Amita Bhose

Amita Bhose

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From Bodhisatva to Ioasaph. A historic and comparative study

(Revista de istorie şi teorie literară. Tom 30, nr. 2, pp. 223-231, Bucureşti, 1981)


The life of Gautama Buddha was the object of many literary works in India and abroad. Buddhist authors attached so many myths to it and ascribed so many miracles to the Buddha that for a long time European scholars were under the impression that the Buddha was a legendary figure. It has, however, been established that Gautama, son of king Suddhodana of the Sakya clan of Nepal, was born in c. 566 B.C., that he came to be the Buddha (the Enlightened One) after long meditations on human suffering and that he spent most of his life in India, where he died in c. 486 B.C.

Asoka (c. 273—c. 232 B.C.), the greatest and noblest king of India, belonged to the Buddhist order; he sent groups of Buddhist missionaries in different parts of Western Asia, Egypt and Eastern Europe. The spread of Buddhism outside India continued till the eighth century A.D. under otronage of the Pala kings of Bengal. At that time Buddhism was the prevailing religion in almost all Asiatic countries, and its influence was felt in the Middle East.

In course of time, Buddhist literature absorbed myths and lores of other countries, and other peoples borrowed Buddhist legends and modified them to suit their ends. Thus, after a long journey in time and space, the image of the Indian prophet appeared in Europe in the garb Christian saint, Ioasaph. In this article we shall give an account, D.M. Lang, of the steps of transformation of the Buddha legend into the Ioasaph story, and shall attempt a comparative study of the two.

Passage to Europe

In the first two centuries of our era, Buddhism entered in Bactria and Alexandria through Central Asia and China. In the third century, Bactria came under the influence of the Manichaean faith, founded by prophet Mani. This relatively new religion absorbed certain trends of earlier ones like Buddhism and Christianity. Since ascetism was Mani's favourite idea, this aspect of Buddhism, or of Indian doctrines in general, appealed to him and his followers.

The nucleus of the Ioasaph legend, borrowed from life story of the Buddha, seems to appear for the first time in a Turkish Manichaean work, where prince Bodisav becomes disillusioned with worldly life after he sees an old man. Bodisav is a mutilation of Bodhisattva - a name given to the earlier incarnations of the Buddha in Indian Buddhist literature.

Later on, a number of Manichaean texts were translated into Arabic during the reign of Caliph Mahdi (775-785) of Baghdad, father of Harun al-rashid. Three of them were about al-Budd or Budasaff. One of these, Kitab Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf, was translated into Classical Persian in the tenth century and into Hebrew in the thirteenth century.

Arabic texts were of great help to researchers for tracing the transformation of Indian names into their Greek correspondents. Thus Bodhisattva becomes Ioasaph in Greek through the Arabic intermediates Budasaf and Yudasaf. The Buddha's father, Suddhodana, appears in Arabic as Janaisar, perhaps owing to a confusion with the Indian world Jaina, followers of Mahâvîra, the Jina or Conqueror of evil, a contemporary of the Buddha. Passing through a Georgian intermediate, it has become Abenner in Greek. Ioasaph's teacher appears as Bilawhar in Arabic and then as Barlaam in Greek. This character is a foreign imposition; otherwise we could have supposed that this is a transformation of Balarâma, Krsna's brother in the Mahâbharata, and a common name in India. The name of the historic Kapilàvastu, city of the Buddha's father, has been changed into Shawilabat or Sulabat in Arabic, wherefrom it becomes Sholait or Bolait in Georgian. The Greek version gives no name of the place at all.

Apart from these, the Islamic texts preserve some Buddhist legends and parables, which were abandoned by Christian redactors.

The christianization of Ioasaph first occurred in Georgian in the ninth century, when the Georgians served as a link between the Christian and Islamic communities of the Arab world. The Georgian version bears the title Balavariani.

