The Third Dice Game

Parashuram (or Rajsekhar Basu)

Translated from Bengali by Pradip Bhattacharya

According to Mahabharat, after Yudhishthir had lost everything in the first dice game, the repentant Dhritarashtra gave him back all that he had staked. When the Pandavs were returning to Indraprastha, Dhritarashtra -- egged on by Duryodhan -- summoned Yudhishthir for another game of dice. In this second dice game too Yudhishthir lost and, as its consequence, the Pandavs were exiled.

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[1] 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!”

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.

“What! You are our venerable maternal uncle! Pranam, pranam -- how fortunate we are! Pray be seated on this lion-throne.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

Yudhishthir sighed deeply and said, “Not even once.”

“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.”

Yudhishthir said, “Oh, and now it’s me you wish to throw like dice and win a kingdom!”

“As reward for the disaster piled on my head by the dice you made?”

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 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.

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?”

“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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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?”

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.”

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-“

“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.”

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[2] 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.”

[1] Akshauhini, unit of army comprised of 65,610 horses, 21,870 elephants, 21,870 chariots, and 109,350 foot soldiers.

[2] Insects, mosquitos, mice

Published in Parabaas, April 15, 2004

The original story [tritIYa dyutasabhaa*] by `Parashuram' (or Rajsekhar Basu) was first published in a collection of short stories titled hanumaaner sbapna ityaadi galpa in the 1943.

Translated by Pradip Bhattacharya [pradiip bhaTTaachaaya.r ] Pradip Bhattacharya ... (more)

Illustrated by Nilanjana Basu. Nilanjana Basu has been regularly illustrating for Parabaas. After completing her PhD in Mechanical Engineering from UCLA, California, she is currently working in New Hampshire.

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* To learn more about the ITRANS script for Bengali, click here .