Games of the World Reflect Indian Ethos: Aman Gopal of Buddhi Yoga

India will be celebrating National Games from February 27-March 3. In anticipation, interviewing some experts in the field of Indian games brings light to the value of such games in strengthening India’s youth. In this series, we hear from experts and seniors involved in games. Here, Aman Gopal Sureka, founder of Buddhi Yoga engages in a lively conversation via email to enlighten Indian public on the purpose of games, and encourage the nation to play for life!  

In order to understand his journey into Buddhi Yoga, it is important to go back to the days when the seed was sown. Aman started by reminiscing about his childhood in Kolkata. 

Tell us about your own childhood. Where did you grow up? What games and sports did you play then? 

“I grew up in an upper-middle class family environment in Kolkata. I mostly played indoor games in school - Table Tennis, Carrom and Chess were my favourites.  Later, when studying for my undergraduate degree in Computer Systems Engineering in the US, I discovered that Carrom originated in India. My grandfather’s friends who used to visit our home played Carrom and Chess with me. These engagements were always very long winded and rich with stories and tales and fables and examples. They always gave me a sense of quietness, peace and joy simultaneously.”

Talking about other children, Aman brought in the idea of sportsmanship, which is much needed beyond just childhood. 

How were other children around you growing up? Did they also play games and sports? Why or why not? 

To my knowledge all my friends played the same games that I also played. I was less of a “sportsman”. I had “sportsmanship” though: I enjoyed losing to a good shot, or a good strategy. I never really attempted to beat my opponent; I wanted to learn from them. 

What did traditional games and sports do for you and other children of your generation?

“I am not sure if our generation really engaged in traditional games and sports. Of course, my perspective is completely that of an urban upper middle class fellow. That assumed, even if we did, I am not sure if we were aware that these were our traditional games.”

Having learned horse-riding at the Army School, Kolkata, Aman admitted to joining in some Indian games that had been popularized in the west and by British. “I did play polo a few times and knew that polo originated in India. However, it was still a ‘British sport’ even in the way a ‘chakkar’ was pronounced. Chess originated in India, I knew that, however, the game was ‘European’ with strategies and methods being defined by experts from their lands. In fact, it was more of a sport with rankings, leaderboards, and competitions in various clubs and through various organisations.” 

Aman, who is just around 50 years old now, recollects how his grandparents would play with him as well. “My grandfather's friends would many times speak about the fun symbolisms of the pieces in chess that we could introduce to make the game fun. Every time they would kill the elephant on my queen's side, they would joke that they had imprisoned my grandma, and would only return her if I would surrender my king. Now my grandma used to give me pocket money. So they joked that this week’s pocket money would go to them. Chess was not played like this at school or when I played with other children of my generation.

Much later, when I was reading about Chaturanga, our ancient form of 4 player chess with dice and money, did I realise the source of these ‘fun symbolisms’ and their importance and impact.”

It was only later in life when Aman realized how important these games were. Though throughout his life, there were moments when games gave a spark to him, it was only when his daughter was born that he really wanted to expose her to traditional games.

When and why did you start researching traditional sports and games? 

“I think the first time I was ‘surprised’ was when I realised that Carrom originated in India. I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan then and instantly resolved to bring a Carrom board to the US when I went to India next and create a special interest group playing Carrom in my college. Of course, logistics and the sheer senselessness of the idea (in my parents’ perspective) resulted in a “no go”. Nevertheless, I felt very proud that India had given the world such a beautiful engagement. Polo and Chess were coming in a very far second. 

Later, In one of my “museum hopping” tours of London on a transit visa, I happened to take a picture of a snakes and ladders board game displayed as an ancient work of art from India dated to the 1700’s. That India gave the world the Snakes and Ladders board game was something that my father had told me as a child. He had also shared his childhood version of Snakes and Ladders (which I still have and treasure). This though, was a British game of ‘Virtues and Vices’. It made a lot of sense; discipline, punctuality were all ‘virtues’,  stealing, procrastinating and lying were ‘vices’. He also told me that we Indians used to have a similar game of ‘virtues and vices’, but he had never played it. I asked my grandfather if he had seen one. But my grandfather had not played snakes and ladders in his childhood. He had spent his childhood enjoying ‘rasogollas’ (a Bengali speciality) and meeting with friends in ‘addaas’ (another favourite Bengali passtime).  

