I was researching the board game ‘Snakes and Ladders’ the other day. Long story.
Anyway, I was surprised-not surprised to learn that it, along with Ludo and Pachisi, is an ancient game that originated from India. Snakes and Ladders, originally known as ‘Moksha Patam’, is almost two thousand years old.
What intrigued me most, beyond the fact that ancient India seemed to be an infinite source of genius board game IPs, was that Snakes and Ladders was, like Monopoly thousands of years later, actually a philosophical exercise.
Essentially, Moksha Patam was created to demonstrate the karmic tension in life between good and evil, that we are all in the thrall of destiny and its roll of the die. Unlike Ludo or Pachisi which both incorporated skill (representing free will) as a balance to chance, Snakes and Ladders presented the world as subject entirely to forces beyond our control (well, hello Coronavirus).
However, the key element was the idea that the snakes represented evil deeds, whilst the ladders were symbolic of positive ethical action – therefore, the higher you rose towards the finish, the closer you were to salvation (Moksha); the further you fell, the lower you were in the divine order of the world and the more likely you were to reincarnate as, say, a bug.
However, in the original game, there were many more snakes than ladders – highlighting the point that life would present you with many more chances to act in an evil way (thus karmically sinking down the Chain of Being) than virtuously.
The ladders represented values such as generosity, faith, and humility, while the snakes represented vices such as lust, anger, murder, and theft.
Of course, it was marketed in the Twentieth Century in the US by Milton Bradley under the label ‘Chutes and Ladders’ and the entire philosophy was dumped out the window whilst simultaneously ensuring there was an equal amount of bonuses and pitfalls. Interestingly, this does also represent the more Western idea that every moral corruption can be corrected by a positive action (Catholic ‘indulgences’, anyone?).
Anyway, the original game seemed to also reiterate Jesus’s words regarding a camel passing through the ‘eye of the needle’: It does seem that many religions understand it is far harder for people to be morally, karmically good than to simply yield to the seduction of ‘sin’.
Whatever. I just love the idea that there are deeper resonances to even the most throwaway of pastimes.
Enjoy the Easter eggs, everyone. And, while you’re at it, look up how THOSE synthesised into a Christian festival.
Fascinating, lovely stuff. Happy Easter – and stay safe…
By Richard JL Pope who happens to be a teacher at St Thomas More Roman Catholic Language College, St Mary’s University, Twickenham, UK.
Picture: Wikipedia Commons