Shakuni - the mastermind or not (who is the real Shakuni of Mahabharata)
Shakuni is a key character in the great epic Mahabharata and is one of those characters which many people find fascinating. So fascinating that there are many folklores and fantastic theories associated with the character during later retellings. This has made extremely difficult to understand the real Shakuni as described in the Ved Vyasa's Mahabharata.
After coming across multiple such stories which are floating around on internet and popular culture these days, we decided to scan through the Mahabharata published by Gita Press and compiled a comprehensive account of Shakuni's actual role in the epic. This post is for anyone who is interested in knowing the truth about Shakuni and has interest in our great epic Mahabharata.
Let's start with how Vyasa, the composer of the epic, wanted us to see the character of Shakuni.
Mahabharata clearly mentions Shakuni as the branches of the bad tree called Duryodhana, of which Dhritarashtra was the roots, Karna was the stem and Dushasana was the fruits. So, was Shakuni a villain of the Mahabharata? Of course, without any doubt. Ved Vyasa himself has attested to that fact unambiguously.
With that out of the way, let's explore the role of this Villain further in the great epic. Was he the Kang (MCU reference) of the Mahabharata world pulling all the strings to get what he wanted, as many might have you believe, or his role was more of an able henchman for the big bad villain?
We meet the character of the Shakuni for the first time during Gandhari's wedding. Now many people tell really interesting stories about how that went about. You will know which stories we are talking about. This attached page is from the chapter that covers the marriage of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari and Shakuni's role in it without any ambiguity.
According to this Shakuni personally came to Hastinapur to drop his sister and lived there for some time as their royal guest. It also clearly mentions that Bhishma received him with respect and honored him.
Now you know the extent of the truth of the sob story often associated with Shakuni which somehow tries to legitimize his evil actions later on in the epic. "Oh. but he did all that because of what was done to his family." Mahabharata clearly does not support any such sob story. There seems to be no sad motivation behind his actions later in the epic.
Many people claim that Shakuni poisoned his nephew Duryodhana against his cousins and that prompted the poisoning of Bhima. Well Duryodhana did not need any inspiration from his uncle to do that. He was fully capable of extreme evil on his own. Here are the screenshots from the chapter covering the event of Bhima's poisoning. Please read and find out if Shakuni played any role in instigating his nephew here.
t seems this villain was not omnipresent as many might have you believe. We will talk about the extent of his villainy in a moment. Keep reading.
Later after Yudhishthira was declared Yuvaraj and Pandava were gaining popularity among the subjects of Hastinapur, it worried Dhritarashtra and he invited an advisor named Kanika to consult. Many attribute this advice to Shakuni but Kanika is a different character in the epic, and we have captured the conversation between Kanika and Dhritarashtra is great detail in this thread on X. https://x.com/MySutradhar/status/1506918247391989762
Now the villainy of Shakuni starts. He along with Duryodhana, Karna and Dushasana hatched the plan to burn the Pandava at Varanavat. Dhritarashtra gave his blessings for this sinister plan based on the advice he had received from Kanika.
Next, we meet Shakuni when the news of Draupadi's wedding reached Hastinapur. Here Shakuni showed his true colors and adviced Pandavas to be eliminated and presented his case. He was clearly wary about-facing Pandavas in open battle with all their powerful allies.
If he had taken an oath to destroy the Kuru clan and was a genius mastermind, this was an appropriate time to execute his plan. But here he presented a proper analysis and warned against waiting for Pandava to stand together with their allies before attacking them. Anyway, Shakuni's suggestion was shot down by others present in the court.
Shakuni again appeared in the story when he was attending Yudhishthira's Rajasuya yagya in Indraprastha, along with his father Subala. Yes, Shakuni's father was alive and well and they had good diplomatic relations with the Kurus to have a royal invitation to the Rajasuya yagya. Check this following screenshot where Gandhararaj Subala is mentioned among other honoured guests. If there was any doubt Subala's presence here clearly refutes the sob story of Shakuni's family being imprisoned, tortured and left to die.
After the Rajasuya yagya on their way back to Hastinapur Duryodhana spoke to his uncle and talked about how he was burning with jealousy, and he would commit suicide if he had to see Yudhishthira prospering like that. (Yes, he did threaten suicide - read the screenshot)
Now in the following screenshot read what Shakuni advised Duryodhana. He asked his nephew not to be jealous of his cousins. He even talked about Pandava’s good luck and their strength to deter Duryodhana from this destructive thought process.
Now you all must be thinking this seems to be a good advice from someone we have already established as one of the villains of the story. That's the point. He was the villain but his extent of villainy has been greatly exaggerated in later retellings.
The villainy part though comes immediately after the above conversation when Shakuni proposed the idea of dyuta to his nephew. If you read carefully the proposal of dyuta was made by Shakuni to avoid the war. He clearly knew that his nephew stood no chance against Pandava in open battle and wanted to avoid that situation. He did not want his sister's sons to die in battle so came up with other evil ways to achieve Duryodhana's happiness.
Shakuni probably knew that people in future will make absurd stories about him, so he clearly explained his skill in the game of dice to his nephew. (Read this screenshot where he does that). No magical dice. He was an expert gambler. Sometimes the explanation is that simple. There is no mention of any bones being involved in the construction of the dice either.
