The Book of the Assembly Hall Summary

The Book of the Assembly Hall Summary


Sabha Parva or The Book of the Assembly Hall – is the pivotal one of the eighteen major books of the Mahabharata: it is also one of the more diversified and interesting ones (J.A.B. van Buitenen, “On the Structure of the Sabhaparvan of the Mahabharata”, in India Major (Festschrift Gonda), Leyden, 1972, pp.68-84). In the Critical Edition, this second of the eighteen Maha Parvas has a total of 9 Upa Parvas (Sections), 72 Chapters and 2390 Shlokas.

For all its length and variety, Adi Parva- the Book of the Beginning-has not done more than lay the groundwork of the epic. It was more or less a closed whole: the ancestry of the protagonists and antagonists; their youth, early strife, and clouded claims on the succession; the attempts at assassination, and the safe deliverance of the Pandavas; their self-exile and glorious reappearance at Druapadi’s bridegroom choice; their consequent marriage, alliance with Panchala, and recognition by the senior Kauravas; and finally the acquisition of the kingdom of Indraprastha by the partition of the Field of the Kurus. Peace was restored in the end between the two branches of siblings through the wise guidance of their elders. One might well close The Beginning and never expect a sequel to it.

But the Assembly Hall makes all that went before just a beginning. Those were the pages of childhood and adolescence, in which the influence of the elders was strong and decisive. Now the heroes are on their own and begin to act in their own right; and their natures are willful. The Sabha Parva begins with establishing Yudhishthira and his brothers as prosperous princeling at Indraprastha. But this is not much: so far the Pandavas have simply acquired a new home base. Now, at the suggestion of a visiting messenger of the Gods–though not sent by the Gods–the seer Narada, Yudhishthira conceives the desire to perform the ancient Vedic ritual of the Rajsuya—the Royal Consecration. This, at first glance, appears as no more than the legitimization of his new, and so to say supernumerary, kingship by means of the old rite. It transpires, however, that there is much more to it than that; for through it Yudhishthira wishes to aspire to nothing less than universal sovereignty by becoming Samraj,an “all-king” or “emperor”, to whom all other princes of the land will be submissive.

It is not at all clear on what personal accomplishments Yudhishthira could pretend to rest such a claim. After all, he has allowed himself to be ousted from the ancestral seat of Hastinapura in return fro a parcel of wilderness that still had to be cleared. True, he has won the alliance of Panchala, but merely by marriage. The end of Adi Parva has left us with the mild satisfaction that some attractive noble youths, after some bad luck and some good, in the end did not fare so ill. Still, perhaps his ambition stood in need of no justification; for he is to embark on a grand Vedic ceremony, the Rajsuya, and to qualify for it the performer’s intention may suffice.

Once his desire has taken hold, Yudhishthira calls in Krishna of the Vrishnis for counsel. He had already pointed out the obvious: the performance requires the “unanimity of the baronage” to be tributary to him. For the Rajsuya, as it is presented in this Parva is not just the installation of anew. king, it is the glorification of a king of kings. There can only be one such suzerain at the time. So it requires not only the assent of the baronage, but also the removal of the present suzerain. The one en titre is Jarasandha, the king of the more eastern land of Magadha, a populous and prosperous realm. So Jarasandha is indeed removed, and the rest of the world, not excluding Rome and Antioch and the city of the Greeks”, is made tributary. After the assassination of Jarasandha the performance takes place, but is it not concluded without resistance. While Yudhishthira’s pre-eminence is never disputed, the high ranking of Krishna is. The challenger, Shishupala, is eliminated by Krishna, and Yudhishthira is suzerain indeed: but for a brief while. The title is wrested from him by the Hastinapura Kauravas in a game of dice, when Yudhishthira loses on pain of an exile of thirteen years.

Most of the proceedings of this Parva take place in an assembly hall, a kind of longhouse for the men in which to hold council and entertainment, and it is from such a hall that the Parva takes its title. There are two halls involved, the one at Indraprastha and that at Hastinapura. It is Indraprastha hall that becomes a bone of contention; it is in the Hastinapura hall where it all ends.