Its conversion into the Greek romance Barlamn and Ioasaph was done in the tenth century by the Georgian scholar Euthymius (born c. 955), an abbot of a Georgian monastery on Mount Athos. He completed the Georgian version of the New Testament and translated a number of works of Greek priests, including those of St. John of Damascus, whose writings are profusely quoted in the Barlaam story.

The paternity of the Greek Barlaam and Ioasaph had long been attributed to St. John Damascene. It was believed that a group of Indian hermits recited the Buddha's life story, presumably in Sanskrit, to St.John in the Monastery of Saint Sabas in Palestine. The great Damascene followed it with the help of an interpreter and adapted it in Greek. A Latin translator of the Greek version did, however, mention St. John as the carrier of the story from Ethiopia to Jerusalem, and not as its author. It has been pointed out by Lang that the Greek Barlaam romance appeared only three centuries after the death of the great Damascene.

The discovery of the Georgian version in Jerusalem and its publication by I. V. Abuladze at Tbilisi in 1957 proved beyond doubt that here is the point of transformation from the Islamic to the Chirstian version.

Diffusion in Europe

Barlaam and Ioasaph was one of the most popular hagiographic in the Middle Ages. The Greek version was first translated into Latin under the title The Story of Barlaam and Ioasaphat, brought to Je¬rusalem from inmost Ethiopia by John, a venerable monk of the monasteryof St. Sabas, and translated into Greek by the holy man Eufinius. The translation was made in Constantinople in 1048.

In Western Europe the story was diffused through different Latin versions. It was included in Speculum Historiale by Vincent de Beauvais (c.1190-1264) and in Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine (1230-1298). An English translation was published in Westminster in 1483. Metrical translations into French and German were made respectively by Gui de Cambrai and Rudolf von Ems. It was translated into Norlze in the mid thirteenth century.

In the middle of the eleventh century, the Greek story was trans¬lated into Old Slavonic and Armenian. Russian and Serbian renderings followed the Slavonic version.

In Romania, the Barlaam story entered through the medium of the Slavs. A Bulgarian translation of the Greek version, made in the second half of the fourteenth century, was found in the Neam- Monastery. This is attested to be the oldest copy available in Romania. In 1648, Udrişte Năsturel, a nobleman from Fiereşti, translated the novel from a Slav version under the title Lives of the Saints Varlaam and Ioasaf. Năsturel's manuscript could not be traced, but a number of copies made after it were highly circulated at that time among the Romanian clergy. One of them was possessed by Mihai Eminescu. The oldest copy is dated 1671.Three other versions of the novel are available in Romanian. Two of them are translations from Italian; one by Vlad Boţulescu (1743) and the other by Samuil Micu Clain. The third appears in abridged form in Lives of Saints against the date of November 19 (see PopularBooks in Romanian Literature. Epoch of South Slav Influence by N.Cartojan).

Conferring of Sainthood

The Roman Catholie Church recognized both Barlaam and Ioasaph as Christian saints, and fixed their festival day on November 27. At the time there was a church at Palermo dedicated to Ioasaph. It is interesting to note that King Sebastian of Portugal was presented with "a bone and part of the spine of St. Ioasaphat" in 1571.

The Greek Church celebrates the day of Barlaam on August 26. Both Barlaam and Ioasaph are commemorated in Eastern Europe on November 19. Some countries celebrate Ioasaph's father as well on the same day, because, according to the legend, he was converted to Christianity by his son.

It may be mentioned in this connection that the birthday of the Buddha is a national holiday in India. Buddhists in India and Bangladesh celebrate his birthday in the night of the full moon of the of the month of Baisakh, the first month of the Indian year, which generally begins on April 14.

Echoes in European litterature

The popularity of the Barlaam romance is all the more proved by the impact it left in European literature, both religious and secular. Several miracle plays of the fifteenth century drew on this source. Lope de Vega and Calderon wrote dramas on themes borrowed from it. Professor Lang's statement that the episode of the four caskets in The Merchant of Venice is taken from Barlaam and Ioasaph is quite plausible, because it was translated into English before Shakespeare's time. In his Confessions, Tolstoy admits that the Barlaam romance encouraged him to renounce the life of worldly pleasures.

