuni cheated while throwing the dice and said to Yudhishthir, “I’ve won”. From this it is clear that with each throw of dice a turn of the game was complete.
Many do not know that, a few days before the Kurukshetra war, Yudhisthir had played yet one more dice-game with Shakuni. It is difficult to say why Vyasdev omitted this third dice-assembly chapter from Mahabharat. Perhaps there was some political reason; or he might have thought that in the coming Kali era revealing the secret of cheating at dice would prove harmful to public welfare. In the present scientific age, compared to the ways of cheating that have emerged, Shakuni-Yudhishthir’s dicing was merely a child’s play. Therefore, revealing that ancient secret now will not be too harmful.
One morning, twenty-five days before the Kurukshetra war, Yudhisthir was seated in his camp listening to Sahadev reading out the list of provisions that had been collected. Arjun had gone to the Panchal camp to attend a council. Nakul was busy with army exercises. The hundred clubs Bhim had ordered had arrived and now he was twirling them one by one, dedicating each to one of the sons of Dhritarashtra. All the clubs were made of sal wood, only one was topped with cotton wool wrapped up in cloth. This was meant for Duryodhana’s eighteenth brother, Vikarna. That chap’s conduct was okay and during Draupadi’s violation he had protested strongly.
Sahadev was reading out, “Twelve maunds of maize, eight lakh maunds of ground chick-pea, fifty lakh maunds of chick-pea whole”—
Yudhishthir was getting irritated listening to the list. But it would look bad if no interest was displayed; so he asked, “Will that be enough?”
Sahadev said, “Oh yes. Only seven akshauhinis after all; and for the battle to end it will take, at the most, twenty days. Plenty will die daily. Listen, after that — ghee, one lakh jars”—
“You’ll have me on the streets I find! Where will I get all that money?”
“What need of money? I’ve got everything on credit. After victory, repay with sweet words. Oil two lakh jars, salt half a lakh maunds”—
“Enough, enough. Whatever has to be arranged, get it done. Why bother me? I understand a ruler’s duties, moral codes. Totting up tallies is a Vaishya’s job. It makes no sense to me.”
At this time the door-keeper arrived and announced, “Dharma-raj, King of Virtue, a well-dressed hunchback seeks audience. He will not give his name and says that his message is top secret, to be delivered only in person.”
Sahadev said, “Maharaj is now busy with matters of state. Ask him to come in the afternoon.”
Yudhishthir was desperate to get out of Sahadev’s clutches. He said, “No, no, bring him in right now, here itself.”
The visitor was old, with a crooked back, a wrinkled, clean-shaven face, a huge turban on his head, a blue necklace round his neck, wearing a long shirt over loose pyjamas. Touching folded hands to his forehead he said, “Victory to Lord of Rectitude, Dharma-raj Yudhishthir!”
Yudhishthir asked him, “Who are you, venerable sir?”
The visitor replied, “Great King, Maharaj, forgive my impertinence, but my words are only for the royal ears.”
Yudhishthir said, “Sahadev, you may leave now.” Annoyed, Sahadev left plagued by a nagging suspicion.
The visitor spoke softly, “Maharaj, I am Subal’s son Matkuni, Shakuni’s step-brother.”
“What! You are our venerable maternal uncle! Pranam, pranam — how fortunate we are! Pray be seated on this lion-throne.”
“No Maharaj, this low seat suits me. I am a maidservant’s son, unfit for such reception”
“Alright, alright! Then sit on that jackal-skin covered seat. Now pray state what need brings you here. Uncle, I have never seen you before.”
“How would you, Maharaj! I live in hiding. Moreover, the last thirteen years I have been abroad. My hunch does not permit me to follow Kshatriya mores. Therefore, I have acquired proficiency in magical arts. The divine architect Vishvakarma has blessed me with a boon. Eldest of Pandavs, I hear you are extraordinarily adept at gambling and you have your finger on the very pulse of dice”.
“Hmmm… So people do say.”
“Yet you have been routed by Shakuni. Do you know why?’
