Articles,  Dr Kavita Sharma

The Game of Dice

Dr. Kavita Sharma
President of South Asian University & Advisory Council


The pivotal movement in Mahabharata is the game of dice.  Several questions arise: why should a game be a part of a ceremony as solemn as Rajsuya Yagya?  Even if  there has to be a game why should it be a game of dice rather than a game of skill and valor?  Further, why should the whole action turn on the outcome of this game of dice?.   One reason could be that the game of dice represents the unforeseen challenges that a king must endure during his reign.  India.

Significance of a Game or a Sport

A sport or a game can be seen on at least two levels.  Creation in Hinduism is regarded as God’s ‘lila’.  This ‘lila’ takes place both on the level of God  and the level of man.  Hence, we have Ramlila, Krishnalila and the like that are enactments or ‘lilas’ performed by human being of the lives or the earthly ‘lilas’ of Rama or Krishna1.  ‘Lila’ in English is translated as ‘sport’ but this is a very inadequate word.  In any case, there is no element of frivolity associated with ‘lila’ that may be associated with sport though the ‘lila’ itself  may be sportive.  ‘Lila’ can be a game or a theatrical performance.  The world is a sports field or a play.  God creates out of sheer joy not because he wants to acquire or own what he creates.  He also neither creates out of necessity nor because he has any duty to create.  However, since the world is his creative field or ‘lila’, an unknown tale that unfolds, it enables man to accept or transcend personal as well as public tragedy by seeing it as God’s mysterious play.  Also, if this is God’s ‘lila’ it is a make believe and unreal work in which man can only his role as it comes to him as the events group and regroup kaleidoscopically.  Every time the equilibrium is disturbed, the universe regroups or readjusts unfolding unpredictable situations.  Although the work is a ‘lila’, a sport or a play, and hence unreal it has a tremendous impact because man is both an actor and a witness in this cosmic play.  Man parallels God’s ‘lila’ by himself performing ‘lila’ through which several issues pertaining to human life can be explored and resolved for the moment.2

At another level, a sport or a game too can be seen as a make-believe arena or even a theater of war in which winning or losing becomes a life and death matter3.  In Mahabharata, the game of dice is an attempt to settle an issue through play that can otherwise only get resolved through a decisive war.  As Sakuni says,

The fortune over which you have been grieving after you saw it at Pandu’s son Yudhishthira’s, I shall take it from him, let the enemy be challenged !  I shall take no risk, nor fight a battle in front of armies; I shall throw the dice and, whole of body and wise, defeat the fools!  Be sure, the dice are my bows and arrows, the heart of dice my string, the dicing rug, my chariot! 4    The Dicing (51.1)

Why a Game of Dice ?

Dicing is a part of the religious and cultural history of India.  Gambling has two significance in religion.  It is usually discouraged or prohibited.  In Hinduism gamblers are associated with thieves, assassins and other depraved characters.  They are dangerous characters utterly devoid of truth.  Dhritrashtra himself knows the perils of dicing.  He tells Duryodhana:

Enough of dicing, son of Gandhari, Vidura does not approves of it.  Nor would he, in his great sagacity, tell us aught that is in bad faith that I think Vidura is speaking  ……for gambling is found to be divisive.  At a breach the kingdom perishes, therefore avoid it, son.  The Dicing (46.1)

Yudhishthira too knows the dangers.  When Vidura goes to invite him to the game on behalf of Dhritrashtra, he says :

At a dicing, Steward, we surely shall quarrel.

Who, knowing this, will consent to a game? The Dicing (52.1)

Vidura is equally sure that the game will bring disaster.  The most dangerous gamblers have been assembled by Dhritrashtra but, Yudhishthira feels compelled to accept :

It is the King Dhritrashtra’s behest

So, I will not refuse, sage to go to the game

A son will always respect the father:

I shall, Vidura, do as thou tellest me.

I am not, unwilling to play Sakuni,

I were, would recklessly challenge

In that hall….Once challenged I will not refuse,

For so I have sworn for eternity. The Dicing (52.1)

Yudhishthira is well aware that he is going to his ruin:

            Fate takes away our reason

As glare blinds the eye.

Man bound as with nooses

Obeys the Placer’s sway.  The Dicing

Then why does Yudhishthira knowingly go to his doom?  Perhaps because it is a part of the Rajasuya Yagya that Yudhisthira is performing and he feels he is honor bound to follow the rules and not because he has a weakness for gambling as Sakuni would have us believe.  In any case up to this point there is no incident, which exhibits this weakness in Yudhishthira.  The dice game follows the unction and the chariot drive in the ritual.  However, the question still remains why should a game and that too a game of dice be a part of the rituals of Rajasuya Yagya.

