How the Buddha became a Christian Saint

St. Barlaam and St. Josaphat: A Christian Folktale of the Buddha

St. Barlaam and St. Josaphat

St. Barlaam and St. Josaphat

The tale of the hermit St. Barlaam and his convert St. Josaphat is a curious link between Christianity and Buddhism, since at least the beginning of the story is unmistakably an account of the early life of the Buddha. The story is thought to have been composed by John of Damascus in the 6th century AD. It also appears, in abridged form, in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine. The attempted seduction of St. Josaphat by the beautiful maiden seems to be a Christian reworking of part of the conflict between the future Buddha and the dark lord, Mára.

The legend is set in India. The young prince is brought up in ignorance of old age, sickness and death; but eventually finds out about their existence during excursions from the palace. Prince Josaphat then meets the hermit Barlaam, a Christian missionary, who preaches in parables. The young prince becomes a convert to Christianity. After unsuccessfully attempting to dislodge him from the new faith by various stratagems, his father King Avennir receives a visit from the sorcerer Theodas, who offers to help him. On the sorcerer’s advice, the king replaces the prince’s male attendants with beautiful women (as Shakyamuni’s father also does in the Buddhist version). Theodas sends an evil spirit into Josaphat’s heart to inflame him with lust. The women flirt with Josaphat but fail to seduce him.

The king then sends to Josaphat the orphan daughter of a king, a beautiful maiden. The young prince attempts to convert her to his new religion, to which she responds that she will only convert if Josaphat will marry her. Josaphat tells her that he has taken a vow of chastity. The nameless maiden tells him, if you want to save my soul, grant me one little request: sleep with me tonight, just once is all I ask, and I promise you I will become a Christian first thing tomorrow morning… just do as I ask this once and you will win my salvation. Josaphat prays and receives a vision of heaven. He rejects the temptress, and is attacked by evil spirits. Josaphat destroys them by making the sign of the cross.And so the Buddha became a Christian saint, and even received a feast-day, 27 November.

Shakyamuni Buddha

Shakyamuni Buddha

The Institute for East-West Cultural Exchange (head of research group: Lee Jong-hwa, Professor of Myong-ji University) analyzed both Arabic and European literatures in the Middle Age, and argues that ‘Buddha legend’ spread from Persia to Georgia(Gruzhia) to Greece, and finally to Spain. Buddha was revered as a Christian saint in Medieval Europe. Kim Hun, a lecturer in Seoul National University, who took part in the research published the result in June-July issue of ‘Anticus’, a humanity-oriented magazine.

The original ‘Buddha’ or ‘Bodhisatta’ in Sanskrit (“Enlightenment Being,” one destined to attain Nirvana, enlightenment ), turned up as ‘Bodisav’ in 6-7th century Manichean literature in Ancient Persian, which in turn appeared as Budahsaf in 8th-century Arabic literature, which turned into ‘Iodasaph’ in 10th-century Georgian literature. In 11th-century Greek literature, it showed up as a Christian monk ‘Ioasaph,’ which finally became the Christian saint ‘Josaphat’ in Spain.

The story of Barlaam and Josaphat was popular in the Middle Ages, appearing in such works as the Golden Legend, and a scene there involving three caskets eventually appeared, via Caxton’s English translation of a Latin version, in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”.

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