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What The Mahabharata’s Dicing Sequence Reveals About Ourselves

The Mahabharata’s dicing game is significant for uncertainty and chance, a function of skill and luck, representing the challenges a king must face and conquer throughout his reign. The beginning of the game initiates a process of unravelling all established Dharma that will eventually find its peak in the war at Kuru-Kshetra when the combatants forgo all combat laws in a zealous attempt to win. What begins as a family game, right after the auspicious Rajasuya Yagna ends in the destruction of order and a violation of the living force of the very Earth – hence in omens that spell out doom.

In the epic, the Kauravas and Pandavas play the game to decide on succession: a result of Duryodhana’s disdain towards the Pandavas’ wealth and suzerainty. It’s not that he has less, what makes him miserable is his cousins have more.

Next, it plays out in a court of justice, meant to uphold and protect Dharma. Here in the court, the sequel to the dicing reveals the paradox and irony in the chronotope.

Third, it is a means to exact revenge and soothe the fire that has taken over Duryodhana’s heart – “Rancor has filled me, and burning day and night, I am drying up like a small pool in hot season.” (all quotes are from the J.A.B. Van Beutenin edition)

These three issues might form the fundamental basis of the dicing sequence and explain how it works as a metaphor and foregrounds the epic overarching idea. Because the epic seeks to work as a microcosm of society and provide an insight into human behaviour that goes beyond its immediate contemporary context to encompass human dilemmas of the 21st century, the dicing sequence acts as a metaphor for life in a lot of ways. 

Creation within Hindu sensibilities is often seen as ‘Lila‘ – which can be loosely and inadequately translated as sport. The entire world then is a play – much like what Shakespeare means when he says, “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players.” Lila takes place at dual levels – God’s Lila of the world and the human Lila of everyday life. Such an understanding enables us to see the world as an ‘unknown tale that unfolds’ – hence as a mystery, allowing us to accept and transcend all tragedy because it exists in a realm without us. We, as humans are mostly insignificant and rarely significant actors in a cosmic play that we cannot hope to fathom in its entirety. Our perspective limits our understanding. Thus the Lila that functions at the humans’ level is momentary – gameplay that can decide life and death. The game of dice, then, is a Lila. Sakuni says, “Be sure, the dice are my bows and arrows, the heart of dice my string, the dicing rug, my chariot!” The Dicing (51.1)

The dice game is considered a sacred ritual and has an inexplicable significance in Indian history and culture. It is inherent with a paradox – for all its sacredness, gamblers were seen as thieves and looked down upon. At the heart of such contradictions lies the danger that dicing entails –”gambling is found to be divisive.” These tensions are not lost upon those who play it to decide the fate of a most illustrious kingdom, nor upon the court that quietly watches. Vyasa does not mince his words:

“As glare blinds the eye.

Man bound as with nooses

Obeys the Placer’s sway. The Dicing (52.1)”

What is the Placer’s way? Is it fate? Is it subscribing to the eternal Lila? Does it refer to predestination without the possibility of free will? If the Placer’s way is supreme, then how does human choice matter? Does foreknowledge enable one to avoid the Placer’s way? If not, then what good is it? These are questions that scholars continue to ask since the epic was first written. But what we know is that the epic constantly emphasises the supremacy of fate, foregrounds human choice in talking about karma, and rejects knowledge favouring instinct. And yet knowing this solves nothing for we cannot unravel the paradox. Thus it becomes necessary to give in to the Placer’s way or the Lila, no matter how defeatist it may seem.

The cover of the Van Beutenin Version features the game of dice, urging us to question the epic’s central idea. But this idea is a tension formed by the dialectic between choice and fate. Dice becomes a metaphor for both. Even as the Placer’s way remains omnipotent, it does not seem to take away from human agency, at least not directly. The world arranges and rearranges itself as individuals exercise their choice. And yet they do not, cannot, know or control the outcome. They may bring subtle shifts to the divine order, but the universe’s way has been predetermined in God’s Lila and remains unchanged. 

