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Shakuni making his move in the game of dice

When an event of great significance occurs in a story, the reactions of people, in response to that event, give us insights into their nature. These insights help us unravel the thread of subtle dharma in works such as the Mahabharata.
As we know, Duryodhan was filled with jealousy when he witnessed Yudhishthira’s affluence, popularity, virtue, and power during the latter’s Rajasuya Yagna at Indraprastha. Unable to control his jealousy, Duryodhana convinced his father — King Dhritarashtra — to invite the Pandavas to a game of dice. He planned to appoint Shakuni to play on his behalf and rob the Pandavas of their wealth and kingdom.
Shakuni defeated Yudhishthira, through deceitful play, and won the Pandava’s wealth and kingdom. However, by this time, Shakuni, who was drunk on his winning streak, prodded Yudhishthira (who was weakened by his resolve to not decline a challenge) to stake his brothers and himself.
Unsurprisingly, Shakuni won, but, what was surprising is that the game did not stop even then. Shakuni prodded Yudhishthira to stake Draupadi.
It was unimaginable, but Yudhishthira agreed, and all the elders in the assembly hall were shocked and agitated and fell into grief as we see in the two excerpts below.

However, there was one elder who, despite an outward act of virtue, was quite pleased and eager to witness the Pandavas’ humiliation. That elder was Dhritarashtra, as we see in the excerpt below.

Karna and Dussasana laughed, Shakuni was eager to win, and everyone else cried with grief.

Credit: The above excerpts are from Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s translation of The Mahabharata.

Author’s Note: I was surprised by two characters’ responses while reading this passage.

The first was Dhritarashtra. His indulgent attitude toward Duryodhan and jealousy toward the Pandavas are well known. It came as no surprise when he sanctioned the game of dice, but it was a big surprise to see the King so eager to witness Draupadi being lost in the game of dice.

The other moment of surprise was Karna’s reaction. He is popularly thought of as a generous and noble person who had to deal with exceedingly unfortunate circumstances. However, laughing when Draupadi was staked is hardly a sign of nobility. While it is true that Karna was generous, his nobility is questionable. We will see in future posts that Karna behaved quite abhorrently after Yudhishthira lost Draupadi.

Duryodhana falls into water
Duryodhana falling in an indoor water body

There is an often attributed incident to Draupadi, where she is said to have called Duryodhan a “blind man’s son” after he mistook an artificial pond in their palace at Indraprastha for a crystal floor and slipped into the water. This narrative has been promoted by TV serials, abridged versions, and retellings of the epic. The dialogue that’s popularly used is “Andhe ka putra bhi andha!” It means: a blind man’s son is also blind.

But is this incident really mentioned in the Mahabharata? The short answer is NO — it is not mentioned anywhere in the Unabridged Mahabharata. In the rest of the article, I will describe (with quotes) everything that happened in the Pandava’s palace at Indraprastha, the day after the Rajasuya Yagna, when Duryodhan fell into the indoor pond of water.

I’ll begin with a little background.

The Pandavas established Indraprastha as the capital city of their Kingdom after Dritarashtra gave them the Khandavprastha region, of the ancestral kingdom, as their share. The first goal of the Pandavas was to bring well-being and prosperity to the citizens of the kingdom. After succeeding in this goal, Yudhishthira expressed the desire to perform the Rajasuya Yagna and become the emperor of Bharat. Subsequently, the four Pandavas (Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadev) set out in the four directions, brought all the surrounding kingdoms under their sway, and returned to Indraprastha with large tributes.

Sometime after this, Yudhishthira invited all the kings, who had accepted him as the emperor, and relatives/well-wishers to the final Rajasuya Yagna where he would be crowned as the emperor of Bharat. After the yagna was complete, all the kings returned to their respective kingdoms. However, Duryodhana and Sakuni stayed back to inspect the Pandavas’ magnificent palace.

The day after the yagna, Duryodhan and Sakuni walked around the palace and marveled at the extraordinary designs of the kind they had never seen before in Hastinapur. As we will see in the passage below, Duryodhan bumbled a lot in the palace. He mistook the crystal floor to be an indoor pond and he mistook an indoor pond for a crystal floor. As a result, he fell into the water and got himself wet. When the Pandava brothers saw his bumbling, they laughed aloud. Even the menials laughed at Duryodhan.

