How the path to salvation became Snakes and Ladders

A board game intended to teach the virtues and vices of life in ancient India became a worldwide classic of modern times.

What we know today worldwide as Snakes and Ladders was a board game that originated in ancient India by the name Mokshapath – path to salvation. It was taught to students in schools at a very young age so that they started identifying and differentiating the good and bad karma (deeds), to stay away from bad deeds and to do the good throughout their life, with the game ending at the last square (at 100) of Moksha or Salvation or Liberation.

Mokshapath – The original Snakes and Ladders – above is a Jain Version of the game

The moral of the game was that, if you do good karma in life you will quickly attain salvation or spiritual liberation and your bad karma will keep you tied down, preventing you from achieving the ultimate success in life. So, every snake represented a vice, and every ladder represented a virtue.

There were more snakes than ladders in the original Indian version, there by teaching the students that it is easy to do bad things, but difficult to do good and achieve success in life.

For every good deed in life, the person was rewarded with a ladder to climb up towards salvation. Following were the ladders in the original Indian version of the game.

  • 12 was Faith
  • 51 was Reliability
  • 57 was Generosity
  • 76 was Knowledge
  • 78 was Asceticism

For every bad deed in life, the person was punished with a snake bite taking him down and away from liberation. Following were the snakes in the original Indian version of the game.

  • 41 was for Disobedience
  • 44 for Arrogance
  • 49 for Vulgarity
  • 52 for Theft
  • 58 for Lying
  • 62 for Drunkenness
  • 69 for Debt
  • 73 for Murder
  • 84 for Anger
  • 92 for Greed
  • 95 for Pride
  • 99 for Lust

The British came across this game in India during their colonial rule, and introduced it in England in around 1892. The British version had almost equal number of snakes and ladders.

BACK TO SQUARE ONE

The popular phrase “back to square one” has its origins in this game, where a snake bite could take you back to where you started!

Unfortunately, this beautiful concept of virtues against vices, where virtues raise you towards glory and vices pull you down, the related ancient Indian spirituality and philosophy is not popular in modern incarnations of the game.

And the modern name, Snakes and Ladders seems so boring and pale compared to its original name “Path to Liberation”. Isn’t it?

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