Mahabharat is synonymous with the epic battle at Kurukshetra from which only a handful came back alive. But Kurukshetra was just the climax. All through the scripture, the characters are seen playing games with one another. Mind Games. While most mind games were carefully planned, some were unintended, but had same impact as the former. Some realized they were being played, some never realized, and some realized too late. Here are some mind games by Shakuni and Duryodhan:

  1. Shakuni – Duryodhan:

This one can be called the root of the whole mess that led to Kurukshetra. Shakuni, though a close relative of the Kauravs, had an old grudge and wanted revenge*. Such intense was his vengeance, that it didn’t even spare his young nephew Duryodhan. Shakuni’s mind game with Duryodhan was very well planned and phased. First, Shakuni won Duryodhan’s trust by acting as a well-wishing, loving and unconditionally supportive uncle, taking his side beyond reason especially when Duryodhan was already jealous of his cousins the Pandavs. As years passed, Duryodhan’s jealousy brewed into hatred and got stronger with age encouraged and declared correct by Shakuni. Then, Shakuni brainwashed Duryodhan into believing that he was the obvious successor to the throne of Hastinapur and there was no question of anyone else staking a claim to the reins of the kingdom. Eventually Yudhisthir, the eldest of the Pandavs, was appointed the crown prince. Duryodhan’s belief that the throne was his and his alone had gotten so strong that he couldn’t control his rage and was ready to go any extent to get the Pandavs out of the way. That’s when finally, Shakuni became the mastermind behind all conspiring and plotting Duryodhan did against the Pandavs. Be it an attempt to burn the Pandavs alive in a palace made of wax or ensuring Pandavs got a barren piece of land called Khandavprasth as their share or inviting Yudhisthir for a game of dice where deceit was blatantly at play, Shakuni’s was the mind working behind everything nasty Duryodhan did. Shakuni’s mind game had played out so well with Duryodhan that he rejected all proposals of a settlement with the Pandavs. Pleas for peace from the elders, the gurus and the ministers fell on the deaf ears of Duryodhan who’d been imagining himself as the undisputed king, since he was a child, all thanks to Shakuni. What thus resulted was a war at Kurukshetra, which wiped the the whole Kaurav clan and Shakuni himself. Shakuni caught him young, literally!

  1. Duryodhan – Balram:

The Pandavs were feared dead when the palace of wax was charred to ashes as planned by Shakuni and executed by Duryodhan. The void created by Yudhisthir’s absence was filled with Duryodhan being appointed the crown price. For Shakuni and Duryodhan, it was a moment of success, finally getting Yudhisthir and his brothers out of their way. Their joy was short lived, as the Pandavs announced they’re alive and kicking, when Arjun won Draupadi’s hand in marriage. The daughter of the powerful king Drupad, Draupadi’s arrival had made the Pandavs stronger. With their arrival in Hastinapur, Shakuni and Duryodhan cursed their fate and the elders and ministers realised that there cannot be two crown princes at the same time. After much deliberation, Hastinapur got divided. Duryodhan retained the capital and other developed parts of the kingdom while Yudhisthir along with his brothers were given a  barren part of kingdom, called Khandavprasth. The Pandavs, guided by Krishna, transformed the barren land into a city called Indraprasth. The effort resulted in a city par excellence, well planned and with a courtroom that the gods couldn’t match. Having settled, Yudhisthir set out on an expansion plan, sending his four brothers in different directions to win allies and vanquish hostilities. Great warriors that they were, the Pandavs, the news of their success spread far and wide. Soon, Indraprasth with its flourish and successful expansionist endeavours became a cause of jealousy for Duryodhan. He didn’t want to be seen any lesser than his cousins and hence felt an urgent need to forge new alliances and expand his kingdom. Like always, with ideas coming from Shakuni, they decided to forge an alliance with Krishna’s Dwarka – a powerful kingdom known for its massive army led by powerful warriors. The glitch however was Krishna’s closeness and affection with Arjun. Also, Krishna being the omniscient, knew of the Duryodhan’s conspiracies against the Pandavs which he did not appreciate. In the light of this, it was decided that Duryodhan would try and impress Krishna’s elder brother Balram. Known for his physical strength and mastery in wielding the mace and the plough, it was Balram who had a larger say in the matters of state’s administration and external affairs. Marriages were a tried and tested way of forging alliances between kingdoms and hence it was decided to persuade Balram to get sister Subhadra married to Duryodhan. Already recognised as one of the finest warriors with the mace, in a quest to impress Balram, Duryodhan sought tutelage to finetune his skill further. Balram was happy with Duryodhan’s will to learn and agreed. Duryodhan invited Balram to Hastinapur and their sessions began. The two would practice for hours at a stretch, duelling and discussing tricks and moves. In their time off, Duryodhan would organize feasts, festivals and hunting safaris to keep Balram engaged and entertained. Duryodhan was quick to learn and proved to be a good student. A day came when Duryodhan pinned Balram to the ground, having mastered the art of wielding the mace. Deeply impressed, Balram declared Duryodhan as the best pupil he ever had and who was now the best warrior with the mace. Not stopping there, Duryodhan was granted a boon. He could ask for a wish and Balram would fulfil it. This last line was what Duryodhan had set this up for. Without wasting a minute, Duryodhan asked for Subhadra’s hand in marriage. Balram was equally prompt in agreeing, only adding a caveat that the final affirmation would come once he’s had a discussion with his parents. Confident of Balram’s influence back home, Duryodhan stood assured and happy – having upgraded his skills and sealed an alliance. Duryodhan killed two birds with one stone!

