3 | 2017
Indian Birth and Western Rebirths of the Jātaka Tales

The editors would like to thank the following institutions:

  • The Regional Council of Île de France.
  • The Embassy of India.
  • The Research Commission of the University of Paris 13, Sorbonne Paris Cité.
  • The Faculty of Law, Social and Political Sciences and the Centre forStudies and Research in Administrative and Political Sciences (CERAP), University of Paris 13, Sorbonne Paris Cité.
  • The Centre for Research on English Studies (CREA) of the University of Paris West Nanterre and the Centre for Research on Space/Writing (CREE) of the University of Paris West Nanterre.
  • The Team of Interdisciplinary Research on Cultural Areas (ERIAC) of the University of Rouen Normandy.
  • and the Society for Activities and Research on the Indian world (SARI).

for their generous support for this project.

Couverture de
  • Michel Naumann, Ludmila Volná et Geetha Ganapathy-Doré  Introduction

Indian Birth and Western Rebirths of the Jātaka Tales

Marco Polo in Ceylon: A Jātaka written by a Christian
(and some related remarks on Ibn Battuta and Antenor Firmin)

Michel Naumann


This article proposes to study some texts (by Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Antenor Firmin) which present the Buddha and his vocation from an external point of view. The gaze is sometimes unjust and ill-informed, sometimes noteworthy and sometimes revelatory of unaccustomed aspects of the personality of the founder of Buddhism.

Texte intégral

1In the 13th century, Marco Polo (1254-1324) visited Ceylon and went to the mountain where the Moslems venerate Adam’s foot print. The Buddhists look upon it as Sakya-Muni’s footprint. (MP, 203). It is a pilgrimage to a sacred placed shared by two world religions, which Ibn Battuta (1304-1377), the Moroccan traveler, also made less than a century after the Venetian traveler (IB, 943-7). Ibn Battuta is very accurate and precise in his writings. He gives us a description of the itineraries (Adam’s route is a very difficult one which involves climbing the mountain, whereas Eve’s route is much easier thanks to chains provided on the flanks of Mount Sarandib), grottos venerated (named Iskander, Orange, Sultan), the organization of the pilgrimage which was to last three days and the sacred footprint itself, a hole in the dark rocks, 11 empasis long, with the space for the big toe carried away to Zaytan by Chinese Buddhists and plenty of smaller holes for offerings. Mount Sarandib is as far as a nine days' walk from the sea, but high enough to give the visitor a view which reaches the coast. The climb takes the pilgrims beyond the clouds. Ibn Battuta made this pilgrimage as a Moslem, but Marco Polo was more of a story-teller than a pilgrim. Although as a Christian, he could have felt that his visit had some religious meaning, his tone is rather neutral and secular in his book on his travels, especially in the passage dedicated to Ceylon and Lord Buddha.

2Marco Polo did not have to present Adam to a Christian audience, but who knew Lord Buddha in the West? European people had some ideas on Islam because the Mediterranean Sea was shared by the three monotheistic religions, but there was no direct contact between the West and Buddhism. He, therefore, tells his readers of the famous story of the early life of the founder of Buddhism and tries to explain who this prince was, the experience he went through and what his creed was. Marco Polo was a merchant, but his interests were mainly political as he worked for Kublai Khan. He speaks of countries and kings with competence, but he often leaves religion and even trade aside. He obviously knew very little about Buddhism as a philosophy, but the text shows that he was nevertheless very respectful of Buddha whose virtues he admired.

3The passage dedicated to Ceylon and Buddha’s life (MP, 204-5) is channeled by three textual codes:

  1. The narrative code, NARR, is about Buddha’s origin, youth, experience and conversion according to the Buddhist tale of Buddha’s youth.

  2. The analytic code, ANAL, tries to interpret the story.

  3. The ideological code, IDEOL, helps him understand the meaning of the events of Buddha’s life. It can be divided into 3 sub-codes, one for Christianity (IDEOL-C), one for Paganism (IDEOL-P), one for Judaism and Islam (IDEOL-JI). The code which corresponds to Buddhism is absent as the Buddhist elements of the text are only present in the narrative code.