In Romania, Varlaam and Ioasaf is one of the most popular hagiographic novels. The names Varlaam and Ioasaf were quite common among Romanian monks of the past centuries. Frescoes depicting episoded from the novel adorn walls of the Neamţ Monastery. The Teachings of Neagoe Basarab to his son Theodosie reproduces six fragments from the novel. The last part of the novel, Ioasaph's recluse to the desert, was versified and put to music by Romanian priests. Anton Pann's Song of the Star, sung as a Christmas carol till today, is inspired from this episode. A number of Romanian folk tales and proverbs bear the echo of Varlaam and Ioasaph. The influence of the parable of the four caskets is seen in the folk tale The goodly girl of the old man. This story has a correspondent in Bengali folk literature, inspired from some unidentified Buddhist source (see our translation Tale of th e two sisters in Story of Prince Sobur, Bucharest, 1975).
Identification of source

The origin of the Ioasaph story was a mystery for a long time. Mutilation of the place names made it impossible to identify them. Though it is mentioned in the text that the events described in it take place in India, the Latin translator's statement that it was brought from Ethiopia created a confusion that could not be cleared. It was thought that Ioasaph's birth place was somewhere in Sudan or Mesopotamia.

It is only after the Portuguese missionaries came to India that the similarity between the Buddha legend and the Ioasaph story could be felt. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, a Portuguese writer, Diogo de Couto, wrote on the parallelism of the two legends. After about two hundred and fifty years, de Laboulaye took up the problem and discussed it in an article published in Journal des Débats in 1859. Later researches of Max Muller, Kuhn and other orientalists led to the identification of Ioasaph with the Buddha.

Comparison of text
After we described the steps of transformation of the Buddha legend into the Barlaam romance, it would be worthwhile to consider the modifications effected. It should be mentioned first of all that no authentic biography of the Buddha is available. Researchers of our time have extracted the historical elements about him from the Buddha myth. The best known life storu of the Buddha, in India are Lalitavistara (Description of the Beautiful One) and Asvaghosa's Buddhacaritam (Life and activities of Buddha), both belonging perhaps to the first century A. D. For this study, we shall refer to the latter, edited by G.R. nandargikar (Poona, 1911) and to the English version of the bilingual - Greek-English - edition of Barlaam and Ioasaph (London, 1967), with an introduction by G. M. Lang. The English translation is due to G. R. Woodward and H. Mattingly.

The Barlaam story begins in "the country of Indians, (...) vast and populou, lying far beyond Egypt" (p. 7), and it is stated that "one of the company of Christ's Twelve Apostles, most holy Thomas, was sent out to the land of the Indians, preaching the Gospel of Salvation" (p. 9).

It is a popular belief that Jesus Christ spent a few years in India, but no historical evidence could be ascribed to it. In reality, India came in contact with the Christian faith as late as the sixteenth or the seventeenth century.

The story goes on saying that this "glorious band of Christians and the companies of monks" came to the kingdom of Abenner, a brave but spiritually bankrupt ruler, and that they went on proclaiming "the transitory and fading nature" of worldly life. Their preaching enraged the Indian king (since this is the basic Indian attitude towards life, it is not understandable why it does so), who ordered the persecution and torture of Christian monks. Some of them attained martyrdom and others hid themselves in deserts or mountains. (The idea of martyrdom is alien to Indian thought.)

In the second chapter we come across "a certain man of the royal househood, chief satrap in rank", who runs into the desert and purifies his soul with fasts and vigils (p.15). Retiring from family life to a calmly place (like a forest or a mountain cave) for philosophical meditation was a common feature of ancient Indian life ; it constituted one of the four stages or àsrama of man's life in Vedic society. Thus, this episode gives a glimpse of Indian life. The motive of the desert has evidently cropped up in some Islamic version. The city of the Buddha's father is situated on the eastern side of the Himalaya Mountains, far from the deserts of northwest India.