Fast forward to 1996, this picture of the snakes and ladders board from the 1700's was a treasure that I had just chanced upon in London. I was carrying my Nikon FM-2 and the museum was not really “brightly lit”, but I still managed to get a stable arm-rest and took a sort of a long exposure shot of the game board through the display glass.  When I processed the image back in my college dark room, it had come out quite beautifully.  Nothing much happened for another 6-7 years. I returned to India, started my own consulting business in IT infrastructure services and software development. Got married and had a daughter. In 2003 my daughter was starting pre-school and my mom had gotten tired of all the ‘junk’ I had carried back from my college days. It was time to throw away my negatives, the pile of photographs. As I was taking a last look at all my treasures, I chanced upon the game board again. This one I thought, is for keeps and put it aside, but as fate would have it, my daughter tore it up in one of her pass-times a few months later. It was then that I started searching the web for pictures of ancient Indian board games.”

Buddhi Yoga is an 18-in-1 board game. Aman shares his journey of building Buddhi Yoga, from his research, to development, gifting, and now sales. It is a story that goes around the world, and brings us back to India.

Tell us the story behind Buddhi Yoga. When and why did you start Buddhi Yoga? What was the purpose? Tell us about how to play. Is there 1 game, or many? 

“On searching for ancient snakes and ladders games of India, I found a book by Harish Johari listed on US Amazon. It also came with a playable game board and game pieces. At the same time I also found that Welcom Trust of England had a picture of an ancient snakes and ladders board game, very similar to the one I had photographed. I ordered one. When I received the board game image, the words were hard to read. I could clearly understand some, but could not understand the others at all. I kept searching for sources that would help me decipher what was written in all the cells. In the process I found a Muslim or Sufi version in Persian in another museum in UK. I purchased that as well. The images came with more images of someone having taken the trouble to decipher each cell and translate it into English. My father and one of his friends can read Urdu, so I sat with my them and had them read the Persian script and found that many words were familiar.  However, the English equivalents were not really doing justice.  

The Indian one was still largely undeciphered. I somehow managed to get a pdf version of Harish Johari’s Leela and started reading it and trying to match his version with the one that I had purchased. There were differences. Two snakes were differently configured and some words were different. However, largely the two games were the same.  A few of the words I was able to decipher through Leela and a few others I was able to conclude as “what they most probably would read as”. Thus was created the first game board of Buddhi Yoga on MS Excel.  I wrote a small macro to simulate a dice and started playing the game (solitary mode) in a manner that was described by Harish Johari. 

Johari’s interpretations assumed that the player was on a path to enlightenment, the player was an adult, a philosopher. I always felt that the Snakes and Ladders format was very child friendly and need not have a complex philosophical, numerological, astronomical interpretation only. I started rolling the dice 3 times everyday and started noticing the cells I had visited (the cells adjacent to the ones I had visited), the relevance of that cell to the row and the column on the game board. I found that even 3 cells were becoming quite a plateful to keep thinking about with all their adjacent cells. I started rolling the dice only once each day and started focusing on that cell and the adjacent cells. 

Soon I realised that the game board had a beautiful unique and magical design. Each cell was beautifully connected to it’s row, it’s column, the cells around it, the cell in the middle of the row it belonged to. Almost as if the game board was an actual human being, with 8 compartments, 9 doors, 7 energy chakras or realms of experience, 72,000 naadis or experiences all converging towards the spine (the central column of the game board). Each cell was perfectly placed almost like the organs of our body. I started realising that there were interesting numerological patterns. 

Harish Johari had written about patterns of 14. I was finding that there was a pattern of 6, 9 and 18 as well. Each cell was intimately related (in meaning and experience) to its adjacent cells, to cells 6 places away and to the energy realm of the row it was contained in. There were opposites and supplementary cells which could really be merged into a single experience. The cells were not randomly arranged, but consciously placed. The board to the left of the ‘spine’ was the manifested material self starting from the three gunas on the top followed by the sense of identity (ahankar) and the five elements, followed by praana (life force) and the indriyas (sensory plane). The right hand side was the unmanifested psychological self; the sat-chit-ananda, the ida-pingala and sushmna nadis. The first 18 cells engaged with the brahmacharya, the next 18 with grihastha, the next 18 with vanaprastha and the last 18 with sanyasa (the four aashrams or duties or experiences of a full human life). The starting and ending cells (the ones on the left edge) and the middle ones (the ones on the right edge) of each of the 2 row sets were uniquely relevant and created a beautiful narrative.  

