Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Typical Inquiry to Goddesschess - Akasa Ashtapada

From time to time we get email at Goddesschess and they are invariably interesting. Sometimes they're "fan" mail; sometimes we get inquiries on a chess-related topic. Here is one we received a few days ago: Interesting comment appears in 5th century BC, Digha nikaya where, Buddha admonishes monks: "Monks, Where as some ascetics addicted to such idle persuits such as eight row or ten row chess, chess in the air (mental chess), hopscotch, spillikins, dicing, ball games, guessing letters, hand pictures, guessing thoughts, mimicking deformities, playing with toy ploughs the ascetic Gotama refrains from such idle pursuits". Digha Nikaya, Maurice Walsh, translation, page 70 4th century Sri Lankan commentators says the game was known as "Ashtapada" and "Dasapada" (8 and 10 rows). Any info about the Akasa Ashtapada (Akasa means sky or air), is appreciated. Thanks I responded that I had not heard of the (Indian concept of) Akasa Ashtapada but if the Walsh translation was correct, then chess was being played 900 years before it was supposed to have been invented. I said I would do some research in my books and get back to him (or her). I forwarded the email to Don and Isis and they sent separate responses to the correspondent. I then received another email from the correspondent: What can be established with the available information is that some board game was played in the air. (similar to blindfold chess conceptually). Please find the exact Pali paragraph and Walsh translation below. “‘Yathā vā paneke bhonto: (Omitted - because the alphabetical transliterations could not be reproduced by my balky "Word" program. If you are interested, you can find the Pali language transliteration at the link given below). Reference: (paragraph 14) Atthapadam (Attha = eight; Padam = rows, Dasapadam = (Dasa = ten Padam = rows) Akasam = sky or air Pariharapadam = doing Akasam Pariharapadam = doing in the sky or air (Doing what? Since atthapadam and dasapadam was discussed...from context doing atthapadam and dasapadam in the air). Walsh translation: "Monks, Where as some ascetics addicted to such idle pursuits such as eight row or ten row chess, chess in the air (mental chess), hopscotch, spillikins, dicing, ball games, guessing letters, hand pictures, guessing thoughts, mimicking deformities, playing with toy ploughs the ascetic Gotama refrains from such idle persuits". Digha Nikaya, Maurice Walsh, translation, page 70 Atthapada appears in another place in Vinayapitaka. Buddhist dictionary by Pali text society gives "chess = atthapadakila; caturangakila. (How they figured Atthpadakila = chaturangakila? I dont know what kila means either). I was unable to find any rules on Atthapada. I was told by someone that he remembers that sinhala atthakata has a description on Atthapada. Unfortunately sinhala atthakata have not been translated to English (probably never will be). Sinhala = language of ancient Sri lanka; Atthakatha = commentary to Buddha's discourses. Pali atthakatha or Pali commentaries has being translated by PTS and I do not know what they say. (Pali atthakatha was compiled in 4th century AD by Buddhagosha). Sinhala atthakata is much older. But then there are Tikas (commentaries to atthkata) - compiled by Anuruddha in 6th century (Not been translated to English). Then there is Anutika - commentaries to Tika. If you find any more information please share with me. Thanks The question is interesting (1) because of the allusion to playing some kind of board game "in the air" (i.e., "blindfold") and (2) because of the dates involved. Popular theory dates the invention of chess to around the 5th century CE. But, if chess was being played during the time of Buddha (5th century BCE), that is about 900 years earlier than when the game is popularly assumed to have been invented! I did some research (online and in my small chess library) and, to make a long story short, provided the following reply: I do not know if this information will be of any assistance to you. I cannot read or speak Sansrkit or Pali, so I must rely solely on translations provided by others. I checked in H.J.R. Murray's "A History of Chess" to see if he had written anything about the "blindfold chess" (akasam ashtapada). Murray writes on page on pages 34-35: "(Page 34) Of more importance is a passage in the Pali (23) Brahma-jala Sutta, or Dialogues of the Buddha,(24) according to Rhys Davids one of the earliest of Buddhist documents, purporting to record the actual words of Gotama himself, and dating back to the 5th cn. B.C. The Buddha is contrasting the conversation and thoughts of the unconverted man with those of the disciple: " 'It (sec. 7, p. 3) is in respect only of trifling things, of matters of little value, of mere morality, that an unconverted man when praising the Tathagata, would speak. And what are such trifling minor details of mere morality that he would praise?' " "He then proceeds to enumerate all the many trifles which occupy the thoughts of the unconverted man, and finally comes to games, and gives us a most interesting and valuable list of games - quite the oldest known - which from its interest I quote entire: " 'Or (sect. 14, p. 9) he might say, 'Whereas some recluses and Brahmans while living on food provided by the faithful continue addicted to games and recreations; i.e., to say - 1. Games on boards with boards with 8 or 10 rows of squares. 2. The same games played by imagining such boards in the air (Pali, akasam). 3. Keeping going over diagrams drawn on the ground, so that one steps only where one ought to go. [my note - hopscotch] 4. Either removing the pieces or men from a heap with one's nail, or putting them in a heap, in each case without shaking it. He who shakes the heap loses. [my note - spillikins or 'pick-up sticks' as we called the game when I was a child] 5. Throwing dice (Pali, khalika). 