The Hall at Indraprastha was newly built by an Asura, Maya by name, who had been saved from the fire of the Khandava Forest, which concluded the Adi Parva. So magnificent was that hall that it excited the envy of Kaurava’s cousin Duryodhana, and this envy led to the game at dice on whose outcome the rest of the Mahabharata hangs. When Yud-: suzerain of the entire world, he is challenged to the game. Why he felt hishthira has reached the pinnacle of temporal power as the acknowledged he had to accept the challenge is a question that is not fully addressed in the Parva. It is sufficed to note, however, that there is a conspicuous thread in the Parva: the settlement in Indraprastha needs a hall—the hall needs validation as a royal court through the Royal Consecration—it evokes the others’ envy—and brings about a game in another hall where Yudhishthira loses all.

Clearly therefore the structure of Sabha Parva is much tighter than that of the Adi Parva, where the insertions and additions are quite obvi- · ous. The Sabha Parva too has its fuzzy edges: Narada’s long instruction in policy and administration is a clear instance. But otherwise the Parva hangs together remarkably well.

It has been said that this Parva is pivotal to the Mahabharata as a whole. The remaining epic can almost be predicted in outline: there are to follow thirteen years of exile and the adventures thereof, described in the Vana Parva, the Book of the Forest and Virata Parva, the Book of Virata. It is likely that the molestation of the Pandavas’ wife Draupadi at the hands of Dussasana and Duryodhana will remain unavenged? Or that Duryodhana will surrender half the kingdom to Yudhishthira when he returns? We see looming The Book of the Effort (Udyoga Parva), and the war books of Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Shalya and the rest.


According to the eighteen-parva classification of the Mahabharata, the first, Adi Parva, ends with the chapter in which Krishna and Arjuna burn the Khandava forest.

It is after the Khandava conflagration, which at first appears inordinately mindless, cruel, and inconsequential to the main story that the Sabha Parva of the Mahabharata begins. We soon find that the fire was not so purposeless after all, as one of the creatures whom Arjuna allows to escape the burning forest turns out to be a powerful demon named Maya, the chief architect of the danavas. In an attempt to flatter the two who spared his life, Maya asks Arjuna and Krishna if he can be of any service to them. After some deliberation, Krishna demands that Maya build a large assembly hall for king Yudhishthira, one that shall be without equal in its beauty in splendour. Maya accepts the task and is introduced to the rest of the royalty in Indraprastha. Immediately after this, Krishna leaves indraprastha for Dwarka. Maya, too, goes on a journey to Mount Mainaka, where danavas are said to perform their sacrifices, and where jewels and implements and other riches to be employed in the construction of the assembly hall are to be found. After his return, Maya constructs the palace in another fourteen months.

The text likens the hall to a beautiful vimana, also calling it “like the sky covered with a mountain or cloud” — making us wonder if it is airborne. Eight thousand rakshashas, known as kimkaras, are employed mits protection, and surely these should be counted as additions to Yudhishthira’s army,

Before taking charge of the Sabha made for him by the danava Maya, king Yudhishthira pays homage to ten thousand Brahmins with garments, garlands and eatables. We again see how every grand event among the Kshatriyas–even one involving an exchange between Kshatriyas and a danava–becomes a rent-seeking opportunity for the Brahmins. The epic, certainly written by the priest class, does not miss many opportunities to show the Kshatriyas as making deep obeisance’s to the Brahmins. Al any rate, the upkeep of the Varna system is an attitude central to the Mahabharata, and inasmuch as evidences of this attitude today rightly attract criticism, the Mahabharata also shall bear these.

Saying that the original text needs to be criticized in places does not mean that the epic, in and of itself, has no value for our times. For one, the text alludes to, and promotes, strict principles of governance and proper conduct for kings. Perhaps the best example of this is seen in Narada rishi’s visit to king Yudhishthira’s Sabha, in which the sage interrupts the revelries in the court and then poses a flurry of questions to the king. Note, here, that it is Narada’s second visit to the Pandavas. In the first visit, he had advised them to establish a protocol of exclusivity with Draupadi and set up rules for punishment in case that protocol was breached.

