How Buddha became a catholic saint

Once upon a time, in faraway India, lived a king named Abenner. Abenner was a stubborn idolater who severly persecuted the Christians in his realm. One day he begat a son. He asked the court astrologers to predict the course of his life, but their answer didn’t please him. They said that the boy, named Josaphat, would one day become a Christian himself and convert the entire realm to this religion. Alarmed by this prophecy Abenner had his son locked up in a palace and isolated from the outside world. Despite these precautions, however, Josaphat meets a hermit named Barlaam, who introduces him to the Christian faith. Abenner, noticing the young prince’s change of heart, tries to corrupt him by offering him all kinds of luxuries and beautiful women, but Josaphat remains firm in his faith. Eventually Abenner, impressed by his son’s morality, decides to hand over the government of his kingdom to him and before his death he himself converts to Christianity. Soon after Abenner’s death, however, Josaphat abdicates and decides to live out his days as a hermit in the desert, along with his old teacher Barlaam.

A Christian depiction of Josaphat, from a 12th Century manuscript.
A Christian depiction of Josaphat, from a 12th Century manuscript.

The legend outlined here was immensely popular in Medieval Europe. There were many different versions of the story, in languages as diverse as Georgian and German, and both Barlaam and Josaphat were recognized as saints in the Golden Legend and the Roman Martyrology. Nevertheless, the story has a remarkable non-European and non-Christian origin. Those who are familiar with Buddhism may recognize the life story of Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, in this legend.

The life story of the Buddha
Although the historical Siddhartha Gautama is thought to have lived in the sixth century BC, the first full biographies only appear as late as the second century AD. The first extant biography, the Buddhacarita, written by a poet named Asvaghosa, is already shrouded in legends. Although all the early biographies agree on Siddhartha’s place of birth and death, and on the identity of his parents, his life story is clearly modeled after a popular storytelling pattern.

The Buddhacarita tells us that Siddhartha was born to Suddhodhana, chief of the Shakya clan, and a woman named Maya. His conception and birth were accompanied by numerous omens, so Suddhodhana immediately consulted the court astrologers. All of them agreed that the child was destined for greatness. Most of them said that Siddhartha would either become a world-conquering emperor, or a great spiritual teacher who would conquer the world in a wholly different way. One of them, however, emphasized that the child would choose to follow the latter path and leave the world behind.

Suddhodhana, who wanted his son to be a powerful king, tried to prevent this from happening at all costs. He had a palace built for the prince alone, where he would have access to all luxuries and all pleasures in life and where he would be shielded from all suffering. He never got to see any old, sick or dead people. Up to the age of 29 he lived in his palace without facing any ailments. When he was first allowed to go outside with his chariot all old, sick and dead people were removed from his sight. At this point, however, the gods take on the shape of an old man, a sick man and a dead man. When Siddhartha asked his charioteer what was wrong with these men, the gods forced the charioteer to tell him the truth, namely that everyone is subject to aging, disease and death. Siddhartha was greatly alarmed by this sudden realisation and longed for a way to escape from this reality. At this point Siddhartha meets a hermit who has renounced all worldly desires, which makes him realize that pleasure cannot be found in that which is subject to change and destruction.

After this ride Siddhartha arrives at a party where many beautiful women try to seduce him. Siddhartha, however, realizes that worldly pleasures can no longer make him happy. He escapes from the palace at night and goes into the woods, where he adopts the life of a hermit. After a long journey on which he meets many teachers and fellow travellers, Siddhartha reaches enlightenment and becomes know as the Buddha. Although initially hesitant to teach his message to the ignorant masses, the Buddha eventually decides to form a community of followers, the sangha, with which he travels across the country. Suddhodhana, upon hearing of his son’s enlightenment, invites him back to his court and offers him his throne. Buddha refuses and instead teaches his message to him. Suddhodhana dies a few years later, as a disciple of his son. It is not clear what happened to the Shakya kingdom, but it might be that the historical Suddhodhana lost his kingdom to the upstart Kosala kingdom. This may also be the reason why his son, the historical Buddha, chose to follow a different career path.

The Departure of Siddhartha. From the book Nivedita, S. (1914) Myths of the Hindus & Buddhists.
The Departure of Siddhartha. From the book Nivedita, S. (1914) Myths of the Hindus & Buddhists.

