…The old king had died without issue, but sons had been fathered on his two widows by his half-brother; by the Hindu laws of the levirate, those sons became the legal heirs of the dead king.
To complicate the situation further, the elder son, Dhritarashtra, although he was renowned through all the world for his wisdom and strength, had been born blind and so was not eligible to assume the kingship. His younger brother Pandu, then, assumed the throne of Hastinapura.
Then one day, before either of Pandu’s wives had conceived her first child, the king was out hunting, and he shot and mortally wounded a stag in the act of copulating with his mate. Before the stag died, he cursed Pandu.
"Oh King, what you have done is unlawful. The next time you attempt intercourse, your head will break apart and you will die."
Pandu was devastated. In the world of the Mahabharata, such curses always come true, and Pandu realized that the stag’s curse meant that he could never have sons. So he stepped down from the throne; he and his wives put on the garb of wandering hermits and went to live in the forest, leaving the kingdom under the stewardship of blind Dhritarashtra.
Then, in the woods, Pandu’s senior wife Kunti revealed that she possessed a secret mantram, a magical incantation, that would invoke a God to fill her womb with his power.
Pandu was delighted. Another section of the levirate laws declared that sons fathered on one’s wife by a god were lawful sons. With the aid of the mantram, Pandu had five sons, known collectively as the Pandavas, the sons of Pandu.
Yudhisthira, the eldest, was conceived by Dharma the god, who embodies dharma the law which is constant through all time and circumstance. Yudhishtira grew to be the wisest and most law-abiding of men; indeed, he is known as Lord Dharma. And he was a champion chariot warrior.
The god father of Bhima, Pandu’s next son, was Vayu, the wind, and Bhima grew to be enormously strong, with a voracious appetite; he is known as Wolf-belly, and he had fame in three worlds for his strength as a club fighter.
Finally, Kunti bore Arjuna. Arjuna’s father was Indra, King of the gods, Thunderbolt-Wielder, Destroyer of Cities. Arjuna grew to be a master of weapons, the Left-handed Archer, the Lord of Victory.
Pandu’s second wife, Madri, also used the mantram. She conceived twin sons by the twin physician gods, the Aswins, and Nakula and Sahadeva grew to be expert swordsmen.
While all this was going on in Pandu’s forest exile, the blind king Dhritarashtra, back in Hastinapura, had found miraculous intervention for his own issue, and his wife, the virtuous Gandhari, had born 100 sons. The eldest and chief of Dhritarashtra’s sons was Duryodhana, and he had assumed the role of crown prince in Hastinapura.
Arjuna actually won Draupadi’s hand at her svayambara, the Maiden’s Choice festival at which suitors contend for the love of the princess. Arjuna was the only one in the arena who could string and fire the massive bow that Draupadi’s father had made to test his daughter’s suitors. The family was living in exile at the time, disguised as brahmanas, student priests, and begging for their food. When Arjuna arrived with Draupadi at the door of the hut in which they were living, he jokingly called out to his mother, "Come see what I got in my begging bowl today." And Kunti, without looking up, gave a mother’s typical response: "Whatever it is, be sure to share it with your brothers."
A mother’s word is law.
So Draupadi married all five brothers.
King Dhritarashtra, in fact, agreed to split the kingdom in half. He would remain as King in Hastinapura, with Duryodhana as his crown prince. The Pandavas would take over the undeveloped eastern part of the country.
The Pandavas established a capital city, which they called Indraprasta, and their fortunes flourished, while those of the Kurus remained stagnant. After twelve years of growing prosperity and steady expansion of his influence, King Yudhishtira was ready to conduct the most powerful Vedic ritual, the Royal Sacrifice, which would make him lawful king of all the known world.
The sacrifice required thousands of brahmin priests and took years to perform. Yudishtira’s brothers had to secure allegiance to his reign from every king in all four corners of the world. And when it was all over, and Yudhishtira had won the right to be called Great King, maharaja, he invited all of the kings in his dominion to celebrate with him in the magnificent assembly hall that he had built just for this event.
