The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Christian fans of the Buddha

By M.S.N. Menon

Do you know, dear Reader, that our country was the centre of a worldwide obsession for more than 1,500 years? But, why? Because India was known for its fabulous wealth, for its golden palaces, its milk and honey, its beautiful amazons, its gymnosophists, its philosophies and its spices and incense. Would it not be natural if the Christians had wanted India to be a Christian country?

It all began with the Alexander saga—with the adventures of Alexander, the Great. As the fame of these fabulous stories spread, so did the fame of India. With the advent of Christianity, the saga became a Christian romance and persisted well into the 16th century. It helped to transform the content and form of the Christian sermons, of Christian ethics. No less.

Alexander had already become a demi-God in European imagination. With the advent of the crusades, Alexander became the archetypical hero of the Crusaders, leading the charge against the Saracens (Muslims). But Alexander was real. He did exist in history.

But not Prestor John, the mythical Christian king of fabulous state of India. This was pure fiction, but remained a fact to the faithful Christians for centuries. He was called John the Presbyter.

To make India a Christian country was such an obsession with the Popes and the Vatican that they made a Christian saint of the Buddha. This is how it happened.

By the 10th century AD, collections of Indian short stories began to appear in Europe. They were generally translated from Sanskrit into Persian, and from Persian to Arabic. The story of the Buddha first appeared in Lalitavistara. It travelled from India to Central Asia and then to Arabia, where the Manichean “Bodisaf” became “Yudasaf”, and then to Greek and Latin, where the name took the form of “Josaphat”. “Barlaam and Josaphat” was the first collection of parables to enter European literary tradition.

The story goes like this: Abonner, the king of India, a recalcitrant heathen, tried by means fair and foul, to prevent his gifted son Josaphat from abjuring his native faith to accept the teachings of Christ. But with God’s grace, Josaphat triumphed with the help of Barlaam, an Indian Christian hermit, and a teacher of Josaphat. The story of Josaphat’s moral education by Barlaam is infused in fourteen ingenious and charming parables, which soon became stock terms as medieval exemplars.

Ultimately, the king himself recognised the superiority of Christianity, so we are told, and turned over the kingdom to his son. Four years later, Josaphat left his kingdom after Christianising it and joined Barlaam in the desert, where he died.

Simple story? Yes, but wait. The story of Josaphat had such a powerful grip on the Christian masses of Europe that Josaphat was canonised a Christian saint!

To the Church, Barlaam and Josaphat were moral examplars. They were supposed to have healing powers. In 1584, when Pope Gregory XIII revised the list of Christian saints, he incorporated the story of Josaphat in the new publication.

In the meantime, there were over 100 variations of the Josaphat story available in Europe. In 1571 the Doge of Venice presented to King Sebastian of Portugal a bone, supposed to be a part of the spine of Josaphat. These relics were donated later to the cloister of St. Salvator in Antwerp.

The Georgian and Greek churches elevated Barlaam and Josaphat to sainthood, marking August 16 as their Feast Day. In 1583 the Latin church fixed their Feast Day on November 27. Morality plays were staged in Jesuit colleges based on the Josaphat story.

In the 16th century, the real Buddha story was transmitted to Europe from India by a Jesuit missionary. But it made no impact on Europe. At the turn of the 17th century, Diego de conto, a Portuguese historian recognised the similarity of Buddha’s life and that of Josaphat. He opined that Josaphat was none but Buddha, but Europe continued to believe that the Buddha story was an imitation of the story of Jesus (It was not known then that Buddha was born six centuries before Jesus.) So it remained till the 19th century.

In 1859 it was found that the story of Josaphat was truly the story of the Buddha. Thus, Buddha remained a Christian saint for almost a thousand years. Such was the Christian obsession with India and the Buddha story. The obsession continues with the Vatican.

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