Frowning, Yudhishthir said, “Shakuni defeated me by cheating at dice unrighteously.”
With a lop-sided grin Matkuni responded, “In gambling there’s no such thing as cheating and playing fair. The dice-game in which both parties depend wholly on luck is termed ‘fair’. If one player depends on luck and the other wins by his own efforts, then the defeated party usually complains of cheating. King of Dharma, your luck lost out to the throw of dice cast by Shakuni’s prowess. If you take recourse to a mightier force, against Ravana’s missile use Rama’s, the goddess of dice will garland you alone.”
“Uncle, I fail to catch your drift. People say that within Shakuni’s dice a golden plate is fixed on one side. By its weight only that side falls face-down revealing the greater number face-up.”
“Great king, people know nothing at all. Many do play with gold or mercury impregnated dice, true; but their fall is not definite. Among many throws some are bound to go wrong. You have played at many stakes, but have you won even once?”
Yudhishthir sighed deeply and said, “Not even once.”
“Then? Shakuni’s not a greenhorn gambler. He never played against you without infallible dice.”
“But what’s the point of all this talk now. War is impending; there’s no chance of another dice-game, and I do not have the means of defeating Shakuni either.”
“Son of Dharma, do not despair! Listen now to my secret: Shakuni’s dice was made by me. Within it have I established a magical mantric mechanism because of which its throw is infallible. Wicked Shakuni, having learnt the art from me, discarded me as an elephant excretes a wood-apple. He had assured me that after exiling the Pandavs, Duryodhan would install me on the throne of Indraprastha. After you left for the forest, when I reminded Duryodhan of the promise he said, ‘I know nothing of this. Speak to Uncle.’ Shakuni said, ‘What do I know? Go to Duryodhan.’ Ultimately, these two despicable creatures, using tricks and force, consigned me to the dungeons of far-off Bahlik country. After thirteen years, somehow I managed to escape and have sought sanctuary with you.”
Yudhishthir said, “Oh, and now it’s me you wish to throw like dice and win a kingdom!”
“Dharma-raj, forgive my previous fault. What has happened has happened. Know me now as your supreme well-wisher. Dwarf-like I stretched out my hands for the Indraprastha-moon. That is why I have suffered such calamity. After you are victorious, if you give me the Gandhar kingdom by driving away Shakuni, I will be satisfied only with that.”
“As reward for the disaster piled on my head by the dice you made?”
Biting his tongue Matkuni said, “Please don’t raise that topic again, Great King. Hear me out. I have received secret information that Sanjay has been dispatched by Dhritarashtra and is coming here. Egged on by Duryodhan and Shakuni, that blind king is summoning you once again to a dice-game. Great king, do not let this great opportunity slip by.”
Just then the rumbling of chariot wheels was heard. Matkuni said anxiously, “There, Sanjay has arrived. I beg you, Maharaj, please do not reject Dhritarashtra’s proposal out of hand. Say that you will reply later after considering the matter. When Sanjay has left, I will tell you everything. For the present, I am hiding in the next room.”
After the usual formalities of enquiring after their welfare, Sanjay broached the reason for his arrival: “O best of Pandavs, Kuru King Dhritarashtra had wanted to send Vidura to you, but on Vidura refusing to undertake this unpleasant task on any account, it is I who have had to come at the royal command. I am but the messenger; do not blame me. Dhritarashtra has spoken thus:
‘Yudhishthir my son, the five of you are as dear to me as my hundred sons. It is my bounden duty to prevent this destructive fratricidal war at any cost. I am powerless, old and blind. My sons are disobedient and eager for battle. After racking my brains, I have decided that, instead of violent armed confrontation, it is the non-violent dice-game that can resolve the enmity of both parties. With great difficulty, I have been able to get my sons and their friends to consent to this arrangement. Hence, come with all your dear ones to the Kaurav camp and once again engage in a throw of dice with the same stake as last time: the Kuru-Pandav kingdom. If Duryodhan’s representative Shakuni loses, the Kauravs will depart from the kingdom with their retinue for the forests forever. If you lose, then you too will have to give up hope of the kingdom and retire to the forest permanently. My son, do not fear deception. I will keep ready two sets of dice. You can, with your own hands, select one. Shakuni will play with the other dice.’