4The sequence of the presentation of Ceylon and the pilgrimage is short. It is a brief introduction to the story of Buddha’s vocation. If NARR dominates, ANAL is most important in this introduction as Buddha, here called Sagamoni Borkam, is defined, perhaps by antonomasia with Adam the first man, as the first idol worshipper and a Saint. The first definition seems negative, at least from the point of view of IDEOL-JI if not even IDEOL-C, because idols are harshly condemned in the Bible and the Koran, but the second definition is highly positive. This contradiction between the idol worshipper and the Saint is not dealt with in Marco Polo’s text, and we can conclude that he did not see it or that he was indifferent to it. I will engage with this contradiction later in my essay by bringing up some Christian theological arguments.

5The first narrative sequence shows that NARR is influenced by IDEOL-C as Buddha appears as a King who refused his throne and rejected the mundane world, an attitude praised by the writer and close to the Christian tradition of renunciation. Even though Buddha is not presented according to the Buddhist views, he is highly respected by Marco Polo: IDEOL-C works on the one hand as the wrong code to understand Buddha, but on the other hand as a code which grants him a Christian recognition of his moral virtues, which explains the author’s admiration for Buddha’s ascetic and mystic qualities. The second sequence returns to the legend of Buddha (NARR). Therefore, it revolves around Buddha’s isolation from the real world by his father: he was kept in an enchanted palace, surrounded by wonderful maidens so that he remained unconscious of the hardships of life. The next two events relate the growing consciousness of Buddha through his discovery of death and old age and in sequence five, he runs away from his father’s palace to become, in sequence six, a holy man in the mountains.

6NARR as a Buddhist story will not go much beyond this stage (sequence six) because Marco Polo doesn’t grasp the philosophical questions behind the narrative code of Buddha’s story. ANAL then can only provide a Christian interpretation (IDEOL-C) which, once more, is very respectful: « he lived in abstinence as if he had been a Christian. Had he been one… he would have been as holy as our Lord Jesus Christ » (MP, 204). Such a misunderstanding is far from being infamous! It is due to the Christian background of the writer of course (ANAL under the domination of IDEOL-C), but I feel that it is also the result of Marco Polo’s lack of interest in religion and philosophy and of his taste for wonderful stories such as the tale, in this passage, of this king who became an ascetic. It shows that NARR is more important than ANAL for the author, but for us the Buddhist events of the story are subverted by ANAL, which creates a misunderstanding about NARR for the author and his Christian audience in the Middle Ages.

7The story of Buddha (NARR) ends with his death after a long and holy life. ANAL explains, according to IDEOL-C, that for his followers he is the greatest God. NARR respects the Buddhist tales when the many lives of Buddha (they are numbered up to eighty-four) are evoked but they are understood not as the incarnations of Buddha from which he is finally liberated but, perhaps closer to IDEOL-C, as rewards for his holy life or proof of his holiness as he reappears to help and enlighten the living. In the logic provided by IDEOL-C, saints perform miracles even after their death. If NARR may be somewhat adequate and close to the Buddhist tales, ANAL is constantly unable to cope with Buddha’s story.

8IDEOL-C also provides other continuations to the story of the ascetic vocation of Buddha, which, by the way, hides, because ANAL is dominated by IDEOL-C, Buddha’s refined analysis of the relative value of the acetic way of life. This continuation concerns first the pilgrimage to Sarandib Mount, then the relics of the holy man like the relics in a Christian narrative. Buddha’s father raises an idol of gold and gems for his son, which seems to imply the King’s conversion to the teachings of his son, an end which is very Christian. ANAL remains under the domination of IDEOL-C as the Sarandib pilgrimage is compared to the major Christian pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain (MP, 204). The fact that Buddha is venerated through an idol might be considered as a way of debasing him according to the biblical and koranic rejection of idols (IDEOL-JI), but that would contradict the tone of the writer who remains very respectful and I rather think that Marco Polo relied on the Catholic theory of natural faith (IDEOL-C) as an imperfect but nevertheless remarkable human achievement towards the discovery of God’s will by people whose search is enlightened by natural qualities, but also deprived of the Grace of Israel and Christ’s Revelations.

