From one point of view, it was not Sakuni who avenged the brutal murder of his father, uncles and relatives by his nephew, Duryodhana; it was indeed his father, King Gandharasena himself who did. He was the Causer Agent: Sakuni was merely “doing agent”, more an instrument than an agent. In fact, in a Sanskrit causative sentence with the explicit causer agent, the “doer” takes the instrumental marker. Gandharasena could not do it himself, so he armed his son with an unfailing revenge tool and told him how to go about destroying the Kauravas with it.
All the captives of Duryodhana were dead; there were just the father and the son alive. Gandharasena knew that his moment would soon come. “Listen, Sakuni,” he told his son, “you are my eldest son, you are capable and very knowledgeable (maha jnani). I have protected you. We all starved so that you do not. You had assured us that you would avenge us. Tell me, how will you do it?” Sakuni told him that he was an ignoramus and appealed to his father to tell him how he should go about it. “You are going, father”, he said, “tell me and rest assured that I will ever forget what you tell me.”
Some might feel disappointed. Even the parent-child relationship is not without self-interest, not without expectation. Gandharasena’s sacrifice for his son was not unselfish. And what dark expectation! But wasn’t the world of Mahabharata a dark, dark world!
Some consolation that Sarala’s Gandharasena wasn’t that cruel to his son as Gandharasena in some versions of the Mahabharata. He didn’t make him lame, so that he never forgot that he had to take revenge.
Come to think of it, Sarala’s Gandharasena wasn’t a really a bad man. Like any father, he was worried about his daughter’s marriage. She was born in an inauspicious moment, so when she got engaged to a prince, the prince died. He readily accepted sage Vyasa’s advice to get his daughter married to a sahada tree first and then to Dhritarashtra. Vyasa himself conducted the marriages. Vyasa, Dhritarashtra’s father, knew that Gandhari and Dhritarashtra’s marriage was arranged by the stars because when the latter got engaged to a princess, she would die. The arrogant and foolish Duryodhana punished his maternal grandfather entirely unjustly. Like any other grandfather, Gandharasena loved his grandchild. That was why he told Duryodhana what he did not want to hear but what would be good for him, namely that he must never go to war against his cousins, the Pandavas, because being sons of gods, they were stronger than him. He trusted Duryodhana. He acted like the grandfather and not the king, when he sent his army back to the capital when asked to do so by his nephew and came with him Duryodhana along with his brothers and relatives, not even knowing where he was taking them. Till his imprisonment he had done nothing that could have been viewed as unworthy of a loving grandfather or a father.
To return to what Gandharasena told Sakuni. Duryodhana had brutally tortured and killed his family and relatives without any wrong doing by him or them. The dead must be avenged, he told Sakuni. He gave him the revenge plan and with that he bound him up for life. He told him that after his death, he must collect the bones of his hands. In complete secrecy, from the bones of his right palm, he must get two dice sticks made and from the bones of his left palm, thirty dice cubes. Those sticks would obey his demands. One day Duryodhana would surely free him and make him his minister and most trusted adviser. He must take full advantage of that opportunity. Playing dice on behalf of Duryodhana, he must defeat Yudhisthira and make sure that he lost all his possessions, that the Pandava brothers became slaves of Duryodhana and their wife was dragged to the Kaurava court where she would be disrobed. Bhima would not stand that terrible humiliation and would never forget it. That would lead to a war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas and Bhima would wipe out Duryodhana and his brothers and their children. “I am telling you, my son,” said Gandharasena, “that war would end no other way. The Pandavas cannot be killed on the ground or in water or by fire.” Therefore the Pandavas must be used to eliminate the Kauravas. Poisonous sweets and the house of wax were not in Gandharasena’s scheme; for him two dice sticks were enough.
“After getting your nephews killed, do not live, my son,” said Gandharasena, “fight with Sahadeva and get killed in the war.” He had predetermined his life and now his death.
Not for nothing did his father have such complete trust on his eldest son’s competence. That intelligent prince appeared to be justly sceptical. Two dice sticks and a few dice cubes made of the bones of his father’s palms could really be the unfailing tools for taking on the mighty Duryodhana, Sakuni must have wondered. “Tell me, father”, Sakuni said, “when did your hands do so much punya(action that brings religious merit to the doer) that they are bestowed with such super human power?”
“It happened many, many years ago”, said Gandharasena. He was a recognized scholar of more shastras – sahasra shahastre (a thousand shastras), says Sarala – than anyone else then. But he would always lose a game of dice. So for fifteen years he did severe tapas to please goddess Ganga. The primordial goddess appeared and asked him what he wanted. He asked her for the divine dice sticks and cubes with which he would never lose a game of dice. The goddess gave him the sticks and cubes and asked him to return them to her after three years.
He defeated many kings and amassed a lot of wealth in the form of gold, gems, elephants, armies and much else. His treasury was overflowing. His reputation spread and kings were afraid of meeting him, lest he challenged them to a game of dice. Three years over, he went to a place of pilgrimage called Uttrankura and prayed to the goddess. As he was placing the sticks and the cubes on the palm of the goddess, he made an appeal to her in all prayerful humility. “Grant me, Mother, this: let this grace of yours remain with my family in some form.” The Mother goddess granted his wish. She told him that after his death, his son must make sticks and cubes from the bones of his palms. Those would be bestowed with special powers and no one would defeat him in a game of dice if he played with the same. “Mother Ganga’s words with never be untrue, my son,” he said and those were his last words.