Shakuni was considered to be the villain of Mahabharata. He instigated Duryodhan and constantly plotted against the Pandavas. But is this the whole truth? Did he do all this out of devotion to his sister’s clan or was there something else? Was he inherently evil as we know him and have seen in popular depiction, clad in black robes and wearing an evil look and an impish smile?
|Shakuni as represented in Kathakali |
Shakuni was the brother of Gandhari, the wife of the blind king Dhritarashtra of Hastinapur. Shakuni has also been referred to as the King of Gandhar, a region smaller than Hastinapur. It is said that Shakuni was angry and felt insulted when Bhishmapitamah brought the matrimonial proposal of the blind Dhritarashtra. In those days, refusing the proposal would have been suicidal for the region and they were left with no choice but to accept it. To add fuel to the fire, Gandhari, Shakuni’s sister, embraced darkness for life. Shakuni felt vindictive and decided to avenge the insult to Gandhar and his father, King Subala, by ruining the entire Kuru clan of Bhishmapitamah who was the proud guardian of the kingdom. But this he could not do by waging a war against them as Gandhar Pradesh was too small in comparison to Hastinapur. He decided to live with them and eat into the system and destroy it from within. Just as a rat destroys cloth, for the sake of destroying, not because it wants to eat it, Shakuni became the rat in Hastinapur and kept Duryodhan under his tutelage and kept fanning his ambitions and stoking the fire of jealousy and ambition alive in him, till the entire extended family was brought to a naught. This is the version according to Ved Vyasa or at least a popular explanation of Shakuni’s behavior.
There are some other versions to his evil. According to a version (which does not find space in Vyasa’s version), Gandhari’s stars foretold that she would be a widow as soon as she married, but if married again, her second husband would survive. So her father got her married to a goat and killed it soon after, which made her a ‘widow’ in technical terms. Later, when Dhritarashtra comes to know about this, he waged a battle against the kingdom of Gandhar and took King Subala, along with his 100 sons as prisoners. As prisoners all of them were given just a handful of rice to sustain. The King realized that this way all of them would meet their end soon. He then decided that all would sacrifice their portion for one of them to eat, who should live on to avenge this insult meted out on them. The son selected to carry on living was Shakuni. After his father and all the brothers had died one by one, Shakuni was released on the request of Gandhari and he then came over to Hastinapur and continue his task that his father and brothers had given him.
There is an interesting story on the selection of Shakuni to take the task forward. King Subala of Gandhar wanted an intelligent son to survive to avenge the insult, so to test them, he gave each one a bone and asked them to put a thread through it. None could do it, except Shakuni, who tied a thread to an ant who went through the bone to reach the other end, to eat a grain of rice which was tied to the other end of the bone! One by one all the brothers died and so did his father and it is said that the dice that Shakuni carried with him was carved out of his father’s thigh bones. The dice constantly reminded him of the insult and his objective entrusted on him by his family.
In all the negative qualities associated with Shakuni, a very important quality of his has been overlooked. Shakuni was a very good judge of human nature and character. He knew well about Dhritarashtra’s lust for monarchy and his inability to hold on to it due to his lack of vision, both literally as well as figuratively. He was aware of his nephew, Duryodhan’s hatred for his cousins and his ambition to become the King and continued to fan the flame of hatred in his heart and mind. He was also aware of Yudhishtira’s weakness for gambling and knew that Yudhishtira would give in to the slightest provocation and that is what he ensured during the dice-game. He was also well aware of Krishna’s love and support for the Pandava’s and also recognized the fact that Krishna was the only match to his guile and intelligence in the Pandava camp, and ensured that all the wrong meted out to the Pandavas occurred in Krishna’s absence. One can see these examples as evil intentions, or as smart strategist who moved towards his personal objective in a slow, but steady pace.
Popular notion sees Shakuni as the villain, but was he really one? Wouldn’t any individual with slightest of self-respect feel insulted if a matrimonial proposal was sent for his daughter/sister from a person who is not only ineligible but also handicapped? Who would not feel insulted if such a proposal was given to them, just because it was not in their power to decline? Was this not exploitation of one’s superiority? Did Bhishmapitamah not know the inadequacies of Dhritarashtra, who though elder of the family was not eligible to be the King? Was the matrimonial alliance not being sought after more for physical and political reasons rather than simple matrimony? With all this and more, what else can a relatively weaker person do, if not act like a termite and eat into the system, to avenge his insult? This is exactly how rebels are created due to acts of insult, injury and oppression. The case of Shakuni was no different. In the light of such acts by the mighty stalwarts and guardians of Hastinapur, was Shakuni really a villain?
Shakuni was later killed by Sahadev in the battle of Kurukshetra.