The Road to Nirvana is Paved with Snakes (and Ladders)

Snakes and Ladders.jpg
Moksha Patam that turned into Snakes and Ladders


Recently we proposed to use the Snakes and Ladders’ game-board for an International workshop about children’s development planned for early November, 2020. The primary purpose of using the template was to play with the notion of risk (snakes) and ladders (factors that promote resilience) to engage an audience of experts online. The idea seemed feasible since the game treats encounters with snakes as a harmful event that brings down a player to a lower level, varying by distance and intensity, just as chance encounters (determined by a throw of the dice) with ladders can take you higher, and even home in a couple of moves. The potential for the risk-resilience dynamics seemed fruitful, the stronger the factor, the longer the ladder to maturity. Yet there was another feature that entered as a possibility. We have been trying systematically to work against the grain of a Developmental Psychology that promotes a single pathway for development, emerging from ideology, research and practice in modern Western research. There is sufficient evidence to prove otherwise, and many erudite scholars have been engaged in the enterprise to expand the discipline, demonstrating that there are multiple pathways to development, and developmental dynamics are deeply embedded in cultural, ecological, social and historical processes. Yet, much of mainstream Developmental Psychology as a discipline and International aid as practice, still persist with a single design as a gold standard for growth and development, and the promotion of the idea of an ‘optimal environment’ in which such a potential can be reached. This position has been misplaced, erroneous, misleading and even damaging to people who live outside of this narrow pathway, basically, a majority of the world’s children are outliers, disadvantaged and delayed by this definition! This is a serious flaw in contemporary psychological research and practice and we thought that the game could help us achieve this appreciation through a practical demonstration.

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Snakes and Ladders is a game of chance, where players compete against each other in a journey from 0 (bottom left) and 100 (Final destination), and collating different ideas about risk and resilience. The play between misfortune and advantage can easily be achieved within this paradigm by identifying risks like ill-health, or enabling factors like having a family seriously invested in well-being, the possibilities are endless. Additionally, we wanted to demonstrate that a single pathway is just not adequate enough to capture the complexity of a life course. It is during this journey to find an alternative or innovative paradigm that my colleague and friend Shraddha stumbled upon this interesting history. Snakes and Ladders had evolved from an ancient Indian game, Moksha Patam, or the Attainment of Moksha, which is played as a game of chance during a life course sprinkled with opportunities for moral upgradation through actions guided by dharma, and those that invite bad karma, the snakes that will delay or disrupt the attainment of spiritual peace and liberation. Like so many aspects of traditional narratives, this encounter was treated as an opportunity for lessons in dharma. The history as well as variations in the game are fascinating and we all (Reshu, Pooja and I) began an intense search. Here are some of the results. I thank Reshu for digging out most of the links we reference here.

In an older version of the game, there was the possibility of many outcomes, different heavens, that would provide us the release from a single paradigm or a singular outcome. The workshop is still being planned.

Games that originated in Ancient India - Snakes & Ladders - NYK Daily

The play between fate and free-will

Devdutt Pattanaik writes that the local understanding of karma and free-will is very hard to grasp. The tendency when look from the outside, is to perceive a belief in karma as passive fatalism; but that is a problem of the translations. As Pattanaik writes:

“Typically, Indians are considered a fatalistic people. We believe in karma, that life is pre-determined. And yet, we find the following story in the vana parva of the Mahabharata, narrated by the sage Markandeya to the Pandavas.
Once upon a time, there was a princess called Savitri, who was the only child of her father. She fell in love with Satyavan, a prince whose father had been driven out of his kingdom by his enemies, and so lived in abject poverty in the forest. Her father opposed this marriage not only because Satyavan was poor but also because he was destined to die within a year of marriage. Savitri followed her heart nevertheless. A year of happy married life followed. A year later, at the appointed hour, Yama, the god of death, hurled his noose and took Satyavan’s life out of his body. Savitri followed him. “Go back and cremate his body,” he advised her. She refused to do so and kept following Yama into the land of the dead. Exasperated, he offered her three boons so that she would go away, “Anything except the life of your husband.” Savitri first asked that her father-in-law regain his kingship. Then she asked her father get a son and heir. And finally she asked that she be the mother of Satyavan’s sons. “So be it,” said Yama and continued on his journey to the land of the dead. After some time he noticed that Savitri was still following him. “You gave me your word that you would return to the land of the living,” he said. “You  give me no choice. You said I would be the mother of Satyavan’s children. How can a dead body make me a mother? I must therefore follow Satyavan’s soul into the land of the dead.” Yama realized he had been outwitted. As custodian of the laws of karma, his boons had to be realized. The only way for Savitri to bear Satyavan’s children was to make Satyavan’s alive again. And so it happened.