In the Grand Sabha, Narada asks Yudhishthira many questions one after the other, never waiting to get an answer to any one question. This method implies that the questions are rhetorical, their purpose not to see if Yudhishthira knows the answer but only to remind him of their relevance and complexity. Narada is giving a lecture.
the seven means?”, or does he “follow the eight duties before concluding Narada asks Yudhishthira if he uses “the six royal qualities to judge an alliance?”, or are his “six chief officers” devoted to him? The usage of numbers in Narada’s speech tells the reader that the details about royal qualities and means and duties, et cetera, have been enumerated in other texts which are available for the king to study.

After the long lecture, Yudhishthira, perhaps a bit vain at this point, requests Narada to appreciate his great assembly hall, and also to provide details of divine assembly halls to which Narada, being the only rishi capable of teleporting between the three worlds, must have access to. Yudhishthira believes that his own assembly hall can be compared to those extraordinary places.

Narada provides details of the assembly halls of Indra, Yama, Varuna, and finally, Brahma. The descriptions satisfy Yudhishthira, but his interest is piqued by one significant detail. In Indra’s assembly hall, named Pushkarmalini, there are various divine beings and devarshis present, as expected, but there is also one mortal king who has been given access: Raja Harishchandra. Yudhishthira asks Narada how Harishchandra has been allowed in Indra’s assembly hall, and the reply he receives sets in motion a chain of events that ultimately lead to the reigniting of hostilities between the Pandavas and the Kauravas—hostilities which have been dormant for more than twelve years now.

Narada tells Yudhishthira that Harishchandra special privilege is because he has successfully conducted the Rajsuya sacrifice, which, among other things, means that Harishchandra proclaimed himself the universal emperor and made all other kings on earth pay tribute to him. Yudhishthira covets Harishchandra reward in Pushkarmalini, and his desire escalates even further when Narada tells him that his father, Pandu, has urged him from the after-life to conduct the Rajsuya sacrifice. Narada does mention the problems associated with the sacrifice, one of which is that it may lead to a war. But by now, the idea of the supreme royal sacrifice has lodged itself rigidly in the king’s head.

The turn of events suggests that this— the instigation of Yudhishthira for the sacrifice-was Narada’s sole objective for visiting the Pandava king’s assembly hall. If this is true, Narada’s agency in driving the story needs acknowledgement. He was the one who made the Pandavas establish a protocol for exclusivity with Draupadi, one which eventually led to Arjuna’s twelve year exile. And he is the one who is goading the Pandavas towards a sacrifice that will initiate a power tussle with the Kauravas.

After Narada leaves, Yudhishthira calls his brothers and other court personalities for counsel. The others advise him to stop reflecting on the issue and to commit whole-heartedly to the sacrifice. Yudhishthira remains a sceptic, though, largely because he is astute enough to know that friends and well-wishers advise from within the paradigm of their own desires and ambitions. So, unable to take the bold step, he sends a messenger named Indrasena to Dwarka. When Krishna hears of Yudhishthira’s conundrum, he decides to accompany Indrasena back to Indraprastha.

Krishna, however, has an agenda of his own, to the extent that he might even be seeing Yudhishthira’s desire for the Rajsuya as an opportunity for himself and the Yadava community.

In Indraprastha, Krishna reminds Yudhishthira that the Rajsuya sacrifice means proclaiming oneself the universal emperor. Given that, if Yudhishthira were to proceed with the sacrifice, it will only be an empty gesture, Krishna clarifies — for the real supreme emperor is king Jarasandha of Magadha. Krishna tells Yudhishthira how Jarasandha has imprisoned eighty-six kings and has taken over their dominions, and is clamouring to extend the number to a hundred, at which point he plans to sacrifice all the prisoners. In the face of such terrible manifestation of power, the only right way for Yudhishthira to do a Rajsuya sacrifice, it would seem, is after the elimination of Jarasandha.

This is not completely neutral advice, for Krishna has his own reasons of enmity. with Jarasandha. Jarasandha’s daughter was married to Kamsa, the ruler of Mathura slain by Krishna. After Kamas’s death, his wife approached her father, Jarasandha, and “repeatedly urged him to kill her husband’s killer”. And so we learn that it was out of fear of Jarasandha that Krishna fled westward and ultimately settled in Dvaravati, a place with a very elaborate defense system made of series of secured dwars.

