The great gambling match of the Mahabharata epic was precipitated as the tragic consequence of a cruel conspiracy to ruin Yudhishthira, a kindly warrior and the eldest of the legendary Pandavas. The nobility and prowess of the five heroic brothers aroused the jealousy of their cousin Duryodhana and rekindled an old feud wherein the Kauravas stooped to devious means to extort from the Pandavas that which was rightfully theirs. Duryodhana plotted with his wicked uncle, Sakuni, the stratagem whereby they would invite Yudhishthira and his brothers to Hastinapura, so that the skilful Sakuni could cheat them and deprive them of their lawful kingdom.
Hearing of the awesome match of dice-playing that was to accompany the feasting and entertainment to which they were invited, Yudhishthira was troubled. He knew that gaming was a frequent cause of strife and that he had little skill in throwing the dice. He also knew that Sakuni was staying at Hastinapura and that he was a highly successful gambler. But the prevailing code of honour dictated that he accept the invitation that had come, ultimately, from Duryodhana's father, the old maharaja, whose invitation was tantamount to the command of a father. Thus, the five brothers and their common spouse, Draupadi, journeyed from Indraprastha to the city of Hastinapura, where they were greeted by the old king and his chieftains.
The following day they gathered in the pavilion where the tournament was to take place, and Sakuni was craftily introduced as Duryodhana's dice-thrower by proxy. The chieftains gathered round the prepared ground, silk bolsters beneath their arms and flower garlands over their heads swaying gently in the morning breeze. They watched with keen interest as Sakuni and the initially reluctant Yudhishthira began to play. They witnessed that whatever Yudhishthira laid down as his stake, Duryodhana laid down something of equal value, but that Yudhishthira lost each and every game. He first lost a beautiful pearl, next a thousand bags of gold pieces, then a large piece of gold so pure it was as soft as wax. He lost a chariot decked with jewels, hung all around with golden bells, and a thousand war elephants with golden howdahs set with diamonds. Next, he lost a lakh of beautiful slave girls adorned in gold and an equal number of strong men. Then went all the remainder of his goods: his cattle and the whole of his kingdom.
When Yudhishthira lost his kingdom, the chieftains present urged him to cease his play. But the noble Kshatriya was deaf to their advice and blindly played on, losing all the wealth of his brothers and, finally, his brothers themselves. After he had gambled and lost even his own person, the crafty Sakuni said to him: "You have done a bad act, Yudhishthira, in gaming away yourself and becoming a slave. But now, stake your wife, Draupadi, and if you win the game, you will again be free." And with these goading words, Yudhishthira committed the act that brought insult and grief to his spotless wife and horrified sorrow to all who witnessed her shame. Thus was the evil of the Kauravas carried forth and the stage set for the eventual Mahabharatan War.
It is said that in this infamous game two dice were used of black and red and each player had an ashtapada (board) upon which he threw his die. Cubes of gleaming stone, the dice tumbled out upon the generously drawn fields and came to rest with one of six numbers uppermost for all to see. With each toss, fortunes were won or lost. With each flick of the wrist, the die was surely cast.
If all in the world could be lost in such a game, so too could the ashtapada be likened to all the world. In ancient India dice were sometimes used to move figures around on a board marked with longitudinal and latitudinal lines likened to sections of the known world. Even town plans were spoken of in terms of ashtapadas, including that of ancient Ayodhya, whose sections ran in blocks of eight by eight streets square. Certain works in the Northern Buddhist tradition also divided the world into ashtapadas, and it became natural to associate the roll of the dice on such a board with mighty acts of destiny sweeping across the world of men, who sat like actors in a cosmic game of chance. The gods themselves were sometimes shown immersed in a game of dice. At the most sublime and transcendental level, Krishna, revealing His universal form to Arjuna, tells him that "Of those things which deceive, I am the dice."
Despite orthodox prohibitions against the use of dice, Shiva and Parvati were sometimes depicted playing the game, and Balarama challenged Rukmini repeatedly. As if they held the fate of masses of mankind in their hands, they let fly dice which thundered across the heavens. They set an example which seemed to some an imperious flirtation with cosmic forces which evoked admiration on the part of many an earthly ruler. In the Roman world Caesar Augustus, Claudius and Caligula were all impassioned dice-players, the latter often indulging in a gross disregard for the rules in order to manipulate chance in his favour. Each of sixty-four throws was identified with the name of a god or hero, and the Romans believed that they benefited from their varied powers when they rolled the numbers associated with them.
