Narayanan traces 3 games that, taken as whole, share story of life

Vasudha Narayanan, distinguished professor of the Department of Religion at the University of Florida, speaks Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. Jess Kszos/Staff Photographer

Sara Toth

Ask a Hindu a question, and they’ll tell you a story,  Vasudha Narayanan said. Sometimes it’s not just one story, but a story within a story, or stories within stories. 

And so Narayanan began her talk to close Week Two of the Interfaith Lecture Series, themed “A Spirit of Play,” last Friday in the Hall of Philsophy. She told stories, and stories within stories, all centered on a giant, four-sided board game. On each of three sides of the game are smaller games, and the fourth and final side is a broader look at what those stories, and games, tell us.

Narayanan, a distinguished professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida and former  president of the American Academy of Religion, is a preeminent scholar of the Hindu faith. Narayanan’s first story — first game — took the audience back to 1500 B.C., and the composition of the holy texts known as the Vedas.

“Obviously, folks in India (dating back this early) knew about dice games, so they played dice,” Narayanan said. “You know, playing with dice, hanging around and gambling and doing stuff that your mama told you not to do.” 

Dating back nearly as early is the poem “The Gambler’s Lament.” Fast forward a few centuries, 500 B.C. or so, Narayanan said, we find the longest epic poem ever composed — seven times longer that The Iliad and The Odyssey combined, called the Mahābhārata, which contains the Bhagavad Ghita. The Mahābhārata, Narayanan said, centers on a dice game among royalty.

“Gambling is still considered to be a royal game. It’s even considered religious,” Narayanan said. “… Now dice games teach us, of course, about probability, about chance — you have outsourced your fortune to that roll of that dice — and about not having control over anything.”

She’d come back to that, Narayanan said, but first she took the audience to the second side of her board game.

“How do we get from where we are right here in this world? To the other side, to liberation, to emancipation, from the cycle of life and death?” she asked, peeling back the education, ethical and religious layers of her next game: Chutes and Ladders. 

The game, invented in India, was a “pedagogical tool for morality.” Five ladders can take players “up” — asceticism, faith, generosity, reliability, and knowledge. 

Far more snakes — later chutes — exist, highlighting the perils of drunkenness, greed, lust, lying, murder, crime, rage, theft, vanity and vulgarity.

The game was born in the virtues of Hinduism, but the applicability to other faiths — Christianity and Islam, for example, Narayanan said — is due to the simplicity of its design and the universality of its message. As the game evolved through different religious practices and cultures (and Milton Bradley got involved), Chutes and Ladders became “playground friendly.”

“The morality issues are all thrown out; instead you have things like ‘mow the lawn,’ and you go up, you know, those kinds of things,” she said. “Bad things, like ‘eating too many cookies, drawing graffiti, not studying,’ (send you down). It’s very educational, in a very explicit way and heavy-handed way.”

Chutes and Ladders continues to evolve, even with a version dedicated to encouraging environmentally friendly behaviors. But like a game of dice, Chutes and Ladders is still a game of chance.

The third side of Narayanan’s imaginary board game pivots — it’s the side of the game focuses of strategy, control and dominance.

“Chess,” Narayanan said. “… Soviet-era books were big in India.” As a child, Narayanan had one of those books, and she still has it. She referenced it for her lecture.

“It’s a very simple story about chess and dominance,” she said.

A king in India loves chess so much, he asks for the game’s inventor to be brought to him. The king offers the inventor anything the man chooses. The man wants one grain of wheat for the first chess square; two for the second chess square; four for the third, and so on, exponentially.

The king, finding his generosity insulted, orders that the man be given what he’s asked for — assuming it would be just a sack full of rice. He asks minister that evening if the man received his rice.

“No, they’re still counting,” the minister answered. The next morning, the answer was still the same. The rice, exponentially increased for every square on a chess board, was still being counted.

In Narayanan’s Soviet-era chess book, the final number amounts to something like “18,446,744,073,709,551,615” grains of rice. 

That number is off by 85 grains of rice, she said. After all, she joked, it was a Soviet-era book. It’s a story that exists, like Chutes and Ladders, in many cultures. But at the story’s heart is the strategic nature of the game of chess.

“It is a game of strategy, control, power. It pushes you to concentrate helps memory skills, anticipate situations,” Narayanan said.

Contrast that with the first two sides of her imaginary board game, and the games of chance that “threw us into arbitrary universe.”

“Somewhere in between chance and control is what we learn as we grow older,” she said.

All taken together, those three sides make up the game of life, Narayanan said. And learning how to play through chance and strategy means that we can learn to live without regret. 

“It’s creation and recreation,” she said, before closing with lines from  the poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

“He says the steps he heard in his playroom are the same that are echoing from start to start,” Narayanan said. “And I thank you, my friends, for being here today in the playroom of ideas.”


The author Sara Toth

Sara Toth is entering her fifth summer as editor of The Chautauquan Daily and works year-round in Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Education. Previously, she served four years as the Daily’s assistant and then managing editor. An alum of the Daily internship program, she is a native of Pittsburgh(ish), attended Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, and worked for nearly four years as a reporter in the Baltimore Sun Media Group. She lives in Jamestown with her husband, a photographer, and her Lilac, a cat.