Playing games in literature, art and history

Mahadeo and Parvati, playing at the game of Chosur – Wikimedia Commons (British Museum)

The engraving above, based on a sculpture at the Ellora caves, shows Pārvatī and Śiva playing a game of dice.  We see Śiva about to roll the dice on some kind of gameboard while Pārvatī gestures expressively at him.  This scene perhaps illustrates a well-known episode from the Skanda Purana where they engage in fierce and perhaps somewhat underhand competition at playing dice.

With her friends crowding round, the goddess then challenged Śiva at gaming,
and she deceived him in the game.
And then he made a stake which was full of deception,
and then the goddess was defeated by Śiva, as he suppressed a smile.

Going on playing like that, both skilled in the knowledge of dice,
then the bejewelled Śiva was defeated by the goddess.
Laughing, the beautiful goddess said,
“Give me the stake you lost right away.”

[Skanda Purāṇa Kedārakhaṇḍa Chapter 1, Verses 69, 70, 78, 79]

In fact, humans have probably played together in some form since prehistoric times, and we also witness forms of play in the animal kingdom.  However, games with well-defined structures, rules and social competition are a more abstract form of play that require a certain level of abstract thinking about game design.  And table-top games such as dice games, board games and card games have a long and profound history throughout the world.  These games not only provide entertainment, but have also been understood to have strong didactic value, teaching principles that would be either practically useful or philosophically illuminating.

Such games may involve an element of pure chance, such as a roll of the dice, or else they may reward skill, strategic thinking and foresight, in games such as chess.  Thus in ancient Rome, ludus latrunculorum seems to have been a board game about military tactics.  In the Germanic context, Stephen Pollington explains –

“A variety of games were available to the Anglo-Saxons, although detailed evidence for how they were played is lacking … The name tæfl (adopted from Latin tabula) was used to denote the early forms of board game, which  may have been acquired through exposure to Roman military institutions … Tacitus says that games of chance were treated very seriously by the Germanic tribes, and that they would gamble their entire wealth, their freedom and even their lives on a single throw of the dice.”

[from The Mead Hall, Stephen Pollington]

This last point may remind us of the fateful dice-game between Duryodhana and Yudhiṣṭhira in the Mahābhārata, which is of pivotal significance for the whole plot, and which I have discussed here.  The exact game that was being played there, whether a simple dice game or a board game involving rolling dice, is likewise not entirely clear.  Indeed, the commonality between these various traditions perhaps points to a common proto-Indo-European origin.

In addition, dice and board games are mentioned elsewhere in epic and classical Indian literature.  For example, in the Virāṭa parvan of the Mahābhārata,  Yudhiṣṭhira decides to disguise himself as a gamester at the royal court of Virāṭa.

I will be the gaming-buddy of that great king,
Going as a Brahmin named ‘Kaṅka’, fond of games,
I will throw down on jewelled boards,
The enchanting black dice and red dice, cat’s eye, gold and ivory.

[Mahābhārata, Virāṭa parvan Chapter One Verses 20-21; my own translation]

Snakes are very symbolic in the Indian tradition, from such seminal figures as Śeṣa Nāga, Vāsukī and Takṣaka through to the snake charmers of musical rāgas such as Āsāvari, so it is no surprise to see snakes feature in what is called gyān-chaupar (loosely, ‘the game of knowledge’) or mokṣapaṭṭam (loosely, ‘the game of spiritual liberation’), that is, of course, the game of Snakes and Ladders.  The original Indian version of this game again has a didactic purpose, whereby different squares are labelled with different qualities, including bad and good moral qualities, whereby one slides down or climbs up the snakes and ladders respectively.  As Andrew Topsfield explains in relation to a typical snakes and ladder board –

“The object of the game is to reach Vaikuṇṭha (the abode of Viṣṇu, also called Viṣṇuloka), the central square (68) of the top row … Among the ladders, dayā (mercy, 17) leads the player directly to Brahmaloka (the abode of Brahma, 69), but because he has thus overshot the Vaikuṇṭha square, the player must make a throw or throws which will bring him to the guṇa of tamas (72) and thence down the snake back to earth (pṛthivī ,51), to resume his upward path once more.  Dharma (22) leads to subuddhi (right understanding, 60), and suvidyā (right knowledge,45) to Śivaloka (the abode of Śiva, 67).  The virtuous quality of bhakti, however, takes the player straight to Vaikuṇṭha and the end of the game.”

[The Indian Game of Snakes and Ladders, Artibus Asiae 46:3, 1985]

The game thus symbolically represents a journey that starts on earth, Square One, and moves steadily or tumultuously through human bondage towards spiritual liberation.  Thus Dr Jacob Schmidt-Madsen explains –

“Three main themes seem to run through all levels of their design.  The first is the representation of a hierarchically structured cosmos which extends from the lowest to the highest realms of existence; the second is the representation of karmic forces which bind and control living beings within the cosmos; and the third is the representation of religious practices which allow the incorporeal selves of beings to escape bondage and enjoy ultimate liberation.”

[The Game of Knowledge: Playing at Spiritual Liberation in 18th- and 19th-Century Western India; p.142]

Indeed, such gaming boards are also connected through a kind of affinity of geometrical and aesthetic principles with Indian architectural principles as well as with the construction of maṇḍalas, chakras and all kinds of yantras, in ways that as yet have not been fully explored.

The period following religious rituals is sometimes used as a time for playing all kinds of gambling games and similar festivities, following an old tradition which dates back to the time of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa and earlier.  However, before we get too carried away, we may end with a warning of the perils of gambling from the Rig Veda.

The gambler goes to the gathering, puffing up his body and hoping to win.
The dice give the winning throw to his opponent and crush his hopes.
The dice hook him, pierce him, defeat him, torment him,
Giving small wins that make him reckless so that they can then destroy him

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 10 Sūkta 34 Mantras 6-7 by Ṛṣi Kavaṣa Ailūṣa; my own translation]

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