Though dice of cubical form were used in ancient India, the Greeks did not have them until sometime after the poet Homer portrayed the Trojan War. The instruments of chance mentioned in that powerful epic were the 'knuckle-bones' of sheep or goats, known as astragaloi and used for all sorts of divination as well as games of chance. They played with four of these, and each had only four sides. The later Romans used the same pieces and called them talus. They either tossed them up four times or shook them in a box onto the back of a hand. Both Greeks and Romans gave Aphrodite's name to the best throw, whose sum was always fourteen, whilst the worst throw was associated with the lowly dog.
Plato said that dice and gaming originated with Thoth. In Phaedrus he credits this Egyptian god with the invention of number and calculation, geometry, astronomy, draughts and dice, as well as writing. It lends a special interest to the age-old art of divination and dice-playing to know that they are so closely associated with mathematics and related sciences, at least in their possible origin. Thoth is cosmogonically related to Hermes, who weaves the dual power of life and death between heaven and earth. Perhaps the calculations that pertain to these godlike concerns may be known only to the gods, but men in their vanity seek to glimpse tiny aspects of how things are tending through divination and the roll of the dice.
The throwing of the die signifies the manifesting of fate. The die cast represents the irrevocable. Thus, Julius Caesar stood with his victorious troops on the banks of the Rubicon and made the critical decision to cross over, against the edict of Rome. Taking the burden of choice on his own head and realizing that, once done, there was no going back, he uttered the famous phrase, "Tacta alea est" ("The die is cast"), and made the crossing. The throw of the dice determines whether one wins, loses, continues to throw or loses possession of the dice. Each roll or shot, toss or cast sets the stage for the next step in the pattern revealing itself as one goes along with the game.
A die is a cube, which name itself comes from the Greek κυβος (kubos), meaning a solid figure, perfectly square on every side. This in turn came from the Arabic "ca'b", which is used to indicate the temple at Mecca built in the same shape. The Greeks referred to gambling as κυβλια and named the gambler κυβληνϑυ, clearly conveying the antiquity and centrality of dice in their games of chance. This also suggests the linguistic inter changeability between the geometric form and dice as dice. In Hindu symbolism dice also take on the meaning associated with the cube, which characterizes the four-square, the four yugas and the earth itself. In Christianity the symbol of dice further expands to include the passion of Christ. It does this through an expansion which is really an unfoldment, whereby the six sides of the cube open out into the shape of a cross. The cube gives three dimensions to the square, which represents equality, justice and the law. Its three-dimensionality signifies these principles made manifest in the earthly realm.
Each of the six sides of a die is so dotted (numbered) that the top and bottom of every die, taken together, add up to seven. The same holds true for every face, and, whatever the number of dice, their top and bottom faces added together always equal a multiple of seven. Thus, though the cube is a symbol of the earth as an element as well as a geometrical stage of manifestation, the die cube carries the key number 7 associated with the principles and levels of manifestation. But to man dice can be a scourge, a tricky bit of dynamite in his hand. As one writer put it: "This diminutive cube has usurped a tyranny over mankind for more than two thousand years, and continues to this day to rule the world with despotic sway – levelling all distinctions of fortune in an instant by the fiat of its single turn."
In a letter to the pope-elect Alexander II, Petrus Damiani (AD. 1007-1072), Cardinal Bishop of Ostia, reported the disgusting sport of the bishop of Florence. The two dignitaries had been travelling together and stayed at an inn wherein, while the cardinal retired, the good bishop amused himself with dice. Learning of this, the cardinal admonished the bishop, saying, "Was it your duty at evening to take part in the vanity of [chess], and to defile your hand, the offering of the Lord's body, and your tongue, the mediator between God and his people, by the contamination of an impious sport, especially when canonic authority decrees that bishops who are dice-players (aleatores) are to be deposed?" Here the bishop tried to argue that he was playing chess rather than dice, but the point was forcibly made that any use of dice – even rolling them in order to move figures about on a board – was considered sinful. The evil was perceived as being in 'the madness of the dice', not in the game of strategy.