The king sends emissaries after him and finally the holy man is brought before the king. The holy man scolds the king for his immoral conduct, and asks him, metaphorically, to banish Anger and Desire from his court and to institute Wisdom and Rigteousness in their place. The advice of the holy man contains a germ of Buddhist ethics, according to which, anger and desire are the chief enemies of man, while wisdom (prajna) and righteousness (dharma ) are his best friends. He tells the king of the illusory nature of worldly pleasures and the reality of the eternal; these concepts are in conformity with the Buddhist Philosophy.

The second chapter ends with the birth of a son to the king. The child named Ioasaph, literally "The Lord Gathers" (p. 31), an approximate correspondent of Sarvarthasiddhi (accomplishment of all objects), the name given to the Buddha after his birth. The similarity between the semantic values of the two names is of course a coincidence. The Ioasaph story omits the miracles associated with the birth of the child described in the Buddha legend.

In the third chapter, fifty- five "chosen men, schooled in the starlore of the Chaldaeans" come to Abenner to predict the life of the new-born child. One of them tells him: "the advancement of the child (...) will not be in thy kingdom, but in another, a better and a greater one beyond compare. Methinketh also that he will embrace the Christian religion". (p. 33).

The episode fairly corresponds with the Buddhacaritam: it is revealed to the sage Asita that a child bestowed with divine qualities is born to Suddhodana, and he comes to see it. The sage tells the king that his son will forsake the kingdom, will be indifferent to the objects of sense and that he will attain the truth by serious endeavours. "He will burst open, for the purpose of escape of people, that door whose bolt is desire and whose panels are illusion and ignorance - with that excellent blow of true righteousness which is so hard to find" (II. 79 ; editor's translation). It may be noticed that the holy man's discourse before the birth of Ioasaph expresses similar ideas as revealed in this passagge. The predilection of the child's conversion to the Christian religion is an addition.

Ioasaph's father isolates him in a beautiful palace, and takes care "to reveal to him none of the annoys of life, neither death, nor old age, nor disease, nor poverty, nor anything else grievous that might break his happiness" (p. 35). This represents the Buddha story faithfully, save for Gautama's marriage and the birth of his son, which are omitted.
Chapter V describes the young Ioasaph's agony of being isolated from the world. At his request, Abenner allows him to go out of the palace whenever he pleases, but he instructs the prince's companions not to let him see anything unhappy. One day, through the negligence of the attendants, Ioasaph sees a lame man and a blind man. Thus, hecome to know of the existence of human suffering. On another occasion, he sees an old man, and knows that this is the final stage of all lives, to which death puts the end. Returning to the palace, he ponders over the problems of life and death, and wonders if there is any way of deliverance. Though he hides his newly acquired knowledge from his father, he puts the question to one of his tutors.

This part of the story is a slight modification of the Buddha legend. Young Gautama expresses his desire to go out of the palace. To distract him, his father arranges a soirée of dance and music in a nearby park, and the prince's procession starts towards the place. Despite the care taken to keep the streets free from unhappy sights, an old man appears before him. On asking the charioteer, the prince comes to know that this is the final part of all human lives. Shocked with the knowledge, he does no longer feel any attraction for entertainment, and comes home with a heavy heart. Worried with his disposition, his father asks him to make a second trip to the park. This time Gautama sees a sick man and comes to know of the existence of disease. He comes back to the palace as before. Being sent by the father for the third time, he sees a dead body being taken to the crematorium. Knowledge of the existence of death overwhelms him completely. This time the charioteer disobeys his ordes and, according to the king's instruction, takes him to the park. In spite of his friend's repeated requests to enjoy himself, Gautama remains indifferent to all forms of distraction arranged for him. He is preoccupied with problems of disease, old age and death, and worldly pleasures fail to attract him. It may be noted that Gautama sees a dead body, whereas Ioasph does not.

