In all humility Yudhisthira paid his respects to Dhritarastra, and told him that he had come alone because his brothers had gone with Krishna. The elder father welcomed him most warmly. He told him that he himself was a sinful person, and so were his sons: quarrelsome, and wicked, and such offspring as them were threat to the family line. He wished he had one virtuous son like him, he told Yudhisthira, and not those hundred wicked ones that he had. He implored his nephew to forgive Duryodhana, always, no matter how vile he was, and how often he wronged him. Yudhisthira chided him for being so unfair to Duryodhana, and told him that he valued him as a brother more than he did Bhima. The blind, old, former king of Hastinapura felt reassured, and said as much to Yudhisthira.
The poor old father had understood that his sons had no chance at all against the Pandavas, in the event of a conclusive fight between them. He was particularly scared of Bhima, who, he knew, hated his sons as intensely as they hated him, and who, he believed, could finish off all of them. He was also aware that it was Yudhisthira alone who could control the tempestuous Bhima. That was the main reason why he was so generous in his words of welcome to the eldest Pandava. One must not, however, be unfair to him; he was not unkind to his nephew, and his words of welcome were not totally insincere. In any case, he knew that Yudhisthira was his sons’ most effective shield against their destruction.
After the greetings were over, Dhritarastra asked Yudhisthira to go to the Kaurava court. He went there and paid his obeisance to Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Shalya, Sakuni, Bhurishrva, and other venerable elders. Apart from king Duryodhana everyone received him warmly.
The court was not engaged in any particularly serious business. There must have been a lazy atmosphere in the court. Sakuni looked disinterested and aloof, like one who had nothing to do. He was sitting alone at a corner, and was rolling dice, playing against himself as it were, something a compulsive player of dice would tend do when without a playmate, or when fighting a sense of boredom. He seemed to be neither hoping nor expecting any one to join him to play a game or two. No one in the court was paying him any attention.
Now Yudhisthira had paid his due respects and courtesies to all, and the main purpose of his coming had been served. He must have felt relaxed and happy – the feeling one has when with people one is fond of. He had a strong liking for dice, and the sight of dice cubes rolling must have been irresistible for him. He knew, as did everyone else, that Sakuni was an excellent dice player, who really enjoyed playing it – on the whole the kind of person a connoisseur would like to play with.
Yudhisthira directly went to him, and most warmly asked him if he would like to play a game or two with him. “Shall we have a game of dice, Uncle”, he said. And without waiting for a response, he took out a piece of chalk from his waist wear, and started drawing out the patterns for the game on the floor. He surprised everyone in the court with his enthusiasm.
Now quite unexpectedly and uninvited, Duryodhana came and asked his uncle, Sakuni, to move, so that he could play. Yudhisthira had no objection, not that Duryodhana sought his permission. Yudhisthira and Duryodhana sat facing each other, and Sakuni sat between them. “What shall we wager”, Yudhisthira asked him. In response, Duryodhana took off the ornaments on his body, and staked them as the wager. Yudhisthira thought it was reasonable wager, and took off the ornaments from his body. Then Duryodhana told Sakuni, sitting in the middle, that he would be the witness in the game, and also that he should cast the dice for them both – they would each mention a number and he would roll the dice, an arrangement that Yudhisthira had no objection to. Unlike in the canonical version of the narrative, here in Sarala’s, Sakuni was not rolling the dice on behalf of Duryodhana alone. When the game was about to begin, the idea of exploiting the situation to take revenge on Duryodhana occurred to Sakuni. He had realized long back that he would succeed in his secret mission of destroying Duryodhana comprehensively only by setting him against the Pandavas. He realized that the game of dice would be the chance of a lifetime for him. He invoked special powers to come to his help. Unknown to both the players, their witness, who they believed would be fair to them, had decided to betray their trust. When Duryodhana called a number and won, and Yudhisthira called a number and lost, neither suspected foul play. The former thought he was lucky, the latter thought he was not.
Thus in Sarala’s story, robbing Yudhisthira of his property, kingdom, etc. through the game of dice was not pre-planned. Leave alone any carefully hatched conspiracy by Sakuni and Duryodhana, there never was even any talk between them in this regard. Just as the brothers of Yudhisthira were not keen to visit Hastinapura, Duryodhana was not keen to meet them either. No one had invited Yudhisthira to come to Hastinapura and play a game of dice. Then if Duryodhana came to play with him, it was not because of any prior arrangement between Sakuni and him. It was a spontaneous decision on his part. It is possible that he decided to play in order to make it a game between kings, and thereby turn it into a more exciting event. It is also possible that since the atmosphere in the court was dull, and he felt bored, he might have wanted some relaxation. As for the wager, the idea was not his; it was Yudhisthira’s. It is unclear why he brought in the wager idea; it is possible he did so in order to make the game much more exciting. It was this wager that transformed the game into gambling, and it became the cause of all the terrible things that happened that day. Without it they would have played a few games, Duryodhana would have got tired of it all, sooner or later, since he was not a connoisseur, and at the end of the day Yudhisthira would have happily returned home.
This said, one probably should not blame Yudhisthira for all the outrageous things that happened that day, which eventually led the Kauravas and the Pandavas to the battlefields of Kurukshetra. What he did was natural to him: visiting his elders, inviting his maternal uncle to play with him, looking forward to an exciting game of dice, etc. None of these can count as impeachable conduct. He indeed did surprise the court, as the poet put it, when he happily started drawing out the patterns for the game on the floor. What the court might have found somewhat odd could be his enthusiasm, or over-enthusiasm, considering the quiet and composed person that he was, but it is understandable. He was happy after meeting his elders, and others, and might have wanted to play a game or two to amuse himself. In any case, his enthusiasm for the game would hardly constitute a good reason to censure him. He did introduce the gambling element into the play, but that would again hardly constitute justification for censure. His intentions were not mean; he did not covet things that Duryodhana had, and did not want to acquire the same through some devious means. Incidentally, there is nothing in the narrative to suggest that Duryodhana’s intentions with respect to Yudhisthira’s possessions were any different. As for gambling itself, it does not appear to have been stigmatized as unethical or undignified then. Yudhisthira was also not the kind of person who would have done something that would have lowered the prestige and the dignity of the great Kaurava court. In any case, if gambling were considered unethical or improper practice, then it would not have been allowed in the august royal court itself in the first place; there would have been voices of protest from the elders. It would be entirely wrong to think that the court was silent because of fear for Duryodhana; Bhishma, Drona, Bhurishrava were not the ones to keep quiet for fear of the king. But more than that, it must not be forgotten that wager was not Duryodhana’s idea at all. At one stage during the game, when Yudhisthira had lost all his jewelry, Bhishma did intervene to caution Yudhisthira; he advised him to stop playing because he had lost so much. His grounds were practical, not ethical.
The beginning of the game of dice brings out an important aspect of Sarala’s belief system, namely that things happen because they are destined to happen. There is a proverb in Odia, which is as follows: daiba daudi manisa gaai, jeniki otaari teniki jaai (“Destiny is the rope and the human is a cow, wherever it pulls him, he goes (there)”). The gambling episode is certainly one of the most emphatic pieces in Odia literature that illustrates it.