Dice-playing (kubiutis) was likened to thieving in the Bible and other Christian sources. In the book of Ephesians protection is solicited against such a downfall, "that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men and cunning craftiness". The word kubeia is used here to indicate gambling and the evil pinpointed has to do with being tossed to and fro as well as cunning craftiness. Something slippery and a kind of cheating is implied as well as putting oneself at the mercy of chance. Cicero, who placed the dice-player on a par with the adulterer, hinted at the underhandedness involved, though it did not deter him from indulging in dice games in his old age. The great dice match of the Mahabharata is clearly put forth as the effective cause of a major disaster, and Yudhishthira's involvement in the game is generally seen as his fatal weakness. Both Brahminical and Buddhist texts condemn dicing and the Code of Manu explicitly proscribes it. The lines quoted from the Rig Veda are from one of its oldest poems, telling of a gambler who is unable to tear himself away from the dice though conscious of the ruin they have brought him.
Plato acknowledged that to become a competent expert at the dice one needed practice from childhood. Some sort of slavish fascination and single-minded devotion to the little cubes was prerequisite to producing what one writer called "the Knights of Hazard and Devotees of Chance who live in and by the rattle of the box". One of the hallmarks of such people is their love of living by chance. Real gambling involves those games in which chance takes a greater part, and the use of dice brings this to its highest pitch. After the removal of dice from chess, the game emerged as an entirely different form of sport. Because chess depends heavily on skill and strategy, the chance element was increasingly reduced to an almost negligible aspect. When chance predominates over skill, the desire for sudden wealth rapidly grows, as though the more plodding and rational approach to changes in one's circumstances has been discarded in favour of miraculous intervention.
This feverish fascination with chance represented by the roll of the die can easily develop into a fatal addiction. One has only to remember the Roman soldiers gambling for Christ's robe at the foot of the cross to consider how obsessive this monomania can become. In another section of the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira reveals a plan: "Hear what I shall do on appearing before King Virata. Presenting myself as a Brahmana, Kanka by name. . . I shall become dice-mad, play loving courtier, and with the bejewelled holders fling out the charming beryl, gold and ivory dice, dotted black and red." The madness he spoke of was evidently well known to the point where it could be used as a convincing disguise. So intense was the Roman love of 'games of hazard' that pavements of porticoes, basilicas, baths or any flat surface accessible to the public were engraved with dice tables. Archaeological excavations at the Forum, the Basilica Julia, corridors of the Coliseum, steps of the temple of Venus at Rome, the portico square of the Twelve Gods and even the inside floor of the House of the Vestals (dating from after its secularization) have revealed such boards scratched or more carefully engraved in the marble. Roman soldiers when not engaged in warfare constantly played at dice, and for many it became an overpowering passion. This passion was transmitted with the spread of their legions to Europe and the British Isles, where not even the strictest censures of the later Christian Church were capable of stifling it. Gambling with dice was described by an early English author as an "enchanted witchery" hovering somewhere between idleness and avarice. He called it "an itching disease, that makes some scratch the head, whilst others, as if they were bitten by a Tarantula, are laughing themselves to death".
Certain light-hearted historians have conjectured that dicing was invented for the purpose of relaxation during the pressures of crises or wars, but the attraction of rolling the quaint little cubes easily exceeds such a simple explanation. For some the dice may remain a relaxing pleasure but for many they become revealers of destiny and precipitators of chance, fascinating the players and ensnaring them so that they cannot turn away. Speaking of this in terms of the American context, where the dice game of craps is the most popular casino game, it has been suggested that "the attraction is legitimate, in the loose sense of the word, and the inclination [to play] is strong. All of us gain an uplifted ego when we walk away a winner, and most of us dream of hitting it big. That, of course, is like enough to the American Dream to make it respectable."
Without endorsing this rather banal interpretation of the American Dream, one might pursue this further and ask just what are the psychological motivations behind an overmastering desire or need to risk everything on a roll of the dice? When the desire has become an addiction, is this due to a craving for the sense of omnipotence once known as a child before the harsh realities of the world closed in on one? In childhood we are heroes and heroines, not draughtsmen or stenographers. Some individuals may harbour a deep, barely conscious protest against what could be called the capriciousness of fate. Perhaps with gambling they feel they can strike back on what seems to be equal terms. For them the craving for the die is connected with avenging fate.