Dicing seems to have a special significance when connected with myths and rituals.  Shiva and Parvati play dice and dicing is also a part of Deepawali the beginning of the financial year in Hindu Society.  Dicing involves uncertainty, chance, the vagaries of fortune.  The dice game is representative of the challenges that a king must endure during his reign.  How is a king to seal with them?

Chance As An Essential Part of Creation

Chance appears to be an intrinsic part of the evolutionary development of the world.  Random events seems to operate within an over-arching law-like framework.  As Elizabeth A.Johnson has pointed out the mechanistic view of the world associated with Newtonian physics has been replaced by twentieth century science by a dynamic, open-ended view of the world in which some events are in principle unpredictable, although in retrospect they may make sense5.  At the micro level of the atom and its subatomic particle quantum mechanics uncovers a realm where time, space and matter behave according to laws that have uncertainty built into them.  For example, while it is possible to predict how long a certain mass of radioactive uranium will take to decompose, it is impossible to say which atom will decompose next and why.  This may be because our scientific instruments are still not sophisticated enough bout more likely because reality itself has an element of indeterminacy.  At the macro level, a butterfly fluttering its wings in Beijing may set up an air current that may magnify into a storm in New to a storm in New York.  While the effect of each such individual action can be predicted, the number of such initial conditions that will take place and the effect of their confluence cannot and hence the final outcome also cannot be predicted.

The evolutionary process too is still going on.  It is a process of subtle interplay between chance and law.  For example, the mutation of genes that give rise to new life forms.  Natural selection then rewards the ones that adapt themselves to their environment.  They not only survive but also reproduce.  This process goes on and on with a hundred thousand variables, dead  ends and breakthroughs6.

The emergence of human mind from matter shows the wondrous ability of matter to organize itself to bring forth the truly new from within itself.  Or, as Sri Aurobindo would put it, from the inconscient which had the potential life in it, arose a rich diversity of physical systems and forms in a long complex sequence of self-ordering processes to the point that mind emerged from matter and then this mind seeks to understand the process of how it came to be.  The evolutionary interpretation of the mind as emergent from within the process of matter itself organization leads to a holistic, non-dualistic idea of a human person.  A human being is not composed of two distinct elements of body and mind but is a single entity whose physical structure supports the emergence of the mind.

Out of this apparent in conscience each potentiality is revealed it its turn, first organized matter concealing the indwelling Spirit, the Life emerging in the plant and associated in the animal with a growing Mind, the Mind itself evolved and organized in Man7.

As Elizabeth Johnson says, Mind is not some extraneous element glued on to the brain at some stage of evolution.  Consciousness is a power that emerges gradually inn and through the increasing complexity of those intricately ramified and interlaced structures of the brain.  We are the universe become conscious of itself.  Therefore, material physical reality is richer in possibilities than we are accustomed to think.8

Thus, the laws of nature require the workings of chance if matter is explore its full range of possibilities and emerge towards richness and complexity.  Without chance, the potentialities of the universe would go unactualized.  This has implications for human consciousness and freedom.  Just as the material world moves towards a larger consciousness and freedom.  Just as the material world moves towards a larger evolutionary purpose so too the human consciousness evolves but is free to explore the conditions for the emergence of free and conscious human being as part of the universe.  The ‘Placer’s sway’, then, to use Yudhishthra’s words is not the traditional one of omniscient and omnipotent God who creates and sustains the world, laying down the natural law and miraculously intervening when the occasion requires.  It is God.

Waiting upon the world, patiently acting through its natural processes including unpredictable, uncontrollable random events to bring about the emergence of the new while consistently urging the whole towards fullness of life.9

If this be the case, the question arises what is the nature of Krishna’s intervention on behalf of Draupadi.

