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What's the significance of dharma and the heroic ideal in the Mahabharata's dicing episode?

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In the dicing episode of the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira is portrayed as a hero who is honorable to a foolhardy degree in the face of his opponent's dishonesty. The dharma decrees that once he has accepted a challenge, he must play the game, but this game of dice is an inherently low and unheroic one, unlike the chivalrous passages of arms to which Yudhishthira is accustomed.

Yudhishthira is determined to behave in a sportsmanlike manner even when Duryodhana announces that he will not play himself and appoints Shakuni to roll the dice on his behalf. Everyone, including Yudhishthira, knows that Shakuni is an extraordinarily skillful dice player, since he practices constantly and is even rumored to have occult assistance. It is clear that Yudhishthira will lose, and he protests rather feebly. However, as soon as his heroic qualities are called into question, he agrees to go ahead.

Yudhishthira is eventually triumphant. At the end of the poem he ascends into heaven without relinquishing his physical form. However, within the dicing episode he is completely defeated and humiliated, losing everything, including his wife and his own freedom. The hero who follows the dharma eventually triumphs in the Mahabharata, but it takes a long time.

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