‘What can be more unexceptionable than this arrangement? I anxiously wait to hear from Sanjay of your concurrence. My dear Yudhishthir, may your discrimination work for the welfare of your five brothers and save the lives of eighteen armies along with the Kuru-Pandavs.’”
Yudhishthir asked, “Are these words my elder uncle’s own? I get the feeling that they are his counsellors’, Duryodhan and Shakuni, and the old Kuru king has merely recited them by rote like a shuka bird. Profoundly wise Sanjay, what do you advise me to do?”
“Son of Dharma, I am merely the bearer of the Kuru King’s message as commanded. I have no right to intimate my own views. Depend on statesmanship and righteousness and your welfare will be assured.
“Then inform the Kuru monarch that he has placed me in an extremely difficult situation. I will reply to him after carefully considering the matter. Now please rest and have food. Return tomorrow.”
“No, Maharaj, I have to return immediately. Rest is out of the question. Victory to the son of Dharma!” With this, Sanjay took leave.
Emerging from the side-door Matkuni said, “Maharaj, you have answered correctly. Now, listen carefully to my advice. This very afternoon dispatch a trusted emissary to Dhritarashtra without letting your brothers know. Your messenger will say, ‘O venerable eldest uncle, your word is my command. Even though it is most detestable, I accept this third dice-game. I do not require your dice and will depend on my own. Shakuni too will play with his own. I also accept the stake you have proposed. Only one condition I beg you to accept: Shakuni and I will both play with only one dice each and the dice will be thrown only thrice. Whoever’s cumulative throw is greater will be the winner.”
Yudhishthir said, “O Subal’s son Matkuni, you are my maternal uncle by relation; but now it seems you are senile. How dare I challenge Shakuni once again? If you provide me with dice like Shakuni’s, then the encounter will be between equals. But even then, where is the assurance of my victory? What is the reason for objecting to the dice arranged by Dhritarashtra? What is the intention behind restricting the game to three throws when the more the number of throws the greater the chance of scoring more points? And what is the proof that you are not Duryodhan’s spy?”
Matkuni replied, “Maharaj, peace-be still! All your doubts shall I slice through. If you play with the dice chosen by Dhritarashtra, your defeat is inevitable. Cunning Shakuni will never play with that dice. Like a magician, by sleight of hand he will change it in a flash for his own and play only with that. I did not lie idle in the Bahlik dungeons for so long. After tireless research have I created a dice infused with even greater mantric power. This amazing creation infused with a new mechanism shall I place in your hands. Shakuni’s dice will become ineffectual the moment it nears this. Maharaj, there is not the slightest doubt of your victory. Your brothers are greedy for war. They are not steady-willed and far-seeing like you. They will obstruct you. Consequently, you will lose this great opportunity for a bloodless victory. First send the message to Dhritarashtra, then inform your brothers. Should they criticise you, remain unmoved Himalaya-like.
“But Draupadi? Haven’t you heard her bitter recriminations?”
“Maharaj, women’s anger is like flaming straw. It does not split apart a mountain. It’s just a matter of a few days, after all. Once you win, the lips of all slanderers will be sealed. Further, listen-my instrument is most delicate. Therefore, throwing it too often in a single day is not permissible. Shakuni’s dice, too, does not remain potent for long. That is why he will gladly agree to your proposition. For your victory, three throws are enough. The dice is with me. Test it and see.”
Matkuni took out an ivory dice from the bag at his waist. Yudhishthir noticed that the dice was like Shakuni’s, equally well made and smooth, with slightly convex faces, a fine hole at the centre of each dot.
Matkuni said, “ Maharaj, throw it thrice”.
Yudhishthir did so. All three times, the throw showed a six. Surprised, he tried to inspect the dice, but Matkuni snatched it away and replacing it in his bag said, “This mantra-infused dice is not to be handled unnecessarily as that affects its special powers.”
