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How the Buddha became a Christian saint

Travelling saint: A mural in Bangkok, Thailand.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Istock

One of my favourite possessions is a simple wooden roof-tile on which is painted a man who had begun his spiritual journey by giving up all his possessions. The painting is by Jack, a Thai artist from a small village near the border of Thailand and Burma. It shows the Gautama Buddha seated on the ground; legs folded, left hand resting in his lap, and the right hand’s fingers touching the earth. The Buddha has just attained enlightenment and is calling Bhoomi-devi to bear witness. The painting is something a child could have produced: its lines are simple, the colours are basic (red and gold), and the Buddha has a cute double chin.

I’ve never met Jack. According to Kyle Tortora, owner of Lotus Sculpture, the shop from where I bought the painting, Jack has hand-like extensions where his legs should be. It seems Jack’s mother took drugs during her pregnancy, and he was born with parts of his body attached to the wrong joints. The painting was produced by those misplaced hands.

But this is not about Jack.

It is about the Gautama Buddha, the Shakyamuni. I found it curious that a Thai Christian would choose the Buddha as the subject of his paintings. Why not Mother Mary or Jesus Christ? Or one of the many Catholic saints?

It turns out that the Buddha is, in fact, an official Catholic saint.

The story of how this happened is a story about an ancient South Asian diaspora. Not the diaspora of a people but that of a collection of South Asian stories, the Jataka tales.

Strange journey

Perhaps because stories come from people and are about people, they behave like people. Stories too have origins, histories, names, moods, consequences. Like people, stories adapt to circumstances. Sometimes they create the circumstances that later people and later stories have to adapt to. And like people, stories too may spread out far from their origins, shifting names, generating other stories which then begin their own migrations.

Jack’s Buddha.

Jack’s Buddha.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The Jataka tales have had a strange journey. The word jataka means birth. The Jataka tales are a collection of fairy tales, riddles, parables, humorous moral tales and biographies all loosely centred around the previous lives of the Gautama Buddha. The exact number of Jataka tales depends on how one counts. Many of the approximately 550 stories in the Jataka tales have little to do with the Buddha. The Jataka tales began as oral stories, told and re-told long before they were written down.

Oral storytelling is the least technology-dependent and most natural approach to storytelling. Written text, however, does have two advantages. First, it’s a time machine. It is not an accident that one of the meanings of the Sanskrit word aksara is ‘imperishable’. Kalidasa can reach across time to delight 21st century readers just as he must have delighted audiences in the fourth or fifth century CE. Second, once sound is boxed into a letter, stories become free of the storyteller. It is an old Indian idea that stories desire their freedom.

In the third or fourth century BC, about 300 years after the Shakyamuni’s death, the Jataka tales got their chance to really travel. They were finally written down.

As the monks travelled, spreading the word of the Buddha, the Jataka stories travelled with them. The stories got translated, skipped languages, adapted to local conditions, and became native to many different cultures. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, the Pardoner tells a Jataka story. Over half of La Fontaine’s fables are actually from the Jataka tales.

In grandma’s lap

In fact, something very similar happened to the Panchatantra (itself a secularised compendium of many Jataka tales). Arabic versions of the Panchatantra tales were set down in a manuscript called Kalilah and Dimnah (that is, Karataka and Damanaka, two recurring jackals in the Panchatantra stories). In the seventh and eight centuries CE, Jewish merchants translated Kalilah and Dimnah into Greek and other European languages. The stories floated in the collective Western consciousness until Planudes in the 14th century CE set them down as “Aesop’s fables” (no actual manuscript by Aesop has survived).

Some of my friends grew up hearing these stories in their mother tongue, told by some generous elder, usually a grandma with an ample lap. Me too. My grandma was called Amar Chitra Katha, and I’ll never forget Geoff Fowler’s wonderful illustrations of these tales. Great stories survive their translations, even thrive. As the Klingon alien Gorkon says in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, “You have never experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”

In medieval Europe, you couldn’t experience a story until you’d read it in the original Greek or Latin or Arabic. Around the time Jewish merchants were translating Kalilah and Dimnah into Greek, there lived in the court of al-Walid ibn Abdul Malek, the Caliph of Baghdad, a Christian monk called John of Damascus. St. John was born around 676 CE and died sometime between 754 CE and 757 CE. He wrote a series of works defending the Christian faith. The Arabs, who by then were ruling much of the world, were very secure about Islam (seeing it as extension of Christianity) and the Caliph gave St. John a free hand. One of the good father’s many tedious books was a religious romance — the first Christian novel really — Barlaam and Joasaph.