The Role of Krishna

Interestingly, Krishna is absent during the game of dice except of intervene on Draupadi’s behalf. Although he has been an active participant up to that time.  He stays for a while after the marriage of Draupadi to the Pandavas.  He is present at the division of the kingdom and helps Arjuna clear up the forest tracts.  He asks Maya to build the Pandavas a magnificent hall for the Pandavas.  He aids Arjuna in abducting his own sister Saubhadra, stays for the marriage and een for their marriage and even for the birth of their son Abhimanyu.  He advises Yudhishthira on the Rajasuya and sees to its successful completion through killing of Jarasandha and Sisupala.  He then has to rush to because he has been attacked by Salva enraged by his brother Sisupala’s dealth.  Hence, the overt reason for his absence from the dice game. However, as Alf Hiltebeitel has pointed out, Krishna’s absence is necessary because otherwise the outcome would have been different 10.  Even if he had been present at Dwarka when the game was announced at Hastinapur he says, he would have come to Hastinapur to prevent it.  As Narayana, or the Divine perhaps he can only be a witness to the unfolding of events as individuals exercise their freedom of choice and the universal order arranges and rearranges itself accordingly.  The canvas of the dice game is the test of a king’s ability to uphold dharma in the face of all unforeseen eventualities is Yudhishthira’s field of action.  However, he cannot allow Draupadi to suffer the final humiliation because she is his soulmate, sakhi, another aspect of himself, another Krsna and his consort Sri to his Vishnu or Narayana.  Once, dharma is lost it has to be re-established and hence the war in which Krishna plays an active role of inspiring and motivating without actually taking up arms.

The Game of Dice and What is at Stake

Vidura goes with the invitation to Yudhishthira although he is opposed to it.  Why is he asked to go and why does he do it?  One, of  course, because he is the king’s counselor bout also because he has a very special place in the society of Mahabharata.  He is born of the union of a brahmin who is outside the material realm and a slave or a sudra who is outside the realm of society itself.  Thus, he is truly a neutral party able to cross the boundaries of case and hierarchies and yet not a part of baronial intrigues.  Besides he is dharma himself while Yudhishthira is the son of dharma.  That is, in this game of dice, the dharma has to be tested.  That is why Sakuni can be unethical but not Yudhishthira.

The crossing of boundaries forms an interesting motif in Mahabharata11.  All the Pandavas are both human bout also have divine origins, as does Bhishma.  Draupadi is both Yagneseni and Sri the consort of Indra.  Examples can be multiplied – Dhrishtadyumna and Ghatotkacha come to mind.  Karna’s position is particularly ambiguous.  He like the Pandavas is the sone of Kunti and a god, the Sun, but he is born before Kunti’s marriage to Pandu.  He is thus, not only both human and divine bout also both a Pandava and not a Pandava.

Yudhishthira is beset by conflict in this crossing of boundaries12.  He is a kshatriya who aspires to be a brahmin, not wanting to deal with worldly desires or possessions.  By the laws of primogeniture he has to take the reigns of kingship but he is a reluctant king who would rather not deal with the mundane world.  He is not even sure that he is qualified to perform the rajasuya but Krishna assures him that he is because he is possessed of all royal virtues or gunas – truth, industry, non-envy, forbearance and firmness.  He is the king of dharma.  The one who rules is the one who serves.  All these qualify him to be Supreme Ruler.

Krishna also points out to Yudhishthira that for him to become a universal sovereign, baronial agreement is necessary.  For this, Jarasandha has to defeated.  He was the King of Magadha who was all powerful.  He had defeated Krishna himself and had to be killed to smoothen Yudhishthira’s path .  It is interesting that Krishna prevaricates in order to convince Yudhishthira and Arjun uses arguments similar to those of Duryodhana while convincing Dhritrashtra.  Also, stratagem and deceit are used to kill Jarasandha who was valiant and noble.  This parallels the deceit during the game of dice and during the war itself.  Again, it is a question of crossing the boundaries between dharma and adharma. Now, what is to be settled through the game of dice?  The main issue is one of kingdom and succession.  The laws of primogeniture demand that the eldest must succeed.  However, for several generations this has not been possible and now things have come to a point when the issue has to be resolved.  The issue of succession between the Kauravas and the Pandavas is not a simple one of good over evil.  Duryodhana certainly has as strong a case as Yudhishthira.