6. Hitting a short stick with a long one. 7. Dipping the hand with the fingers outstretched out in lac, or red dye, or flour water, and striking the wet hand on the ground, or on a wall, calling out 'What shall it be?' and showing the form required - elephants, horses, &c. 8. Games with balls (Pali, akkham). 9. Blowing through toy pipes made of leaves. 10. Ploughing with toy ploughs. 11. Turning somersaults. 12. Playing with toy windmills made of palm leaves. 13. Playing with toy measures made of palm leaves. 14, 15. Playing with toy carts, or toy bows. 16. Guessing at letters traced in the air, or on a playfellow's back. 17. Guessing the playfellow's thoughts. 18. Mimicking of deformities. " 'Gotama the recluse holds aloof from such games and recreations.' " "This passage is quoted at length in many other early Buddhist works, e.g. in Vinaya, ii. 10, and iii.180. The translation naturally depends considerably on the early native commentaries, and it must be remembered that the earliest commentators are considerably later than the original; indeed they only appeared when changes in the spoken language made the written work archaic and unintelligible to the ordinary reader. The commentator was often in a worse position than the modern scholar for interpreting the text, (page 35) and we often find his explanation absurd or impossible. We are accordingly compelled to accept the above translation with some reserve.(25)" "We are only concerned now with the first two of the games named. These are the ashtapada - here in its Pali form atthapada - and the dasapada. One of the two commentators used by Rhys Davids, the Sinhalese Sanna, who belongs to the 10th c. A.D. or even later, says that each of these games was played with dice and pieces (poru, from purisa = men) such as Kings and so on.(26) His evidence is far too late to be of any value as to the nature of the games in question, but is important as showing that these boards were still used for dice games in his day in Ceylon. Yet, if the second sentence is accurately translated, the games must have been of a character which permitted 'blindfold' play without the use of material boards." There is more in Murray that discusses the nature of the game of ashtapada (he concludes it was a race game played on an 8x8 board, similar to chapur or pachisi, played with dice. I can make a scan of the pages and email them to you if you like.) I did not transcribe the footnotes ( ) referenced above, if you would like them, let me know. Based upon the translation you provided (Walsh), and the Rhys Davids translation Murray provided in "A History of Chess", the reference to the game described in number 2 can be confirmed as a "blindfold" game. It is evident to me, based upon what Murray wrote, that he found himself with a dilemma; on the one hand, there was clear evidence from the Rhys Davids' translation of the Brahma-jala Sutta that players were playing some kind of "blindfold" game (imagining the board in the air), and yet his position had to be that this could not be chess, since chess - according to Murray's theory - was not invented at the time to which the commentaries are referring - 500 B.C. Murray therefore fell back to the weak position that the later commentators and translators made errors in translation. Rhys Davids did not translate the 'games on boards played in the air' as "chess." But, I find it hard to believe that the players of that time were playing "blindfold" chapur or pachisi! Playing a game with imaginery dice??? No, it must have been chess or a chess-like game that they were playing, a game that did not rely upon dice to determine the moves of the pieces, just like players today play blindfold chess in demonstrations and, of course, the famous Melody Amber tournament held every year. Those are my thoughts. I hope this was helpful to you. JanXena Indeed, just how would players go about playing a game such as Chapur or Pachisi with imaginary dice? I don't see how it would be possible, as each player would naturally call a dice throw most favorable to his own move (for instance, 6 +1 or other combinations of 7, or two, three, etc. - whatever would be needed to out-race the other player's pieces, land on a favorable square or land on the same square and send the other player's piece back to "home"). On the other hand, chess, or a chess-like game, where the moves of the pieces are well-established and known by both the players and the audience and do not depend upon the chance element of the toss of dice, would be in keeping with "blindfold" play. It would be skill (and memory) only that would determine the course of play, not the intentional manipulation of a pair of imaginary dice to drive the pieces hither and yon. Murray never adequately addressed this in his learned tome. Perhaps he thought it would all just "go away" when he tried to sweep it under the rug by suggesting "bad translation" was at fault for implying that the blindfold game referred to was chess! But does anyone play "blindfold" Pachisi today? Did anyone do so during Murray's time, or prior thereto? If there was any evidence of such a practice, don't you think the meticulous Murray would have hunted it down and recorded it? Of course he would have done so. The fact that there is no written evidence of such feats recorded in his book is highly suggestive of the fact that there is NO such evidence. However, we DO have numerous examples attested to, at least in more "historical" times according to "The Oxford Companion to Chess" by Hooper and Whyld, of blindfold chess being played; and they state (p. 45): "Nearly as old as the game itself, blindfold play originally called for the player's eyes to be covered but allowed the pieces to be touched. ... All the great masters of SHATRANJ were able to play at least one game blindfold. ..." "Shatranj" is the Arabic name for "Chatrang," which was the Pahlavi (Middle Persian) name for chess, attested to in Persian literature from the mid-500's CE or so. Of course, there are those of us who believe the game of chess is much older than that. The quote from the Brahma-jala Sutta certainly seems to confirm that!

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