Mahabharata states that after Yudhishthir had lost everything in the first dice game, the repentant Dhritarashtra gave him back all that he had staked. When the Pandavas were returning to Indraprasth, Dhritarashtra - at Duryodhan's insistence - summoned them once again for another game of dice. Yudhishthir lost this second dice game too and, as its consequence, the Pandavs went into exile.
What type of game did Shakuni and Yudhishthir play? They had no counter and no game-board. Either side would announce a stake and throw the dice. He whose throw was greater won. The dice-game chapter of the Sabha Parva (Book of the Assembly Hall) states that on each occasion after hearing Yudhishthir announce the stake, Shakuni cheated while throwing the dice exclaiming, 'I've won' every time. This makes it clear that with each throw of dice a turn of the game was complete.
Many do not know that, a few days before the Kurukshetra war, Yudhisthir had played yet once more at dice with Shakuni. It is difficult to say why Vyas left this third dice-game chapter out of Mahabharata.
One morning, twenty-five days before the Kurukshetra war, Yudhisthir was in his camp listening to Sahadev reading out the list of provisions when the guard announced, 'Dharamaraj, a well-dressed hunchback seeks audience. He will not give his name and says that his message is most secret, to be delivered only in person.'
'Bring him in at once,' said Yudhishthir. The visitor was old, with a crooked back, a wrinkled, clean-shaven face, a huge turban on his head, a blue necklace round his neck and wore a long shirt over loose pyjamas. Touching folded hands to his forehead he said, 'Hail to Dharmaraj Yudhishthir!'
Yudhishthir asked him, 'Who are you, venerable one?'
The visitor replied, 'Maharaj, forgive my impertinence, but my words are only for the royal ears.'
Yudhishthir said, 'Sahadev, you may leave now.' Annoyed, Sahadev left plagued by a nagging suspicion.
The visitor spoke softly, 'Maharaj, I am Subal's son Matkuni, Shakuni's step-brother.'
'What! You are our venerable maternal uncle! Pranam, pranam'how fortunate we are! Pray be seated on this lion-throne.'
'No Maharaj, this low seat suits me.'
'Alright, alright! Then sit on this jackal-skin covered seat. Now kindly state what brings you here. Uncle, I have not ever seen you earlier.'
'How would you, Maharaj! I live in secret. Moreover, the last thirteen years I have been abroad. My hunch does not permit me to follow Kshatriya mores. Therefore, I have acquired proficiency in magical arts. The divine architect Vishvakarma has blessed me with a boon. Eldest of Pandavs, I hear you are extraordinarily adept at gambling and the very heart of dice lies on your fingertips'.
'Hmmm' So people do say.'
'Yet you have been worsted by Shakuni. Do you know why?'
Frowning, Yudhishthir said, 'Shakuni defeated me by cheating unrighteously.'
With a lop-sided smile Matkuni responded, 'In dicing there's nothing like cheating and playing fair. The dice-game where both parties depend wholly on luck is termed 'fair'. If one player depends on luck and the other wins by his own efforts, then the defeated party usually complains of cheating. Dharmaraj, your luck lost to the dice thrown by Shakuni's prowess. If you take recourse to a mightier force, against Ravana use Rama, the goddess of dice will garland you alone.'
'Uncle, I fail to grasp your drift.'
'Son of Dharma! Listen to a secret: Shakuni's dice were made by me. Within it I have established a mantric power because of which its throw is infallible. Wicked Shakuni, having learnt the art from me, discarded me like an elephant excreting a wood-apple. He had assured me that, after exiling the Pandavas, Duryodhan would install me on the throne of Indraprasth. After you left for the forest, when I reminded Duryodhan of the promise he said, 'I know nothing. Speak to Uncle.' Shakuni said, 'What do I know? Go to Duryodhan.' Ultimately, these two despicable creatures using tricks and force consigned me to the dungeons of far-off Bahlik country. After thirteen years, somehow I managed to escape and have sought sanctuary with you. Dwarf-like I aspired for the Indraprasth-moon. Because I sought Indraprasth, I have suffered such calamity. After you are victorious, if you give me the Gandhar Kingdom by driving away Shakuni, I want nothing more.'
'As reward for the disaster piled on my head by your dice?'