It has also been suggested that the 'dice addict' is really entangled in a muddled rebellion against authority, against the restrictions of society and the limiting circumstances of life. They are thereby displaying a perverse unwillingness to accept their own legitimate karma as well as the collective karma in which they find themselves enmeshed. To throw the dice and risk whatever the wager on that throw is like thumbing one's nose at one's external constraints. By risking all and flouting the need to plan and put aside for tomorrow, the gambling addict thumbs his nose at death, in effect saying, "the significance of my life will be revealed at this moment and anything beyond this moment does not exist at all". The high-roller lives on the knife-edge of fate, feeling vicariously alive only on that edge and doing whatsoever prolongs the experience through protracted play. For many such deluded souls, the question of winning or losing is basically irrelevant. The reason they wish to win is to continue the play.
Some hapless individuals spend much of their abnormally adolescent lives looking for external approval and waiting for adventitious 'signs' from the gods or even from Lady Luck to indicate their social acceptance. At one level this could be viewed as a recurring reaction to an early rejection of some sort, but from a deeper standpoint, it could be seen as the sad result of abdication of spiritual responsibility in this and former lives. This is how vicarious atonement, externalization of ethical responsibility, and the Salvationist syndrome aggravate the situation. When this type of individual becomes bitten by the craving for gambling, the dice are seen as decisive signs from Lady Luck. Will she punish them or smile on them by letting them win? It is like continually asking God, "Do you love me? Do you approve of me? Am I all right? Am I good?" And so on. There is no release from this, for the addict can never be satisfied that the answer is a once-and-for-all affirmative. The only way this can stop is when all is lost and eventual rejection has completed what is too often a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of these deranged persons become so entrenched in their wilful expectation of rejection and loss that they come to find a strange and twisted psychological release through this self-dramatization. Such people may positively sit, with masochistic listlessness, at the game-table's edge as though willingly submitting themselves to the steam-roller of fate.
In his perceptive writings W.Q. Judge pointed out that enchantment or fascination is basically the same thing that moderns call hypnotism. When a person both refuses to accept karma and becomes entirely fixated on the continual play of chance, he or she is in the grips of a fascination which progressively blocks out the higher will capable of reflecting universal Law. When a person's spiritual will is dormant, it is easy to become both a slave to another and a traitor to one's own higher Self. One can imagine the dice addict intently watching the small cubes tumbling onto the board. Over and over again, the dice are thrown and the more intense becomes the hypnotic obsession. For it is the eye, "the most occult organ of all", which serves as a medium between the bits of flashing marble or plastic and the troubled brain. The molecular vibrations of the nervous centres of the brain are attuned to the vibrations of the rolling dice. The die is cast as though to seal some external fate out there, but within the player a stronger, more long-lived alliance is being forged with psychic passivity and its accompanying fatalism.
Cheaters at dice are not addicted in this way but wait like vultures to prey upon those who are. Loaded, bevelled, shaped, busted dice have been used as far back as the time when the Mahabharata was enacted, and such deceitfully concocted cubes have been found in the ruins of Pompeii, where one can easily imagine 'blanket rolls' and 'whip shots' meted out by the sharps and hustlers that hung around the taverns in the evenings. Cheaters at dice have been around for a long time trying to break the odds, but when it comes to straight dice, the outcome must be relegated to the realm of probabilities or what some call the law of averages. Several general rules apply here, such as: Nothing that is mathematically possible is wholly improbable-, statistics do not always have relevance and the probabilities do not necessarily affect any given individual at a given time. Within this framework there is plenty of room for such things as a 'run of luck' or a 'losing streak', which lend an aura of mystery to the forces at work in the game. But if one rolled the dice for a million years, one could perceive a law at work and realize that the concepts of luck and chance are only valid from the worm's-eye view of life.
