One of the central themes of the Mahabharata is the depiction of the eternal conflict between Dharma and Adharma. And there are a number of characters in the epic that propagate these two tendencies in abundance.
The Pandavas, under the guidance of Sri Krishna, are the epitome of Dharma. The ‘dushta-chatushtayas’ or the evil-quartet, comprising Duryodhana, Shakuni, Dushasana, and Karna, on the other hand, stands for the pursuance of Adharma.
While Duryodhana is undoubtedly the leader of this group of four and the root of all evil in the epic, he is given great comfort and a feeling of invincibility by his dear friend Karna and brother Dushasana. The skill with weapons and prowess that Karna possesses encourages Duryodhana to take all forms of risks.
It is, however, the clever and scheming Shakuni who provides him with the evil-intellectualism to pursue the path of Adharma. Be it the attacks on the Pandavas during their childhood, the attempt to kill them at Varanavata, the snatching of their Kingdom through gambling, their insult in the assembly of the elders, or the eventual war, Shakuni provided the necessary designs to carry out all these exercises. He was the mastermind of the Kauravas.
The present article is in response to a recently published write-up on Shakuni that almost absolves him of being directly involved, or responsible, for many of the mishaps undertaken by the Kauravas, leading up to the great war.
While the said article does acknowledge his evil nature, it tries to showcase an alternate, potentially righteous, side of Shakuni under some scenarios. The implication of such a projection is that Shakuni may not be as evil as he seems. The article seems to suggest that Shakuni was not the initiator or the mastermind in most of the plots against the Pandavas but only a willing participant.
In my honest opinion, Sri Vyasa’s Mahabharata does not leave any scope for granting any ‘benefit of the doubt’ to Shakuni whatsoever. It is true that there are a few instances where Shakuni is heard saying things that would appeal to the noble-minded.
But the otherwise clear and stark presentation of Shakuni as a scheming and evil partner-in-crime of Duryodhana leaves us with the only option of evaluating those situations as exceptions to the rule, which perhaps were driven by the helplessness of those situations, rather than the presence of any nobility in him.
It is true, as stated in the original article, that Shakuni is not seen to pose any objection to the marriage of his sister Gandhari with Dhritharashtra. But again, this is more likely because of the political advantages the alliance brought forth, rather than any Dharmic considerations.
The Kuru Kingdom was at the peak of its prowess, with Bhishma being unassailable by anyone. An alliance with such a powerful family was sure to bring political benefits to the Gandharas. Shakuni’s acceptance of this alliance was likely driven by these considerations.
A second point stated in the original article, which I agree with is about Shakuni’s skill with the dice. There are a few stories seeded in works that are offshoots of the original Mahabharata, in which Shakuni is said to have a personal rivalry with the Kurus due to the imprisonment and killing of his brothers.
It is also said that the dice he used was made from the bones of his dead brothers, due to which it would always ‘listen’ to his call. Sri Vyasa’s Bharata offers no such background. Shakuni is projected as an extraordinary player of the game of dice. But nowhere is he attributed with any magical control over his dice.
Outside of these two exceptions, the portrayal of Shakuni is very consistently that of a scheming, evil assistant of Duryodhana who encourages him on every occasion to pursue Adharma.
Early attempts on the Pandavas
The introduction to Shakuni itself is very revealing. In the Adi Parva, Adhyaya 58, an introduction to the main characters of the Mahabharata is provided. Sri Vyasa describes Shakuni in the following way.
तस्य प्रजाsधर्मधात्री जज्ञे देवप्रकोपनात् |
गान्धारराजात् पुत्रोsभूच्छकुनिः सौबलस्तथा || 1-58-19 ||
“Subala, the King of Gandhara, obtained a son named Shakuni, who was verily bearing Adharma due to the displeasure of the Devatas” 
The Gandhara King had committed an act of displeasure against the Devatas in the past, as a result of which they ensured Shakuni was born to him. He was the very embodiment of Adharma. In fact, the Mahabharata records that he was the Avatara of Dwapara, the presiding Asura of the Dwapara Yuga, and a great friend of the evil Kali.
When the Pandavas arrived at Hastinapura after the death of Pandu, they were put to great hardships by the evil Kaurava princes. Bhimasena was the main target of Duryodhana. He made multiple attempts to kill Bhima. Shakuni was an active conniver in all those attempts.
When Bhima did not die in spite of being drowned in the Ganga, and when he survived the bite of poisonous snakes, Duryodhana wanted to pursue other methods to eliminate him. He consulted Shakuni who advised him to poison Bhima through his food.