9Buddha’s relics in Sarandib are constituted by some hair and teeth and a bowl. They were claimed by an embassy of the Great Khan in 1284, and some parts of the relics were brought to his court in China. Among these gifts of Sri Lanka to the Emperor of the Mongol Empire was the bowl that was tested and it was discovered that if someone put food for one man in it, up to five men could be easily nourished (MP, 205). Marco Polo’s sources are probably Mongolian sources, those he mastered best as a politically minded person and a dedicated servant of the Khan. No need to invoke the influence of a Christian tradition here, like the nourishing of a crowd by Christ, because the theme of the supernatural powers of relics belongs to all kinds of religious traditions.

10It is perhaps useful to evoke another non-Buddhist author interested in Buddha’s life and time, not an African Muslim like Ibn Battuta, not an Italian Christian like Marco Polo, but an Afro-American thinker from Haïti, Anténor Firmin (1850-1910). He was a major thinker of the 19th century, although he has not yet been recognized as such. He not only wrote a huge, learned and courageous book against the racist theories of Gobineau but also against the reluctance of all Western scientists to recognize African contributions to history and culture. He noticed that Buddha’s representations show him with African features and frizzy hair (AF, 217). Of course, he did not pretend that he was from Africa. He just reminded Ampère and other great specialists of Indian cultures of the fact that the so-called pure White Aryans of India are actually very dark and that they are probably the result of the mixing of many populations and cultures, some of them originally African but from a very remote past. The West was then inventing an Aryan Tibet out of which were supposed to come all the lights and secrets of all great cultures and religions. Rider Haggard and Hitler were not displeased by such a bold claim. German scientists were sent to India and Tibet to check the Aryan blood of the higher classes and castes. The results were disappointing for the Nazy propaganda. Anténor Firmin knew that one theory, although not a prevailing one, seemed to spot Buddha’s kingdom, not in the North of India and the Himalayas, ideologically claimed by the West, but closer to Dekkan, a place of mixed races and cultures. If Buddha’s African features were valued by a tradition which freely chose how to represent the founder of Buddhism, it must mean that Buddha did not look like a Caucasian with a long nose, pink lips and curvy hair or at least that Caucasian features were not so prestigious then. Firmin claims that Anquetil Dupeyron was closer to his vision of Buddha than Ampère (AF, 218) and he reminds us of the fact that the Indian land of Kapila-Vastu meant the country of Dark people and that the great philosopher who became the head of the Sankhya school was called Kapila, the Dark one. Antenor Firmin thought subsequently that White features were not favoured at the time when Buddhism took shape and started to represent its founder.

11Obviously today’s Buddhists have to struggle with a White and colonial vision of Buddha, which Marco Polo did not adopt, as in his time the West felt that, apart from the Christian Revelation (which for a mild or open-minded believer like Marco Polo was not a key factor in his works as a writer), the achievements of Eastern civilizations were vastly superior to their own achievements. Incompetent in his analysis of the Buddhist faith though he was, his mind was not a colonial one by any means. He comes out at least as a generous Italian and Christian spontaneously ready to compare Buddha to Christ.


Firmin Anténor, De l’égalité des races humaines, Paris, Mémoires d’encre, 2005.

Ibn Battuta, « Voyages », in Voyageurs arabes, Paris, Gallimard (coll. « La Pléiade »), 1995.

Polo Marco, Le devisement du monde, Paris, Merveille, 1953.

Pour citer ce document

Michel Naumann, « Marco Polo in Ceylon: A Jātaka written by a Christian » dans « Indian Birth and Western Rebirths of the Jātaka Tales », « Lectures du monde anglophone », n° 3, 2017 Licence Creative Commons
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Quelques mots à propos de :  Michel Naumann

University of Cergy Pontoise
Michel Naumann is Professor Emeritus at the University of Cergy. He is a specialist in African Literature and History of Ideas in India. He had worked in Congo, Cameroun, Niger and Nigeria and has published several books on India (MN Roy in 2004, Gandhi in 2016) and Africa (Pour une littérature voyoue, La décolonisation anglaise 1919-90). He is a founding member of SARI (Society of Activities and Research in the Indian world) and its honorary president.