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akṣa


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A die for gambling; a nut used as a die. The archaeological record shows that gambling with dice or their eqivalent has been popular in India since the period of the Indus valley civilization. A hymn in the Ṛg Veda (10.34), known as ‘The Gambler's Lament', vividly illustrates gambling's addictive power. The akṣa was originally a small hard nut called, variously, vibhīṣaka, vibhīdaka, or vibhītaka. Later, a die with four scoring sides, marked by spots, was used, although the exact rules are not known. The throws (or perhaps separate dice) were designated as kṛta (four), tretā (three), dvāpara (two), and kali (one). These terms were subsequently employed, metaphorically, to designate the sequence of world ages or yuga. Perhaps the most celebrated, but least successful gambler in Indian literature is Yudhiṣṭhira, who loses his kingdom (twice), his wealth, his brothers, himself, and, controversially, his wife, Draupadī, in a rigged dicing match essential to the plot of the Mahābhārata. Yudhiṣṭhira's situation is mirrored in the Mahābhārata itself by the story of Nala, another king whose life turns on dicing. The association of gambling with kings is not fortuitous: a dicing match was probably the ritually required postscript to a royal consecration ceremony (rājasūya), and in the later Vedic period royal palaces were built with a gambling hall attached. The akṣāvāpa, ‘the keeper of the gambling table’, was regarded as an important royal official.

Subjects: Hinduism.


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