Duryodhana came, and he was green with jealousy. What is more, he made a fool of himself in front of the assembled kings, and the Pandavas laughed at him. He returned to Hastinapura in a black funk; striding into the Kuru’s assembly hall, Duryodhana, with an angry swirl of his cape, sat on the floor.
"I am finished with life. The Pandavas have everything, and I have nothing. I will take no food, no drink. I will stay here until my hatred has become my funeral pyre and consumed me totally."
"Duryodhana," said his brother Duhsasana. "You must not."
Duryodhana said, "Yudishtira has the world, and Arjuna got it for him."
"We can defeat the Pandavas," said Duhsasana.
"All the kings of the world have tried, and all have failed. Yudhishtira does not stir from the Law, and nothing can defeat him."
"I know how to defeat Yudhishtira."
The speaker was Sakuni.
Sakuni was Duryodhana’s uncle, younger brother of Dhritarashtra’s wife, the virtuous Gandhari. He was shrewd and unscrupulous, well known in the courts of Hastinapura and Indraprasta as an expert dice player. He proposed to invite the Pandavas to a game of dice and exploit Yudhishtira’s inability to resist a challenge. Sakuni was confident that he could defeat Yudhishtira, and Duryodhana could take in a game what he could not take on the field of war.
They sent old Vidura with the invitation to play. Vidura was honest as the day is long and boring as scripture. Tiresome as he was, he loved the Pandavas.
"They want you to come to a game of dice, " Vidura told Yudhishtira.
"How kind of them," said Yudhishtira. "Of course we will come."
"But you must not play the dice, Yudhishtira. Gambling is wrong."
Yudhishtira said, "Uncle, you know that I may not refuse a challenge."
"You know they will cheat," said Vidura.
"I may not refuse a challenge."
Duryodhana built a new assembly hall in which to hold the contest, and he invited all the kings to attend. The Pandavas travelled to Hastinapura with their wife Draupadi, but without Krishna, who was busy fighting other wars elsewhere. Draupadi retired to her quarters, and Yudhishtira and his brothers entered the assembly hall.
"Have you come to play dice," demanded Duryodhana.
"A king may not lawfully refuse a challenge from another king," said Lord Dharma.
"I challenge you," said Duryodhana.
"I will play."
"My uncle Sakuni will cast the dice for me," said Duryodhana.
"Isn’t that a bit unorthodox?" asked Yudhishtira.
"Do you refuse to play?" challenged Duryodhana.
"What will be, must be," said Yudhishtira. "Let us play. I will offer this magnificent golden chain as my stake."
Yudhishtira lost, of course. The dice they played was not our modern game of pure chance, but a game that involved number skills and quick hands, and Sakuni was an expert. And he cheated. Probably. It’s impossible to know for sure that he cheated, and it is really beside the point anyway. Yudhishtira lost everything - his palaces and lands and herds, his chariots and his servants, the very clothes on his back.
Sakuni said, "Do you want to play again?"
"I have nothing left to stake," said Yudhishtira.
"You have your brothers."
There was an audible gasp from the audience. Yudhishtira was clearly shaken, but he remained steady. He spoke to Duryodhana.
"Prince, consider. Is this lawful and wise?"
Duryodhana gave him that look, between a smile and a sneer.
"You are Lord Dharma. Do you refuse to play?"
"So it will be," said Yudhishtira.
In quick order, they were all gone. Steadfast Nakula and Sahadeva, the splendid swordsmen; mighty Bhima, Wolf-Belly; Arjuna, Lord of Victory, the Left-handed Archer; each in turn was stripped of his weapons and his warrior’s garb and sent to kneel among the servants. Yudhishtira had only himself to lose, and when Duryodhana challenged him to stake his own liberty, he lost that too.
Sakuni said, "Do you want to play again?"
"What is left?" said Yudhishtira, wearily.
"No!" "Yudhishtira, you must not!" "Yudhishtira, you have carried this too far." "This must not be allowed." Murmers of protest and repulsion came from the assembled kings. But the fierce insanity of the gambler on a roll blazed from Sakuni’s eyes, and Duryodhana was virtually trembling in anticipation of his total triumph. With a sweeping, humiliating gesture, Sakuni played.
"There, I’ve won again," said Sakuni.
