Most of us have played the board game, ‘Snakes & Ladders’. The throw of dice forces you to move a set of steps forward. The point you reach can be the one where there is the picture of the mouth of a snake or is graced by the base of a ladder or it could be empty. If it is the mouth of the snake, then you tumble down backwards. If it is the base of a ladder, you are catapulted several steps ahead. If it is neither, then you wait for the next throw of dice to move forward (or backward).
The only thing that is in our hand is the throw of the dice. Everything else is luck, determined by the presence or absence of a snake or ladder. Fortune and misfortune are thus not in our hands, but determined by forces we have no control over. And we really cannot manipulate the throw of the dice. So effectively, nothing in the game is in our control. Known as gyan-chauper or moksha-patam, this game was created either by Jain monks or Hindu sages to explain the concept of karma.
Action Is a Gamble
Of course, it can be very depressing to know that our action (throwing of dice) is a gamble and the outcome of snakes and ladders is also a gamble. Everything is a gamble. It makes us feel helpless, like riding a car with no control over it. Could that be life?
Naturally, one does not want to play the game. But that is inaction. No participation, no engagement, no fun, no connection with other players of the game. That is the hermit’s choice: to watch others play the game, and mock their excitement and depression at the outcome. But the wise householder, who has the wisdom of the hermit, participates in the game, without getting attached to the results, enjoying it, knowing that victory and defeat are determined by factors that are not in his control. It is all a game of probability.
The snake of misfortune that pushes us back is opposed by the ladder of fortune that pushes us ahead. Sometimes, the tail of the snake lands us just a step away from a ladder. Thus, fortune lurks in the corner of misfortune and vice versa. We never know what will come our way. Life is full of surprises, an adventure for all.
Where did the snakes and ladders come from? We are told it is karma, the process of Nature, created by a whole set of actions and reactions. An accumulation of good deeds results in a ladder and an accumulation of bad deeds creates the snake. How can we do more good deeds and less bad deeds? No one knows. All we have in our hands is the dice, whose throw remains the same, whether it lands at the snake’s mouth or the base of a ladder. There is no way to determine if an action is good or bad; if its reaction will be good or bad.
In the game of snakes and ladders, we can ride a wave and the wave can take us up or down. It is created by a host of natural forces. We simply ride it. We delude ourselves that we have created the wave. As Krishna reminds us in the Bhagwad Gita, ‘You are not the doer. Nature is the doer. You are just the observer.’
We can say that our life is a karmic balance sheet, a set of fortunes and misfortunes, determined by actions in the past, either in this life or the next. But the sages will be mum on that. For no one really knows how our life is shaped. Some believe we create our fortune through action. Some believe our fortune is created by us by our past deeds. Or maybe, no one really plans or controls this rollercoaster game of snakes and ladders. All we have control over is how we perceive the experience. Are we excited by the fortune and disappointed by the misfortune? Do we think we created the fortune or misfortune? Do we feel the world, God, nature or the game, owes us this fortune or misfortune?
Moksha is realising that the world is essentially beyond human control, but not our emotions. We can try and control the game, manipulate our moves, and our victories, rationalise the events of the world. We can grant ourselves value as victims who have been tortured by the game or heroes who have conquered the game.
Or we can just accept that it is a game that everyone plays. Sometimes we are in, sometimes we are out. Sometimes we slip down and sometimes we rise up.
The fun part is observing our emotions and those of other players. And making friends across the board game we call life.