There was a time when kids used to spend their free time playing board games. Sometimes it was a whole family affair; at other times it was when friends came over on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It even used to be part of one’s repertoire of packed time-fillers when the family traveled. Games ranged from the four-cornered Ludo (didn’t everyone have their own favourite colours to start from?) to the strategic Battleship (particularly enjoyed the battery-operated version, complete with missile launch and explosion sounds) to the whodunits like Cluedo, and the empire-building Monopoly. I must say that the most complex board game I have ever played (once) was Poleconomy, a Monopoly-like game that swapped companies for properties and had a parallel political and capitalist actions. There was one particular game though which more often than not introduced kids to the whole concept of board games; it was none other than Snake and Ladders.
For many, Snakes and Ladders was probably the first board game they ever played, and one that most never say no too. Its simple mechanics would encourage anyone to start, and the gameplay gave a relatively equal chance for anyone to win. In addition, one could easily acquire it at the nearest mamak sundry or magazine shop. Many would have moved on to other more complex games, without knowing the rich background of this up and down game. I had earlier thought of the game as a good summary of one’s journey of faith without realising that the game itself was borne out of a spiritual context.
Reportedly Snakes and Ladders was born out of India, together with its dice-based siblings called Gyan chauper and pachisi (present-day Ludo and Parcheesi). It was known as Moksha Patam in ancient India and was associated with the Hindu and Jain philosophy which contrasts destiny and desire. The ladders represented positive virtues such as generosity, faith and humility, contrasted by those such as theft, anger and murder, symbolised by the snake. Salvation (Moksha) was achieved by doing good, whereas evil results in a rebirth to lower forms of life (and having to start at the lower rungs).
It may not be too far a stretch to bring this analogy to one’s spiritual progression in Islam. While the board game, normally in grids of 8×8, 9×9 or more often than not 10×10, is usually viewed in two dimensions, I had always imagined the game to be much more complex continuous three-dimensioned environment. This was due to the fact that if one were transported from square number 47 from the head of a snake to its tail at number 24 for a second time or after several ups and down, surely one was probably wiser and had a higher spiritual level than when one went through square number 24 for the first time.
The other aspect that would underline one’s attitude to life was how one moves from one square to another. Do you treat it like a sprint, front-loading all your good deeds but potentially burn out and change? Do you take a slow stroll, promising yourself that piety should be reserved for a later age once you have maxed-out your partying in the squares that you occupy right now? Do you take your time, studying the significance of the squares before you, and how it should impact your current and future squares? Or do you dance to and fro, treating all squares as your destined playground, moving to a beat resonant with all that is created, and therefore potentially also the rhythm of your Creator?
Another interesting analogy is also the dice. Without going into the whole fatalism and choice debate, and taking it into a more rudimentary level, how you throw is often a determinant in how the dice lands. Is the chance factor just the universe colluding (or itself having no other chance) to make what the Creator had pre-determined happen? Or does it even matter, for in the end we are accountable to how we react to the choices that are put before us, which may be understood as the real test. Did the Creator not say that whom He loves the most, would be the most tested?
Maybe it is because I am way into my fourth decade on this earth, and speedily approaching my fifth. I try to oscillate between the third and fourth way mentioned above – to study, and to dance. What is ecstasy without grounding, but a fleeting moment whose meaning dissipates with the wind? What is knowledge, if it does not permeate through one’s being, and where knowledge begins and being end is no longer defined, and in fact longer matters?
Is there any other way to live?