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Shakuni: Devious strategist or simply taking loyalty towards his sister too far?

Updated: Feb 27, 2022


Blog #19

  • Are you loyal to your siblings and will do everything to protect them?

  • Will you work tirelessly to see your siblings prosperous and safe?

  • Will you extend your protection to their children and their ambitions too?

  • What if your zeal for your extended family gets in the way of righteousness?

  • Does your love for your siblings and their families get you in trouble?

  • How much love for your extended family is going too far?

  • What is the right balance of love and concern between your nuclear family and your extended family?

  • How much is too much? And how do we know where the line is?

Mahabharata Context

King Shakuni is widely acknowledged as the central archvillain in the Mahabharata. He was the brother of the Queen Gandhari and loved his sister dearly. He deeply resented Prince Bhishma for asking for Gandhari's hand for the blind King Dhritarashtra. Given the military might of the great Kaurava empire, it would have been calamitous for his Gandhar kingdom to say no to this marriage invitation. He channeled his great frustration and anger on their marriage into protecting Queen Gandhari, his dear sister. He moved with her to Hastinapura, rather than remaining in Gandhar as its king. While Shakuni's love for his sister and his protective instincts are laudable, this is his first big mistake. Queen Gandhari did choose to marry into the Kaurava family of her own free will.

King Shakuni then goes on to refocus his massive negative energies to make Queen Gandhari's first son Prince Duryodhana the next Emperor of Hastinapura, not its rightful heir, Prince Yudhisthira. He builds resentment, rivalry, hate and successfully poisons in the mind of young Prince Duryodhana against his cousins, the Pandavas . King Shakuni then personally masterminds and oversees many attempts to weaken the Pandava clan, trying to poison and drown Prince Bheema, and building a highly flammable wax palace in an attempt to immolate the Pandavas clan in its entirety.

His masterfully preys on the known weakness for gambling that Prince Yudhisthira has to invite him for a game of backgammon. Shakuni's special dice were made from the bones of his father and they obeyed his every call ensuring a massive defeat for the Pandavas and setting the stage for the terrible final eighteen day war. It is widely accepted that King Shakuni's intellect was matched only by that of Lord Krishna. The great irony is that Shakuni used his intellect almost entirely for deceit and evil deeds unlike Lord Krishna whose intellect was used to ensure Dharma's victory.

When war is only a probability, King Shakuni actively weakens every peace overture from Lord Krishna and the Pandavas thereby ensuring that war was the only path forward. As the chief advisor and confidant to the powerful Prince Duryodhana, he plots to create a mighty powerful Kaurava army whose size vastly exceeds the Pandava army by helping Prince Duryodhana choose Lord Krishna's army rather than Lord Krishna himself. This becomes Shakuni's single biggest strategic mistake, his underestimation of the true powers of Lord Krishna even as an individual. This mistake leads to the Kaurava defeat and eventually his own death at the hands of the youngest Pandava prince on the final day.

Our null hypothesis for the King Shakuni persona

King Shakuni has several positive attributes- his fiercely protective behavior and extraordinary loyalty towards his dear sister. Gandhari. Shakuni's willingness to sacrifice a royal life as king, forsaking his own nuclear family to be next to her is laudable brotherly love but it ends up costing him his life. Further, we must note Shakuni's brilliant creative mind and his great intellect, his tough negotiation skills, great skills at backgammon, his loyalty to his Prince Duryodhana as some positive attributes.

On the negative side, King Shakuni took his protective instincts to his sister and her family too far. He overcame his dislike for Prince Bhishma and King Dhritarashtra to a focus on making his sister's son the next Emperor of Hastinapura. He was at his core an angry resentful soul and he chose cut-throat tactics wanting victory for Prince Duryodhana at literally any costs. He conspiracies and lies undermined and eventually led to the decimation of the Kaurava clan. Shakuni's deviousness and cunning also left him lonely with very few friends and a lot of enemies in both sides.

Lessons Learned

The biggest lesson for us from this flawed complex Shakuni persona is that sibling relationships need to have boundaries from nuclear families in order to strike the right balance and harmony. Crossing these boundaries create disharmony, tension and often rough fights as evidenced in the Mahabharata. Perhaps, no one told Shakuni that Queen Gandhari was an adult who made her own choices and understood and accepted the consequences of her decisions. This is true of all of us adults and we would do well to give space to other adults who seek our counsel so they can make their own informed decisions. This leads to others taking more ownership of their decisions and accepting the consequences of those decisions, whether positive or negative.

What % of King Shakuni do you have in you?

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