Is Barlaam and Josaphat really a Christian tale of the Buddha?

I enjoyed my holiday reading very much, and found plenty to entertain me and to make me think. The Testament of Gideon Mack was the best book I have read in quite a while – wonderfully engrossing and thought-provoking. But it is Barlaam and Josaphat that I am reflecting on as I return to work.

Peggy McCracken’s English translation of the French version by Gui de Cambrai is very readable, and Penguin Classics were, I think, right to include it in their series. However, having read the text and the two introductions (by the translator and by scholar of Buddhism Donald S. Lopez Jr) I have to say I object to the book’s subtitle that identifies it as ‘A Christian Tale of the Buddha’.

indexThe similarities between the story and the Buddha’s biography are threefold, as Lopez points out in his introduction. Firstly, just as astrologers predict that the baby Buddha-to-be is destined to become a great religious teacher, so too astrologers predict the same of the baby prince Josaphat. Fearing that his son will not, as planned, become a successor on the throne, the king has his child brought up in the lap of luxury, protected from the suffering of normal life. Secondly, just as the Buddha-to-be encounters – for the first time – the reality of death and suffering while on a visit outside his protected palace quarters, so too the young Josaphat is greatly affected by the sight of a sick man and an old man while on a rare outing from his palace. Thirdly, just as the Buddha-to-be must resist the temptations of the beautiful women of his palace in his determination to renounce, so too prince Josaphat resists (just about) the attempted seductions of young women in his palace. We must also add to these three narrative motifs the philological efforts that have traced Josaphat back to Bodhisattva (the Sanskrit term for the Buddha-t0-be). The story itself has been traced back into Arabic, with an assumed Persian predecessor.

So, influence from Buddha-biographies is proven. Fine. But do these limited similarities really make the story of Barlaam and Josaphat a tale of the Buddha? All three narrative motifs are concerned with the early life of the prince, and once he reaches adulthood the stories diverge completely, with the Buddha-to-be giving up his life of luxury in favour of a lonely quest for enlightenment, and Josaphat being converted by the Christian teacher Barlaam, being baptised, eventually converting his father and ruling as a good Christian monarch before heading off into the wilderness for a life of penance with his hermit teacher.

The question is, did the authors of Barlaam and Josaphat (and its predecessors in, for example, Arabic) take a story of the Buddha and change the ending to better suit their needs? Or did they instead construct a story from a number of different elements and motifs known to them, including those associated with the Buddha’s childhood? The latter seems more likely to me, though I must stress that I have not read the Arabic versions which bridge the Indian and European stories. But either way, are we right to describe the new tale as being a tale of the Buddha? I suggest not.

Stories have a wonderful ability to travel across cultural and religious boundaries, changing and adapting as they go. Barlaam and Josaphat is not so very unique in that respect. It takes on several motifs from the Buddha’s biography, and uses his epithet as the character’s name, but it also absorbs other influences (including some Indian parables) and Christianizes them as it goes. The result is a Christian story of a Christian saint who lives up to Christian ideals, but whose lifestory has some similarities with Indian biographies of the Buddha. Tracing the literary influences is, of course, interesting in itself, and seeing both the resonances and differences in religious emphasis in each case is also instructive. But I can’t help thinking that the description of Barlaam and Josaphat as ‘A Christian Tale of the Buddha’ is a somewhat misleading marketing tool.

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About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Buddhist texts, Religious narrative, reviews of scholarship. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is Barlaam and Josaphat really a Christian tale of the Buddha?

  1. jayarava says:

    I read an older translation many years ago and I could not see anything Buddhist about it.

    OTOH The story of the Buddha is itself pretty late and seems to my eye to be drawing on a template from elsewhere. Maybe the two stories have a common ancestor?

    • Well I enjoyed watching Buddhist notions (such as generosity and detachment) being transformed into Christian virtues (such as faith and penance), but you are right that the result is not at all Buddhist. Perhaps the narrative motifs were indeed more widespread – certainly the motif of the temptation of young women is also found elsewhere in Buddhist narrative – but the philological evidence (linking Josaphat back to Bodhisattva) seems to suggest a clear direction of travel in this case. But that doesn’t – to me – give sufficient reason to label the story as being that of the Buddha.

  2. Pingback: What makes a story a ‘version’ of another story? | The Story of Story in South Asia

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