A life spent on plotting revenge, with every walking step reminding you of the pain suffered by your loved ones right before their deaths; such was the existence of Shakuni— the most enigmatic character of Hindu mythology. He is always looked at with a judgemental lens, pinned to the image of a selfish, manipulative and cunning villain. What made him so eager to exact his revenge? Why did an heir to the throne, decided to live with his sister in an unknown land?
Before brothers turning against each other and mothers witnessing the bloodshed of their sons in the name of truth, there were two kingdoms— Gandhara and Hastinapur. Gandhara was a small, self-sufficient kingdom ruled by king Subala (Shakuni’s father). The great Kuru dynasty ruled the Kingdom of Hastinapur, and it was one of the largest of its time. In a bid to produce an heir to the throne, and ensure the longevity of the dynasty; a marriage was proposed between Dhritrashtra (Kuru king) and Gandhari (Shakuni’s sister).
We received the messenger from the Kingdom of Hastinapura, the strongest ally in our court. Our Kingdom was neither as powerful nor as prosperous as the Kuru clan’s empire. Still, it was self-sufficient – ably ruled by my father who placed the welfare of the citizens above all else. The messenger read out a scroll bearing the royal emblem of the Kurus but was also accompanied by Devavrata’s personal seal. The message would have surely come from the Kuru patriarch himself. Hidden in the flowery language that was common between diplomats, the real purpose behind the motive of the messenger visiting us was finally revealed. Bhishma had proposed a marriage alliance, to seal our friendship and make us family. Gandhari, my younger sister was to be wed to the Blind Prince of the Kurus, Dhritarashtra. As the messenger droned on about Dhritarashtra’s strength and Gandhari’s beauty, my father looked to my sister. She smiled earnestly, and my father heaved a sigh of relief. Declining this proposal would not have bode well for us, but Gandhari was the apple of our eyes. My brothers and I would never allow her to be forcibly wed off. It is a strange feeling to know that your baby sister is going to be married. Despite being blind, Dhritarashtra was famed to be incredibly strong and virtuous. In a powerful and wealthy clan like theirs, she would be happy.
Gandhari was the only recipient of Shakuni’s love and affection. Seeing his sister sacrificing her sight, angered Shakuni to an extreme extent. He witnessed Gandhari struggling to deal with her fear of darkness every day. This fed the fire of contempt and anger against Bhishma and the Kurus growing within Shakuni.
Before Gandhari married Dhritrashtra, she was married to a sheep because of a curse. According to the curse, whoever marries Gandhari would die within three months of marriage. To prevent this fate, Gandhari performed the marriage rituals with a goat. Upon hearing this, Bhishma got extremely angry. He imprisoned Shakuni, his father and his 100 brothers making them pay for the disrespect inflicted by them on the great Kuru clan.
It is hard to think straight when you have to survive by eating only a hundred grains of rice while your father and brothers perish around you: that damned Dhritarashtra and his uncle, the wretched Bhishma. My beloved sister, Gandhari, chose to blindfold herself forever to honour her husband. That fool, he assumed it was an attempt to mock him and has treated her with contempt ever since. Poor Gandhari. She is terrified of the dark, and now she has to live in darkness throughout her life. When she was a young girl, she got trapped in a dark room and cried until a servant opened the door. Before she left for Hastinapura, we got bells sewed into our clothes and that of her servants, hoping that the tinkling sound would give her some comfort.
What comfort though, when she knows her father and brothers are being tortured in prison by her husband? Ah, the irony! To prevent the curse from killing him, we had initially married Gandhari to a sheep. Once the Kurus got wind of this, infuriated, they imprisoned all the male members of my family and tortured us – depriving us of food and water. Like some sort of sick joke, they gave us only a grain of rice each. My brothers and father gave all their food to me, hoping that one day I would avenge them by destroying the Kuru clan. And I sat in the dim-lit dungeon cell, eating to my heart’s content, watching my brothers and father reduce to only flesh and bones.
Shakuni dedicated his entire life after his imprisonment to get his revenge from Bhishma. Bhishma devoted his whole life for the Kuru clan, and he took every possible measure to protect the lineage and ensure their long rule. To defeat Bhishma, Shakuni pledged to destroy the very Kingdom he tried so hard to build— he decided to destroy Bhishma’s legacy.