Hearing about Jarasandha’s prowess and power, Yudhishthira fidgets. He fears failure, and even says that “the Rajsuya is too difficult to accomplish”. But Krishna was never appealing to Yudhishthira’s good sense, but to the pride of his two younger brothers-Bhima and Arjuna. In that he is successful. The two most powerful Pandavas try to convince Yudhishthira, even at times provoking the elder brother with some harsh words. “A king who has no enterprise is like an anthill,” Bhima says. “What purpose is served if one possesses all the qualities, but lacks valour?” Arjuna questions. Krishna joins their efforts, and adds an ele avoiding battle.” of poetry, “We do not know the time of our death, whether it will be night or day. Nor have we heard of anyone attaining immortality by

Excited, Yudhishthira asks Krishna for more information about Jarasandha, and is told his origin story. Krishna also tells Yudhishthira that it is the best time to kill the ruler of Magadha, as his two powerful bodyguards, Hamsa and Dibhaka, and his most powerful ally, Kamsa, are now dead. Finally, Yudhishthira allows Arjuna and Bhima to accompany Krishna on the mission to kill Jarasandha.

We thus see the alliance formed between the kingdoms of Indraprastha and Dvaravati after Arjuna’s marriage with Subhadra begin to wield its power in a larger geopolitical game. Arjuna is the key actor, of course- -as the one who won Draupadi and the one who kidnapped Subhadra, he has single-handedly helped increase the Pandavas’ might through alliances.

As the Jarasandha-vadha section of the Mahabharata progresses, the nuances of Krishna’s plot against his number one enemy reveal themselves. Dressed as Snataka Brahmins, Krishna, Arjuna and Bhima travel eastwards, towards the capital city of the Magadha Empire. Their attire has a specific purpose-Jarasandha cannot be outright aggressive with Brahmins, and thus the attire ensures that Krishna gets to have a conversation when the three meet Jarasandha. The path from Indraprastha to Magadha goes through several other kingdoms, so a Brahman disguise is also a way to pass through unimpeded. It is not the first time that Bhima and Arjuna have approached a king in Brahmin attire-they did they same when they went for Druapadi’s Swyamvara in the capital of the Panchala kingdom. Just as in Dhrupad’s court, the Brahman disguise shall provide some initial security to them.

The capital of Magadha is surrounded by five fortified hills, and the trio break through one of these to enter the city, where a procession in the honour of king Jarasandha— with him at the centre-is taking place. To draw attention, the three Snataka Brahmans adorn themselves with garlands and smear aloe paste on their bodies. Jarasandha stops the procession and, after his paying his respects, offers the Brahmins a welcome drink. When the three don’t accept it, Jarasandha asks them to have seats and enquires about their true identities. He has noticed that the three Brahmans bear Kshatriya signs. Krishna then begins an argument by saying that Jarasandha’s capture of Kshatriya kings and his desire to sacrifice them all in the name of Shiva is not an act of dharma. Jarasandha has a different point of view, whereby he sees himself as a Kshatriya king who is supposed to take other kings under his dominion and do as he wishes with them. Krishna then reveals his own identity and that of the two Pandava brothers, also mentioning that their mission here is to fight Jarasandha and free the kings.

At this point, it is possible for Jarasandha to have the avenging trio slaughtered by his men, but having been irked by Krishna’s temerity in appearing unarmed before him; his own pride makes that option unthinkable. When he is asked to choose who he wants to fight with, Jarasandha’s pride pushes him further to choose the visibly strongest adversary-Bhima.

This very outcome-a wrestling match between Jarasandha and Bhima- is what Krishna had been hoping for from the beginning. Looking back, we see that the tactic of taking a Brahman disguise and walking in unarmed, combined with an assumption of Jarasandha’s pride, all but ensures the subsequent chain of events.

The fight between Jarasandha and Bhima continues for fourteen days. After the Pandava kills the king of Magadha, Krishna frees the imprisoned kings, all of whom swear loyalty to Krishna, and thus, by extension, guarantee support for Yudhishthira’s Rajsuya sacrifice.

After Jarasandha’s death, the Pandavas begin campaigns to establish their sovereignty over kingdoms across the Indian subcontinent. There is irony here, as they have set out on the same path-of subjugating other kings and extracting tributes-as Jarasandha, whom Krishna had chastised for his treatment of other kings. But irony is typically unrecognised in the epic, and the basic assumption is that backed by Krishna, the Pandavas are the righteous ones. Nevertheless, their imperial aspirations, and the battles required to sustain those, should dispel notions that the kingdom was a peace-loving one.

