Why didn't Krishna help or save Pandavas when they played the game of dice with Kauravas and Shakuni?
Krishna simply wasn't around at the time to prevent the game of dice. He was busy fighting Sālva who had earlier besieged Dwaraka (to avenge Shishupala's death) during Krishna's absence.
But this is what Krishna says addressing Yudhishtira, in Vana Parva of Mahabharata, on how he would have prevented the dice game from happening at all:
Vasudeva said, "O lord of earth, if I had been present at Dwaraka, then, O king, this evil would not have befallen thee! And, O irrepressible one, coming unto the gambling-match, even if uninvited by the son of Ambika (Dhritarashtra), or Duryodhana, or by the other Kauravas, I would have prevented the game from taking place, by showing its many evils, summoning to my aid Bhishma and Drona and Kripa, and Vahlika! O exalted one, for thy sake I would have told the son of Vichitravirya--O foremost of monarchs, let thy sons have nothing to do with dice!--I would have shown the many evils (of dice) through which thou hast fallen into such distress and the son of Virasena was formerly deprived of his kingdom! O king, unthought of evils, befall a man from dice! I would have described how a man once engaged in the game continueth to play (from desire of victory).
Women, dice, hunting and drinking to which people become addicted in consequence of temptation, have been regarded as the four evils that deprive a man of prosperity. And those versed in the Sastras are of opinion that evils attend upon all these. They also that are addicted to dice know all its evils. O thou of mighty arms, appearing before the son of Ambika, I would have pointed out that through dice men in a day lose their possessions, and fall into distress, and are deprived of their untasted wealth, and exchange harsh words! O perpetuator of the Kuru race, I would have pointed out these and other attendant evils! If he had accepted my words thus addressed, the welfare of the Kurus as also virtue itself would both have been secured!
And, O foremost of kings, if he had rejected my gentle counsels offered as medicine, then, O best of the Bharata race, I would have compelled him by force! And, if those who wait at his court, professing to be his friends but in reality his foes, had supported him, then I would have slain them all, along with those gamblers, there present!
O Kauravya, it is owing to my absence from the Anartta country at that time that thou hast fallen into such distress begot of dice! O thou best of Kurus, O son of Pandu, on arriving at Dwaraka I learnt from Yuyudhana all about thy calamity! And, O foremost of kings, directly I heard it with a heart sore agitated by grief, have I speedily come here wishing to see thee, O king! Alas! O bull of the Bharata race, ye have all fallen into dire distress! I see thee with thy brothers plunged in misfortune!"
To understand any lila of God, one has to remember that it is free from any mundane contamination [janma karma ca me divyam, BG-4.9]. It has two purposes:
- God is enjoying with His devotees: God is the director and supreme hero, who assigns different roles to His devotees - some as heroes (eg. Pandavas) and some as villains (eg. Kauravas) [nato natya dharo yatha, SB-1.8.19]
- He is giving us a lesson: teaching us the righteous way and attracting us to Him [dharma samsthapanarthaya, BG-4.8]
Game of dice gives us many important teachings, some of which are:
Lust is our greatest enemy [kama esa krodha esa, BG-3.37]: Duryodhana and party, although powerful warriors, were suffering from intense lust and envy towards Pandavas. If we allow lust to control us, how demoniac we become.
Disrespecting chaste women brings devastation: Game of dice led to disrobing of mother Draupadi. This heinous act brought annihilation to entire dynasty.
The importance of surrender to God: As long as we depend on ourselves and our material means, we are baffled. But complete surrender to God brings all protection. Mother Draupadi finally took exclusive shelter of Krishna and set a great example for us.
Hence, Krishna is always saving His devotees [na me bhaktah pranasyati, BG-9.13] like Pandavas and directing their lives. And setting a great example that how great souls like Pandavas behave in extreme dangers. Our situation is much more comfortable, but we lack surrender.
It is very instructive to read what queen Kunti (mother of Pandavas) says on this in SB-1.8
References: BG = Bhagavad Gita, SB = Srimad Bhagavat Purana
This query needs a long elaboration.
What we fail to recognise is that Lord Krishna, was neither the protector of Pandavas nor the destroyer of Kauravas.
He was the establisher of DHARMA whenever it was being trampled.
Now who was destroying the Dharma here? Kauravas or the Pandavas?
It is popular belief that, the Kauravas were destroying the Dharma, while the Pandavas were protecting the Dharma. Which is absolutely wrong.
Both the Kauravas and the Pandavas had human weaknesses. Dharma is always destroyed by 'Human weaknesses'. The Kauravas and the Pandavas were both hand in hand in destroying the Dharma. Both were equally liable.
Now it would be surprising to say that Pandavas were destroying Dharma. A few evidences are here below;
1] When Draupadi ridiculed Duryodhana saying 'Blind son of a Blind Father', she trampled Dharma. It was her human weakness, that made her say it.
2] People ask why Shri Krishna didn't stop Dharmaraya from playing Dice? But the true question to be asked is; Why couldn't Dharamaraya restrain himself from playing? It is because the game of Dice was irresistible to him, another human weakness. He became a victim of his own weakness.
So it was both the Kauravas and the Pandavas, who jointly destroyed dharma. They, including Draupadi, were responsible for Draupadi/any-woman to be brought dragging by her hair and de-robed in public. It is not important who the woman is, but this would set a precedent. If this could happen to Draupadi, then it could happen to any woman.
Now the question would arise, if both the Kauravas and the Pandavas were both destroyers of Dharma, then why did Shri Krishna take the sides of Pandavas? I will cut short the explanation and come directly to the core.
Shri Krishna took the sides of both the Kauravas and the Pandavas. How?
The Pandavas wanted to take revenge. Shri Krishna said, revenge is another human weakness and another method of destroying Dharma. He stopped and pacified them and said; what is necessary is, not revenge, but a correction of the wrong and re-establishment of Dharma. What was needed was, returning to Pandavas, the property that is rightly theirs, by Kauravas. If that is done, the wrong stands corrected and Dharma gets established. That's all. So he stopped Pandavas from taking revenge and went to Duryodhana. Asked him to correct the mistake and establish the Dharma. He refused to correct it. It is then that Shri Krishna asked the Pandavas to take what is rightly theirs by war. But he had given Duryodhana a chance to correct himself. When he didn't, Shri Krishna supported the Pandavas in correcting the mistake, [a mistake committed by both]. Actually he was not supporting the pandavas. He was merely helping them in correcting the mistake and re-establishing the Dharma. He was on the side of Dharma.
Ultimately in the war both the Kauravas and the Pandavas, paid the price. Both lost their dear one's. But Dharma was established. Duryodhana was not allowed to get away with his mistakes. Neither were Pandavas.
Now coming back to the original question. Dharma does not prevent anybody from doing what they like. You want to play Dice, play it. It lets everybody to have free will. But beware that you do not cross the limits. Beware that you do not get carried away by your weaknesses and trample the Dharma. Dharma is not going to get trampled. It will re-establish itself. And you will pay the price for trampling it.
To see it in another way; half glass full is half glass empty and both are same. Shri Krishna was on nobody's side. He was on the side of Dharma. Remember? The Shreemad-Bhagavdgeeta begins with;
"Dharma samsthaapanaarthaaya sambhavaami yuge yuge".
So he wouldn't stop anybody from playing the Dice, not only the Pandavas.