The Game of Asha

As retold by Paul Jordan-Smith

Day after day in that garden, Zarathushtra demonstrated with his pebbles the laws of the universe.

Adapted from several tales by the 10th-century Persian poet Firdausi. If you read it aloud to friends, you may want to begin the story with two questions: What contemporary game does the legend describe? And why was the promise at the end never fulfilled?

It is told in the old legends how, one day, when King Vishtaspa was returning from a victorious campaign, he came upon a circle of men sitting beneath a tree and listening with rapt attention to a venerable old man who sat in their midst. The king, who was then a young man, was curious to know who the old man was, and so dispatched a servant to find out. Upon his approach the circle of men gave way to the servant, who discovered that the old man was the great teacher Zarathushtra, and that the circle of men who listened to him were his disciples. All this was duly reported to King Vishtaspa, who it is said, demanded that the sage be brought before him.

"I am told that your name is Zarathushtra," said the king when the Teacher was before him, "and I am also told that you are the wisest man in the world. If that is so, I demand as your king that you immediately instruct me and explain to me the laws of nature and the universe. But please do not be long-winded, for I am in a hurry to return to my palace, where there are many important matters of state awaiting me."

Zarathushtra looked thoughtfully at the king for a moment and then, bending down, he picked up from the ground a grain of wheat. Holding it respectfully between thumb and forefinger, he bowed low before King Vishtaspa and offered him the grain. The king took it in his hand and the Great Sage explained:

"Your Majesty, all the laws that govern heaven and earth may be read in that which you now hold in your hand. The forces of good and of evil are there, and all that you have asked may be answered by conferring with this grain of wheat. I offer you this book, which you may take with you and read at your leisure."

But King Vishtaspa, seeing the smiles on the faces of the sage's disciples, decided that Zarathushtra was mocking him. He threw the grain of wheat to the ground and rose proudly in his saddle.

"I came respectfully and I asked for your guidance because I was told that you were the wisest man in the world. I can see now that you are nothing more than a country bumpkin who has not learned good manners. You cloak your ignorance behind exaggerated ways; I was foolish to have wasted my time here." So said the king. Then, wheeling around on his stallion, he rode away.

As the king and his retinue departed, Zarathushtra knelt and retrieved the grain of wheat. "I shall keep this grain," he said to himself, "for one day the king will need it, and it will be his teacher."

Many years passed, and the fame of Zarathushtra grew with every year. Nor did the fame of King Vishtaspa lessen: always victorious in battle, becoming ever richer with every new alliance, he spent his days in luxury and abundance. But his nights became ever more sleepless with every increase of his fame and wealth. "I live in luxury," he thought to himself, "yet who has decreed that it shall be always so? One year the farmer's harvest is rich, and the next year hailstorms are his ruin. Shall I be always so blest with victory? Will my downfall be the greater as my fame and fortune in crease? Surely the laws which govern the poor govern also the rich -- and who is He who made these laws? How shall I learn the will of God, so that I may measure my fame proportionately, and know the number of my days?"

Night after night these and other questions perplexed the brain of King Vishtaspa and troubled his sleep. At last, pondering his encounter with the Great Sage years earlier, he decided once more to beg instruction, this time in terms quite unlike those he had set as a young man on horseback.

"Great Teacher, I humble myself before you," he wrote to Zarathushtra. "I regret thoroughly the pride and thoughtlessness of my youth, and see now how foolish it was to have asked for answers to imponderable questions in so short a space of time. Please accept my regrets and humble me with a visit, that I may learn from you, or at least send one of your disciples to teach me." Then he wrapped the letter, together with a gem of great value, in a fine linen cloth and dispatched it to the Teacher.

In a few days, the messenger returned from Zarathushtra, bringing his answer to the king: "Your Majesty is very kind, but a gardener has no use for jewels, so I am returning the gem. The cloth I shall keep, for it will be useful in protecting certain of my plants against the cold of winter." Together with this letter, wrapped in a leaf, was the grain of wheat. "I am too old to journey far from my garden," the sage continued in his letter, "but the king is too noble to receive one of my disciples in my place. Therefore, I am sending, not a disciple but my own teacher, one who has taught me all that I know about the universe."

