Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Christian Buddha

Returning over the next few blog posts to the theme of the migration of Tantric elements from South and Southeast Asia across the Muslim world into Europe, probably the most noteworthy literary evidence of this transmission of ideas comes in the story of Barlaam and Josaphat.

The Sayabiga, I have suggested in this blog, played an important role in the transmission of Tantric ideas, as they migrated along the trade routes seemingly always accompanied for some reason by another group known as the Zutt (Jats). The Sayabiga originally came from Zabag (Suvarnadvipa) and the king of that country had a great interest in reaching out to far-off kingdoms.  During the Pala dynasty, we hear of Serlingpa, a prince of Suvarnadvipa, bringing a number of Tantric texts including the abridged Kalacakra Tantra from Shamhbala, which can thus be equated with Suvarnadvipa. Even earlier, this same regional king, who was known by Muslims as the Mihraj, had sent correspondence to the Umayyad caliphs Mu'awiyah and Umar ibn abd al-Aziz.

Along the trade routes, the merchants and seafarers of Zabag had absorbed Tantric Buddhist and Muslim, mostly Shiite, influences.  In Europe, I have suggested that Sayabiga settled in the areas of the rice fields of Valencia with their tidal rice and fishing culture based on the tropical Japonica rice strain. Some of these Sayabiga may have dispersed along the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela in connection with the people known as Agotes and Cagots.

The Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat

Two important texts were transmitted into Europe from the East during the Romanesque period.  These were the books known as the Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat and the European versions of the Arabic Kalilah wa Dimnah, based on the Sanskrit Panchatantra.

The Barlaam legend contains the story of the cattari-pubba-nimattani, the "four signs" of the Buddha.  In the story, the Indian prince Josaphat is confined within the wall of the king's palace to keep the prince safe from the evils of the world.  The prince though becomes the subject of a prophecy that declares he will either become a great world conqueror or shall take up the life of an ascetic.  He manages to convince his father to allow him to make excursions to the park outside the walls of the palace escorted by his friends.  There he encounters for the first time in order an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and lastly, an ascetic.  Eventually Josaphat decides to join the ascetic, Barlaam, and renounces the throne to become a hermit himself.  Now, these important elements of the story provide a near replica of the tale of Gautama Buddha.

A sculpture at the Parma Cathedral by Benedetto Antelami (c. 1150 – c. 1230) shows St. Josaphat, i.e., the Christianized Buddha, standing in the Tree of Life after being transported there by angels. (Source:

According to the text itself, the Barlaam story was written down by one John the Monk of St. Sabas Monastery near Bethlehem.  John reportedly received the legend from "pious men" from India who apparently translated the tale.  However, all Europeans versions of the Barlaam legend that exist today are thought to trace back to a Greek translation of a 10th century Georgian version by Euthymius the Iberian.

The Georgian version in turn is derived from the Ismaili Shi'ite text Kitab Bilawhar wa Budhasaf in Arabic, which dates to about the 8th century. An Old French version by Gui de Cambrai appears around 1215 in Western Europe.  Around 1250, Hebrew and Old Spanish versions of Kalilah wa Dimnah also appear on the European scene, so we can say rather confidently that the transmission of the two texts was linked at least to some extent.

The ultimate source of both the Buddha and Panchatantra stories appears to be Buddhist.  Such a contention is natural enough with the story of the four signs, but the Panchatantra leads us further to make a connection with the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet.

In the Kalilah wa Dimnah cycle we find the story of the interpretation of the king's dreams that has a decided anti-brahmin bias.  The story is completely missing from the Hindu Panchatantra, but is found in the Tibetan Kanjur

Flow of knowledge from the East

We know that during Abbasid times the caliphs, probably attempting to imitate Sassanian rulers, welcomed scholars from all directions and particularly from "India" to their courts. In 772, for example, a scholar from Indian brought an astronomical work called the Sindhind to the court of al-Mansur.

However, many of the "Tantric" cultural elements appear to have been transmitted more by groups of wandering ascetics, probably connected with the Zutt and Sayabiga, who it has been suggested eventually helped spawn the Sufi Dervish sects.  The early ascetics appear to have had a Shi'ite bias and we can see that particularly in the mystical orientation of the Ismaili branch of the Shi'a religion.

Zutt and Sayabiga, described alternately as guards, mercenaries, pirates, farmers, and buffalo herders, were already present in the Sassanian empire before the Arab invasions.  Many of these people were forcibly moved to the swamps around Basra to help in creating an agricultural system there.  So, it is worth noting the position of Basra as an early center of Islamic mysticism with its blending of Persian and Indic influences.  Both Sayabiga and the Zutt were later moved to northern Syria, which like Basra also became strongly associated with Ismaili and Sufi mysticism.