सौबलेन सहामन्त्र्य सौबलस्य मते स्थितः |
भोजने भीमसेनस्य ततः प्राक्षेपयद् विषम् || 1 – 125 – 30 ||
“Having discussed with Saubala (Shakuni) and as per the advice of Saubala, he (Duryodhana) then mixed poison in Bhimasena’s food”
All attempts at killing Bhimasena failed. Sri Vyasa then records that Duryodhana, Shakuni, and Karna kept trying various methods to eliminate the Pandavas.
एवं दुर्योधनः कर्णः शकुनिश्चापि सौबलः |
अनेकैरप्युपायैस्तान् जिघांसति स्म पाण्डवान् || 1 – 125 – 35 ||
“In this way, Duryodhana, Karna, and the Saubala Shakuni desired to kill the Pandavas using various means”
The above references clearly indicate that Shakuni was not a passive participant in the early attempts on the life of the Pandavas, but an active accomplice.
Shakuni did indeed play a very active role in the attempt to burn the Pandavas in the Lakshyagruha. As a precursor to all the events starting from the attempt at Varanavata, it was Shakuni who brought over his minister Kanika to give advice to Duryodhana, Karna, and the others. And it was Kanika’s strong teachings that laid the foundation for all subsequent evil designs of the Kauravas.
दुर्योधनोsथ शकुनिः कर्णो दुष्यासनस्तथा |
कणिंक मुपसंक्रम्य मन्त्रिणं सौबलस्य च |
पप्रच्छ भरतश्रेष्ठ पाण्डवान् प्रति नैकधा ||1 – 142 – 1 ||
“O best amongst the Bharatas! Duryodhana, Shakuni, Karna, and Dushasana, brought over Kaninka, the minister of Shakuni, and asked him many things regarding the Pandavas”
Sri Madhwacharya, in his Mahabharata Tatparya Nirnaya, further elaborates that Kanika was actually the Guru of Shakuni and that he had learned all his tricks from Shukracharya, the Guru of the Daityas.
As a result of his teachings, the four of them conceived of a plan to burn the Pandavas at Varanavata.
ततः सुबलपुत्रश्च कर्णो दुर्योधनस्तथा |
दहने सहपुत्रायाः कुन्त्या मतिमकुर्वत ||
“Thereafter, the son of Subala (Shakuni), Karna and Duryodhana together decided to burn Kunti and her sons”
Shakuni was therefore not just a participant in this conspiracy but an active mastermind.
The Game of Dice
In the lead-up to the game of dice, when Duryodhana becomes extremely dejected looking at the wealth of the Pandavas during the Rajasuya Yajna, it is true that Shakuni stated many a thing about the greatness of the Pandavas. The words of Shakuni seem to indicate that he is advising Duryodhana against taking on the Pandavas.
But closer scrutiny of the incident reveals the true intent of Shakuni. His words of praise and revelation of the reality of Pandavas’ strength was only to increase the hatred of Duryodhana towards them and to ensure that he agreed to his proposal of snatching their Kingdom through deceit.
When Duryodhana was confused in the palace built by Maya and fell into a pond, Sri Krishna and the others laughed at him. Duryodhana was very insulted at this and he talked about giving up his own life. At that time, Sri Vyasa describes the approach of Shakuni thus:
इत्युक्तः शकुनिर्वैरं धृडीकर्तुं वचोsब्रवीत् |
किं ते वैरेण राजेन्द्र बलिभिर्भ्रातृभिः पुनः || 2 – 69 – 289 ||
“When he (Duryodhana) spoke thus, Shakuni, in order to firm up his hatred, said – ‘O King! Your brothers are powerful. What is the use of enmity with them?”
Thus, it becomes clear that Shakuni’s subsequent recognition of the Pandavas’ strength and praise of their abilities was only to provoke Duryodhana even more so he agrees to the game of dice. In fact, Shakuni openly states his intentions during the same conversation.
यान्तां श्रियं प्रदीप्तां त्वं पाण्डवेषु प्रप्रष्यसि |
तामक्लेषत आदास्ये क्रीडन्नक्षैस्तवदन्तिके || 2 – 69 – 294 ||
“All the wealth that you see being resplendent with the Pandavas – I will bring over all of that effortlessly to you through the game of dice”
The reality is that the game of dice was Shakuni’s plan right from the beginning. He possessed the skill to cheat and defeat Yudhishthira and therefore thought of it as the appropriate route to snatch the Pandava wealth.
When the game of dice was in progress, Shakuni committed the gravest of sins by suggesting that Draupadi be staked in the game. In the overall scheme of things, there was perhaps nothing more sinful than this act!