In light of all this, one wonders why Yudhisthira chooses to play. The simple answer is that he was abiding by his Dharma – the Kshatriya Dharma that dictated a king cannot refuse a dice game, much like a king cannot refuse a war. Vyasa also tells us that for all his lack of skill, Yudhisthira was fond of the game. This warrants two more questions – why is following Dharma an exercise in expedience? And why, only in this and nothing else, does Yudhisthira do as he pleases. He knows he is unskilled and does not get anyone to play for him; he does not care for the absence of Krishna or the disapproval of Vidura. The one conclusion that I draw is perhaps the eldest Pandava is human after all. He is given to his vices, maybe more so than any of his brothers. After all, no one else’s impulsiveness ever results in staking (and losing) their family. Various scholars have tried to explain what the game of dice means. While Devdutt Patnaik says it shows whether a king has intelligence and luck, others have said that ‘the dice game’s canvas is the test of a king’s ability – to uphold dharma in the face of all unforeseen eventualities is Yudhishthira’s field of action’. While he upheld Dharma in agreeing to play the game, could he keep it in all that happened before, during and after?

If we read the game as playing a part in judging the endowment of skill and intelligence, we will find that Yudhisthira does not fare well in that either. Intelligence in such a situation would be to let a skilled player throw the dice on behalf of the Pandavas. This lack of judgement might be attributed to Krishna’s absence, which also suggests the Pandava’s agency employed without the guiding hand of mother, wife, God, possibly for the first and only time. The dicing sequence is anything but an exercise in obedience – Yudhisthira chooses every throw of the dice, and loses.

 In the Vedic times, all sacred rituals were considered incomplete without the presence of a woman who represented ‘Shakti’ or ‘Sri’ – the feminine creative force. While Draupadi was present at the time of the Rajasuya, she too is absent from the dicing. Draupadi is the embodiment of luck – she brings in the wealth and the alliance that helps the Pandavas claim Indraprastha and rule for the first time. It is through marriage that the banished princes find themselves in a position to return to princely life. Kunti, whose shrewdness remains unmatched by anyone and everyone in the entire epic, recognises the importance of Draupadi much more than her husbands do, even though they are the direct beneficiaries of her luck. This recognition guides her hand when she asks Arjun to share his prize, knowing full well that the award is a woman – and not just any woman. If Panchali can bring luck, she can bring ruin – she has the power to unite the brothers and to divide them. Kunti undoubtedly plays her cards well. Her sons, not so much. They enter the assembly hall without luck and intelligence (without friend/God who had been a puppeteer of sorts and without a wife who had been, to put it colloquially, their trump card)– and the result is a miserable failure. This singular moment alone tells us that perhaps the king is unfit to rule, as a consequence of which, the game of dice fails in its apparent purpose (to solve the fraternal rivalry without resorting to weapons) and the war paves the way for an ashy victory. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to read this turn of events as Vyasa’s cryptic way of saying that when power rests with one who isn’t suited to wield it, power itself becomes meaningless. When the Pandavas finally return and win the war to become kings, they rule over a kingdom of widows. In the cosmic Lila, it had been written that Yudhisthira would never be king. Despite human efforts that win him a throne, he has no subjects except for the bitterness of an entire generation of women who wish death upon him.  

However, a foreshadowing of the downward spiral that will destroy the Pandavas after the dicing can be seen much before the game’s disastrous results. In declaring his wish to hold the Rajasuya Yagna, the eldest Pandava asked for sovereignty, thus breaking all ties with his uncles to claim an autonomous status for Indraprastha. The death of Jarasandha precedes the very coronation of Yudhishtira – killing him was Krishna’s means of exacting vengeance, and the death remains memorable for the brutality and savagery it evoked in Bhima. During the ceremony, a king is humiliated for the disability of his parent, and it is followed by the killing of Shishupala – who, in keeping with the socio-political norm, was justified when he questioned Krishna’s position as the guest of honour only to end up being killed at God’s hand. Following this, several kings turned their backs on Yudhisthira and rejected the Yagna’s authenticity in disgust at the unjust, animalistic actions that had marred its sacredness. One can see the Inklings of the breakdown of the Kshatriya code in all these events. The game might have been played because Dharma did not allow a king to refuse an invitation, but it was foregrounded in the complete rejection of said Dharma.