Yudhishthir said, “Your dice is dependable no doubt. But who will stand guarantee that you will not betray us?”
“My head is forfeit. Take me into custody from now on with two guards in constant attendance with drawn swords. Order them that if news of your defeat arrives, they should behead me. Maharaj, now do you believe me?”
“I do. But if Shakuni’s mantrik dice is bested by my even more magical dice, then it will be a dharma-violating, cheating dice-game.”
“Alas, Maharaj, alas, even now your fear of cheating hasn’t vanished! When both of you are going to play with mechanism-infused mantric dice, then where is the cheating? In a wrestling match if your strength is greater than the opponent’s, then is that cheating? If your strategy is cleverer, is that cheating? The cunning mechanism inherent in Shakuni’s dice is, after all, mine and the more cunning trick in your dice is mine too. Dharma-raj, in this third dice-game actually it is I who am either side. Shakuni and you are merely instruments.”
Yudhishthir said, “Matkuni, your lecture makes my head spin. The path of Dharma is too subtle and I am in great difficulty. On the one hand is life-annihilating ruthless war; on the other, cheating at dice. Both I detest; but just as rejecting a challenge to battle is against royal dharma, so too, ignoring my elder uncle’s offer is against my nature. Therefore, I am obliged to act upon your advice. Right now, I’ll dispatch a messenger to the Kuru King. From now on, you will remain in a secret place guarded by armed sentries. Neither Kuru nor Pandav will know of you. If I win, you get Gandhar; if I lose, you die. Now, give me your dice.”
“Maharaj, if the dice remains with you, it will lose its special powers in the absence of proper care. Let it remain with me. I will constantly reinforce its mantric force and will hand it over to you before you depart. If you wish, you can visit me daily to practise with it.”
Yudhishthir said, “ Matkuni, your useless life is now at my mercy. But my brains, my kingdom, my dharma-all are in your hands. There is no way out for me but to be guided by you.”
The next day, Yudhishthir informed his brothers of the coming dice-game. This news of Dharma-raj’s idiocy stunned everyone for a moment. After that what was said to him needs no elaboration. Unmoved, Yudhishthir sat through all the criticism silently and finally said, ‘Brothers, I am your eldest. All of you call me King. A king can decide on his duty even without taking the advice of others. Rather than killing innumerable men in war, I prefer to decide our fate in the dice-game assembly hall. Why I don’t have the slightest doubt about victory I cannot reveal now. If you are unable to depend on me, then speak clearly. I will inform the Kuru King, “O elder uncle, I have been discarded by my brothers who no longer consider me lord of the Pandavs. I no longer have the authority to stake the kingdom in the dice game assembly hall. As penance for breaking my word, I am giving up my life by entering fire. Please carry out your duties.” ’
Then Arjun, touching his elder’s feet, said, “Lord of Pandavs, be gracious and forgive our harsh words. Know that in all matters I am your obedient follower.”
After that Bhim, Nakul and Sahadev, too, begged Yudhishthir’s pardon. Blessing all of them, Yudhishthir went to his apartments.
So far, Draupadi had not uttered a word. There is no point in rebuking one who is so shameless that even after losing twice and suffering extreme hardship he wishes to gamble once again. After Yudhishthir had left, Draupadi threw a piercing glance at Sahadev and said, “Youngest Arya, what are you staring at with your mouth hanging open? Get up and rush immediately to Dvaraka on a swift four-horse-drawn chariot. Inform Vaasudev of everything and bring him back at once. It is he who is the only recourse. You five brothers are five useless, senseless blocks.”
Within ten days, Sahadev returned with Krishna to the Pandav camp. Alighting from the chariot, Krishna said, “Elder brother has also come.” Happily, Yudhishthir exclaimed, “What joy, what happiness! Draupadi is so fortunate indeed that at her call neither Krishna nor Balaram can be at rest!”