The parallels between the life story of the Buddha and the hagiography St Josaphat are clear as day. The structure is the same up to a great degree: 1) Astrologers predict that the king’s son will become a religious leader rather than a king. 2) The king tries to prevent this from happening by isolating his son from the outside world. 3) Despite the precautions the prince does gain knowledge of the outside world and its spiritual traditions. A hermit plays a significant role in this. 4) In a last attempt to keep him attached to the material world, women try to seduce the prince.

Starting from this point, there are some minor differences in plot structure:

1) In the Buddhacarita Siddhartha escapes from his palace and heads for the wilderness. In the story of Josaphat the prince stays in the palace and rejects all of his father’s offers. 2) In the story of Josaphat the prince succeeds his father as king. 3) In the story of Josaphat the prince only leaves for the wilderness after ruling his father’s kingdom for a while. 4) One last point of difference is that in the story of Josaphat the hermit Barlaam plays a much bigger role than any hermit in the Buddhacarita does.

Nevertheless, the two stories clearly have a common origin. Since both stories are located in India and the Buddhacarita was written much earlier, the story of Josaphat clearly has its origin in an Indian Buddhist context. The differences in the story of Josaphat may partly be attributed to the latter’s new Christian context, but other elements, like Siddhartha succeeding his father as king and leaving for the wilderness only after his father’s death, are probably derived from an alternative biography that may have existed alongside the better known Buddhacarita. In fact, since we do not know which version was earlier or more reliable, it cannot be ruled out that the version that lay at the foundation of the Josaphat-legend is closer to the historical truth than the Buddhacarita. In this case the historical Buddha may have been a chief of the Shakya-clan, like his father before him, but he was forced to give up his position due to the expansion of the Kosala kingdom, upon which he became a spiritual teacher.

Photo by Michel Wal. A Gandharan depiction of the Buddha from Hadda, Afghanistan. Currently at display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Photo by Michel Wal.
A Gandharan depiction of the Buddha from Hadda, Afghanistan. Currently at display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Lines of transmission
Besides the obvious literary parallels, there is more evidence for the Indian Buddhist origin for the Josaphat-legend. In fact, many intermediary versions have been identified and even the name Josaphat has been proven to derive from the title Boddhisattva (awakened being).

The Josaphat-legend was based on one of many biographies of the Buddha that were passed down both orally and in writing. These stories were known throughout the Buddhist world, as far away as China, but also in Afghanistan, where a significant Buddhist population existed in pre-Islamic times. When Afghanistan became part of the Sasanid Empire (AD 224-651), Buddhist stories could spread more easily throughout the empire. Eventually the story was picked up by the Manichaeans, a gnostic sect of Christian origin that also incorporated Zoroastrian and Buddhist teachings into its doctrine. Its founder, Mani, saw the Buddha as a prophet of God and praised him for his ascetic way of life. These Manichaeans were most likely responsible for translating the work into Middle Persian, where it became known as the story of Bilauhar (Bilhawar) and Budhisaf (Boddhisattva).

The story of Bilauhar and Budhisaf remained popular into the Islamic period, where it was translated into Arabic during the Abbasid period. Due to confusion between the letter “b” ( ﺑ ) and the letter “y” ( ﻳ ) the name Budhisaf was corrupted to Yudasaf. The story appeared in many Arabic works, including al-Masudi’s Meadows of Gold, Ibn al-Nadim’s al-Fihrist, and the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. Apparently it was well known throughout the Middle East. The legend also reached the Christian kingdom of Georgia, where Bilauhar was known as Balavar and Yudasaf as Jodasaph. Their story was preserved in the Balavariani-epic, a work that was translated into Greek by the Georgian monk Euthymius of Athos somwhere in the early 11th century. In Greek, Jodasaph became Joasaph and when the work was translated into Latin a few decades later the names Joasaph and Balavar were changed to the Hebrew sounding names Josaphat and Barlaam.

Via the Latin version the story of Barlaam and Josaphat spread across Christian Europe. The two hermits were incorporated into the Greek Orthodox calendar and the Roman Martyrology. Their story also appears in the famous Golden Legend and German poets like Otto II of Freising and Rudolf von Ems wrote their own versions. The legend was retold and rewritten many times, even after the true identity of Josaphat had become known.

Further reading
For a translation of the Asvaghosa’s Buddhacarita, the first extant biography of the Buddha, look here. For a medieval French version of the Josaphat-legend, attributed to Gui de Cambrai look here. To learn more about the transmission of this legend from an Indian Buddhist to a European Christian context, I recommend this book by Donald S. Lopez and Peggy McCracken.

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