Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The Symbolism of Chess by Titus Burckhardt

Titus Burckhardt:

Titus Burckhardt was one of the great perennialist authors of the 20th century. His major metaphysical work was "An Introduction to Sufi Doctrine" where he analyses the nature of esoterism, including the doctrinal foundations of Islamic esoterism or Sufism. In this essay (below), he analyses the history of chess and relates it to militarism and the sacred aspects of India, including astrology and the caste system.
The Symbolism of Chess by Titus Burckhardt

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 3, No. 2. (Spring 1969) © World Wisdom, Inc.

IT is known that the game of chess originated in India. It was passed on to the medieval West through the intermediary of the Persians and the Arabs, a fact to which we owe, for example, the expression "check-mate", (German: Schachmatt) which is derived from the Persian shah: "king" and the Arabic mat: "he is dead". At the time of the Renaissance some of the rules of the game were changed: the “queen”[1] and the two “bishops”[2] were given a greater mobility, and thenceforth the game acquired a more abstract and mathematical character; it departed from its concrete model strategy, without however losing the essential features of its symbolism. In the original position of the chessmen, the ancient strategic model remains obvious; one can recognize the two armies ranged according to the battle order which was customary in the ancient East: the light troops, represented by the pawns, form the first line ; the bulk of the army consists of the heavy troops, the war chariots ("castles"), the knights ("cavalry") and the war elephants ("bishops"); the "king" with his "lady" or "counsellor" is positioned at the centre of his troops.

The form of the chess-board corresponds to the "classical" type of Vāstu-mandala, the diagram which also constitutes the basic layout of a temple or a city. It has been pointed out[3] that this diagram symbolizes existence conceived as a "field of action" of the divine powers. The combat which takes place in the game of chess thus represents, in its most universal meaning, the combat of the devas with the asuras, of the "gods" with the "titans", or of the “angels”[4] with the "demons", all other meanings of the game deriving from this one.

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Tags: Chess - Religion - Sufi Doctrine - Sufism - Symbolism - Titus Burckhardt
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