Traditionally, women are told to read the story of Savitri during the ritual known as Vata-Savitri. At the same time, the women are told to go around the Banyan tree seven times. The Banyan tree is the tree under which Satyavan is supposed to have died. Conventionally, people believe that women are supposed to do this ritual for the long life of the husband. The Banyan tree represents long life and permanence making the ritual a sympathetic ritual, where we act out our desire. By going around the symbol of permanence and reading the tale of the woman who brought her dead husband back to life, people believe women can protect themselves from widowhood, which is traditionally considered to be the worst fate for a woman in a patriarchal society.
Now, in a fatalistic society, such a ritual should not exist. Whatever will happen will happen so why pray and perform rituals. Clearly, it means people believe it is possible to change fate by intense will and by the grace of God.
This is even more evident in the story itself. Here is a woman who walks into what seems like a terrible fate and she single handedly changes her fate. She even does the impossible, brings her husband back to life. How does she do it? First, she has the desire, then the will power, then the effort and finally the intelligence. Thus, the scriptures say that it is possible to overturn what is written in destiny by the grit of our will.”

About the play between fate and free-will Pattanaik continues:

“Long ago, Yagnavalkya, the greatest sage of the Upanishadic era, was asked, “Is the world governed by fate or free will?” He replied, “Both. They are like the two wheels on either side of the chariot. If you depend on one too much you go around in circles.”
In mythology, fate and freewill take the form of two gods that are never worshipped: Yama and Kama. Yama is the god of death, who keeps an account of one’s life and hence determines one’s destiny. He is dispassionate in his dealings and inflexible in his judgments. Kama, on the other hand, is the god of desire, who makes you want things, do things, hence makes you challenge and change destiny. He fills you with ambition and expectations, and hence is cause of both exhilaration as well as frustration. Yama binds man with his noose and uses his hook to ensure everyone repays his karmic debt. Kama strikes man with his arrow and leaves behind the sweet festering wound of hope and desire. Before Yama, one is helpless. With Kama, one is hopeful.
For centuries, Indians have refused to accept the fate laid out before us by Yama. That is why we have jyotish-shastra or astrology which provides us gemstones that can influence the future. That is why we have vastu-shastra or geomancy that promises to change our life if we change our dwelling. That is why we have rituals known as vrata where by fasting and keeping all-night vigils and walking barefoot to the temples one can change the fortune of the household.
To drive the notion of  fate and free will in a fun way, ancient seers of India came up with many board games.
First was snakes and ladders. You throw the dice and move the coins accordingly on a checkered board. No one can control the throw of the dice, thus dice represents fate. If your fate is good, you will land on a box which has the base of a ladder. It will help you rise to a better place. This is fortune. If your fate is bad, you will land on a box which has the head of a snake. You will slip down. This is misfortune. This game teaches fatalism. There is nothing you can do but accept the throw of the dice and pray the next throw will be in your favor.

Snakes and Ladders provides us with an apposite allegory to understand the play of fate in our lives.

The Game as it is today

Snakes and Ladders Board Game, Snakes, ladders, start, finish
Modern S&L.

In S&L, the movement of players is determined by rolls of the dice. One needs a full six to get started and then from there on, it isn’t the number you roll, but the square in which you land that determines your fate.