The issue of succession has been a long-standing one in this family.  Santanu, father of Devavrata of Bhishma fell in love with Satyavati, a fisherman’s daughter.  He married her on the promise that her son would inherit the kingdom and to ensure that he took a vow that not only would be never stake his claim but also that he would not marry so that there would be no successors to him.  Hence the law of primogeniture was violated.  Then, Santanu had two sons, Citrangada and Vicitravirya of whom Citrangada the elder dies before getting married.  Vicitravirya has two wives Amba and Ambalika but dies before having any children.  Vyasa, Satyavati’s illegitimate son from Parasara begets sons on the widows according to the rules of Niyoga.  Dhritrastra, the elder, is born blind and hence cannot succeed.  Pandu, the younger therefore becomes the king once again violating primogeniture.  He is however, under a curse that he will die at the moment of intercourse.  Hence, sons are born to Kunti and Madri, the two wives through niyoga.  Santanu himself was the younger son of Rstisena who had got himself installed as king over his elder brother Devapi.  Devapi retired to the forest to practice austerities.  Santanu was cursed with a drought of twelve years and he had to finally implore Devapi’s help who acts as a priest and gets rain13.  Thus, for four generations at least before Duryodhana the question of succession has not been settled.  In the case of Duryodhana and the Yudhishthira the rule of primogoeniture becomes even more difficult to employ.  Duryodhana is the eldest son of Dhritrashtra who was elder to his brother Pandu and who should have been the king but for his blindness.  Hence, Duryodhana’s claim as being the eldest son of the rightful kind.  However, his younger to Youdhishthira the eldest son of the rightfully king.  Hence, if the Kuru branch is taken as a whole, Yudhishthira is the eldest son.  If the claims of Dhritrashtra and Pandu are examined separately, Duryodhana is the rightful heir.  The claims being equally balanced leads to a division of the kingdom and Duryodhana’s dissatisfaction.  Thus, by this generation the skein has got so tangled that perhaps it can only be resolved through the roll of a dice.  The game of dice, then, could have solved the succession but for Sakuni’s unethical meddling which in a sense nullifies the game.

What does Yudhishtira stake?  To begin with all his wealth because he knows that wealth is useless without power.  Then, follows the city, the country and his people’s property that are symbols of power because power is not worth fighting for as long as dharma remains.  Finally go the brothers – Nakula and Sahdeva who represent wealth; and then Arjuna and Bhima who represwent power14.  Finally goes Yudhishthira, king Dharma himself causing transgression of ‘lakshman rekha’ requiring the cosmos to realign itself and so necessitating a war by which the balance can be restored and dharma reinstalled.  At a material level the aim of the game should have been over after winning Yudhishthira.  Then, why does Sakuni challenge Yudhishthira to stake Draupadi?  Perhaps once dharma is lost, honor too is lost.  This is the lowest point to which the Kurus could fall.  Also, Draupadi is seen as an embodiment of Sri, the consort of Lord Indra.  Sri is the embodiment of sovereignty.  Therefore, there cannot be any sovereignty without Sri.  She has also been associated with pre-Aryan fertility goddesses who traditionally bestow wealth.  However, her gift is not freely given.  It has to be begged through ritual and sacrifice.  Also, in order to get Sri, one has to give it  away ad then regain it through ritual.  Yudhishthira literally gives his Sri away by gambling Draupadi.  That is why it is Draupadi who frees Yudhishthira and his brothers through the two boons granted by Dhritrashtra.15.

The game at this point remains inconclusive because the validity of the final and the most vital stake of Draupadi has been made ambiguous by her raising the question of dharma of whether Yudhishthira wagered her before losing himself after.  Since no one can answer this question including Yudhishthira, Bhishma and Vidura the game can only be considered as interrupted.  In any case, the question of succession and kingship has not been resolved.  Yudhishthira feels compelled to return to the game when called upon to do so.  There is the final stake that he loses and is compelled to go into the thirteen year exile.

The game of dice takes place between the Kauravas and the Pandavas two branches of the same tree.  This is the first time that an actual conflict of succession has taken place in which two sides have staked their claim for which they are willing to fight to the finish.  At a metaphysical level this can also be sen as conflict within a divided self.  One portion of the self wins through stratagem and aggression – cheating and insulting Draupadi.  However, this position is not reconcilable and hence one half of the divided self has to be banished, hence the exile of the Pandavas.  Even this cannot resolve the crisis of the divided self.  A true resolution can only be found by confronting the dilemma or the ambiguity of succession and not by side stepping it.  Hence, the game of dice cannot substitute the actual confrontation of war.  The cheating at the game is played out in a larger arena in which every preconceived notion of ethics is wiped out – Yudhishthira cannot tell lies but he does; Krishna vows not to fight but takes up his arms against Bhishma; the dharmayudha degenerates into butchery and naked lust for power.  In a way what Mahbharata shows is that all these presuppositions are childish, that all is lila. As Sri Aurobindo points out, “God’s lila in man moves always in a circle, from a Satyuga to Kaliyuga and through Kaliyuga to the Satyayuga from the age of gold to the age of  urn  and back again through the iron to the gold…. Bout the Kaliyuga is not merely evil, in it the necessary conditions are progressively built up for a new Satyayuga, another harmony, a more advanced perfection

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