File this under “huh.”
I found something pretty wild in an essay by J.L. Borges this morning. There’s a 13th century Norse saga about the Buddha. And the story has other fine twists as well. This all revolves around a legendary tale of the Buddha’s early life.
In the 6th century BC a son was born to a petty king in what is now Nepal. He was named Siddharta, and it was prophesied shortly after the boy’s birth that he would become either a great king or a great holy man. His father then kept him carefully protected from contact with religion and human suffering, apparently to keep the boy away from the holy-man alternative career path. After 29 years of secluded luxury, Siddharta left his palace for a chariot ride with his driver and immediately confronted an old man (aging!), a sick man (disease!) and a dead man (death!). This freaked him out, but when Siddharta then met an ascetic holy man he took heart from the peaceful look in his eyes and decided to renounce the world.
This story is just a prelude to the part of the Buddha’s life that really interests Buddhists. But let’s fast-forward some centuries. In about the 3rd century AD, Manichaean Persians translate the story into Middle Persian. In the 8th century, Muslims translate that into Arabic. By now the honorific Bodhisattva (“enlightened existence”) of the original text has been misunderstood as the man’s name and rendered first as Budasaf, then Yudasaf, and then Yuzasaf. A Georgian version of the 9th century makes it Iodasaph, a Greek one of the early 11th century makes it Ioasaph, and then in 1048 a Latin version makes it Iosaphat or Josaphat. Along the way, Siddharta’s driver Channa has somehow acquired a more important role and been renamed Barlaam, and the story has been adapted as a Christian tale. This Latin version of “Barlaam and Josaphat” is what King Haakon IV of Norway has translated into Old Norwegian in the 13th century. An 1851 edition is on-line.
Meanwhile, Barlaam and Josaphat have come to be venerated as a pair of Christian saints, celebrated on 27 November in the Western Church. And Borges points out a delicious irony: in 1615 the Portuguese historian Diogo do Couto (who lived in India for many years) denounces the heathen Buddhists for believing in a story that is obviously just a garbled version of the legend of Saint Josaphat.