Next few chapters are then dedicated to Duryodhana convincing Dhritarashtra for the game of dice and how they cornered Yudhishthira into accepting the invitation by calling it a friendly game between the cousins. This is followed by this conversation between Shakuni and Yudhishthira. Here you can observe that Shakuni was good with words capable of manipulating people but he used that skill for Duryodhana's advantage not against the overall destruction of Kuru clan.
This is followed by the evilest part of the epic and Shakuni's biggest contribution to the story. Getting Jasprit Bumrah to bowl to someone who bought a bat so that he can get batting in the gully cricket.
Yudhishthira agreed to the game thinking it would be a game among the equals between himself and Duryodhana, but he was pitted against an expert gambler Shakuni. As expected in such a situation the gully player kept losing to the world class player. After Draupadi won, Shakuni kept quietly enjoying the humiliation of Pandava and their wife but most of the talking on Duryodhana's behalf was done by Karna. Shakuni spoke next before the 2nd game of dice.
Shakuni's role in the epic does not end here however it became of much less consequence. However, some other things happened which threw more light on Shakuni so let's keep reading.
Duryodhana was still not happy, and he again talked about committing suicide (I am telling you this was his most potent weapon. Read the screenshot.) and proposed they seek Pandava during their exile and kill them. Shakuni advised against this. (read the next screenshot)
This part of the post is not about Shakuni but more clarification about dyuta. During their time in exile Yudhishthira met Brihadashwa rishi, who taught him the skill to play the game of dice. This clearly establishes that it was a game that could be learned and practiced. No magic dice needed. This also shows that Yudhishthira prepared himself for any such situation in future. Just in case. This also helped Yudhishthira during Pandava's agyatvas.
We will get to Shakuni in a bit, so don't stop here. Keep reading. More surprises await.
Shakuni enters the story again during Ghoshyatra, when he and Karna proposed the idea of Duryodhana going to the jungle and enjoy seeing his enemies live a life of misery.
Now Duryodhana being himself, picked up a fight with Gandharva where everyone including Shakuni led by Karna started fighting the Gandharvas. Later Duryodhana's army along with Karna ran away and he was captured.
Yudhishthira ordered Bhima and Arjuna to rescue Duryodhana, who obliged. Duryodhana felt so humiliated at this that he decided to commit suicide (again). Everyone tried to convince Duryodhana to not commit suicide. What Shakuni said to him would blow your mind. Read the attached screenshot carefully. He in fact asked Duryodhana to show gratitude towards Pandava and return their share of the kingdom to them.
This doesn't sound like someone who was manipulating Duryodhana to ensure the war between Kaurava and Pandava to achieve destruction of the Kuru clan. Does it?
After this incident Duryodhana completely sidelined his uncle since Shakuni did not play any role of significance in the planning of the attack on Matsya or during the Virat war. But Shakuni's role was not over yet. There is more.
Shakuni did not play any role of significance in the days leading up to the war. In fact, Shakuni's son Uluka played a bigger role than his father, who was chosen by Duryodhana as a messenger to go to Pandava camp. Mahabharata has an entire chapter Ulukadutagaman Parva named after him.
Now we move closer to the war. Bhishma counted Shakuni as a Rathi. (He was not a limp. That is nowhere mentioned in Mahabharata).
After trying to avoid the war and come up with alternate evil schemes to fulfil his nephew's desire the war was up on Shakuni. He fought for the side of his nephews and the very fact that he survived till the last day says a lot about his survival instinct.
He was a decent warrior who knew how to survive in battle facing warriors superior to him. The more shocking part is that all the brothers of Shakuni, who according to the alternative theory popular on social media these days must all be dead, also participated in the Kurukshetra war. Check these screenshots where his brothers Gavaksha, Sharabha, Vibhu, Subhaga and Bhanudatta die at the hands of Bhimasena.
Shakuni had few notable battles in the Kurukshetra war. On the last day after Shalya's fall Shakuni showed enough courage to rally the Kaurava troops together. However Shakuni was no match for Sahadev, who eventually ended Shakuni's story in a really brutal way. The way he fought, he cannot be man with a limp. As mentioned before there is no mention of this in the entire Mahabharata.
This is the entire journey of Shakuni in the epic Mahabharata.
Now after reading this entire post, form your own opinion about the role Shakuni played in the epic. Was he some kind of genius mastermind manipulating everyone around him to ensure the destruction of Hastinapur or was he a tool in the hands of his nephew? Did Shakuni manipulate his nephew to ensure the two sets of cousins fight a brutal war leading to the destruction of the Kuru dynasty or he kept avoiding the war and kept suggesting alternate ways to get what Duryodhana wanted to ensure Duryodhana did not die a brutal death in the situation of war? Was he a mastermind who succeeded in his evil designs or had he in fact failed in achieving his goal of seeing his nephew ruling the throne of Hastinapur?
Please share with everyone who are interested in Mahabharata, especially with people who seem to believe the various myths surrounding the character of Shakuni.
(All the screenshots shared in the thread are from Gita Press Hindi Translation available in 6 parts)