Barlaam and Josaphat in India  544G
Barlaam and Josaphat in India 544G

Some how I managed to take three classes from Huston Smith  (The World’s Religions (originally titled The Religions of Man) has sold over two million copies) I misdeed this story, I was perhaps distracted by  His notion of “”empirical metaphysics” which he writes about in his book Cleansing the Doors of Perception which was more the direction I was exploring at that time (organically).   Now some thirty years later, The ‘ inorganic’ spread of mystical states/texts interest me and I was informed of this Great Story of textual transmission by my colleague Paul Dowling of Liber Antiquus.

The Greek legend of “Barlaam and Ioasaph” which is sometimes attributed to the 7th century John of Damascus, but actually it was transcribed by the Georgian monk Euthymius in the 11th century. The first Christianized adaptation was the Georgian epic Balavariani dating back to the 10th century. A Georgian monk, Euthymios of Athos, translated the story into Greek, some time before he was killed while visiting Constantinople in 1028. There the Greek adaptation was translated into Latin in 1048 and soon became well-known in Western Europe as Barlaam and Josaphat.

The story of Barlaam and Josaphat or Joasaph is a Christianized and later version of the story of Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha.

901G     Billy, Jacques de,; 1535-1581. translator Traditionally (but incorrectly)–attributed to St. John of Damascus


S. Ioannis Damasceni Historia, De Vitis Et Rebvs Gestis SS. Barlaam Eremitæ, & Iosaphat Indiæ regis, Iacobo Billio Prunæo, S. Michaelis in eremo Coenobiarcha interprete.



Coloniæ, In Officina Birckmannica, sumptibus Arnoldi Mylij. ANNO M.D.XCIII. Duodecimodsc_0155 A-S12 T6 ( -T6).   $950

This copy is bound in contemporary vellum, an ownership stamp has been ripped out of the title page (see image )

VD 16 J 533;  AdamsB 206.

One of the best known examples of the hagiographic novel, this is the tale of an Indian prince who becomes aware of the world’s miseries and is converted to Christianity by the monk Barlaam. Barlaam and Josaphat (Ioasaph) were believed to have re-converted India after her lapse from conversion to Christianity, and they were numbered among the Christian saints. Centuries ago likenesses were noticed between the life of Josaphat and the life of the Buddha; the resemblances are in incidents, doctrine, and philosophy, and Barlaam’s rules of abstinence resemble the Buddhist monk’s. But not till the mid-nineteenth century was it recognised that, in Josaphat, the Buddha had been venerated as a Christian saint for about a thousand years.

The origin of the story of Barlaam and Ioasaph—which in itself has little peculiar to Buddhism—appears to be a Manichaean tract produced in Central Asia


It was welcomed by the Arabs and by the Georgians. The Greek romance of Barlaam appears separately first in the 11th century. Most of the Greek manuscripts attribute the story to John the Monk, and it is only some later scribes who identify this John with John Damascene (ca. 676–749). There is strong evidence in Latin and Georgian as well as Greek that it was the Georgian Euthymius (who died in 1028) who caused the story to be translated from Georgian into Greek, the whole being reshaped and supplemented.

The Greek romance soon spread throughout Christendom, and was translated into Latin, Old Slavonic, Armenian, and Arabic. An English version (from Latin) was used by Shakespeare in his caskets scene in The Merchant of Venice.

JOSAPHAT, a corruption of Bodhisatwa. Barlaam and Josaphat,

{Ioasaph (Georgian Iodasaph, Arabic Yūdhasaf or Būdhasaf) is derived from the Sanskrit Bodhisattva. The Sanskrit word was changed to Bodisav in Persian texts in the 6th or 7th century, then to Budhasaf or Yudasaf in an 8th-century Arabic document (possibly Arabic initial “b” ﺑ changed to “y” ﻳ by duplication of a dot in handwriting). This became Iodasaph in Georgia in the 10th century, and that name was adapted as Ioasaph in Greece in the 11th century, and then as Iosaphat or Josaphat in Latin}

