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Diwali card parties' origins in Hindu mythology: How Shiva-Parvati's gambling game prompted a festive tradition

I have to leave Delhi every year for Diwali. It's the time of year for new beginnings, festivities, new clothes and also tremendous air pollution. Last year, I tweeted, “Firecrackers are not a Hindu tradition” and so many people rose up against me on Twitter. How dare I question anything, they asked. Were Christmas trees part of Christianity? (Yes, the pagans used the branches to decorate their homes as a symbol of spring to come. Hopeful, in the deep winter.) The time for firecrackers is gone, along with spraying DDT to kill mosquitoes, and smoking while you're pregnant. We know so much more now, so why is this something we keep sticking to?

Anyway, this column isn't about firecrackers — I have escaped them, and I hope you have too. This is a column about that beloved Diwali institution: gambling. See, up until now, I never knew why every year around this time, everyone had to have a cards party. How was me losing all my money part of Diwali tradition? Turns out it's all the fault of a much more canny player than I, the Goddess Parvati.

One day, Shiva and Parvati were chilling, as they did, up in the mountains, making love, talking of things, just enjoying each other, when that trickster sage Narada appeared, totally out of nowhere. Narada stories always involve the people he's talking to going through some distress, so you have to wonder why they let him come over at all. Take Narada off the group chat, guys!

Narada said, “You guys may be really good at the sex, but you know what's better than sex? Gambling!” (This was probably also a view taken by Yudhisthira, eldest of the Pandavas, who famously gambled away his wife ensuring that his 99 problems became 100 after all). Shiva and Parvati were taking a little break from all that romping anyway, and dice sounded fun, so they begin, and weirdly, Parvati is winning everything, even though her opponent is a god, and one of the mightier ones at that.

 Diwali card parties origins in Hindu mythology: How Shiva-Parvatis gambling game prompted a festive tradition

At one point, it looks like Shiva's winning, which sends Parvati into a sulk, and he thinks she's hot when she's mad, so he coaxes her into playing some more, at which point she's like, “Fine, but up the stakes. If I win, I get to take all of this.” She gestures at his trident (spiky), his earrings (shiny) and his moon (luminous.) At what must have been the tensest game of strip dice, Parvati wins after all, and it's Shiva's turn to go into a sulk. Since he's being such a poor sport, Parvati leaves him and takes everything with her, including his loincloth (furry, probably. It was cold in those mountains).

Anyway, millennia pass, Shiva's sulk has extended into prayers and meditation, and Parvati's sort of bored and lonesome without him. So she dresses like a tribal woman — a little cosplay to spice things up — and goes over to where Shiva's meditating. He's all for getting married again, but Parvati draws it out a bit, “Talk to my father, Himalaya” but the mountain isn't having any of it, and Narada appears again (why do you keep inviting him in, guys?) and tells Shiva women are fickle and Shiva's like, “I'm so over this” and Parvati has to go and flatter him and tell him how awesome he is before the two are united!

At least — that's one version of the story, from Richard Smoley's book The Dice Game of Shiva. Another version says that Shiva, not liking to lose, asked his old pal Vishnu to help, since all the gods stuck together. Vishnu possessed the dice, and made it come out in Shiva's favour, and when Parvati objected, he just said something about life being unpredictable and an illusion, a fail-safe way for ancient Hindus to wriggle out of arguments. A third story, and the most popular one, talks about how Parvati wins, and then loses to her son Karthikeya, who loses to Ganesh. It's the one legend that actually sanctions playing cards with your family over the holidays, because hey, if the gods can do it, you can too.

While the goddess of Diwali is usually Lakshmi with fortune to pass around, I like the idea of a poker playing Parvati taking her seat at cards parties, pushing her tokens across the table, winning hard. I don't think I'd like to go head-to-head with her though, so I'm going to fold before the session even begins.

Read more from the Mythology series here.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan

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Updated Date: Nov 07, 2018 09:29:11 IST

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