King Yudhishthira himself doesn’t step out of the capital; it is his four brothers who lead armies in four different directions. Again, the irony implicit in the fact that someone called Dharmaraja, or the king of ethics and good conduct, is more often than not a man who drives his aspirations by proxy, and is otherwise a model only for indecision and inaction, is lost not only on Yudhishthira’s brothers, but the epic itself.

Arjuna goes north and subjugates every kingdom in his path, eventually reaching the inner sanctums of the high Himalayas and knocking the doors of the divine kingdoms there. Bhima, who goes east, is similarly successful, but his case is more interesting, for he encounters Karna, the ruler of Anga. There is no mention of a battle between these two great warriors, but it is given that Karna accepted subjugation and gave tribute to Bhima. This is mind-boggling, for Karna’s allegiances are expected to lie with the kingdom of Hastinapura, run by Dhritrashtra and Duryodhana, rather than the kingdom of Indraprastha.

It is likely that the Pandava campaigns of conquest were being run in the joint name of the Kuru family, a name that included the Kauravas in it. If true, this would also help avoid the awkward scenario of having to ask Duryodhana to pay a tribute to Yudhishthira. As it happens, the Digvijaya section – detailing the conquests of the Pandavas – names dozens of kingdoms but makes no mention of Hastinapura.

Going westward, Nakul has the easiest pass among the brothers, for most of the kingdoms there have been previously conquered by Krishna and accept subjugation readily. It is Sahadeva, who goes southward, who faces the most trouble. On the outskirts of the city of Mahishmati, a forest fire engulfs his army and causes much damage. Sahadeva learns that the god of fire, Agni, has pledged to protect Mahishmati. Nakul genuflects before Agni, and requests the god’s help in ensuring the success of Yudhishthira’s ‘sacrifice’. The peace between king Nila and Sahadeva is eventually brokered by Agni himself, and the Mahishmati king agrees to pay tribute to the name of Yudhishthira.

After the four campaigns are concluded, the ground is set for the Rajsuya sacrifice.
As we approach sacrifice, it helps to remember that the Pandavas and Kauravas have had almost fifteen years of peaceful coexistence now. Naturally, all the prominent men in Hastinapura are invited for the sacrifice in Indraprastha, and the cousins are given key responsibilities. Dussasana, for example, is in charge of food and other objects of pleasure. Duryodhana is in charge of receiving the tribute brought for Yudhishthira. Readers who only know the Mahabharata through television serials shall find this image of Duryodhana and Dussasana, as eager-to-help cousins at a grand party, difficult to conjure. But the abridged view is perhaps not so bad, for we soon learn that Duryodhana’s act is put-on, and that he is being eaten alive by envy.

When the first offering from Yudhishthira’s Rajsuya sacrifice is made to Krishna, Shishupala- king of Chedi and a relative of the erst while king of Magadha, Jarasandha – raises questions of the propriety of the gesture. According to Shishupala, it is Adharma to make the first offering to Krishna before his own father, Vasudeva; or before Dhrupad, who ensures the welfare of the Pandavas; or before Drona, who is the Pandavas’ preceptor; or before Dvaipayana, who is the sacrificial priest for the Rajsuya. His logic cannot be argued against, unless one claims that Krishna is divine and therefore has the first right over the offerings. Bhishma provides this explanation, but Shishupala rejects it and starts what can only be called a contest of insults. My favourite is when he ridicules Bhishma by saying: “With you at the forefront, it is but natural that the Kauravas should be like a boat tied to a boat”.

Krishna eventually kills Shishupala with the Sudarshana Chakra. A great energy exits the corpse and merges into Krishna. The graphic event proves Krishna’s divinity to the kings, and validates the Kurus’ treatment of him.

After the successful Rajsuya sacrifice, things change rapidly, and for the worse. The first intimation of the oncoming change of times, from Dwapara Yuga to Kali Yuga, say—and its concomitant reduction in moral values is perceived by Vidura, brother to king Dhritrashtra and the chief advisor to the throne of Hastinapura. This is after Dhritrashtra, egged on by Duryodhana and Shakuni, and orders the construction of a grand Sabha for gambling. Call it a casino if you will, but the Sabha’s purpose is more specific than that word can denote: to receive Yudhishthira, entice him to a game of dice, and to make him lose everything that he has gained after the Rajsuya sacrifice.

