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This site contains Randy Hoyt's writings for the Epics of India online course. Randy completed this work during spring and fall 2005.

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Character Essay: Sakuni

Of the three characters who are most destructive to the Pandavas, the motivations of Sakuni are the most mysterious to me. I believe Karna has the most noble motivations: a sense of loyalty towards Duryodhana who has treated him as more than just a chariot-driver’s son. Duryodhana’s motivations are not noble, but they are natural and understandable: he is jealous of his cousins’ popularity and success, and he feels protective of the throne that is rightfully his (as the king’s son) against his cousins who are seeking to steal it from him.

Sakuni definitely does not share Duryodhana’s motivation, saying to Arjuna, “I think that Duryodhana is a fool to be jealous of such as you” (Buck 90). This statement surprised me more than anything else about Sakuni in Buck’s version. Why would Sakuni support Duryodhana and Karna so strongly if he feels this way? Sakuni is Duryodhana’s uncle (and not related to the Pandavas), so I can see why he might favor Duryodhana’s cause: perhaps he is motivated by familial loyalty, or perhaps he feels he would personally gain more if Duryodhana were king instead of Yudhishthira.

From reading other versions of the Mahabharata (including Narayan’s), I believed that Sakuni cheated at the dice game. After all, a dice game should be completely random: a fair game should never have such lopsided results. However, Buck mentions nothing about Sakuni’s cheating. In fact, the story of Nala that follows — with its talk of the “science of dice” as a skill similar to driving a chariot (Buck 134) — would seem to indicate that knowing how to control the dice does not necessarily indicate unethical behavior.

But even if we see Sakuni as a skillful dice player instead of a cheater, he is still not a sympathetic character. He did not hesitate to ruin someone else’s life in order to improve his own. He took advantage of Yudhishthira’s weakness for dice to further Duryodhana’s cause, a cause that he does not even strongly support.