The Origin

S&L was invented in India as Moksha Patam, Parama Padam, or Mokshapat. It was used to teach Hindu Dharma and Hindu values to children and was renamed as Snakes and Ladders by the British. Although it is mainly attributed to Gyandev who lived in 13th Century AD, there are some mentions of the game as early as 2nd Century BCE. Covered with symbolic images, the elaborate game-boards were made out of cloth that were pieces of intricate art. Moksha was attainable in three different abodes, not a single end, Shiva, , the top featuring gods, angels, and majestic beings, while the rest of the board was covered with pictures of animals, flowers and people. n the original game square 12 was faith, 51 was Reliability, 57 was Generosity, 76 was Knowledge, and 78 was Asceticism. These were the squares were the ladder was found. Square 41 was for Disobedience, 44 for Arrogance, 49 for Vulgarity, 52 for Theft, 58 for Lying, 62 for Drunkenness, 69 for Debt, 84 for Anger, 92 for Greed, 95 for Pride, 73 for Murder and 99 for Lust. These were the squares were the snake was found. The Square 100 represented Nirvana or Moksha. The game was played with cowrie shells and dices. Later through time, the game underwent several modifications but the meaning is the same: good deeds take us to heaven and evil to a cycle of re-births. Also known as ‘paramapadam’, there are a hundred squares on a board; the ladders take you up, the snakes bring you down. The difference here is that the squares are illustrated. The top of the ladder depicts a God, or one of the various heavens (kailasavaikunthabrahmaloka) and so on, while the bottom describes a good quality. Conversely, each snake’s head is a negative quality or an asura (demon). As the game progresses, the various karma and samskara, good deeds and bad, take you up and down the board. Interspersed are plants, people and animals. The game serves a dual purpose: entertainment, as well as dos and don’ts, divine reward and punishment, ethical values and morality. The final goal leads to Vaikuntha or heaven, depicted by Vishnu surrounded by his devotees, or Kailasa with Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha and Skanda, and their devotees. In this age of moral and ethical degeneration, this would be a good way of teaching values to children who think they already know more than their parents.

The simple race is based on sheer luck and contains lessons in morality, on which players advance on the board will be blocked by chance encounters with vices and facilitated with chance encounters with virtues. Much like the Panchatantra stories were meant to teach social-moral lessons to young children, Moksha patam intended to communicate to its players that life was like a game of chance, but one that we can learn to play well if we avoided certain factors and adopted others. Of course, there is always the element of chance, being dealt with misfortune. Yet, by keeping focus on dharma, one can make attempts to do the best we can from our side. This is the lesson of karma. The morality angle continued in some later versions of the game based on bible lessons before transforming into the modern version.

Along with other board games like gyan chaupar and pachisi (ludo), moksha patam was a game that originated in India, and was then transported to England as Snakes and Ladders. and then to the US as Chutes and Ladders. The first version in England has been credited to “game pioneer Milton Bradley” in 1943, and it would be interesting to note whether the Indian version was credited in that version. However, on the History Channel, we find a heart-warming documentary History Erased, that provides an elaborate history of this board game, although the contrast between kama and karma may be a simple interpretation of this rather complex game.

The different versions

When the game was brought to England, the Indian virtues and vices were replaced by English ones in hopes of better reflecting Victorian doctrines of morality. Squares of Fulfillment, Grace and Success were accessible by ladders of Thrift, Penitence and Industry and snakes of Indulgence, Disobedience and Indolence caused one to end up in Illness, Disgrace and Poverty. The Indian version of the game had snakes outnumbering ladders, the English version was more forgiving and contained each in the same amount. This concept of equality signifies the cultural ideal that for every sin one commits, there exists another chance at redemption, whereas the Indian version points towards the many temptations on the way to nirvana.

We can also read in some sources that “The association of Britain’s Snakes and Ladders with India and gyan chauper began with the returning of colonial families from one of Britain’s most important imperial possessions, India. By the 1940s very few pictorial references to Indian culture remained, due to the economic demands of the war and the collapse of British rule in India. Although the game’s sense of morality has lasted through the game’s generations, the physical allusions to religious and philosophical thought in the game as presented in Indian models appear to have all but faded. There has even been evidence of a possible Buddhist version of the game existing in India during the Pala-Sena time period. In Andhra Pradesh, this game is popularly called Vaikunthapali or Paramapada Sopana Patam (the ladder to salvation) in Telugu.[6][11] In Hindi, this game is called Saanp aur SeedhiSaanp Seedhi and Mokshapat. In Tamil Nadu the game is called Parama padam and is often played by devotees of Hindu god Vishnu during the Vaikuntha Ekadashi festival in order to stay awake during the night.”

In popular culture, the phrase: Back to square one comes from Snakes and Ladders. It also appears as a central metaphor in Salman Rushdie’s Midnights’ Children where the narrator describes life thus: “All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you hope to climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner, and for every snake a ladder will compensate. But it’s more than that; no mere carrot-and-stick affair; because implicit in the game is unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosities of the serpent; in the opposition of staircase and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all conceivable oppositions, Alpha against Omega, father against mother. here is the war of Mary and Musa, and the polarities of knees and nose … but I found, very early in my life, that the game lacked one crucial dimension, that of ambiguity – because, as events are about to show, it is also possible to slither down a ladder and climb to triumph on the venom of a snake …”

Games that originated in Ancient India - Snakes & Ladders - NYK Daily

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