This conspiracy, simplistic as it may seem, is based on an insight that Shakuni has about the person that is Yudhishthira. Shakuni knows that as far as games of dice go, Yudhishthira might have the passion but not the skill and cunning. Shakuni himself, on the other hand, is a master: “…. the bow and arrows are my dice… the carpet is my chariot,” he says. But it is not Yudhishthira’s ineptitude that is giving Shakuni all the confidence- it is the general indecision that king of Indraprastha is known for. When one starts gambling, the big decision is not of continuing, but of stopping. Yudhishthira, being indecisive, won’t be able to stop – that is Shakuni’s hypothesis. He could be wrong, and therefore one could say that the entire Kaurava strategy is in fact a glorified bet – Duryodhana wagering on the accuracy of his uncle’s insight into the enemy’s psyche. It is a good bet, though, for there is no apparent downside for Hastinapura’s prince. Also, given his blazing envy and colossal self-doubt after having seen all the riches donated to Yudhishthira at the Rajsuya sacrifice, it would seem that Duryodhana has nothing to lose. In fact , before Shakuni comes up with the gambling suggestion, there are hints about Duryodhana contemplating suicide. “If I cannot equal him, what is the point of being alive today” — this is a sentiment that he repeats quite a few times.

After the casino in Hastinapura is made, Dhritrashtra commands Vidura to go to Indraprastha and invite Yudhishthira. Though he sees only doom in this, Vidura complies with the king’s wishes. With his sympathies towards the Pandavas, though, Vidura not only delivers the official invite but also conveys his apprehensions about gambling itself, how it might lead to quarrels. Yudhishthira is, of course, in no position to decline Dhritarashtra’s invite. His pride, he knows, will also ensure that he cannot refuse the dice game if a challenge were thrown to him by Shakuni or someone else. There is a note of rejection in his voice as the Pandava troupe leaves for Hastinapura. He blames Destiny, who “robs us of reason, like a glare falling before the eye.” It is unclear if he’s talking of the Kauravas, or conveying a premonition about himself.

At the beginning of the infamous dice game in the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira expresses two reservations. The first is about the possibility of him being cheated against. One presumes that Shakuni carries a certain reputation, and that Yudhishthira is well aware of it. The astonishing thing is that Yudhishthira agrees to play the game despite Shakuni not denying the possibility of malfeasance. In fact, Shakuni gives a blatantly specious argument, saying “The learned triumph over the non-learned only through trickery.” This is probably also meant as an insult, an insinuation that Yudhishthira is non-learned. It works, as Yudhishthira’s response is: “Once challenged, I will not withdraw.”

Yudhishthira’s second reservation is about Duryodhana playing the game in proxy, through Shakuni. But it is not that Yudhishthira strongly demands that Duryodhana play the game himself. One reads in Yudhishthira’s dialogue a sense of helplessness, even a hint of resignation, an acceptance of the possibility of doom. But the paradox is that this feeling can originate only if we grant enough self-consciousness and intelligence to him-in other words, Yudhishthira is intelligent enough to foresee his own colossal stupidity.

Yudhishthira’s series of bets may denote the value system in mythic times. He first bets a beautiful chain of gems, then his royal chariot, covered in tiger skin and drawn by eight horses, then a thousand elephants, a hundred thousand slave girls, ‘thousands’ of male slaves, an equal number of chariots, gandharva horse, more chariots, four hundred treasure chest.

A pause here for the slave girls, who, it must be noted, are staked multiple rounds before we even move to what can be called the business end of the gambling match. We are, without doubt, talking not of any golden period in myth or history, but of a time when women were infinitely lower than men in civil structures, and when slavery, for sex or physical labour, was rife.

Seeing Yudhishthira’s seemingly interminable series of losses, and the prospect of deep-set enmity between the cousins, Vidura addresses Dhritrashtra with a plea that the king of Hastinapura abandon Duryodhana, seeing how evil the eldest Kaurava has turned out to be. Vidura does not equivocate, and tells Dhritrashtra that certain ruination awaits if Duryodhana is allowed to continue to engage the Pandavas in the gambling match: “… in this overdone deed is created a war that will lead to the destruction of all men.”