The passage where the Pandavas laughed at Duryodhan

Unfortunately, Duryodhan’s misery had no bounds because he went on to be further confounded in the palace. He mistook doors for walls and walls for doors, as seen in the passage below. After several such moments, he took leave from the Pandavas and returned to Hastinapur with his uncle, Shakuni.

Duryodhan leaves for Hastinpur after a few more embarrassing incidents.

As we can see, Draupadi was not even in the picture, so there was no question of her insulting Duryodhan and King Dhritarashtra.

Another important point to note (as we will see in future posts) is that Draupadi did not insult the Kuru elders even when she was disrobed after the game of dice, so it’s really far-fetched to assume that she would have uttered unkind words to uncle, Dhritarashtra, and brother-in-law, Duryodhan, in her own palace.

Now, I’ll jump ahead to another passage. Later, when Duryodhan reached his palace, he recounted the incident to his father, Dhritarashtra. In this talk, he mentioned that Draupadi had laughed at him.

See the passage below.

The passage where Duryodhan narrates, to Dritharashtra, how he was insulted.

As we can see in the passage above, the only thing Duryodhana mentioned to his father was that Draupadi and other servants laughed at him. There was no mention of Draupadi calling him a blind man’s son.

This incident of Draupadi telling Duryodhana: “Andhe ka putra bhi andha,” is purely a figment of certain people’s imagination that has been repeated without verification.

The reason why I consider this piece of information important is because the Mahabharata is an epic about the subtle dharma. In certain instances, the subtle dharma is clearly elucidated by Vyasa Muni and, in other instances, it is left to the reader to introspect and decipher the subtle dharma. In this spiritual exercise, the actions, words, and dilemmas of the characters in the Mahabharata become pointers to the subtle dharma (that is described as being beyond human logic and morality). These are small factoids that the reader considers to understand what the subtle dharma might mean. When we twist these seemingly small details, we obscure the subtle dharma that Vyasa-Muni wanted to describe, thus reducing the Mahabharata from being the fifth Veda into being a mere story of the rivalry between cousins.

Image Credit: Statute of Karna from Bali

When Karna and Duryodhana learned that the Pandavas had planned to return to Hastinapura after their marriage with Draupadi, they were concerned about Duryodhana losing their power in the Kuru kingdom. Duryodhana was the crowned prince and did not want to lose that position. Karna, being his close friend, and someone who disliked the Pandavas with the same intensity, supported Duryodhana in every way he could. With a mutual desire to keep the Pandavas out of power, they approached the king, Dhritarashtra, to make a plan against the Pandavas.

After Duryodhana proposed his plan to use deceit against the Pandavas, Karna was asked for his opinion. He began by explaining to Duryodhana why his strategies may not work against the Pandavas, and then went on to propose his own strategy which was to defeat the Pandavas by force.

Karna explains to Duryodhana why using deceit to injure the Pandavas won’t work.
Karna explains to Duryodhana why creating disunion among the Pandavas and Draupadi was not possible.
Karna explains to Duryodhana why King Drupada cannot be turned against the Pandavas.

After politely refuting Duryodhana’s strategy, Karna proposed his own strategy of using force against the Pandavas as long as they were weaker than the Kauravas.

Karna explains to Duryodhana how to use force against the Pandavas.

Karna follows on to justify his proposal using examples of Indra and Bharat. Both Indra, the lord of heaven, and Bharat, an illustrious Kuru ancestor, had used force to bring their opponents under their control. Therefore, according to Karna, using force was the right way for the brave.

Karna’s reasons for using prowess against the Pandavas.

As we can see, Duryodhana wanted to use deceit while Karna wanted to use force to smite the Pandavas. If you’re wondering whose strategy was used, the answer is — in this case, neither. When they presented their strategies to the king, Dhritarashtra asked them to consult with Bhishma and Drona before finalizing the strategy. When they met Bhishma and Drona, Duryodhana did not even put forth his proposal of deceit while Karna’s proposal of using force against the Pandavas was unacceptable to both the elders. Eventually, it was decided that half the kingdom would be given to the Pandavas.

