Dharma, as we saw at Yudhishtira’s conception, is a god. Dharma is also Law - not only the law that governs the states and affairs of men, but also moral law and natural law. Dharma is the field on which all karmic action unfolds. This we sow, thus we tend the crop, so we reap. Dharma controls all that; it is dharma in which it all happens. The concept of dharma is not rigid, like the western concept of Fate, but it recognizes the power of individual determination. That determination is expressed through sacrifices and austerities, and if it is intense enough, it can alter the karmic balance.

At this point in the story, if Duryodhana had followed through on his vow, released hold of everything but his hatred, and nourished that until his body rose in bright flame, the Pandavas could have been goners, and we would have had a different story. But now Duryodhana listened to Sakuni, and we have the Mahabharata.

the game of dice...

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.

"Your wife."

"Play."

"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."

Dhritarashtra, deep in his blindness, lost in his love for his sons, his and Gandhari’s, suddenly felt cold with fear, fear for his sons.

"Draupadi, daughter, you are free. Ask a boon."

"Set Yudhishtira free."

"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."