अतीव ते प्रिया देवी ग्लह एकोपराजितः |
पणस्व कृष्णां पाञ्चालीं तथाssत्मानं पुनर्जय ||2 – 85 – 31 ||
“Krishnaa, Panchali, who is most dear to you is still undefeated. Stake her and play. And thereafter win yourself too”
When Dharmaraja had lost everything, Duryodhana instructed Dushasana to drag Draupadi to that hall, after she refused to come there when Pratikami, the Suta of Duryodhana, asked her to do so.
When Dushasana managed to bring her to the hall, a tearful Draupadi questioned the elders in the hall about their silence and indirect complicity with the terrible proceedings taking place there. Dushasana mocked Draupadi by repeatedly calling her a ‘Dasi’. At that moment, Shakuni exhibited his complete approval of the attempted molestation of Draupadi.
कर्णस्तु तद्वाक्यमतीव हृष्टः
संपूजयामास हसन् सशब्दम् |
गान्धारराजः सुबलस्य पुत्रः
तथैव दुष्यासनमभ्यनन्दत् ||
“Karna let out-loud laughter in approval of Dushasana’s words. Shakuni, the son of Gandhara King Subala, too congratulated Dushasana”
The crown princess of the great Kuru lineage was being publicly disrobed and addressed as a ‘Dasi’ and Shakuni offered his congratulations to the perpetrator of such a crime. After this, there is no way one can claim Shakuni did not play any active role in the humiliation of Draupadi!
Sri Krishna Sandhana
The manifestation of Shakuni’s evil nature reached its climax in the Udyoga parva when Bhagavan Sri Krishna visited Hastinapura carrying an offer of peace. As Sri Krishna put forth his proposals, and the elders in the Kuru assembly urged the blind King to accept the offer of peace, Duryodhana’s frustration and fear at the prospect of losing the ‘hard-earned’ Kingdom increased.
Gandhari then addressed Duryodhana and urged him to accept the proposal. This caused Duryodhana to walk out of the hall. He went into a huddle with his conspirator-in-chief Shakuni.
ततः सभाया निर्गत्य मन्त्रयामास कौरवः |
सौबलेन मताक्षेण राज्ञा शकुनिना सह || 4 – 129 – 2 ||
“Duryodhana then walked out of the gathering and held consultations with Saubala (Shakuni), that expert with the dice”
When the two of them came out of their huddle, Dushasana spoke to them and stoked their fears further. He stated that Bhishma and Drona were planning to arrest him and hand him over to the Pandavas in case he did not accept the proposal. This caused Duryodhana to panic and he once again consulted Shakuni secretly.
The four of them then decided to arrest Sri Krishna himself!
पुराsयमस्मान् गृह्णाति क्षिप्रकारी जनार्दनः |
सहितो धृतराष्ट्रेण राज्ञा शान्तनवेन च ||
वयमेव निगृह्णीम हृषीकेशं बलादिव |
प्रसह्य पुरुषव्याघ्रमिन्द्रो वैरोचनिं यथा || 4 – 129 – 9,10 ||
Duryodhana and the others said: “Before Janardana, the swift one, along with Bhishma, captures us, let us ourselves arrest Hrishikesha, that tiger amongst men, by force and bring him under our control”
This evilest plot of arresting the Lord of the world was conceived during the two rounds of discussions Duryodhana had with Shakuni. It is quite clear therefore that Shakuni was the mastermind behind this decision.
In response to this threat, Sri Krishna displayed his ‘Vishwaroopa’ and walked out of the peace discussions.
The Mahabharata is indeed the most complex tale of Dharma and Adharma. It is also true that most of the characters display myriad shades of behavior and conduct, throwing a challenge to the curious readers about their real nature. But the main characters on either side exhibit a strong shade of nobility and evil-fortitude respectively in clear terms.
The Pandavas remain Dharmic for the most part. The Kaurava brothers and Shakuni display their ugly side throughout the epic. The deviations of their behavior from the Satvik and Tamasic paths are just that – deviations! The explanations for such deviations need to be looked at from the point of view of ‘samanvaya’ or logical integration with the rest of the story.
Traces of acceptable behavior by the evil four – Duryodhana, Dushasana, Shakuni, and Karna – can be explained to circumstances, the residual effect of their handling by noble people like Bhishma, Gandhari, Adiratha, and the others, or as a ploy to overcome obvious difficulties. But it is not possible to attribute any Dharmic shade to their inherent ‘swaroopa’ or nature.
Shakuni was indeed one of the main pratinayaks of the Mahabharata and he played a critical role in every ploy that led the cousins to the greatest war this land has ever seen.
1. All shlokas in this write-up are from the Udupi recension of the Mahabharata. The text of this recension is very close to the Kumbhakonam recension
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