However, the Kauravas did use deceit. While dividing the kingdom, Dhritarashtra gave Khandavaprastha — the most barren part of the kingdom — to the Pandavas, and kept the part that flourished, for his son Duryodhana.

Author’s Note: I am amazed at how this beautiful epic — The Mahabharata — constantly gives us examples that illustrate the subtle dharma — the dharma that goes beyond rules and formulae. Sri Krishna exhorts us to cultivate “yogastha buddhi” to understand the subtle dharma.

In this example, we see how Karna used the same strategy that the great emperor Bharath had used, and yet, King Bharat’s actions were aligned with dharma while Karna’s were not.


Duryodhana as depicted in Javanese Wayang

Duryodhana hated the Pandavas from the very moment they arrived in Hastinapur unannounced after their father, Pandu’s, death. They were bright, noble, and loved by everyone in the royal court and the kingdom. This not only made Duryodhana jealous but also made him insecure because the Pandavas made more worthy contenders to the Kuru throne.

He started plotting against the Pandavas right from when he and the Pandavas were all children. He attempted to kill Bhima but, due to his plot, Bhima became stronger.

Later, he tried to burn them, along with their mother Kunti, in the house of lac. But the Pandavas and their mother escaped that too. Eventually, while they were still in hiding, the Pandavas married Draupadi (the princess of Panchala) and bounced back with greater strength and allies.

Since they were disguised as brahmanas in Draupadi’s swayamavara, nobody knew the Pandavas had escaped, so when Duryodhana heard about their marriage with Draupadi, he was shocked and alarmed. Shocked because he wasn’t expecting them to be alive, and alarmed, because the Pandavas were now stronger with King Drupada and his relatives as their allies.

Duryodhana feared that he would lose the throne of Hastinapur if they returned, so, once again, his devious mind started hatching plots against his cousins. This time, Duryodhana, along with his co-conspirator, Karna, approached Dritharashtra soon after Vidura informed the king about the Pandavas safe escape from the burning house and their marriage to Draupadi.

Duryodhana’s agitated mind had come up with a few scattered ideas to eliminate the Pandavas, or at least, reduce their threat to him. He lay down his ideas to Dhritarashtra and Karna for their opinion.

Duryodhana began his speech by impressing upon Dhritharashtra the importance of acting quickly against the Pandavas.

Following his warning for quick action, Duryodhana proposed these ideas to eliminate or weaken the Pandavas. These ideas give us a clear glimpse into his desperation and deviousness.

Duryodhana’s seemed to have a preference for creating dissent among the Pandavas and Draupadi because he proposed five ideas to this effect.

(Above) Duryodhana’s proposal to use skillful brahmanas to create enmity between the sons of Kunti (Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Arjuna) and the sons of Madri (Nakula and Sahadev)
Proposal to employ spies to create dissent among all the Pandavas.
Proposal to use spies to incite Draupadi against her five Pandava husbands.
Duryodhana’s proposal to somehow turn the Pandavas against Draupadi.
Proposal to tempt the Pandavas with beautiful maidens to turn Draupadi against them.

However, the scheming did not stop here. Duryodhana had a bagful of tricks. One of his big concerns was the Pandavas’ alliance with King Drupada which increased their military might. He made one proposal to prevent King Drupada from supporting the Pandavas in their claim to Hastinapura’s throne.

Duryodhana’s proposal to bribe King Drupada and his ministers.

In this bag of devious tricks were two proposals that were slightly less devious. One was to convince the Pandavas to settle in the land of their father-in-law, thereby removing any threat from them to Hastinapura’s throne. The other was to use politics to keep the Pandavas under control if they appeared to be obedient to the Kuru elders upon returning to Hastinapura.

Proposal to convince the Pandavas to settle in Panchala (away from Hastinapura).
Duryodhana’s proposal to control the obedient Pandavas using politics.

However, last but not the least, Duryodhana’s final two proposals were the most sinister. The first among them was to slay Bhima and, thereby, weaken the Pandavas while the second was to slay all the Pandavas before they reached Hastinapura.

Duryodhana’s proposal to weaken the Pandavas by slaying Bhima.
Duryodhana’s proposal to slay all the Pandavas.