But Dhritrashtra is so elated by his son’s victories that he loses all pretence of solidarity with the Pandavas. He accuses Vidura of taking sides with the enemy’, calls his chief advisor a serpent, and, much like the ‘go to Pakistan’ calls of our age, even asks him to ‘go wherever he wishes’.

In the meanwhile, Yudhishthira has increased the stakes of the game to a level where he now. bets his country. The slide from here will ensure him staking his brothers one after the other, then himself, and then, ultimately, Draupadi.

Here we arrive at what is the most crucial point in the Sabha parva, or perhaps the whole story–the utter humiliation of Draupadi in a Sabha full of royal Kuru men and their advisors. In this country today, if it is a fact that a majority of the sexual violence faced by women is inside their own homes, then the story of Druapadi’s humiliation in an assembly hall filled with her husbands and her in-laws is a testament to how deep-rooted the notion of treating women as chattel is.

What saves Draupadi is not Krishna’s extension of her garment but the paradox that she poses to the entire assembly, which is in turn based on two axioms. First, those wives are their husband’s property. And the second that slaves can’t own property. If Yudhishthira has lost himself in the game and become a slave to the Kauravas, how can he then bet Draupadi, who does not belong to him anymore. Yudhishthira has to accept that he lied when he bet himself, or accept that he has lost his right on Draupadi. Since the first is impossible, it follows that at this point in the story, unless the Kauravaš reject the Pandavas’ servitude, Draupadi has been technically freed of her marriage with the five brothers.

It is Dhritrashtra who mitigates some of the tension by granting Druapadi’s husbands their freedom, and also restoring the Pandavas kingdom and riches. But this pacification comes too late, for by then, Bhima has already taken the vow to kill Dussasana and Duryodhana. Fearing that they are not ready for an immediate war, the Kauravas approach Dhritrashtra and demand that he call the Pandavas back for one last roll of the dice. Shakuni’s proposal is to stake a twelve-year stay in the jungle, followed by another year spent in compulsory disguise. Dhritrashtra, forever partial to his sons, agrees to this. And thus the Pandavas are called back to the Sabha for one last roll of the dice. Even then, Yudhishthira doesn’t decline the challenge.

The inevitable happens, and the Pandavas are asked to be exiled. But that there will be a war in the fourteenth year is now a conclusion beyond doubt. All the Pandavas, save Yudhishthira, pledge it: added to Bhima vows is Arjuna’s pledge to kill Karna and Sahadeva’s pledge to kill Shakuni.

If one thinks tactically, the exile of the Pandavas is a better move for the Kauravas than the mere appropriation of their property. Making the Pandavas poor would not have made them lose their alliances with the Yadava kings and king Dhrupad. An immediate war would have ensued. This is why Dhritarashtra’s generosity to the Pandavas after their losses in the first dice tournament is a good thing for the Kauravas-it grants them a moment to step back from their inebriation with an illusory victory and rethink their tactics. The bone-chilling howls of Bhima, baying for Duhsasana’s blood, would have helped too. They at least explain why it is Dussasana who goes to Dhritrashtra with the proposal of one last roll of dice with exile at stake.

The Pandava exile defers the war, granting the Kauravas two critical advantages. First, they have twelve years to consolidate their position and to renegotiate their alliances. Indraprastha, one assumes, into their direct command. But the most critical aspect might be the time will come it grants them to break some of the Yadava kings in their favour. The second advantage is through the possibility of running a manhunt in the thirteenth year and defers the war by a further twelve years – an outcome that would, inevitably, crush any chances of a Pandava comeback. Dussasana is villainous, though, and wants the best of both outcomes. When the Pandavas prepare to leave, he offers Draupadi to abandon them and choose someone among the Kauravas as her husband. Draupadi, angry beyond measure, curses the entire Kaurava clan, announcing that in the fourteenth year from now, the royal women will weep as all the men and their sons will be vanished from the face of the earth. Given Druapadi’s origin story, her status of being born from a fire, her words are taken as prophecy.


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