has been so completely received into the bosom of the Latin Church, that the names of ‘ the holy saints Barlaam and Josaphat of India, on the borders of Persia,’ have been canonized, and have their proper day, November 27th, as may be read in the Martyrologium of Cardinal Baronius, authorized by Pope Sextus v. for general use in the Catholic world, at page 177 of the 1873 edition, endorsed by His Holiness Pius IX. The Greek Church assigns a different day to the holy Iosaph, sou of Abener, king of India, and omits Barlaam. Josaphat or Iosaph is Bodhisat, or the condition of Sakya before he became a Buddha, and the religious romance of St. John of Damascus is simply a Greek version of the life of Gautama. dsc_0158Professor Max Muller pointed out the fact that Gautama, under the name of St. Josaphat, is now officially recognised and honoured and worshipped throughout the whole of Roman Catholic Christendom as a Christian saint! And just as Barlaam and Josaphat is an offshoot of Buddhist literature, so the wide series of tales represented by the Pancha Tantra, Kalila and Damna, Fables of Bidpai, Æsop’s Fables and La Fontaine’s, are mainly traceable not only to an Indian, but to a Buddhist source. Sindbad the Sailor, and other tales of the Arabian Nights, have their birth in Buddhist Jutakas; Boccaccio, Chaucer, Gower, and Spencer have been indebted to this treasurehouse of Buddhist folk-lore; even the three caskets and the pound of flesh in the Merchant of Venice are ideas found in this wonderful old story-book. —Contemporary Review, 1870.



From Chips from a German Workshop, by F. Max Müller, Vol. IV, pp. 139–198. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons [1881].

At the court of  Khalif Almansur, where Abdallah ibn Almokaffa translated the fables of Calla and Dimna from Persian into Arabic, there lived a Christian of the name of Sergius, who for many years held the high office of treasurer to the Khalif. He had a son to whom he gave the best education that could then be given, his chief tutor being one Cosmas, an Italian monk, who had been taken prisoner by the Saracens, and sold as a slave at Bagdad. After the death of Sergius, his son succeeded him for some time as chief councillor (πρωτοσύμβουλος) to the Khalif Almansur. Such, however, had been the influence of the Italian monk on his pupil’s mind, that he suddenly resolved to retire from the world, and to devote himself to study, meditation, and pious works. From the monastery of St. Saba, near Jerusalem, this former minister of the Khalif issued the most learned works on theology, particularly his “Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.” He soon became the highest authority on matters of dogma in the Eastern Church, and he still holds his place among the saints both of the Eastern and Western Churches. His name was Joannes, and from being born at Damascus, the former capital of the Khalifs, he is best known in history as Joannes Damascenus, or St. John of Damascus. He must

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have known Arabic, and probably Persian; but his mastery of Greek earned him, later in life, the name of Chrysorrhoas, or Gold-flowing. He became famous as the defender of the sacred images, and as the determined opponent of the Emperor Leo the Isaurian, about 726. It is difficult in his life to distinguish between legend and history, but that he had held high office at the court of the Khalif Almansur, that he boldly opposed the iconoclastic policy of the Emperor Leo, and that he wrote the most learned theological works of his time, cannot be easily questioned.

Among the works ascribed to him is a story called “Barlaam and Joasaph.” 1 There has been a fierce controversy as to whether he was the author of it or not. Though for our own immediate purposes it would be of little consequence whether the book was written by Joannes Damascenus or by some less distinguished ecclesiastic, I must confess that the arguments hitherto adduced against his authorship seem to me very weak.

The Jesuits did not like the book, because it was

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a religious novel. They pointed to a passage in which the Holy Ghost is represented as proceeding from the Father “and the Son,” as incompatible with the creed of an Eastern ecclesiastic. That very passage, however, has now been proved to be spurious; and it should be borne in mind, besides, that the controversy on the procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son, or from the Father through the Son, dates a century later than Joannes. The fact, again, that the author does not mention Mohammedanism, 1 proves nothing against the authorship of Joannes, because, as he places Barlaam and Joasaph in the early centuries of Christianity, he would have ruined his story by any allusion to Mohammed’s religion, then only a hundred years old. Besides, he had written a separate work, in which the relative merits of Christianity and Mohammedanism are discussed. The prominence given to the question of the worship of images shows that the story could not have been written much before the time of Joannes Damascenus, and there is nothing in the style of our author that could be pointed out as incompatible with the style of the great theologian. On the contrary, the author of “Barlaam and Joasaph” quotes the same authors whom Joannes Damascenus quotes most frequently—eg., Basilius and Gregorius Nazianzenus. And no one but Joannes could have taken long passages from his own works without saying where he borrowed them. 2

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The story of “Barlaam and Joasaph”—or, as he is more commonly called, Josaphat—may be told in a few words: “A king in India, an enemy and persecutor of the Christians, has an only son. The astrologers have predicted that he would embrace the new doctrine. His father, therefore, tries by all means in his power to keep him ignorant of the miseries of the world, and to create in him a taste for pleasure and enjoyment. A Christian hermit, however, gains access to the prince, and instructs him in the doctrines of the Christian religion. The young prince is not only baptized, but resolves to give up all his earthly riches; and after having converted his own father and many of his subjects, he follows his teacher into the desert.”