Matkuni quickly looked away and said, 'Please don't raise that topic again, Maharaj. Hear me out. I have received confidential information that Sanjay, sent by Dhritarashtra, is about to arrive here. Egged on by Duryodhan and Shakuni the blind king is summoning you once again to a dice game. Maharaj, do not let this great opportunity slip by'.
Just then, the grinding of chariot wheels was heard. Matkuni anxiously said, 'There, Sanjay has arrived. I beg you, Maharaj, please do not reject Dhritarashtra's proposal out of hand. Say that you will reply later after considering the matter. When Sanjay has left, I will tell you everything. For the present, I am hiding in the next room.' After the usual formalities of enquiring after their welfare, Sanjay broached the reason for his arrival:
'O best of Pandavs, I am but the messenger, do not blame me. Dhritarashtra has said thus:
'Yudhishthir my son, the five of you are as dear to me as my hundred sons. It is my bounden duty to prevent this destructive fratricidal war at any cost. I am powerless, old and blind; my sons are disobedient and eager for battle. After racking my brains, I have decided that instead of violent armed confrontation it is the non-violent dice-game that can resolve the enmity of both parties. With great difficulty I have been able to get my sons and their friends to consent to this arrangement. Hence, come with all your dear ones to the Kaurav camp and once again engage in a throw of dice with the same stake as last time: the Kuru-Pandav Kingdom. If Duryodhan's representative Shakuni loses, the Kauravs will leave the kingdom with their retinue for the forests forever. If you lose, then you too will have to give up hope of kingdom and retire to the forest permanently. My son, do not fear deception. I will keep ready two sets of dice. You can with your own hands select one. Shakuni will play with the other dice.'
'What can be more unexceptionable than this arrangement? I anxiously wait to hear from Sanjay of your concurrence. My dear Yudhishthir, may your discrimination work for the welfare of your five brothers and saving the lives of eighteen akshauhinis along with the Kuru-Pandavs.'
Yudhishthir said, 'Inform the Kuru monarch that he has put before me an extremely difficult problem. I will reply to him after carefully considering the matter. Now please rest and have food. Return tomorrow.'
'No, Maharaj, I have to return immediately. Rest is out of the question. Victory to Dharma's son!' Saying this, Sanjay took leave.
Emerging from the side-door Matkuni said, 'Maharaj, your reply has been correct. Now listen carefully to my advice. This very afternoon dispatch a trusted emissary to Dhritarashtra without letting your brothers know. Your messenger will say, 'O venerable eldest uncle, your word is my command. Even though most detestable, I accept this third dice-game. I do not require your dice and will depend on my own. Shakuni too will play with his own. I also accept the stake you have proposed. Only one condition I beg you to accept: Shakuni and I will both play with only one dice each and the dice will be thrown only thrice. Whoever's cumulative throw is greater, will win.'
Yudhishthir said, 'O Subal's son Matkuni, you are my maternal uncle by relation, but now it seems you are senile. How dare I challenge Shakuni once again? If you provide me with dice like Shakuni's, then the encounter will be between equals. But even then, where is the assurance of my victory? What is the reason for objecting to the dice arranged by Dhritarashtra? What is the intention behind restricting the game to three throws when the greater the number of throws the more the chance of accumulating greater numbers? And what is the proof that you are not Duryodhan's spy?'
Matkuni replied, 'Maharaj! Peace ' be still! All your doubts shall I slice through. If you play with the dice chosen by Dhritarashtra, your defeat is inevitable. Cunning Shakuni will never play with that dice. Like a magician, by sleight of hand he will change it in a flash for his own and play only with that. I did not lie idle in the Bahlik dungeons so long. After tireless research, I have created a dice infused with even greater mantricpower. This new creation I will place in your hands. Shakuni's dice will become ineffectual the moment it nears this. Maharaj, there is not the slightest doubt about your victory. My instrument is most subtle. That is why throwing it too often in a single day is not permissible. Shakuni's dice, too, does not remain potent over a long period. That is why he will agree to your proposition with alacrity. For your victory, three throws are enough. The dice is with me. Test it out.'
Matkuni took out an ivory dice from the bag at his waist. Yudhishthir noticed that the dice was like Shakuni's, equally well made with smooth faces, rounded at the edges, a tiny hole at the centre of each dot.
Matkuni said, ' Maharaj, throw it thrice'.