P.S. Krishna didn’t let this happen. By the time Balram could secure permission from their parents, Krishna got Subhadra elope Dwarka – with Arjun!     

  1. Shakuni – Yudhisthir:

The game of dice played in Hastinapur is the one everyone knows and talks about. That’s where Shakuni, rolling the dice for and behalf of his nephew Duryodhan, deceived Yudhisthir into losing his all his wealth and kingdom Indraprasth. Yudhisthir then bet himself, his brothers and his wife, one by one, and lost them all. The events got ugly and eventually led to Draupadi being insulted in front of the full court of Hastinapur (which was more to do with Duryodhan’s revenge*, than the game of dice itself). It was all in the open, Shakuni’s treachery with the dice. The Pandavs, having lost everything, were eventually exiled for a period of 13 years.

But, this incident in Hastinapur was not the first time Shakuni and Yudhisthir gambled over a game of dice. Only recently had they gambled in Indraprasth. What seemed to be a casual game, was nothing but a part of yet another master plan devised by Shakuni. Back then, even Duryodhan wasn’t unaware of Shakuni’s doing. In that game, Shakuni lost hand after hand, round after round, to a rejoicing Yudhisthir who was clueless about the fact that Shakuni was losing purposely. Yudhisthir was being played. Yudhisthir was being played into believing that he was a master at gambling and could also defeat Shakuni – the one famous for his tricks with the dice. Shakuni played his act deftly, showering praises upon Yudhisthir for his ‘skill’ with the dice. After hours of play, Yudhisthir ended up believing himself to be an expert at the game. Shakuni smiled for he was assured that it would now be very easy to invite Yudhisthir for a game of dice at Hastinapur, where the real game could to be played. Though Shakuni knew that Yudhisthir, being a man of honour, would never decline an invitation to a game of dice. All Shakuni wanted was to ensure Yudhisthir accepts any invitation to gambling brimming with false confidence. That’s exactly how it happened. When invited to Hastinapur to gamble, Yudhisthir wasn’t just caught unaware, but also thought he had a ‘fair’ chance of winning. Shakuni played him in, completely!

  1. Duryodhan – Shalya:

Alliances were sealed, the numbers were plotted, and the date and place finalized. It was time to go to war. Every army worth its salt headed to Kurukshetra. Kings with their armies from every corner of the country marched to join either the Kauravs or Pandavs. In battalions comprising infantry, horsemen, elephants and chariots, the men were armed with freshly sharpened swords and arrows, primed bows, tested shields and pointed spears. With the armies marched entourages of womenfolk, medics and helpers. Also marched the mules carrying piles of arrows, extra weapons and stores. The earth trembled and the air was filled with the sounds of drums, bugles and conches. For many, this was going to be the biggest war of their lives and the fervour was at a different level.

One such army marching towards Kurukshetra was that of Shalya, the king of Madra and uncle to youngest Pandav twins Nakul and Sahadev. Shalya was to join the Pandavs. Realizing that Shalya and his army were to travel hundred of miles to reach the Pandav camp in the vicinity of Kurukshetra, Duryodhan decided to set-up resting camps on the way. The road from Madra to Kurukshetra was dotted with such camps, with the staff instructed not the reveal the host’s identity. The camps had basic tents for soldiers and larger canopies for commanders. Kitchens dished out fresh and scrumptious meals on demand. Evenings had bonfires with music and dance. The needs of one and all were taken care of to soothe the traveller’s fatigue. For Shalya, there were beautiful houses built to suit his taste. Decorated with carpets, fine silks, soft cushions, beautiful handicrafts and silverware. Feasts, drinks, servants and entertainment were a call away. The hospitality was at its best, replete with royalty. At regular intervals during the journey, Shalya and his army rested and ate at these camps, with every camp offering the same level of hospitality. Deeply impressed and gratified, Shalya sought to thank Yudhisthir, who he assumed had made all the arrangements despite being busy with the preparations for the war. When about to leave the last camp, into the final leg of the journey, unexpected visitors called upon Shalya. The visitors were none other than Duryodhan, Shakuni and Karn. After exchanging pleasantries, Duryodhan asked Shalya if he was pleased with the arrangements in the camps. He said he had made the arrangements to the best of his capabilities and hoped Shalya and his army had a comfortable journey, as a result. Shalya was shocked to hear that as he had ended accepting a favour from the wrong side, not once but on numerous occasions. His assumption about who his host was had gone completely wrong. Having realized he had been played, Shalya was devastated and knew he was going to pay a big price. For a king of Shalya’s stature a favour had to be returned, especially the one from an enemy. Having gathered himself, Shalya granted Duryodhan a boon. It was exactly what all this was all set up for. Duryodhan not only wanted to weaken the Pandav side but demoralize them by having Shalya, a close relative, fight against them. Duryodhan requested Shalya to join his side. The boon was granted and Shalya had to honour it. With his soul by the Pandav side, Shalya commanded his army to move to the Kaurav camp. An elated Duryodhan moved on with the preparations for the war. Duryodhan brought Shalya like a lamb, to the slaughter!

P.S. Shalya gave it back at the right time. But it was Karn who was at the receiving end.


If the Kauravs were great with their Mind Games, the Pandavs were no less. Duryodhan had Shakuni, Yudhisthir had Krishna. Also, Shalya gave the Kauravs a taste of their own medicine. Read Mind Games in the Mahabharat – Part 2 of 2. Krishna & the Pandavs to know more.


7 thoughts on “Mind Games in the Mahabharat – Part 1 of 2. Shakuni & the Kauravs

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