It was not long afterward that among those sitting in a circle in the garden of Zarathushtra was one who had lately been accustomed to what men usually regard as more royal circumstances: but he was content now to watch an old man draw figures in the sand, and to move about on these figures various common pebbles, such as those with which children through the ages have played.

On one such figure was depicted the Unity of All: the seasons and the energies of the stars, the sun, the earth and man, the points of the compass and the elements. In all, seven vertical lines were drawn, intersected by another seven at right angles to the first. Around the whole was drawn that most stable of figures, the square, so that the figure was composed of a large square containing sixty-four smaller squares, eight to a side. Now the Great Sage demonstrated how the universe is permeated by the forces of good and evil, just as time may be divided into night and day. So every other square was as dark as night, and the dark and light squares alternated over the whole figure.

And now the Great Sage chose with care various pebbles of strange shape, some of them dark, others light. In all, thirty-two pebbles were chosen, some tall and others small, as if representing greater and lesser powers in the universe. Sixteen of the pebbles were dark, sixteen were light in color. Eight of each group of sixteen were almost identical in size and shape, and the other eight seemed almost to form four pairs of identical figures; and yet in truth, each of the six teen pebbles was unique. Now, he began to give them names, and with each name he showed how each represented a force or an agent in the universe, each force or agent of light balanced by one of darkness. The forces and agents of light he called Ahuras and Fravashis, the latter being represented by the eight smaller, almost identical pebbles. Counterbalancing these, among the forces of darkness, were the Daevas and Khrafstras. Of each group of sixteen, one Ahura and one Daeva was lord of the other fifteen. Among the lighter forces, this was Ahura Mazda and among the darker, Ahriman.

Each of the figures moved in the universe in its own peculiar and unique fashion. The Fravashis and the Khrafstras, for example, always moved forward, one square at a time, except for their initial movement, when they were allowed to move two squares forward, or when, upon encountering an alien force diagonally ahead of them, they were allowed to capture that force by displacing themselves one square forward and one square to the side. Although these eight agents looked alike, each had its own name. Among the Fravashis were, for instance, the Sun, Water, Air, Food, Man, Earth, Health, and Joy. Counterbalancing these among the Khrafstras were Darkness, Impure Water, Impure Air, Impure Food, Inferior Man, Barrenness, Disease, and Sadness.

Of the Ahuras and Daevas, Power and Peace, and their dark opponents, Weakness and Violence, moved only in straight lines vertically or horizontally. Love and Work, and also Hatred and Idleness, moved in a manner quite distinct from all the others, namely one square in any direction and one square obliquely. Wisdom and Eternal Life, Ignorance and Death moved only in straight lines, but always obliquely, one of each pair always on dark squares, one always on the light. Among the Ahuras, the Preserver, and among the Daevas, the Spoiler, moved with great power and flexibility -- in straight lines always, but in any direction, to the eight points of the compass. Of Ahura Mazda, the Creator, and of Ahriman, the Destroyer, we have already spoken; each could move in any direction, but always one square at a time, in accordance with the will of that power himself. For the wise king will always send to battle his agents, so that he may better plan his defenses and attacks.

Day after day in that garden, the Great Sage demonstrated with his pebbles the laws of the universe and the great struggle between the forces of light and darkness. And King Vishtaspa was delighted to learn a method of wherein he might discern not only the forces which govern the universe, but perhaps, one day, even the will of God.

It is said that to reward Zarathushtra for teaching him the Royal Game, the Game of Asha, King Vishtaspa promised Zarathushtra anything he desired. Zarathushtra replied that he wished only to be paid in kind: let a single grain of wheat be placed on the first square of the board of sixty-four squares and two on the second. On the third let there be placed four, and on the fourth, eight, and so on, simply doubling on each square the number of grains on the preceding square. Charmed by this modest request, King Vishtaspa ordered his servants to fulfill the promise.

Why was the promise never fulfilled?