Duryodhana crowed. "We will make her into a serving maid, and she can clean the palace. Vidura, go fetch Draupadi."
But Vidura refused, chastising Duryodhana. "Fool, don’t you realize that you are playing with fire. You are behaving like a child; you are a deer rousing tigers."
"Vidura still fears the stupid Pandavas." Duryodhana summoned a servant. "Pratikami, go fetch Draupadi."
But when Pratikami went to fetch her, Draupadi refused to come. "First," she commanded the servant, "ask Yudhishtira this question - did you lose me before or after you lost yourself? Bring me his answer, and I will come with you."
When Pratikami returned to the assembly hall without Draupadi, Duryodhana was furious. "Duhsasana!" He called his brother.
"Yudhishtira’s whore demands an answer. Go, tell her that she is legally won, and bring her here."
Duhsasana had to subdue Draupadi by force. He dragged her out of the women’s quarters and into the assembly hall by her hair. And there, in front of all the kings and the defeated Pandavas, he mocked her, called her whore for having five husbands, and vowed to have his way with her. Then, as Draupadi stood helpless, clad only in a nightgown, weeping with shame and rage, Duhsasana ripped her gown from her to expose her nakedness.
But she was not naked. She was still clad in her simple shift. Cursing, Duhsasana reached out again and ripped it off.
And Draupadi was still not naked.
Again and again Duhsasana ripped Draupadi’s clothes away, until the floor of the assembly hall was littered in a rainbow of gowns. And she was still not naked.
Absolute silence descended on the assembly hall. There were only two people in the whole world. There was Draupadi, clothed in the lawfulness of her rage. There was Duhsasana, exhausted and suddenly afraid. And then Bhima rose. In the silence, the vow that he spoke then echoed through every corner of the three worlds.
"Duhsasana, when the final battle comes, I will tear your chest open and drink your blood"
"King!" Draupadi broke in and addressed Dhritarashtra directly. "Father-in-law I call you, for you have been a law-wise father to your brother Pandu’s sons, my husbands. When Yudhishtira lost himself, he lost the right to lose me. My husbands are lost, but I am free. Will you protect your daughter-in-law when she has lost her husbands? Great king, you must answer."
"Father!" Duryodhana interrupted her. "Draupadi is lawfully won. You must not listen to her harlot’s tricks." And he flashed his left thigh at Draupadi - the Sanskrit equivalent of an obscene gesture - and glared at Bhima.
Again, a shocked silence fell, and all the worlds shook with Bhima’s second vow.
"Duryodhana, I will crush that thigh with my club before I kill you."
"Yudishtira is free," said the King. "Ask another boon."
"Nakula, Sahadeva, Bhima and Arjuna - set them free."
"They are free; let their chariots and armor be returned. Draupadi, you may ask a third boon."
"With my husbands free, I need no further boon. Everything I need, they will win for me with their strong arms."
"Excellent answer, excellent answer," murmered the assembled kings.
"All that Yudhishtira lost will be restored," said King Dhritarashtra. "You may return to your kingdom in safety, your fortunes intact."
"Old blind fool," muttered Duhsasana.
"Scared rabbit," sneered Sakuni.
"I can’t believe he did that!" moaned Duryodhana.
"Father," he pleaded. "Send after them; let us have one more round of dice."
These were the stakes that Duryodhana proposed to settle the game. They would play one round; the losing party must spend twelve years in the forest, in exile, clothed as hermits, then a thirteenth year among the people, in disguise. If they should be discovered during the thirteenth year, they would have to spend another twelve years in exile. If they are able to escape detection, then the kingdom becomes theirs.
Of course Yudhishtira agreed to play, and of course he lost again, and a new phase of the Pandavas’ lives began, the years of forest exile. In many ways, this is the happiest and generally sunniest part of the story. The Pandavas travelled with their retinue all over northern India, visiting the sacred places, meeting all sorts of sages and saints, and hearing the most wonderful stories. Draupadi gave all of her husbands a fair amount of grief for what they put her through, with Yudhishtira taking the worst of the heat. And she egged them toward revenge. But there was no real hardship, and they lived comfortably and well in the forest.