This reintroduces the idea of justice and equality associated with the cube as it relates to the square. In the long throw, the dice will turn up justice for all; all can win. But in the short throw there are winners and losers in reference to a finite game-board or a specific set of circumstances in life. The ancient Hebrews must have clearly sensed the distinction between these two. In their efforts to establish a legal system which they believed to be reflective of universal Law, they declared usurers and dice-players unfit to act as judges or even witnesses in their courts. One writer asserted that "most of us, difficult as it may be to imagine, would rather go on winning [than losing], to the point of monotony". But Plato counselled that it is best to accept things that come to us because we cannot truly know what is good and evil and nothing in mortal life is of real concern. In addition, our grieving over what karma brings checks the very thing we need, which is to deliberate upon what happened to us "and, as it were in the fall of the dice, to determine the movements of our affairs with reference to the numbers that turn up". It is difficult to imagine a rational individual desiring to win continually when it is perfectly obvious that he must do so at the expense of others. The karmic rolls in peoples' lives simply will not support such an absurdity, even if wished for, and sooner or later one is led to consider Plato's wise counsel.
What of Yudhishthira? Is the Mahabharata telling us about the weakness of an otherwise godlike man? Was the dice match a revelation of his Achilles' heel or feet of clay? It could indeed be thus interpreted and probably would be by some contemporary thinkers, but from the standpoint of occult symbolism the dice in the story are truly instruments of karmic necessity. Yudhishthira may have seemed to have been subject to the contagion of addiction, especially when he gambled away even the blameless and noble Draupadi, but the tale must be understood allegorically from start to finish. Just as Arjuna signified the warrior-soul, so Yudhishthira represented righteousness and unswerving adherence to the Law. Owing to this intrepidity, he accepted the invitation to the dice match and played on, though he suspected that a trick lay in store. But it was to a higher Law that he hearkened when he carried things through to their ultimate outcome. Not out of avarice did Yudhishthira play but because he believed he had to play the game. The Pandavas had to lose their kingdom and vow to become agents of moral redress. Like the soul falling into gross matter, they had to lose their lofty state and wander for years in the forest, wherein they would learn the lessons needed to return and take their rightful place by dint of attained wisdom and mature courage.
The Pandavas were incessantly pursued by the envy of the Kauravas, who represented all the lower aspects of human consciousness. In order to put these usurpers once and for all in their place, the five brothers had to descend into the matrix in which they dwelt. They had to take on the lunar fascination, the humiliating garb of addiction, which is characteristic of lower desires, such as those possessing Duryodhana and Sakuni. Yudhishthira did this through the dice, and as each roll cost him greater wealth, he was drawn closer to the zero line where the future battle for ultimate rulership would be drawn up. Through the symbol of the dice match, the cosmic unfolding of the cube representing the Microprosopus was allegorically enacted. The Secret Doctrine refers to man as the mystic square (Tetraktys) in his metaphysical aspect, who becomes a cube on the creative plane of the earth. This cube, unfolded, is seven-faced (corresponding to the number 7, the sum of the top and bottom of the die) and it symbolizes spiritual man on the cross of matter – caught, dragged down and made to rise up through a sustained act of higher Will on the worldly plane. Yudhishthira, representing the five brothers of the mind, is thus caught and dragged down. Even Buddhi, in the form of Draupadi, appears to be pulled down along with them, although in reality this cannot be so. In his fall Yudhishthira becomes the die tumbling out on the board, each toss cutting a swath through the multi-layered veil of destiny surrounding him and his brothers and all those whom they will oppose in the field of battle.
Thus the die is cast and then cast again and again, until finally the cube unfolds and the fully realized man appears in all his sevenfold glory. All the winning and losing, the addiction, the squandering, the lusting after Luck down through the ages are but pathetic and misguided graspings at this ultimate human fulfilment. We do indeed throw the dice, but we would be wise to follow Plato's advice. We should take all karma in our stride and study the lessons of cause and effect it brings so as to assume a progressively more responsible stance in relation to what seem at a personal level to be blind forces of chance. To live on the knife-edge of chance as determined by a die, a card or a turn in the road is to join the passive army of the hypnotized who will go on endlessly looking for external proof of power or goodness or lovability.
The die was cast when the Manasaputras entered into human form and set the stage for the struggles of the last eighteen million years. This die appears still to be a cube whose seven spots barely hint at what lies inside it. Surrounded by avarice and deluded hopes, its appearance fills us with a vague sense of distrust, but it is the reflection on earth of the sacred Tetraktys above, and the decree of fate it embodies is a shadow of the great karmic destiny to be manifested in the fully realized man.