Like penguins we eagerly huddled around the board game. With bated breath, one threw the dice. It was 4. 1,2,3,4 he counted, moving his token along the board and lo behold he climbed the ladder and went straight from 9 to 31. It was her turn to throw the dice. With closed eyes she rolled it hoping it was not 2. But 2 it was and the snake was lurking right there. Disappointed, she fell down or rather her token fell from the mouth of the snake at 17 to its tail at number 7. If you are wondering what I am talking about – it is the game of snakes and ladders which is derived from an ancient board game called moksha patam.
A little about the game if you are not familiar with it. Snakes and ladders is played on a game board with numbered squares in a grid from 1 at the left bottom counting all the way to top square at 100. There are pictures of some snakes and ladders on the board which connect two specific board squares. Two or more players roll the dice. According to the number that appears on the dice, they move on the squares. Based on luck one keeps moving until you reach the top square but one can never predict who will get a ladder and hence move many places up or who will be bitten by a snake and hence fall many places down.
The game of snakes and ladders is very much like the game of karma and I mention some lessons that we can learn.
In the game as in life, one keeps rolling the dice or rather doing one’s karma until one reaches 100 or rather, discovers moksha. There is no respite from doing karma. Na hi kaschit shanamapi jaatu tisthatya karma krt..Indeed no one (wise or otherwise) remains for even a second without performing action. Doing karma is a privilege. No..you don’t have to do any karma. Instead it is a right, an honor, a responsibility that one gets to do karma and make a difference in one’s own life as well as that of others. We get to play full out. Everyone gets a chance in the game just like everyone gets a chance in life. In fact every moment is a chance. Why? Because in every moment we have the three blessings of iccha shakti, the power to will and desire, kriya shakti, the power to do and jnana shakti, the power to know. The beaver desires to build a nest for her little ones (iccha shakti). She goes about finding the right sized twigs and a safe place on the branches (jnana shakti) and in time puts the nest together (kriya shakti). The beaver does not regret the lack of luck not does she ruminate over her past. If the beaver does not feel helpless then we have no grounds to feel so, either, with the 3 shaktis we have been blessed with.
In the game as in life one progresses with the help of ladders which maybe in the form of punya as well as one’s good qualities also referred to daivi sampattih. Punya is in the form of supportive factors in life such as education, health care, decent finances, facilitating work environment, supportive parents, friends, partner, travel experiences and even a guru. Everyone has these ladders – some short and some tall depending on the kind of punya from previous lives. The ladders in the form of daivi sampattih or the wealth of the devas are qualities we all have and cultivate even more such as daanam, giving, damah – judicious restraint of the sense organs, ahimsa, non hurting, satyam trutfulness, dhrtih, fortitude and so on.
In the game as in life one falls or regresses due to snakes which maybe in the form of paapa as well as one’s qualities that are not in line with Dharma. Paapa may be in the form of dysfunctional parents, incomplete education, a serious illness, being laid off, sexual assault, incompatible partner and so on. Everyone has these snakes – the effect of some last for months and some might even last for years. The snakes in the form of asura sampatti or the collection of qualities that are unbecoming are asatyam, untruthfulness, ahankaaram, obsessed with I, me and mine, prasaktaah kamabhogeshu – obsessed with only pleasures, kamakrodha paraayanah – committed to desires and anger and so on. This too shall pass. In the game as in life, the ladder or a spate of good luck does not last for too long nor the snake or a phase of suffering lasts for too long.
In the game as in life, progress is not linear. Very often, it may seem like you are progressing in your career but regressing in the quality of interactions in your family or your family relations are thriving but your health has taken a setback. Karma and hence punya/paapa are not linear. My earlier ophthalmologist would go to a charitable basis on an honorary basis to perform cataract surgeries for poor patients. On one of his routine days he performed 3 eye surgeries as usual. As it turned out all became blind. He was suspended from his services and an enquiry was instituted. When I read the news in the paper it was puzzling to me because he did have an impeccable reputation in the field. Finally it was discovered that the technicians who were responsible for sanitizing the surgical equipment were very rushed that day and skipped sanitizing the equipment. Here was the doctor who was actually wanting to perform punya karma by not charging for the surgery but was saddled with the guilt of paapa as his patients turned blind for no fault of his. Despite all the punya of a successful medical practice and success from all parameters, this paapa of damage to the reputation was a bolt from the blue.
A friend of mine who was a very successful CEO of a non-profit for disadvantaged children had been sexually abused by relatives as well as her own step-father. Not only did she heal from this series of paapas but went on to do a lot of punya by taking strategic decisions for the wellbeing and welfare of thousands of children. In the game as in life, the effect of karma in the form of punya and paapa is not linear.
Winning the game or rather reaching moksha is playing it with kaushalam and samatvam. Neither the ladder nor the snake, neither the experience of punya nor paapa determine whether you win the game. While the game is based on chance, life is not about a roll of dice, a slight of hand and twist of fate (U2 in case you are wondering what happened). We play the game of karma by becoming competent in performing our Dharma toward our families, friends and colleagues. We offer our karma to Bhagavan, the one who is the presiding intelligence over laws of karma. Ladders or snakes, punya or paapa, we learn to accept the results of our karma as shaped by Bhagavan. The snake may still bite but it does not poison as it has been defanged. The ladder may catapult you to the ceiling but you are grounded. And so, you stop defining yourself by the ladder or snake, punya and paapa in your life.
The game has rules and life ‘s rules are the laws of karma are presided over by Bhagavan. Which of your karmas fructifies into punya and which fructifies into paapa, one can never tell? Then how can one be prepared? One equips oneself by being a karma yogi, growing in one’s kaushalam, competence in performing our Dharma in all our relationships and samatvam, a gracious acceptance of the unfolding situations in life. The serenity prayer puts it beautifully, O God, give me the courage to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. Every situation, every person, every thought, every form is a manifestation of Bhagavan and hence we see life as a flow of blessing.
In the game as in life you could either win it first or later but has your identity of being the experiencer brought you lasting happiness? When you climbed the ladders, life was great. When you slithered down the snakes, life felt hopeless. Either way you seem to be at the mercy of karma. It can make us anxious and hypervigilant about what lies in the shadows or work towards the next high. Adi Shankaracharya puts it beautifully in Bhaja Govindam.
pare brahmani ko.api na saktaH .. (7)
The child is busy playing. The young person, taruna is busy with taruni, another young person. The old person is busy worrying. But, there is hardly anyone who wants to enquire and immerse oneself in parabrahmam.
Govindam bhaja govindam – May you seek to know Bhagavan.
Vedanta helps us enquire into the nature of the doer and the experiencer. Does your karma define you? If it did you would be frozen either eating or talking or walking? Does your paapa or punya define you? If it did, that would be your permanent state but that’s not the case. Experiences come and go but the experiencer, the subject is present in and through all experiences.