Why did Yudhishthira agree to play the game of dice? The reason that is most often cited is that he had a weakness for the game and couldn’t resist an invite to play the game. This is often used to show Yudhishthira as a weak and gullible fool in the newer re-telling’s of the Maha Kavya. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While it is true that Dharmaputra did have a weakness for the game on top of being unskilled at it, he however did not jump at the opportunity to match wits against someone of the caliber of Sakuni who was the undisputed master of the game and had an uncanny knack of always winning against any opponent through means fair and foul. To assist him were three brothers of Duryodhana – Vivimsati, Purumitra, and Chitrasena all three, experts at the game. It was an unequal contest with the dice loaded against Yudhishthira right from the beginning. So, why did he agree to the contest. Was it just his “lust” for the game?
A deeper reading of the Mahabharata informs us that Yudhishthira not only knew what was at stake but actually did not want to get into this game. He knew that it was sure to end in utter ruin for himself and the Pandavas but also for the entire Kuru race.
As Kisari Mohan Ganguly’s notes in his voluminous translation (into English) of the Mahabharata:
“…Yudhishthira said,–‘O Kshatta (Vidura), if we sit to a match at dice, we may quarrel. What man is there, who knowing all this, will consent to gamble? What dost thou think fit for us? We all are obedient to thy counsels.’
‘It would seem then that some of the most desperate and terrible gamblers always depending upon deceit are there. This whole universe, however, is at the will of its Maker, under the control of fate. It is not free. O learned one, I do not desire, at the command of king Dhritarashtra to engage myself in gambling.
Unwilling as I am to gamble, I will not do so, if the wicked Sakuni doth not summon me to it in the Sabha? If, however, he challengeth me, I will never refuse. For that, as settled, is my eternal vow.”
‘Like some brilliant body falling before the eyes, Fate depriveth us of reason, and man, tied as it were with a cord, submitteth to the sway of Providence,‘
Kamala Subramaniam’s Mahabharata also has this passage:
To a certain extent Yudhishthira could guess the consequences of the game of dice… He told Vidura (when he came to know who he would be up against): “The cleverest of the players have been selected. I am weak at the game, and Sakuni is a veritable wizard at throwing the dice. But, what can I do? All that happens in the World has been ordained by the Creator. What can we do when Fate has already planned the way in which events must take place? I am helpless. The King (Dhritarashtra) knows my principle that I will never disobey the commands of my elders. This Kingdom of mine does not belong to Dhritarashtra, and I am not bound to obey him… but my uncle has sent for me; he knows that I will not disobey him even if I can afford to…”
I hate to play the game of dice knowing that it leads to evil. But it is the unwritten law that elders must be obeyed. It is also the rule among kshatriyas that one must play when one is invited to play. He must not refuse. Knowing these things, my uncle has sent for me; he knows that I will not disobey him even if I can afford to. Let fate have her way. I will accompany you to the hated city, Hastinapura.”
Further, just before this invite, Yudhishthira had conducted the Rajasuya Yagna where Sishupala was killed by Krishna. Evil omens and portents had been witnessed by all who had assembled there that day and Vyasa had confirmed to Yudhishthira that this was only the beginning and the next 14 years would be terrible for the Pandavas and that would be followed by a terrible internecine war that would cause the destruction of almost the entire Kuru race. Yudhisthira had decided then that he would do nothing to provoke anyone within the extended family in order that such an event must never come to pass. This was also on his mind
Therefore there were several reasons besides his fondness/weakness for gambling. In fact given a choice he would have rejected the invite but he could not or would not because:
- He would never disobey his elders
- Kshatriya rules dictated that he could not reject the invite without being called a coward
- He knew that fate and God’s will were setting the wheels in motion
- His desire and love for the game was the last and least of the reasons.