In Sakuni’s case, he, the eldest son of the king of Gandhar, was the chosen avenger by the members of his family who were dying a slow death. They made sacrifice in order for him to live. And before his father died, he told him what course of action to follow in order to avenge their deaths. He also told him that after taking revenge, he must not live – one could not destroy one’s nephews and continue living thereafter. Thus Sakuni had to perform a double duty, which he did.
Karna had just fallen, as had Bhishma, Drona, and other great Kaurava warriors, and all the Kaurava princes with the exception of Duryodhana. As Sakuni and Sahadev faced each other on the battlefield, the latter told the former that since his purpose had been served, he had no reason to take part in the war and should go back to his kingdom instead and rule there. Sakuni told him that he had sinned grievously by being the cause of the death of his nephews, other relations, dynasties, and also of innumerable soldiers. He had thus forfeited his right to live and had to atone for it by sacrificing his life in the battlefield. He challenged Sahadev on the last day of the war, and was killed by him.
In those days when successful revenge was a matter of honour and glory and even of otherworldly merit, Sakuni’s put an emphatic question mark on this attitude to revenge. He knew, as did his father, that one could not destroy others without committing oneself to destroy oneself in the process. Thus his act of revenge was simultaneously his act of suicide. Sakuni’s revenge dharma detached him from his act of revenge because one cannot choose to commit suicide without detachment from self. He acted when he systematically executed his revenge on Duryodhana, and was true to self when he fought Sahadev on the eighteenth day of the war with full knowledge of the result of that engagement.
In contrast to his maternal uncle, Duryodhana was a man of his time. He had internalized its values, and did not critique them. As such, revenge for him was a demand of justice; that was why it was a noble act. In his consuming arrogance and his intense hatred of the Pandavas, he never realized that he could himself be a victim of that hatred – after all, it resided in him, and pervaded his whole being. It is easy to condemn him, as his elders often did, but they didn’t help him grow up. He remains an object of pity.
Duryodhana died with the same illusion with which he had lived ever since he made Sakuni his minister; his faith in Sakuni was intact. Almost every elder and every well-wisher in his family had warned him that Sakuni was untrustworthy and would avenge his family’s killing, and drive him to his destruction, but he had complete trust in him. Sakuni’s death plunged him into abject despair – perhaps the ultimate disaster that one could suffer. One feels sorry for him, he was a man betrayed by the one his faith on whom had never wavered. If there was one good that Sakuni had done him, intentionally or unintentionally, we can never be certain, it was this: even at the very end he didn’t tell him the truth about himself.
At the same time this was the ultimate deception of uncle Sakuni. He withheld the truth from the victim. Perhaps the victim had a right to know. He could have breathed his last with knowledge which would have been redeeming. Perhaps justice demanded that the condemned knew why he had been punished.
But let us not be harsh on Sakuni. Here was a man who had condemned himself the day he had decided that he would take revenge. He had signed a bond with his relatives in their blood that he would avenge their miserable death. He lived a life acting, to redeem that pledge. He succeeded, but the success gave him no satisfaction, no sense of fulfillment. Instead it had filled him with a profound sense of sin. At this point of time, the only image of Duryodhana he had was that of his nephew. He wanted to pay the price with all earnestness, and walked on to his death. At that moment he was lonely, utterly lonely, emptied inside of every feeling and thought except the reassuring thought of his own death through which he knew would come his redemption. His language was already dead within him, what could he have told anybody anyway?