Yudhishthir did so. Every time the throw showed six. Surprised, he sought to inspect the dice, but Matkuni snatched it away and putting it back into his bag said, 'This mantra-infused dice is not to be handled unnecessarily as that affects its special powers.'
Yudhishthir said, 'Your dice is dependable no doubt. But who will stand guarantee that you will not betray us?'
'My head is forfeit. Take me into custody from now on with two guards in constant attendance with drawn swords. Order them that if news of your defeat is received, they should behead me. Maharaj, now do you believe me?'
'I do. I will act upon your advice. Right now I'll dispatch a messenger to the Kuru King. You will reside in a secret place guarded by armed sentries. Neither Kuru nor Pandav will know of your whereabouts. If I win, you get Gandhar. If I lose, you die. Now, give me that dice.'
'Maharaj, if the dice remains with you, it will lose its special powers in the absence of proper care. Let it remain with me. I will constantly reinforce its mantric force and will hand it over to you before you depart. If you so wish, you can visit me daily to practice with it.'
Yudhishthir said, ' Matkuni, your useless life is now at my mercy. But my brains, my kingdom, my dharma- all are in your hands. There is no way out for me but to listen to you.'
With all royal panoply, the assembly hall sat down for the dice game. Dhritarashtra could not remain at peace. For observing what would happen, he came down to the Kaurav camp from Hastinapur for a couple of days. His faith in Shakuni's abilities was unbounded. He had not the slightest doubt regarding the victory of the Kuru camp.
In the assembly hall after Krishna, Balaram, the five Pandavs, Duryodhan, his brothers and Dhritarashtra all had gathered together Bheeshma spoke: 'I condemn this gambling meet. But I am the Kuru monarch's servant. Hence, despite the utmost reluctance, I have to witness these shameful proceedings.' Dronacharya said, 'I am of the same opinion.'
Bheeshma continued, 'Maharaj Dhritarashtra, it is necessary to ensure that no illegal or unfair deed in violation of the rules of dicing is committed in this assembly. I propose that Shri Krishna be appointed chairman to regulate the proceedings.'
Duryodhan objected, 'Shri Krishna is in the Pandav camp.'
Krishna said, 'What Duryodhan says is not untrue. Moreover, with my elder brother present, I cannot chair the meet.'
Then, with the consent of everyone, Dhritarashtra appointed Balaram to the task. Balaram said, 'Why delay? Let the game begin. O assembled nobility, in this gambling match Shakuni on the Kaurav side and Yudhishthir on the Pandav side will play for their respective camps using only a single dice each. Each will cast the dice only thrice. The person who obtains the largest number of points will win. The stake of this gamble is the entire Kuru-Pandav kingdom. The loser will hand over the kingdom to the winner and, laying aside all warlike intentions, he will have to retire the forest with his party forever. Subal's son Shakuni, as the elder you shall have the first chance to cast the dice.'
Happily, Shakuni made his throw and exclaimed, 'I win!' Immediately after falling, his dice was seen to roll a little and then remain still, showing six dots on top. Karna, Duryodhan and others shouted with delight, 'Victory is ours!'
Balaram said, 'Yudhishthir, now it's your turn to play.'
Yudhishthir's dice turned over once and remained steady. It, too, displayed six dots. Pandavs exclaimed, 'Dharmaraj's victory!'
Balaram said, 'You're all making a lot of noise unnecessarily. No one has won. Both parties are equal.'
Grimly Shakuni said, 'Still two throws are left. I'll win both.'
The second time Shakuni's dice did not roll at all. It remained stationery after falling, showing five dots. Yudhisthir's dice showed six as previously. Shakuni noticed his dice was quivering.
The Pandav camp roared exultantly. Rebuking them, Balaram said, 'Beware! Another shout and I'll evict you from the assembly.'
Silence descended. With bated breath, every eye strained to see the final throw.
Shakuni, gone pale, threw the dice for the third time. The dice fell with a thud like a lump of mud ' a single dot!
Yudhishthir threw six again. Balaram in a voice grim as thunder announced, 'The victory is Yudhisthir's.'
At that moment, everyone noticed with amazement that the dice cast by Yudhishthir was making tiny hops, inching towards Shakuni's dice.
The assembly burst into uproar ' 'Maya! Magic! Illusion! Hypnotism!'