A little later Balaram arrived on Daruk’s chariot and greeting them from the chariot itself he said, “Dharma-raj, I heard you have made preparations for excellent entertainment. I do not wish to witness war between Kuru and Pandav, but am extremely eager to see your game. I shall not alight here. If both brothers stay with Pandavs, we will earn infamy for being partisan. Besides, here there are no good arrangements for drinks. Let Krishna stay here. I will accept the hospitality of Duryodhan. We shall meet again in the dice assembly-hall. Drive on, Daruk!” Saying this, Balaram left for the Kaurav camp.
With all royal panoply, the assembly hall was arranged for the dice game. Dhritarashtra could not be at peace. He had come for a couple of days from Hastinapur to the Kaurav encampment and would return after ascertaining the results of the game. His faith in Shakuni’s skill was boundless. He hadn’t the slightest doubt about the Kauravas winning.
In the assembly hall, after Krishna, Balaram, the five Pandavs, Duryodhan, his brothers and Dhritarashtra, Shakuni, Drona, Karna and others had all arrived, Bhishma spoke: “I publicly condemn this gambling meet. But I am the Kuru monarch’s servant. Hence, despite the utmost reluctance, I have to witness these shameful proceedings.” Dronacharya said, “I am of the same opinion.”
Bhishma continued, “Maharaj Dhritarashtra, it is necessary to ensure that no illegal or unfair act in violation of the rules of playing dice is committed in this assembly. I propose that Shri Krishna be appointed chairman to regulate the proceedings.”
Duryodhan objected, “Shri Krishna favours the Pandavs.”
Krishna said, “What Duryodhan says is not untrue. Moreover, with my elder brother present, I cannot chair the meet.”
Then, with the consent of everyone, Dhritarashtra appointed Balaram to the task.
Balaram said, “Why delay? Let the game begin. O assembled nobility, in this gambling match Shakuni on the Kaurav side and Yudhishthir on the Pandav side will play for their respective camps using only a single dice each. Each will cast the dice only thrice. The person whose points are the greater will win. The stake of this gamble is the entire Kuru-Pandav kingdom. The loser will hand over the kingdom to the winner and, laying aside all warlike intentions, he will retire to the forest with his party forever. Subal’s son Shakuni, you are the elder; cast the dice first.”
With a laugh Shakuni made his throw and exclaimed, “I win!” Immediately after falling, his dice was seen to roll a little and then remain still, showing six dots on top. Karna, Duryodhan and others shouted with delight, “Victory is ours!”
Balaram said, “Yudhishthir, now it’s your turn to play.”
Yudhishthir’s dice turned over once and remained steady. It, too, displayed six dots. Pandavs exclaimed, “ Dharmaraj’s victory!”
Balaram said, “You’re all making a lot of noise unnecessarily. No one has won. Both parties are equal so far.”
Grimly Shakuni said, “Two throws are still left. I’ll win both.”
The second time, Shakuni’s dice did not roll at all. It remained stationary after falling, showing five dots. Yudhisthir’s dice showed six as before. Shakuni noticed his dice was quivering.
The Pandav camp roared in exultation. Rebuking them, Balaram said, “Beware! Another shout and I’ll evict you from the assembly.”
Silence descended. With bated breath, every eye strained to see the final throw.
Shakuni, gone pale, threw the dice for the third time. The dice fell with a thud like a lump of clay-a single dot!
Yudhishthir threw six again. Balaram announced in a thunderous voice, “The victory is Yudhisthir’s.”
At that moment, everyone noticed with amazement that the dice cast by Yudhishthir was making tiny hops, inching towards Shakuni’s dice.
The assembly burst into uproar.- “Maya! Maya! Illusion! Magic!”
Flinging about his arms and legs, Duryodhan shouted, “Yudhisthir has cheated! We do not accept his victory. Does any decent man’s dice ever move about?”
Balaram declared, “I will inspect both the dice.”
Yudhisthir immediately picked up his dice and handed it over to Balaram. Shakuni closed his fist around his and said defiantly, “I will not allow anyone to touch my dice.”