At some point also, the "Gypsy" Sayabiga and Zutt appear to have located themselves in Egypt.  A few names provide some evidence of these groups in the history of the region.  For example, from 815 to 820, the governor of Egypt was Yusuf al-Zutti, whose nisba "surname" indicates he was from a Zutt tribe. Salim Bayya' al-Zutti was a Shi'ite faqih and a companion of the Imams Musa ibn Ja'far and 'Ali ibn Musa.

Likewise, the captain of the guard of Caliph Ali was Ma'kal Ibn Kifi al-Zabaji, whose nisba could indicate ancestry from Zabag.  A number of Muslim authors testify that the Sayabiga were widely employed as guards, for example, at the treasury of Basra.   The early Sufi mystic Salim al-Barusi may trace his descent from Barus or Balus in Sumatra, the home of the famous Fansuri camphor, while another Sufi sage Abu Yazid al-Waqwaqi has a nisba that could indicate his heritage from the islands of Waqwaq south of Zabag.

The evidence of a Tibetan Buddhist background to the texts of Kalilah wa-Dimnah and Barlaam and Josaphat would fit in well with the Sayabiga presence as Zabag had established links with Tibet through the Kalacakra doctrine.  Serlingpa was stated by various sources to have brought texts in the historical period (10th-11th centuries) from Shambhala, and other sources claim or suggest that he was himself the author of important texts and commentaries.  Thus, Shambhala was not simply an imaginal location as suggested by some, but a real place identical with Suvarnadvipa (Zabag).

Indeed, the Sufi and Ismaili sacred geographies, also often interpreted as purely imaginal, are geographically located in the same general region as Shambhala-Suvarnadvipa.  In the Sea of China, was sacred Mt. Qaf and the talking Waqwaq Tree (Wakwak).  Many locations like the mystical fortress island Kangdez were even given latitude and longitude coordinates in Islamic geographical tables.

The appearance of the Hebrew and Spanish versions of the Panchatantra tales seem to point toward a southern entrance of these Tibetan Buddhist stories.  Although the earliest Western European variant of Barlaam and Josaphat appears in France, Spain was also an important center for Barlaam tales.  Spain and neighboring southern France experienced a flowering of mysticism during this period.

In the areas inhabited by the Agote-Cagot people, this influence was strongest where it appears together with "Tantric" material of a sexual nature found in both church art and in the literature of the troubadours.  In Languedoc, the Cathars adopted Barlaam and Josaphat as an important book, and according to D.M. Lang they even used the text to defend their rejection of material pleasures, property ownership, and the practice of asceticism among the Perfecti order. Some have even claimed that the Provencal version of Barlaam was a crypto-Cathar document.

In neighboring Provence, the Jewish Kabbalah arises around the same time as Catharism. Like the latter, it shares attitudes towards reincarnation, the transmigration of souls back and forth between humans and animals, and other spiritual beliefs with the Cathars. That the Kabbalah mystics were strongly influenced by Sufism and Ismaili Shi'ism is a standard view in the scholarly world.

Impact of the Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat

Even though this story became popular in Europe only in the 13th century, the tale became so widespread that both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches eventually accepted both Barlaam and Josaphat as saints.  Philip Almond describes the story's almost unparalleled popularity:

It enjoyed a popularity attained perhaps by no other legend. It spread into nearly all the countries of Christendom and is extant in over sixty versions...and even at the beginning of the eighteenth century, returned to the East in a Philippine dialect. It was also included in Vincent of Beauvais's thirteenth century Speculum historiale, and in the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus de Voragine in the same century. It was probably from Caxton's English translation of the latter work, The Golden Legend, that Shakespeare borrowed the fable of the caskets for use in The Merchant of Venice

Even as late as the 19th-20th centuries, the book had influenced Leo Tolstoy to renounce materialism in the middle of his life. It may not be a coincidence that the flourishing of monastic orders like the Augustinians, Carmelites, Cistercians, Dominicans, and Franciscans, which helped propagate Romanesque architecture,  occurred after the original translations of the work into Greek and Latin.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Almond, Philip C.  "The Buddha of Christendom: A review of the legend of Barlaam & Josaphat," Religious Studies, 23, 1987: 391-406.

Ashtiany, Julia. ╩╗Abbasid Belles-Lettres. The Cambridge history of Arabic literature. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 140-1.

Bīdpāī, and I. G. N. Keith-Falconer. Kalilah and Dimnah. Cambridge: University press, 1885.

Lach, Donald Frederick. Asia in the Making of Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965, 100-111.

Surmelian, Leon Z. Daredevils of Sassoun; The Armenian National Epic. Denver: A. Swallow, 1964, 254.

Tolstoy, L. A Confession and What I Believe, London, 1921, 23-4.