A recent research on Shakuni made me focus on the game of dice. Why is the game of dice so important and integral to some of the myths in our mythology? Also are there any other references of the game of dice other than that of Mahabharata? Let’s see.
The significance of the game of dice has been read by one and all. The visual depiction of the game too has been viewed by many. The game of dice and the vice of gambling associated with it is evident in the way Yudhishtira loses all his assets and family, including his wife even after repeated efforts to stop the game. The way he loses it all is one aspect, just as the fact that there was also some amount of trickery in the game, but that is another subject. For the present, we will stick to the game of dice.
The game of dice, or chaupar or paasa, as it were better known was similar to a board game with dice. Except that these dice were not cubical as they are in the modern times. These were rectangular, six sided dice with two sides being the smaller sides with no numbers. That left four longer sides which carried numbers 1 to 4. Dice were made of different objects, like terracotta, Vibhitaka nuts (the fruits of the Vibhitaka tree, which were sometimes the size of a hazelnut), ivory, bones, wood and even metals. The method of the game varied from location to location, but the basic motive generally remained gambling, besides recreation. This we see as the common theme in all the myths associated with the game.
The first myth is associated with Lord Shiva and Parvati. According to the Puranas, Lord Shiva and Parvati used to play the game of dice regularly. Once the game got so interesting that they started betting during the game. Parvati pledged her jewels, Shiva pledged his trident, and Shiva lost. To get his trident back, Shiva pledged his serpent, which too he lost and this way, Shiva was left with just his begging bowl. Humiliated, Shiva left for the forest. Lord Vishnu intervened and asked him play again and win back all that he had lost. Shiva went on to play again, and this time he won everything back. Parvati smelt a rat and called Shiva a cheat and this led to an argument, till Lord Vishnu came and revealed that the dice moved as per his commands and that is how Shiva had won. He also went on to say that a game of dice was as unpredictable as life and was always beyond control, sounding the players to be careful before wagering during the game. The story moves on, but we will discuss the rest of the story some other time as the rest does not have anything to do with a game of dice.
The next story is associated with Lord Krishna and Rukmini. According to this tale, the King of Vidarbha had promised her daughter’s hand to Shishupala. His daughter, Rukmini was in love with Lord Krishna and both run away (Krishna was supposed to have ‘kidnapped’ Rukmini). Rukmin, the brother of Rukmini felt insulted and vowed never to return to his region till he had not avenged the insult by killing Krishna. A battle followed, but Rukmin lost, and was granted a lease of life by Krishna. However, Rukmin never returned to his region to honour his vow. Krishna and Rukmini get married in Dwarka. As the story moves on and during one such family wedding, all the relatives instigate Rukmin to invite Balarama, Krishna’s elder brother to a game of dice as he had a weakness for gambling. During the game, Rukmin and his group win by cheating which infuriates Balarama and he ends up killing Rukmin for cheating. The game of dice was organized at a grand scale and the trickery was acknowledged by an aakashvani (voice from the skies).
There are quite a few stories in our mythology which gives importance to the game of dice. At the core of the game, is gambling and at times cheating. This very clearly shows that the game was associated with a lot of merry-making, drinking and wagering just about anything, land, kingdoms, humans and even wives! Though this was played in full public view, there were many instances of misdemeanor and breaking of rules for an ulterior motive. But as Lord Vishnu said in the myth of Shiva and Parvati, a game of dice is an unpredictable and an uncontrollable game. Players should be careful, and as any vice, know when to say no and must have the ability to withdraw.