Snakes and ladders and nirvana

The classic board game snakes and ladders (or chutes and ladders) began its life as a demonstration of the Jain ascent towards nirvana and beyond.

Gyan Chaupar, Jain board game
Gyan Chaupar, Jain board game
Nomu420, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jainism is one of the oldest extant religions in the world. It’s quite different from many other major religions. It has no creation myth, because the universe and all its souls are eternal, have always existed, and will always exist. Jainism also lacks a creator deity; there was no creation, so no creator. There are heavenly beings (Devas) and beings in hell (Nārakī), but they reincarnate just like everyone else.

A core principle of Jainism is the idea that you can escape the otherwise endless cycles of death and rebirth by freeing yourself from the bonds of karma. You do this by following the path of liberation: right faith, right knowledge, right conduct, and right asceticism. When you die, nirvana ensues – you are free from the birth-death-rebirth cycle and ascend to a final stage of existence called moksha. A soul in moksha is perfect, pure. It is eternally and infinitely happy, perceptive, knowledgeable, and casteless; it has no identity and never changes or perishes.

Snakes and ladders is the classic board game of rises and falls on the path to victory. The game has been popular for more in Europe, North America, and elsewhere for more than a century now. This is despite it being a game entirely of chance: you roll the dice, you move as fate dictates, and eventually someone must win. But its origins are in India and an ancient board game called gyan chaupar.

Gyan chaupar is essentially moralistic in nature. You, as the player, move up and down the board as you metaphorically accumulate or shed karma; reach the top, and you have found moksha. It is a direct illustration of the core concepts of Jainism. There are also Hindu versions of the game, that religion having many sympathies with Jain philosophy.

It was one of many cultural items that came to Europe via the British Raj – that period of time when the British colonised and ruled over what is now India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Originally its Western version was also moralistic. We have since stripped that out; in its modern form the game acts as a kind of themeless primer for more interesting roll-and-move games like ludo or parcheesi (both of which also descended from Indian games).

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