Yudhishthira accepted the invitation to the game of dice. He left for Hastinapur along with his brothers and Draupadi. They arrived at Hastinapur to a warm/pseud-warm welcome. Bhishma, Drona, Kripa were glad to see them, Duryodhan and brothers with Shakuni were outwardly welcoming while Vidura was sad and Dhritarashtra was apprehensive. Karna did not like the idea of the game of dice but he went along – he was always advocating direct confrontation and never liked Shakuni’s devious plans.
The first day was spent in general gathering, exchanging greetings, feasting and resting. The next day, after lunch, Duryodhan repeated his request for the games to begin.
Shakuni said to Yudhishthir, “We have all been waiting for you, O King. The hall is full and we are eager to play dice.“
Yudhishthir answered, “O King, there is no prowess to be found in dice playing. Indeed, it is bereft of morality. Why then do you wish us to play?”
Shakuni raised his eyebrows. “We only wish to play a simple a friendly match. We can fix the stakes so that no one is injured.“
“The great sage Devala has intructed me that one should not engage in playing with a professional gamester,” Yudhishthir replied. “O Shakuni, 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?“
Shakuni 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.“
Yudhishthir looked up at the Kuru elders. They were all sitting silently. Both Bhishm and Vidur sat with their heads down. After Vidur, Bhishm had also tried unsuccessfully to dissuade the king from allowing the match, and he had attended it reluctantly. Dhitarashtra sat on his splendid throne, listening carefully to the discussion.
Yudhishthir said, “O Shakuni, 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?“
Yudhishthir knew that Shakuni, although more skilled at the game, could not match his wealth and was thus not a suitable opponent for him. But Duryodhan said quickly, “I shall supply gems, gold and other wealth, O King. Let Shakuni cast the dice on my behalf.“
Yudhishthir 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 Duryodhan. This is not within the rules of the game.“
Yudhishthir again looked at the elders, but none of them spoke. Duryodhan laughed and repeated that if Yudhishthir was afraid then he need not play. Shakuni smiled and rolled the dice in his hands. Seeing that none of the elders spoke and Dhitarashtra’s complicity, Yudhishthir said, “If it is your desire, Duryodhan, then let the play begin.“
And so the game began. Yudhishthir started with his priceless necklace and promptly lost it. He began to wager more and more – after the necklace, he staked jars filled with gold coins, then his jewels, then his cattle, and so on. Yudhishthir found that the dice would never match his desired number but would always show face the same digits exactly as desired by Shakuni. He realized very quickly that the dice were rigged and would never fall in his favour.
“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“, he staked next. “Consider this bet matched“, said Duryodhan and asked Shakuni to roll the dice. Shakuni won once more. The shouts and cheers of joy and the agony cries from the Pandavas sides was echoing all around.
On the royal dias, Dhritarashtra was constantly asking Vidur, “What has been staked?“, “Who had won?” and completely unable to hide his glee. Vidur was watching with growing sadness and inner anger. He, as well as others, could clearly see that Yudhishthir was being cheated. Yudhishthir lost his thousands of elephants, horses and chariots, then his draught animals, then his army and gradually all his wealth. Yudhishthir had become gripped with the fever of the game. As he lost more and more, he staked higher and higher, hoping against hope that at least one game will favor him. But it was always Shakuni who shouted, “Lo! I have won again!!“
Vidur could tolerate no more. He stood up suddenly and, within everyone’s hearing, said to Dhritarashtra, “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 Vidur. Duryodhana scowled, but his father remained silent. Vidur continued, “Hear the ancient advice of Sukra, the celestial sage. 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 Pandavas, he does not see the fall which awaits him. Please order this evil game to be stopped immediately before calamity strikes.“
Vidur warned the king of the consequences of forming an enmity with the Pandavas. 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 Ajatasatru 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 Pandavas’ 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 Shakuni back to Gandhara. Do not wage a war that will destroy you to your roots.“
This was too much to bear for Duryodhan. He shouted at Vidur, “O Uncle, indeed I am ashamed to call you so. Now we can see your true nature. Rejecting those who maintain you, you side with the enemy. 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.“
Vidur ignored the insults and appealed to Dhritarashtra once more. And yet Dhritarashtra was unmoved. For once, he was on the winning side and this pleased him internally. Yudhishthir hoped that at this point the elders would see the unfairness of the game and put a stop but no one said anything, apart from Vidur. He remembered his earlier vow on never to go against his elders and kept quiet. Shakuni goaded him further, “O King, you have nearly lost all your wealth. What would you like to put on the stake now?“
Yudhishthir then said, “I now pledge my entire remaining wealth which is still countless, the wealth of my citizens except the part that belongs to the Brahmins“. Promptly he lost that too, and then finally his kingdom. Yudhishthir’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 looked at his brothers and then said,
“Here is the youthful and fair-complexioned Nakul, adorned with gold and jewels and shining like a celestial. This mighty-armed prince shall be my next stake.” …..
“This handsome prince Sahadev administers justice exactly like Yamaraj 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.” ……
Shakuni looked at Yudhishthir with cunning in his eyes. “It seems that Bheem and Arjun are more dear to you than Madri’s sons, for they have not yet been staked.“
Yudhishthir flushed and said,
“I now stake 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 – my dear borther Arjun.” ….
Looking at Bheem, he said “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.”
And having lost all his brothers, Yudhishthir finally staked himself. And as per his dreaded expectation, Shakuni won again.
All was lost.
Yudhishthir hoped that at last the game would end now. There was nothing more to loose. But yet the elders and Dhritarashtra said nothing. Shakuni smiled at Yudhishthir 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 Draupadi, the princess of Panchal, and with her win yourself back.“
Yudhishthir ground his teeth in silent anguish. His thoughts were in turmoil. How could he stake Draupadi? 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 Draupadi 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 the Lord, he looked up at the laughing Shakuni.
“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 Lakshmi, 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 – my dear wife, Panchali, shall be my final stake.“
When Yudhishthir said this his brothers were horrified. The Kuru elders loudly called out, “Fie! Fie!” The whole assembly became agitated and the pious people present there began to grieve with tears flowing from their eyes. Bhishm, Drona and Kripa were all covered in perspiration. Vidur sat sighing. But Dhritarashtra, glad at heart, was unable to conceal his emotions and he asked repeatedly, “Is the stake won?“
Shakuni’s face was flushed with excitement. Once more the dice obeyed his command and he shouted, “She is won! She is won!”
Duryodhana and Karna laughed and slapped their hands together.