Somewhere almost 7 years had passed. My daughter had started struggling to keep up with the demands from her school teachers, her parents and other social hierarchies (what was supposed to be the social system catering to her demands to help her grow, was being revealed to me as she being an object of our needs and aspirations). The system was impenetrable. You could either be part of the system or decide on “home schooling”. There was no middle path.  A lot of parents of my generation, I saw, were opting for homeschooling. I felt the decision had to be mutual by both parents and the impacted social hierarchy (since we lived in a joint family with my brother, his wife, our parents and grand-parents). My daughter would have to go through the established “class of 2020” target, but somewhere in my heart I felt that my grandchildren would have better options, the system had to change.

‘Buddhi Yoga’ (the name is inspired from Gita where Sri Krishna gives the world Buddhi Yoga as a way towards him) was well established as a beautiful engaging tool in my mind. It was a ‘mind-map’ that was experiential. You could play with it, and therefore essentially experience it.  

I decided to make a compendium of 13 ancient games of India and gift it as a Diwali gift to my friends, to see how they would respond to it. In 2012, I had gifted almost 70 sets of Khol Khel boxes with a Khol Khel book of games and narratives to my friends. Sadly by 2015, very few had even opened it, let alone play a game or two in it. But they all kept it safely and some showed it off to their friends and family who came visiting.

Having realised that there were hundreds of versions of snakes and ladders games (ancient and contemporary) we at Khol Khel decided to build a platform through which anyone could build a game in the format of our ancient game of snakes and ladders and it’s evolutionary variations Gyanja and Golokdham (which is very significant from the Bengal perspective).  Of course, by now I was able to throw 3 dice a day and was able to enjoy the experience of travelling 3 cells of experiences rather than just one and started connecting Buddhi Yoga to my daily life and decision making very intimately.”

Since his daughter was a great inspiration in developing Buddhi Yoga’s products, it would suffice to say, Aman knew that games would be important to child development.

What do games do for children? How do they support positive mental health and development? What do games do for the nervous system? Muscular? Other? 

“I would like to talk about the mental impact board games can have on children. First, we choose our games, so our games have to appeal to us. So our games have to conform to our world view. Second, our games reflect our nature and if we play them repeatedly (which we usually do), their reflection shapes our growth as well; we tend to learn from our games as well. Let us take the game of Monopoly or Business. It is a game we play with our close family and friends in a casual and relaxed environment. Experts say that such an environment is most conducive to learning. What does the game inspire us to do? Acquire property, specially water-works, electricity and the railways. Paying tax is almost a penalty similar to ‘Going to Jail’. The goal of the game is to build homes and hotels on property we own to essentially become the wealthiest in an environment where resources are limited. So one of the players will become extremely rich, while the other becomes bankrupt, and that is okay; it is the way of life.

Many of us would agree that this game teaches children that: (a) money comes first and relationships later; (b) acquiring control over public services is a great thing; (c) the goal should always be towards acquiring money or property; (d) paying tax is a penalty. Some would argue that it is just a game and should not be taken seriously. I am probably part of the group of people that would accept the power of games to shape societies while simultaneously reflecting them as well. I believe each game is a conscious mind map that we constantly engage with, and it impacts our critical thinking and decision making capabilities. Games can also aggravate or excite you and, alternatively, calm you and make you reflective and contemplative. Therefore they have a significant physiological impact as well. 

Games can through their design, promote a certain thought as good and acceptable, thus shaping the character of the players engaging with them. In 2020, I came across a game on the android play store which engaged with strategies for begging (Beggar Life, Virtual Beggar). I saw many children constantly tapping the screen to hear the jingles of falling gold coins! Does such an engagement build empathy for the beggars?  Or does it make ‘begging’ into a sport?

So the answer to this question is that games by their design help define what the child categorises as good, bad and acceptable.  This is probably the foundation on which the child’s character is analysed.”

How can traditional Indian games help build India's soft power around the world? 

Indian philosophy is very rich.  The narratives of Indian literature are amongst the most entertaining and rich narratives of the world.  Even in ancient times, the games of the world reflected the Indian ethos (or the Indian ethos reflected the world ethos).  Examples of games from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Australia give testimony of this fact.

Watch a video about Buddhi Yoga here! 

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ttgVYg_vdn1lmqNwien1QUJOBaamKWmN/view