The real object of the book is to give a simple exposition of the principal doctrines of the Christian religion. It also contains a first attempt at comparative theology, for in the course of the story there is a disputation on the merits of the principal religions of the world—the Chaldæan, the Egyptian, the Greek, the Jewish, and the Christian. But one of the chief attractions of this manual of Christian theology consisted in a number of fables and parables with which it is enlivened. Most of them have been traced to an Indian source. I shall mention one only which has found its way into almost every literature of the world: 1—

“A man was pursued by a unicorn, and while he tried to flee from it, he fell into a pit. In falling he stretched out both his

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arms, and laid hold of a small tree that was growing on one side of the pit. Having gained a firm footing, and holding to the tree, he fancied he was safe, when he saw two mice, a black and a white one, busy gnawing the root of the tree to which he was clinging. Looking down into the pit, he perceived a horrid dragon with his mouth wide open, ready to devour him, and when examining the place on which his feet rested, the heads of four serpents glared at him. Then he looked up, and observed drops of honey falling down from the tree to which he clung. Suddenly the unicorn, the dragon, the mice, and the serpents were all forgotten, and his mind was intent only on catching the drops of sweet honey trickling down from the tree.”

An explanation is hardly required. The unicorn is Death, always chasing man; the pit is the world; the small tree is man’s life, constantly gnawed by the black and the white mouse—i.e., by night and day; the four serpents are the four elements which compose the human body; the dragon below is meant for the jaws of hell. Surrounded by all these horrors, man is yet able to forget them all, and to think only of the pleasures of life, which, like a few drops of honey, fall into his mouth from the tree of life. 1

But what is still more curious is, that the author of “Barlaam and Josaphat” has evidently taken his very hero, the Indian Prince Josaphat, from an Indian source. In the “Lalita Vistara”—the life, though no doubt the legendary life, of Buddha—the father of Buddha is a king. When his son is born, the Brahman Asita predicts that he will rise to great glory, and become either a powerful king, or, renouncing the throne and embracing the life of a hermit

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become a Buddha. 1 The great object of his father is to prevent this. He therefore keeps the young prince, when he grows up, in his garden and palaces, surrounded by all pleasures which might turn his mind from contemplation to enjoyment. More especially he is to know nothing of illness, old age, and death, which might open his eyes to the misery and unreality of life. After a time, however, the prince receives permission to drive out; and then follow the four drives, 2 so famous in Buddhist history. The places where these drives took place were commemorated by towers still standing in the time of Fa Hian’s visit to India, early in the fifth century after Christ, and even in the time of Hiouen Thsang, in the seventh century. I shall read you a short account of the three drives: 3—

“One day when the prince with a large retinue was driving through the eastern gate of the city, on the way to one of his parks, he met on the road an old man, broken and decrepit. One could see the veins and muscles over the whole of his body, his teeth chattered, he was covered with wrinkles, bald, and hardly able to utter hollow and unmelodious sounds. He was bent on his stick, and all his limbs and joints trembled. ‘Who is that man?’ said the prince to his coachman. ‘He is small and weak, his flesh and his blood are dried up, his muscles stick to his skin, his head is white, his teeth chatter, his body is wasted away; leaning on his stick, he is hardly able to walk, stumbling at every step. Is there something peculiar in his family, or is this the common lot of all created beings?’

“‘Sir,’ replied the coachman, ‘that man is sinking under old age, his senses have become obtuse, suffering has destroyed his strength, and he is despised by his relations. He is without support and useless, and people have abandoned him, like a dead tree in a forest. But this is not peculiar to his family.

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[paragraph continues]In every creature youth is defeated by old age. Your father, your mother, all your relations, all your friends, will come to the same state; this is the appointed end of all creatures.’

“‘Alas!’ replied the prince, “are creatures so ignorant, so weak and foolish as to be proud of the youth by which they are intoxicated, not seeing the old age which awaits them? As for me, I go away. Coachman, turn my chariot quickly. What have I, the future prey of old age—what have I to do with pleasure?” And the young prince returned to the city without going to the park.

“Another time the prince was driving through the southern gate to his pleasure-garden, when he perceived on the road a man suffering from illness, parched with fever, his body wasted, covered with mud, without a friend, without a home, hardly able to breathe, and frightened at the sight of himself, and the approach of death. Having questioned his coachman, and received from him the answer which he expected, the young prince said, ‘Alas! health is but the sport of a dream, and the fear of suffering must take this frightful form. Where is the wise man who, after having seen what he is, could any longer think of joy and pleasure?’ The prince turned his chariot, and returned to the city.