The ancient bestseller

The story of Barlaam and Joasaph is that of how Barlaam argues with a young Indian prince, Josaphat (or Joasaph), and eventually converts the prince to Christianity. Josaphat’s story (before his conversion) is almost exactly the story of the Gautama Buddha. Indeed, Josaphat is nothing but the Greek version of Bodhisat. This is fairly well established. The online Catholic Encyclopedia says (about St. Josaphat):

“The story is a Christianised version of one of the legends of Buddha, as even the name Josaphat would seem to show. This is said to be a corruption of the original Joasaph, which is again corrupted from the middle Persian Budasif (Budasif = Bodhisattva).”

Barlaam and Joasaph was a bestseller. It was translated into all the European languages. There’s even a version in the Spanish dialect used in the Philippines.

Now, it used to be a practice in the Catholic Church to recite the names of saints and martyrs in the most sacred part of the service, the Canon of the Mass, just before the Host is consecrated. That is why we speak of saints as being “canonised.” But who decided who was a saint and who wasn’t? It used to be standard practice to leave this decision to local parishes. The general admissions rule for sainthood was quite simple: you had to have died in a suitably gruesome way, all the while thanking the Good Lord for the privilege.

Free-flying stories

But in 1170 CE, Pope Alexander III decreed that the power to canonise saints rested exclusively with the Holy See. The names of the martyrs were no longer recited in the Canon but moved to a sub-service called the Prime. Over time, it became less and less permissible to include new names into the list of saints — the Martyrology — without getting explicit approval from the Pope. But there were still several equally official Martyrologies floating around (remember, this was before the invention of the printing press).

Pope Sixtus the Fifth (1585-1590 CE) made a move to eliminate these multiple versions by commissioning a single standard list of martyrs. And Cardinal Cesare Baronius was assigned to draw up the Martryologium. It was designed to be as broad-minded as possible; the idea was to merge existing Martyrologies rather than pick a correct one (for obvious reasons). On November 27, 1610, Cardinal Baronius included: “The holy Saints Barlaam and Josaphat, of India, on the borders of Persia, whose wonderful acts St. John of Damascus has described.”

Baronius seems to have included these names from the Catalogus Sanctorum, the 14th-century Martyrology of Petrus de Natalibus, Bishop of Equilo (now Jesolo, Italy).

So there you have it. Gautama Buddha is an official Catholic saint.

The Catholic Encyclopedia is quite unembarrassed about the whole incident. Their view, I think, is that sainthood is a human assignation, based on our understanding of what constitutes a miracle. The Vatican only claims authority, not infallibility.

Isn’t it strange how history works? A collection of stories, scattered from their letter cages, moving across languages, belief systems and time.

There are also strange ironies. In the 19th century, a Sanskrit scholar named Naryanan Balkrishnan Godbole translated the so-called “Aesop’s fables” of Planudes of Constantinople back into Sanskrit. The stories had returned home after almost 2,000 years of wandering. I am sure St. John’s Barlaam and Joasaph exists in Pali somewhere; if it doesn’t, it should.

I began by saying this wasn’t about the Thai artist, Jack. But perhaps it is. I think of Jack, a Christian in a predominantly Buddhist country; displaced in space, displaced in body. A simple story — two legs, two arms, arms connected to shoulders, legs to trunk — a simple story that’s told every time a baby is born, got told just a bit differently in his case.

Difference isn’t error. And contrary to what lawyers might think, no one can own a story any more than we can own people. Once created, stories are free living beings with their own journeys. I imagine the Buddha would agree.

The writer’s novel, Half of What I Say, was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2016.

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 3:24:54 AM |

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