Balaram frowned and said, “I am chairman of this assembly and my order has to be obeyed.”
Shakuni sneered in reply, “I am not bound to obey you.”
Balaram was slightly inebriated. Waxing furious, he administered a slap on Shakuni’s cheek and snatching away his dice said, “O assembled people, I shall break open these dice and find out what is inside them.” Saying this, he split open both dice by throwing them on a stone platform.
From Shakuni’s dice a tiny beetle emerged, moving its pincers feebly as if on the verge of death. From Yudhisthir’s dice a tiny lizard came out and immediately attacked the beetle.
The assembly was agitated like a storm-tossed ocean. Anxious, Dhritarashtra demanded to know, “What’s happening?” Balaram answered, “Nothing much. There was a beetle in Shakuni’s dice-“
Apprehensively Dhritarashtra asked, “And it’s bitten someone? How awful!”
“Not bitten anyone, Maharaj. It was inside Shakuni’s dice. This insect is extremely intractable and cannot be overturned or turned on its side. If kept inside a dice, it turns it over to remain upright. From Yudhisthir’s dice a lizard emerged. This creature is even more obdurate. Brahmaa himself cannot upturn him. Sensing the lizard, the beetle was paralysed with fear. That is why Shakuni failed to get his desired throw.”
Dhritarashtra asked, “Then who won?”
Balaram said, “Yudhisthir. Both parties used false dice; therefore, the objection of cheating cannot hold. I have heard Shakuni is very cunning, but now I see that Yudhishthir is even more cunning.”
Yudhisthir then took Balaram aside and narrated the Matkuni matter. Balaram told him. “There is no reason at all for you to feel embarrassed. The use of false dice is permitted by the rules of gambling.”
With supreme indifference Yudhisthir primly stated, “Plough-wielder, you are a mighty hero but know nothing of the scriptures. Listen to what Lord Manu has laid down. He has prescribed that dyuta is that which is played using insentient objects; while that which is played with living creatures is called samahavya. Kuru-raj had summoned me for dyuta of lifeless things but, unfortunately, living creatures have emerged from our dice. Hence this contest is vitiated.”
Karna clapped enthusiastically and said, “Dharmaraj, your name is truly well-deserved.”
Balaram stated, “Dharmaraj’s knowledge of scriptures is vast, although he is somewhat deficient in practical sense. I accept that this contest stands vitiated. In that case, the earlier match is also void, for Shakuni had used the beetle-containing dice in it too. Kururaj Dhritarashtra, because of your brother-in-law’s unrighteous conduct in violation of the scriptures, the Pandavs have unnecessarily had to suffer exile for thirteen years. Now return them their paternal kingdom, otherwise hell definitely awaits you in the next life.”
Excitedly, Yudhisthir exclaimed, “I don’t wish to hear anything. I am disgusted with everything to do with dice. We will win back our kingdom only by war. Elder uncle, pranam, I am leaving.”
The Pandavs then left for their camp with exultant shouts. Krishna and Balaram accompanied them.
Immediately on returning Yudhisthir said, “My first duty is to free Matkuni. This unfortunate fool’s entire effort has gone waste. Come, let’s comfort him.”
A little before this news had reached the Pandav camp that something had gone terribly wrong in the dice-game assembly hall. When Yudhishthir and the rest reached the prison, the two sentries were arguing whether Matkuni’s head should be lopped off or whether, for the present, chopping off his nose would do.
Having heard everything from Yudhisthir, Matkuni beat his head and wailed, “Yes, I find everywhere it is fate that prevails! I overfed the lizard to make it strong. That is why that ungrateful creature jumped about and ruined me. Baladev somehow saved the situation; but Dharmaraj had to mess it all up by quoting scripture. What is the use of freeing me when Duryodhan is bound to kill me?”
Balaram said, “Matkuni, you needn’t worry. Come with me to Dvaraka. There, in an ashram of non-violent ascetics, innumerable utkun-matkun-mashak-mushik etc. are taken care of daily. I will make you its head and you’ll be able to spend your time happily engaged in ever new research.”