Satyagraha

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The Esoteric Origins of ‘Chutes and Ladders’

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Game of Snakes and Ladders (India, 19th century)

C HUTES and Ladders is a popular board game for young children.  Players compete to traverse a series of 100 consecutively numbered squares laid out in a 10×10 grid.  Each turn a player spins a dial, and moves their token forward the number of squares indicated.  Some squares, however, are connected to ladders and chutes.  Upon landing on a square at a ladder’s foot, one then move ones piece ahead several squares or rows to the ladder’s terminus.  Conversely, landing on a chute square requires the player to move their token back several spaces or rows.  The game has a mild moral message, with ladders and chutes corresponding to simple virtues and ‘vices’ relevant to young children.  For example, in the square at the foot of one ladder a young student is shown reading a book, with the ladder’s end showing the student wearing a graduation cap and gown.

Snakes and Ladders (UK, ca. 1890)

Chutes and Ladders is a simple modification of the game Snakes and Ladders, which enjoyed success in Great Britain from the 1890s through the 1920s (snakes serving the same function as chutes).  Snakes and Ladders, in turn, was imported from a similar dice game played in India for several centuries.  The Indian version, sometimes called gyān caupaṛ (Game of Knowledge) had a more explicitly moral (and adult) meaning.  It was played throughout India in many versions, including ones adapted to Sufis, Jains and Hindus.  The game’s central principle is to gain liberation from bondage of passions and to ascend from lower levels of consciousness to higher levels of spiritual enlightenment.

Cībhāḥ kāsā. Nepal, 18th century

Yet the history of this intriguing game goes back still further — much further.  The earliest ancestor was a game played in ancient China (circa 5th century) called shengguan tu (Table of Bureaucratic Promotion). The purpose of this game was to simulate the advancement of a civil servant within the complex administrative bureaucracy of the Chinese state; acquisition of virtues and abandonment of vice — in ways aligned with Confucian philosophy — were understood as central to this.

Xuanfo tu (20th century)

Within a few centuries, a new version of the game emerged with more explicitly religious (Daoist) meanings.  By the middle ages, Buddhism had largely supplanted Daoism in China, and a Buddhist version of the game, xuanfo tu (Table of Buddha selection) was developed. The Buddhist game traveled to Tibet and Nepal (there called sa gnon rnam bzhags or ‘ascending the spiritual levels’), and likely to India also, where, presumably, it evolved into the Game of Knowledge.

As shown by the example above, the basic framework of this board game lends itself to many variations and, in some cases, considerable detail.  Hence it became not only a means of recreation, but a didactic tool for summarizing moral, spiritual and psychological advancement according to Buddhist teachings.

Modern versions still exist, and according to Ngai (2010; p. 129) there is currently an online version associated with the Pure Land Buddhism sect!

Given the longevity of the game, one wonders if a suitably modernized version might still appeal to philosophically and spiritually minded people in the West.

Schlieter (2012) has aptly noted how this type of board game resembles a Markov chain (named for the Russian mathematician, Andrey Markov).  In a Markov chain, a system or object may exist a in any one of a finite number (k) of states. Associated with each state is a set of probabilities of it transitioning to each other state, or remain in the same one.  That is, in a Markov chain there is a k matrix of transition probabilities, p(i, j), which govern the chances that, given that the current state is j, the next state will be j (for i = 1 … k and j = 1 … k).

Perhaps one reason for the game’s appeal is that it parallels a certain Markov chain-like feature of human consciousness.  Like the game, our consciousness can exist in any one of a set of states; and from that state one may transition to any other (or remain the same) with certain probabilities.

If nothing else this is a useful conceptual tool for understanding changes in consciousness.  Things like ascetical training, spiritual exercises and rituals/liturgies could be understood a mechanisms for advantageously changing the structure of our transition probabilities.  For example, if we’re in the state, “feel hunger,” we could train ourselves to transition to “engage in contemplation” instead of “eat.”

Some Markov chains also have the property of absorbing states.  This occurs when the probability of remaining in the same state (as opposed to transitioning to some other) is very high.  Absorbing states of consciousness might be negative – like getting stuck in a state of negative thinking. However higher, spiritual states could, in theory, also, say through practice, become absorbing.  In that case we’d be less likely to fall from a higher to a lower state of consciousness.

Playing a game like xuanfo tu, therefore may help us better recognize the Markov chain-like nature of our own consciousness and make us more alert to its transition patterns, positive and negative.

Bibliography

McGuire, Beverley Foulks. Playing with karma: a buddhist board game. Material Religion 10.1, 2014; 4−28.
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2752/175183414X13909887177466

Ngai, May-Ying Mary. From Entertainment to Enlightenment: A Study on a Cross-Cultural Religious Board Game with Emphasis on the Table of Buddha Selection Designed by Ouyi Zhixu of the Late Ming Dynasty. Dissertation, University of British Columbia, 2010.
https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/24/24/items/1.0071581

Schmidt-Madsen, Jacob. The Game of Knowledge: Playing at Spiritual Liberation in 18th-and 19th-Century Western India. Dissertation, University of Copenhagen, 2019.
https://www.forskningsdatabasen.dk/en/catalog/2451172010

Schlieter, Jens. Simulating Liberation: The Tibetan Buddhist Game ‘Ascending the [Spiritual] Levels.’ In: Philippe Bornet &, Maya Burger (eds.), Religions in Play: Games, Rituals and Virtual Worlds, Zürich, 2012 (pp. 93−116).
http://www.academia.edu/download/30455787/Schlieter_Simulating_Liberation_.pdf

Topsfield, Andrew. The Indian Game of Snakes and Ladders. Artibus Asiae 46:3, 1985, pp. 203−226.
https://www.jstor.org/stable/3250203

Topsfield, Andrew.  Instant Karma: The Meaning of Snakes and Ladders. In: Andrew Topsfield (ed.), The Art of Play: Board and Card Games of India. Mumbai, 2006; pp. 75−89.
https://books.google.com/books?id=HjyNkQEACAAJ