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Shakuni (Sanskrit: शकुनि) also known as Subala, was the prince of Gandhara Kingdom in present-day Gandhara, later to become the King after his father's death and one of the main villains in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. He was the brother of Gandhari and hence Duryodhana's maternal uncle. He is believed to be an extremely intelligent but devious man. Shakuni is often credited as the mastermind behind the Mahabharata war. Shakuni had two sons named Uluka and Vrikaasur.
There is an unauthenticated folklore which narrates the below story with regards to Shakuni's anger over Hastinapur. But this was a story which has no reference in Mahabharata but was later adopted by many modern writers of Mahabharata. However this fictional folklore has gained its popularity ever since.
It is said that in some military campaign of either Bheeshma, Pandu, or Shantanu's ancestors, Gandhara came under attack from Hastinapur. Hastinapur conquered Gandhar, killed the king Achala Suvala, and imprisoned all the male members of his line, saying that line was full of adharma. This included Shakuni and his 100 brothers (in some accounts, "brothers" is literal, in others it is used to represent other family members in what was common usage at the time). Since all of them were sparsely fed (with one grain of rice each per day) in the prison, the family decided that at least one of them could survive and gave all the rice to Shakuni, the most cunning of them all, so that he could live on to take revenge. Eventually, King Subala, Shakuni's father, bends the knee of Shakuni to make a permanent mark of the injustice. Considered a man of dharma, his family is allowed to live.
In some stories, Shakuni carves from the bones of his dead parents dice that will never lose him a game. Shakuni's father's soul is said to have entered the dice and it would roll to whatever number Shakuni wanted.
Shakuni was unhappy with his sister Gandhari's marriage to Kaurava prince Dhritarashtra. He was more so ever angry with Bhishma for bringing this proposal as he found it insulting and demeaning, not only because Dhritarashtra was blind, but because of the way the Kurus had destroyed his line years before. He swore to avenge this insult by slowly destroying Bhishma's clan. He achieved this by poisoning the mind of his volatile nephew, and influenced Duryodhana into instigating the war with the Pandavas, which resulted in the destruction of the Kuru line. Thus, he is seen by many as one of the key persons that caused the Kurukshetra War.
Role in the Mahabharata
Generally, Shakuni is portrayed as a mastermind behind the Kurukshetra War. His intentions range from desiring to avenge Gandhara's defeat by Hastinapur years before, his desire to avenge the insult Bhisma made when he insisted on Gandhari's marriage to blind man, or the wish to see his own blood (the Kauravas), his sister's children, elevated over the Pandavas.
He mainly worked through inciting hatred between the Kauravas and Pandavas; his plans culminated into the biggest wars in Indian history. Throughout the story, Shakuni was very often not successful, yet he was always unshaken in his faith to destroy the lineage of Kuru. Sometimes in the story, it is brought up that Shakuni, by staying at Hastinapur, is neglecting his duties as king in Ghandar. Shakuni explained to Uluka that his desire for revenge overruns his concern for Gandhar's people.
Shakuni's only saving grace, however, is his extreme love towards his sister Gandhari. Her act of voluntarily blindfolding herself does not go down too well with Shakuni, who constantly advises her to take off her blindfold and see Bhishma's destruction, but she refuses. Time and time again, he expresses the anger he felt for the injustice that Gandhari had to go through by leading her entire life with a blindfold.
Ways in which Shakuni incited war include:
- Advising an adolescent Duryodhana to mix poison into Bhima's food.
- Hiring Purochana to kill the Pandavas in the Palace of wax.
- Secretly wanting the great sage Durvasa to curse the Pandavas in anger, he asked the sage to visit the Pandavas in the forest knowing that the Pandavas would then have nothing to feed him.
- Before the war he advised Duryodhana to feed Shalya's army and make Shalya his ally who wanted to fight for the Pandavas.
- During the Kurukshetra war he abetted in the killing of Arjuna's son Abhimanyu by cheating and breaking the war protocol.
Shakuni is perhaps best known for masterminding the infamous Game of Dice between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. A master of sorcery, Shakuni had his blessed dice which would always follow his will. Unaware of this fact, the Pandavas were defeated in the gambling match. Shakuni encourages Duryodhana, Dussasana, Karna, and the others when they taunt and humiliate the Pandavas.
After the Game of Dice episode in the Mahabharata, the second youngest of the Pandava brothers Sahadeva had taken an oath to avenge Draupadi's insult and sworn to kill Shakuni, the mastermind of the episode. As sworn, Shakuni was killed by Sahadeva on the eighteenth day of the Kurukshetra war.
Ambhi Kumar, king of Gandhara was a direct descendant of Bharata (of Ramayana) and Shakuni (of Mahabharata). Ambhi Kumar and Chandragupta Maurya took training and studied together at Taxila in childhood. In 326 BCE Alexander the Great receives submission of ruler of Taxila, Omphis (Āmbhi). Later Ambhi was deposed and killed by Chandragupta Maurya, the emperor of the Mauryan Empire.
Even though Shakuni's name is associated with villainy, Hinduism sees a person in terms of Gunas. It is true that Tamasic characteristics were dominant in Shakuni but he too had Sattvic elements and this was recognized by a community in Kerala. There is an ancient temple dedicated to Shakuni at Pavithreswaram in Kollam District of Kerala. A throne believed to have been used by Shakuni is found in this ancient temple. No Puja or tantric rituals are performed at the temple. Offerings to the temple include tender coconut, silk, toddy, etc. The temple is maintained by the Kuravar community of the region.
It is believed that during the Mahabharata battle, Shakuni traveled across the country along with his nephews, the Kauravas. When they reached the place where the temple is situated, the Kauravas divided their weapons among them. Since then, the place came to be known as 'Pakutheswaram', which later became Pavithreswaram. The Kuravar's believe that Shakuni returned to this place after the battle and attained Moksha with the blessings of Lord Shiva and became Lord Shakuni. The subdeities of the temple include Devi Bhuvaneshvari, Kiratha Moorthi and Nagaraja. The festival of the temple, popularly known as Malakkuda Maholsavam, is observed in the Makaram month in the Malayali calendar. Nearby the Shakuni Temple, there is also a temple dedicated to Duryodhana. It is notable that the Mahabharata mentions Shakuni as the personification of Dwapar Yuga and Duryodhana as his constant companion Kali (Mbh.15.31)