“A third time he was driving to his pleasure-garden through the western gate, when he saw a dead body on the road, lying on a bier and covered with a cloth. The friends stood about crying, sobbing, tearing their hair, covering their heads with dust, striking their breasts, and uttering wild cries. The prince, again, calling his coachman to witness this painful scene, exclaimed, ‘Oh, woe to youth, which must be destroyed by old age! Woe to health, which must be destroyed by so many diseases! Woe to this life, where a man remains so short a time! If there were no old age, no disease, no death; if these could he made captive forever!’ Then, betraying for the first time his intentions, the young prince said, ‘Let us turn back, I must think how to accomplish deliverance.’

“A last meeting put an end to hesitation. He was driving through the northern gate on the way to his pleasure-gardens, when he saw a mendicant, who appeared outwardly calm, subdued, looking downwards, wearing with an air of dignity his religious vestment, and carrying an alms-bowl.

“‘Who is that man?’ asked the prince.

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“‘Sir,’ replied the coachman, ‘this man is one of those who are called Bhikshus, or mendicants. He has renounced all pleasures, all desires, and leads a life of austerity. He tries to conquer himself. He has become a devotee. Without passion, without envy, he walks about asking for alms.’

“‘This is good and well said,’ replied the prince. ‘The life of a devotee has always been praised by the wise. It will be my refuge, and the refuge of other creatures; it will lead us to a real life, to happiness and immortality.’

“With these words the young prince turned his chariot, and returned to the city.”

If we now compare the story of Joannes of Damascus, we find that the early life of Josaphat is exactly the same as that of Buddha. His father is a king, and after the birth of his son, an astrologer predicts that he will rise to glory; not, however, in his own kingdom, but in a higher and better one; in fact, that he will embrace the new and persecuted religion of the Christians. Everything is done to prevent this. He is kept in a beautiful palace, surrounded by all that is enjoyable; and great care is taken to, keep him in ignorance of sickness, old age, and death. After a time, however, his father gives him leave to drive out. On one of his drives he sees two men, one maimed, the other blind. He asks what they are, and is told that they are suffering from disease. He then inquires whether all men are liable to disease, and whether it is known beforehand who will suffer from disease and who will be free; and when he hears the truth, he becomes sad, and returns home. Another time, when he drives out, he meets an old man with wrinkled face and shaking legs, bent down, with white hair, his teeth gone, and his voice faltering. He asks again what all this means, and is told that this is what happens

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to all men; and that no one can escape old age, and that in the end all men must die. Thereupon he returns home to meditate on death, till at last a hermit appears, 1 and opens before his eyes a higher view of life, as contained in the Gospel of Christ.

No one, I believe, can read these two stories without feeling convinced that one was borrowed from the other; and as Fa Hian, three hundred years before John of Damascus, saw the towers which commemorated the three drives of Buddha still standing among the ruins of the royal city of Kapilavastu, it follows that the Greek father borrowed his subject from the Buddhist scriptures. Were it necessary, it would be easy to point out still more minute coincidences between the life of Josaphat and of Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist religion. Both in the end convert their royal fathers, both fight manfully against the assaults of the flesh and the devil, both are regarded as saints before they die. Possibly even a proper name may have been transferred from the sacred canon of the Buddhists to the pages of the Greek writer. The driver who conducts Buddha then he flees by night from his palace where he leaves his wife, his only son, and all his treasures, in order to devote himself to a contemplative life, is called Chandaka, in Burmese, Sanna. 2 The friend and companion of Barlaam is called Zardan. 3 Reinaud

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in his “Mémoire sur l’Inde,” p. 91 (1849), was the first, it seems, to point out that Youdasf, mentioned by Massoudi as the founder of the Sabæan religion, and Youasaf, mentioned as the founder of Buddhism by the author of the “Kitáb-al-Fihrist,” are both meant for Bodhisattva, a corruption quite intelligible with the system of transcribing that name with Persian letters. Professor Benfey has identified Theudas, the sorcerer in “Barlaam and Joasaph,” with the Devadatta of the Buddhist scriptures. 1

How palpable these coincidences are between the two stories is best shown by the fact that they were pointed out, independently of each other, by scholars in France, Germany, and England. I place France first, because in point of time M. Laboulaye was the first who called attention to it in one of his charming articles in the “Débats.”