In the clan, rules of succession had been destroyed and disregarded long ago – Santanu was younger to his brother Devapi and yet became the king. Bhishma gave up his right to throne when he took his near inhuman oath, Pandu becomes the king even though he is younger. His sons who claim the throne are not really his sons. While Duryodhana is the eldest son of the eldest brother, Yudhishtira is the eldest of the generation and the first son of the last king – so for at least four generations, succession hasn’t really followed the codes of primogeniture. This is then the legacy of the elders that has been left behind – expedience has, over the generations, achieved supremacy over Dharma. The elders in the assembly hall – Dritrashtra, who doesn’t stop the game because his sons are winning, Bhishma whose lifelong concern has been to hold the family together, Drona who is far from being a just teacher and Kripa, all watch in silence – they cannot be differentiated from those who twisted and bent Dharma before them and their children who are doing it now – their actions are collectively a reflection of the past and what awaits the Kuru clan in the future. Vidura, the only voice of dissent is somehow lost – something that has happened before and something that will constantly repeat itself. 

The game proceeds with Yudhishtira staking all of his wealth first and eventually playing for his servants and countrymen – the very fact that a king who is supposed to protect his people puts them on stake in an attempt to safeguard his unwavering pride is an indication of whether or not he deserves that position. In the heat of the game, we see Dharma forgetting Dharma, and forfeiting it in the favour of the impossible victory he craves. But he does not stop there, he goes on to play for his brothers and finally for Draupadi – he plays for luck, and he loses it. There is little doubt that by this point he had already staked and lost himself and as master of nothing, he goes on to play without the elders intervening or objecting – except for Draupadi herself and Nature that rises in revolt against the gross inhumanity of the act. For Sri destroyed, in the subtleties of the divine lila, implies doom. The unravelling of the cosmic order is inevitable.

Perhaps the greater tragedy does not lie in how she is dragged out with complete disrespect and made the victim of a very sexual attack – but in the way that the elders, and her husbands, and the women, and everyone else she questions is more concerned about its legality. Years later Irawati Karle would call her a ‘lady pundit’ and she will go on to be the vessel of the widow’s hate, the accursed Kali, the perpetrator of a Great War to which she was as much a victim as all other women. Perhaps the greater tragedy is that Bhishma feels “the law is subtle”. Perhaps the greater tragedy is that Dhritrashtra is not the only blind one in the court. Perhaps the greater tragedy is that Vikarna and the usher are the only two voices of reason – because power hasn’t corrupted them, they don’t have anythingto lose. The rest of the hall is concerned with the throne, the kingship, the matter of succession, the outcome of the game and the family. It is lost upon them that family is coming apart, one thread at a time, in the very act of utter humiliation of the one who embodies creation. Perhaps the greater tragedy is Draupadi’s realisation of her own expendability. But the greatest tragedy of all may be the utter and complete loss of justice, of Dharma in a court that is meant to protect – there is no answer to her question, no respite in her identity as the princess of Panchala or the Kuru queen. 

It isn’t very surprising – because there wasn’t a lot of Dharma in the court to begin with, not in the way the four generations broke the laws of primogeniture , not in the way Yudhishtira was coronated and Rajasuya Yagna desecrated, not in any of the acts of the elders. In the light of all this, what happened to Draupadi was a rising action, like an orchestra reaching its crescendo – all that can come after it is a downfall, a complete unbecoming and undoing. And that is why the dicing is the pivot of the epic – when the adharma of man threatens Shakti, the entire force of creativity, the very Earth, the elements roar in reply, after which there is no going back. The disrobing of she who embodies the Goddess is much more than a simple attack – naked, the Goddess is Kali, wild and bloodthirsty. So her unclothing is the collapse of civilisation, and a move away from ostensibly dharmic, lawful cities to the undomesticated forest and Matsya Nyaya. The marriage had brought the Pandavas out of the forest to the city because the Goddess then, had been Gauri but Kali’s revenge is throwing them right back into the forest, into the savagery of the lawless world that they had helped create. The consequent misery that they would never escape– their wealth and riches were meant to last only so long as they had her favour, when that is lost, all is lost to them.