In chapter VI, Barlaam, a Christian monk of unknown origin, dwelling in Senaar, comes to know by meditation of Ioasaph's distress. He realizes that the time is ripe for his conversion, and comes to the Indian empire by a ship. Disguised as a merchant, he contacts the said tutor and visits Ioasaph under the pretext of showing him a valuable piece of gem.

At this point the Ioasaph story starts deviating from the Buddha one. It omits the fourth vision of Buddha : one day Gautama, goes by himself to an open field, where he meets a heavenly being in a beggar's guise.The mendicant tells him that he is seeking the happy abode free from destruction and that to this end he has left family life. His words give Gautama a suggestion on the course of life he should choose. He makes up his mind and comes back to the city.

In chapters VI to XVIII, Barlaam narrates Ioasaph the Biblical legend of creation and the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. In chapter XIX, he baptizes Ioasaph in Christian faith, but not with a Christian name. His Christian name was given by his pagan father. In chapter XX, Barlaam leaves India. In the following chapters, Abenner comes to know of Barlaam's visits to Ioasaph and contrives plans to break his illusions about Christianity. In chapter XXIV, he charges his son for having abandoned the faith in which he was born and having betrayed his father's hope of making him a worthy successor to the throne. Ioasaph boldly meets his father's charges and holds the cause of Christianity. The angry father ignores all his arguments and threatens him with torture and even with the cruellest death if he continues to disobey. In chapter XXV, the king changes his strategy ; he tries to win his son's confidence by coaxing. But Ioasaph remains firm in his resolve. He prefers separation from his father to separation from Christ. In chapter XXVI, the king organises a false debate, in which one Nachor, who looked like Barlaam, is instructed to play a mentor's role and to criticize the christian faith. Nachor, however, pleads for Christianity and brings arguments for its superiority over all other religions. Some Vedic deities, like the sky, the earth and the fire, are also recalled in this connection.

After he is let down by his own agent, Abenner arranges, in chapter XXIX, an array of beautiful maidens to divert Ioasaph.

Ioasaph does not respond to the temptation and refuses the request of a young lady to marry him. This may be a Manichaean influence. For, Elects of that faith were celibates. In chapter XXXIII, the king gives Ioasaph a part of his kingdom and celebrates his coronation. But to the utter disappointment of the father, who hoped that royal glory will distract him from the path he chose, Ioasaph devotes his life to the service of Christianity.

In Buddhacaritam, Gautama goes straight from the field to his father's court and announces his decision to embrace an ascetic life. King Suddhodana is aggrieved at his son's decision, especially because of the latter's tender age, liable to fickleness. The king says that it is time for him, an old man, to retire to hermitage, and that it is befitting for the son to release him of the cares and responsibilities of administration. As Gautama has already been convinced of the futility of riches and impermanence of youth, he prefers his association with righteousness (dharma) to the association with his father or his kingdom. As Indian tradition demands that a youngman should have the permission of bis parrents to become an ascet, the king exerts his right. of a father and does not allow his son to renounce family life. As a last attempt, he brings pretty girls to entertain the prince with music. Gautama is not allured with their charm. In the same night he leaves the royal palace, no one being aware departure. After years of meditation under a tree on the bank of Niranjanâ river in eastern India, he attains the truth about life and death. Now he becomes the Buddha. He initiates a young man, Ananda, and founds the Buddhist order.
The rest of the Ioasaph story narrates the spread of Christianity in his kingdom, his journey abroad in search of his mentor, their meeting in a distant land, and it ends with loasaph's death in chapter XL. This part is quite independent of the Buddha story. However, one episode, that of Ioasaph's trial under Devil's temptations and threatenings resembles the attempts of the evil spirit Màra to corrupt the Buddha.
It is clear that the Ioasaph story roughly corresponds with the first part of the Buddha's life. The reason of the deviation in the latter part lies in the essential difference between the missions of the two characters. While the Buddha was the founder of a new religion and a new philosophy, Ioasaph is the propagator of an already established faith.
Buddhacaritam portrays Gautama as a bold and vigorous man, whereas Ioasaph in Barlaam and Ioasaph is rather timid and helpless, though firm in his conviction. Gautama leaves his home and kingdom for the sake of the suffering mankind ; Ioasaph accepts a part of the kingdom of his father. Ioasaph spreads Christianity as a ruler ; the Buddha proclaims his order as a homeless monk.
Ioasaph is, however, over-tyrannised by his father, who is shown to be an excessively cruel, crooked and headstrong person. On the other hand, the Buddha's father is a virtuous, dignified and right-minded king. It is his paternal affection, and not any kingly pride, that stands in the way of Gautama's renunciation to family life.