Duryodhan flinging his arms and legs about shouted, 'Yudhisthir has cheated! We do not accept his victory. Does any decent man's dice ever move about?'
Balaram declared, 'I will inspect the dice of both parties.'
Yudhisthir immediately picked up his dice and handed it over to Balaram. Shakuni closed his fist around his and said defiantly, 'I will not allow anyone to touch my dice.'
Balaram frowned and said, 'As Chairman of this assembly, my directive has to be obeyed.'
Shakuni sneered in reply, 'I am not bound to obey you.'
Administering a resounding slap on Shakuni's cheek and snatching away his dice Balaram said, 'O assembled people, I shall break open these dice and find out what is inside them.' Saying this, he split open both dice by throwing them on a stone platform.
From Shakuni's dice a tiny beetle emerged, moving its pincers feebly as if on the verge of death.
From Yudhisthir's dice a small lizard came out and immediately attacked the beetle.
The assembly was agitated like a storm-tossed ocean. Anxious, Dhritarashtra demanded to know what was happening. Balaram informed him, 'Nothing much. There was a beetle in Shakuni's dice'
'And it's bitten someone?' enquired Dhritarashtra anxiously, 'How terrible!'
'Not bitten anyone, Maharaj. It was inside Shakuni's dice. This insect is extremely intractable and cannot be overturned or turned on its side. If kept inside a dice, it turns it over to remain upright. From Yudhisthir's dice a lizard emerged. This creature is even more obstinate. Brahma himself cannot upturn him. Smelling the lizard, the beetle was paralysed with fear. That is why Shakuni failed to get his desired throw.'
Dhritarashtra asked, 'Then who won?'
'Yudhisthir' Balaram replied, 'Both parties used false dice. Hence, one cannot raise the objection of cheating.'
Yudhisthir then took Balaram aside and narrated the Matkuni matter. Balaram told him. 'You need not feel embarrassed. The use of false dice is permitted by the rules of gambling.'
With supreme indifference Yudhisthir primly stated, 'Plough-wielder, you are a mighty hero but ignorant of the scriptures. Lord Manu has prescribed that dyuta is that which is played using objects, while that which is played with living creatures is calledsamahavya. Kururaj had summoned me for dyuta of unliving things but, unfortunately, living creatures have emerged from our dice. Hence this contest is vitiated.'
Karna clapped enthusiastically and said, 'Dharmaraj, your name is truly well-deserved.'
Balaram announced, 'Dharmaraj's knowledge of scriptures is vast, although he is somewhat deficient in practical sense. I accept that this contest stands vitiated. In that case, the earlier match is also void for Shakuni had used the beetle-containing dice there too. Kururaj Dhritarashtra, because of your brother-in-law's unrighteous conduct, in violation of scriptural prescription, the Pandavs have unnecessarily had to suffer exile for thirteen years. Now return them their paternal kingdom, otherwise hell definitely awaits you in the next life.'
Excitedly Yudhisthir exclaimed, 'I don't wish to hear anything. I am disgusted with everything to do with dicing. We will win back our kingdom only by war. Elder uncle,pranam, I am leaving.'
The Pandavs then left for their camp with exultant shouts. Krishna and Balaram accompanied them. After returning Yudhisthir said, 'My first duty is to free Matkuni. This unfortunate fool's entire effort has gone waste. Come, let's comfort him.'
A little before this news had reached the Pandav camp that something had gone seriously wrong in the dice-game assembly hall. When Yudhishthir and the rest reached the prison, the two sentries were arguing whether Matkuni's head should be lopped off or whether, for the present, chopping off his nose would do.
Having heard everything from Yudhisthir, Matkuni beat his head and wailed, 'No, I find everywhere it is fate that prevails! I overfed the lizard to make it strong. That is why that ungrateful creature jumped about and ruined me. Balaram somehow saved the situation, but Dharmaraj had to mess it all up by quoting scripture. What is the use of freeing me when Duryodhan is bound to kill me?'
Balaram said, 'Matkuni, you need not worry. Come with me to Dvaraka. There, in an ashram of non-violent ascetics, innumerable utkine-mutkin-mashk-mushik etc. are served daily. I will make you its head and you'll be able to spend your time happily ever after engaged in ever new research.'