Thus, when the game of dice, which is, in essence, a structured play, a lila, went out of control – so did the entire clan and the divine Lila. When Vidura relates the story of Prahlada, he says – “But they who explain the law falsely, Prahlada, to the one who brings the question, kill their offerings and oblations for seven generations upward and downward.” For lack of a better word, this is indeed, a premonition. Vyasa makes sure to tell us, “Dharma protected, protects; Dharma violated, destroys.” Dharma is lost and annihilation is rapidly approaching. 

The obliteration of law and Dharma here will be realised in all its magnanimity at Kuru-Kshetra. Here, ordered battle gives way to an animalistic thirst for victory. A woman is brought on the battlefield, Abhimanyu is driven to single handedly fight multiple enemies, Krishna manipulates the sunset, Yudhishtira lies, an unarmed Karna is shot at, Bhima savagely attacks Duryodhana below the belt, sleeping men are killed, and the warriors do not shy away from a descent into cannibalism. The blood that flows and paints the battleground red is almost like a sacrifice to Shakti – to quench her thirst for she had been sucked dry, had suffered because man chose to give up all Dharma. This is the grotesquely powerful image of Draupadi bathing her hair in the blood of Dushasana. 

The fires of Duryodhana’s jealousy find echoes in the fires of Draupadi’s anger, Bhima’s outrage and an ashy victory. The story begins with the fire that births Draupadi who was prophesied to herald change and ends with the flames avenging her when those who are supposed to protect her fail – like cosmic events, scheduled to occur one after the other and lead the world to its end. The final irony is in Draupadis’ scathing resentment of her husbands, the scorn in her words as she is given the two boons and refuses the third for she doesn’t want to be greedy. It is the realisation that she is secondary, but it is also the strength of a woman who refuses to ask for wealth or power because it was the very greed for opulence and control that lead to her woes. She, unlike all others in the court, is self-contained – her Dharma is her power, the power that is tied with all creation, power of the truth that she strives for, power of the fire that burns with her, power that will avenge her – obliterating not just the Kuru clan but the entire known world. It is not so much the revenge of a woman as it is the revenge of Shakti, of the Earth itself.

This pursuit of power begins with the dicing and ends only with the yuganta. But in the throw of the dice the end of the world has been written, for when humanity is lost, law is manipulated and truth doesn’t prevail, it is a call for vengeance in which all humans are destined to suffer and fall to their disgrace.

At the end of these grand stories of glorious kingdoms and epic battles, perhaps we need to take a microscopic look at the kings and the elders who attempt to make the world their very own lila and not only fail miserably but also doom all humanity. Such an inspection would bring us to reflect on the increasingly vile society we inhabit and perhaps lead to the conclusion that perhaps the Mahabharata is not a story but a mirror like Lila, eternal in spirit. We may then spot our Yudhisthira with much more clarity. 

Experience Further: The Mahabharata has gained cult status and many believe that it encompasses detailed discourse on all that matters in life. As the epic traversed time and space, it got adapted into a variety of folk versions across different parts of India. The inherent ambiguities of the Mahabharata leave it open to interpretation, and the more the text is studied, the larger grows the corpus of derivative tales, theories, ideas. In fact, the Epic as it was written by Ganesha and narrated by Vyasa, was called Jaya – the tale of victory and had sixty portions, out of which only one survived. So while the original tale in its entirety is lost, the one part that Vaisampayana heard, was narrated at the snake sacrifice and overheard by Romaharshana, a bard, who passed it to his son who recollected it to the sages of Naimisha forest. Vyasa also related the tale to Suka who then told it to Parikshit. Jaimini too heard the tale and confirmed it from four birds who had witnessed the war at Kuru Kshetra and had acquired the gift of speech. And so the story travelled, gaining multiple additions. It turned into the Bharata with eighteen chapters and finally the Mahabharata. The tale has been told and retold, expanding to become the largest epic in existence. This article offers a very tiny glimpse into some of the folk variations that have emerged over the years. And for those who wish to discover the folk variations in detail, Devdutt Pattanaik’s Jaya does a brilliant job.

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.


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