Shakuni was very well versed in the game of politics. He used his volatile nephew Duryodhana to create tension between the Pandavas and Kauravas. He wasn’t on any side of the war; he intended to destroy the clan. He used the dice made from his father’s bone to win the game of dice, which led to Draupadi’s humiliation. Shakuni very cleverly exploited Pandavas’ vulnerability and Duryodhana’s thirst for the throne to turn the events in his favour. The game of dice which he very cleverly paved the way for the Kurukshetra war.
I watched my brothers die one by one. As my father lay on his deathbed, he whispered to me. A man once rejoiced by the people was only a husk of his former self. His hair shrivelled, royal robes soiled and frown lines marring his handsome face. He feebly pulled me closer, and in a raspy breath made me promise my revenge. He took his staff, a sturdy iron rod with a sharpened edge, and mustering all his strength, stabbed my thigh. Pain shot through my leg, but it was only shock that showed on my face. My very own father had made me a cripple. He pulled me closer, and with a low murmur, he muttered his last words “Son, your limp will remind you of the promise you made with every step you take. Take my bones and make your dice. My soul will enter these dice, making sure to roll to the number you need.”
The only person in Mahabharata who matched the cunning and manipulative brain of Shakuni was Krishna. He was aware of Shakuni’s plans and motives. Shakuni convinced Duryodhana to reject the peace talks and aim for war instead. He started spewing hatred between Pandavas and Kauravas since a very early stage. When the boys were kids, he convinced Duryodhana to poison Bhima’s food. He made sure that the wall of hatred and jealousy between the two sets of princes rose so high that even Krishna, the most proficient diplomat, couldn’t breach them.
My sister Gandhari bore the Blind Kind a hundred sons. A hundred sons for me to incite with jealousy and hatred for their own cousins, a hundred sons for me to destroy to avenge the death of another hundred lives. Duryodhana, born amongst ill-omens, was one I could easily manipulate. As a child, he was incredibly gullible – jealous of that large oaf Bhima, simply because he had lost at some swordplay. As he grew older, Duryodhana and his brothers only grew more jealous, as a result of insecurity that I carefully grew. Yudhishtira and his siblings are naive fools. They neither understand nor know how to play the game of politics. A game of dice – and Dharmaraja lost his playground of a Kingdom and wagered his wife. I care neither for the Kauravas nor the Pandavas; they are all that wretched Bhishma’s grandchildren. They carry his blood, and it is his blood I wish to spill.
Ah! But the wily cowherd from Gokula, Krishna. He is the only one who knows my true intentions. I am only a mere mortal, and he? He is the Divine himself. Oh, Krishna! Do you know about my plans? Do you know my bindings and my reasonings? Do you know why I am causing bloodshed, and am an obstacle in your path? You are the all-knowing Supreme, and yet, do you know who Shakuni is, oh Gopala? Your attempts to broker peace are valiant, but an oath binds me. I cannot let you succeed.
No matter how much he is proclaimed as a manipulator, selfish and cunning politician, Shakuni was still an honourable man. He declined Duryodhana’s offer of going back to Gandhara before the war started. He knew that his chances of survival in the war were very slim, yet he decided to stay. Being aware of the fact that one might not be able to witness the only thing they have spent their entire life on can be a little disappointing. Shakuni didn’t know how long he would survive in the war; he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to see the Kuru lineage being destroyed. His decision to participate in the war shows that he was so much more than the villain history has made him. It gives us a window into his character, which is not explored yet.
Shakuni was a man driven by his feelings and emotions. His love for his sister and grief over his dead family made him plot one of the most destructive battles of all time. His only enemy was Bhishma, who disrespected his sister, made her marry a blind man and live in the shadows of her fear. Shakuni might be the antagonist of Mahabharata, but Bhishma was the antagonist of Shakuni’s life. A dharma-seeking saint who tortured over a hundred royals over an incident which wasn’t in anyone’s control. One can’t judge Shakuni right away; there is always a hesitation to approach his character. His actions might not be the most righteous, but they came from a place of immense sorrow and pain— and who is to say Bhishma’s actions were right either? It is perhaps this grey uncertainty, this hesitation which makes the character of Shakuni especially relevant today.
Written by Lavya Joshi and Siri Rajanahally for MTTN
Featured Image by Varun Vyas Hebbalalu