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Buddhadharma : Summer 2014
SUMMER 2014 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 71 remind us that we usually think of Bud- dhism only as existing in those parts of East, Southeast, and Inner Asia where it still flourishes today. We tend to forget the wealthy, powerful, and culturally influential Buddhist realms in places “once known by names like Scythia, Bactria, Parthia, and Sogdiana,” places that are today Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. These storied regions, whose names still evoke the romance of the Silk Routes and the glory of the Bami- yan Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, have disappeared from our present-day imaginations. Yet trade along the so-called Silk Routes, as well as war, conquest, intellectual curiosity, and religious proselytizing, led to much exchange between the emerging Islamic empires based in Damascus and then Baghdad, and the Buddhist societies of central Asia, India, and farther east. Such exchanges are apparently what led to a version of the Buddha’s life story being translated (or more accurately, rewritten) in Arabic sometime before the tenth century. This Arabic work preserves the basic outline of the story of the Buddha’s life and seems to be based on translations of Sanskrit and other Indian language accounts of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life into Middle Persian, and from Middle Persian into Arabic. Yet despite the familiarity of the story, the Arabic text introduces new features. These new fea- tures would travel with the story into its Christian iterations in ever more dra- matic form. The first major difference is that in the Arabic story, the prince and his father do not simply disagree about the best practice of renunciation as they do (rather lovingly) in the story of the Buddha. Rather, in the Arabic story, their conflict is far more intense and even violent. In the Arabic story, the prince’s father is a pagan idolator who actively persecutes followers of the young prince’s religion, and there are gruesome references to torture and suffering. Lopez and McCracken point out that the copies we have of the text are associated with Shi’a Muslim com- munities, who were persecuted minori- ties under the Sunni Abbasid caliphate. The authors speculate that the Arabic work may be mirroring a Shi’a experi- ence of minority status, suffering, and persecution. Curiously, the Arabic work does not directly name the prince’s religion, refer- ring to it only as the Religion (Din, in Arabic) and leaving the details vague, other than describing it as a path of virtue, ascetism, and saintliness. The Prophet Muhammed is not mentioned, Islam is only mentioned once, and Bud- dhism is not referred to at all. Lopez and McCracken suggest that intellectu- als in the Islamic world of this time only had fragmentary and partial knowledge about Buddhism. Thus our tale appears here as a story that Arabic-speaking people in the Muslim world of the tenth century could appreciate as “a text by a non-Muslim writer which nonethe- less illustrated values compatible with Islam.” The story seems to encapsulate both the romance of exoticism and the reaffirmation of shared values, in a kind of “intercultural grappling with difference.” Much of this appreciation of inter- cultural difference would evaporate in the next round of translation. For very soon after the Arabic version of the story emerged, it was translated again, this time into the Georgian language, and reworked for a Christian audi- ence by Georgian monks in Palestine. These Georgian monks Christianized the story’s themes in ways that reflected their own experience, which was again one of persecution and conflict. But for these translators, the enemy were the Muslim conquerors who ruled Geor- gia. In the Georgian version of the tale, the prince of the story, now named Iodasaph but still imagined as living in India, triumphs at the end. He converts his violent pagan father, then drives all REVIEWS