So far as literary merits are concerned, Buddhacaritam is a more pleasant reading. It gives a vivid picture of Indian life ; it is written in verse and is full of artistic beauty. Barlaam and Ioasaph, paints everything in Abenner's country in dark colour. Being designed as a propaganda literature, it is encumbered with lengthy discourses on religion. This serves the purpose for which it is written, but at the same time affects its literary value. It should be admitted that the discourses have been formulated in the most lucid style and appealing way.
Barlaam's discussions with Ioasaph are to some extent in conformity with the Pancatantra pattern. One tale is inserted into another and arguments are illustrated with parables. One of the parables of Christ, that of the sower (p. 69), is, according to S. Radhakrishnan, borrowed from the Buddha teachings. Since the Buddhist story is older, there are reasons to believe that the loan was not the other way round.
Comparison of Ideas
Inspired from the life of the Buddha arid adapted to the Christian faith, Barlaam and Ioasaph does not reflect, naturally, the specifie aspects of the Buddhist philosophy, not even the fundamental theories of the Four Noble Truths or the Eight Noble Ways. It has done away with the Buddhist agnosticism, and contrary to the Buddhist doctrine, stressed the role of priests or mentors in leading mankind from darkness to light. The human and ethical aspects common to both doctrines (for instance, futility of idol-worship, condemnation of animal sacrifice and belief in the transitoriness of worldly objects) are emphasised.
In this respect, it does not offer any particular service to Buddhism ; but at the same time it does not offend Hinduism, the chief rival of Buddhism in the beginning and the religion practised by the majority of Indian at present. The redactors of the final text do not seem to have any precise idea of the religion practised in "Abenner's country", nor of its geographical position. All that can be gathered about Abenner's creed is that "he was of the Greek way, and sore distraught by the superstitious errors of his idol-worship" (p. 11) and that the air of his country was "reeking with the smell of bloody saerifices" (p. 15). Even in Nachor's discourse, Hinduism or Vedic deities are not mentioned by their names. So, if the Barlaam romance does not gratify the Buddhists in particular, nor does it offend the Hindus, at least it does not intend to do so.
To the Indians, the merit of the Barlaam romance is that it offers a service to the Buddha. The personality of the Buddha stands far above his doctrine. In the course of 2 500 years, Buddhist philosophy underwent many changes, and Buddhist religion split into numerous sects, but these differences could not overshadow the radiant image of the Buddha, the Man. His concern for the deliverance from human suffering and his self-sacrifice for the salvation of mankind stands as a glorious example in all countries and all ages. The exemplary life of the Buddha inspired numerous Indians, for example Swami Vivekananda, to dedicate their lives to the service of society. It is this personality of the Buddha that attracted, impressed and inspired foreign authors to adapt his life story to the moral benefit of their societies. Through their media, the Buddha has inculcated the spirit of self-sacrifice among noble and pure souls in other countries irrespective of their credo. If both Greek and Roman churches have conferred sainthood on Ioasaph, it is because he is considered an ideal man by all quarters of the Christian world.

All this goes to show that the eternal and universal message of the Buddha is his life. To our minds, far from making a sacrilege, Barlaam and Ioasaph brings a tribute to Gautama, the Buddha.

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