Borzuya's autobiography compared to Augustine's Confessions

Borzuya seeks medicine of immortality in India

In sixth-century Persia, the royal physician Borzuya wrote a short, scarcely known autobiography.  Borzuya’s autobiography describes an inner struggle like the “contest of self and against self” in Augustine’s famous fourth-century Confessions.[1]  Borzuya’s and Augustine’s highly literary inner struggles are similar.  But, unlike Augustine, Borzuya did not clearly find a healed self in a well-defined new life.

Borzuya sought more lasting goods than worldly riches and pleasures.  According to Borzuya, gold disappears and silver is stolen: such goods are like vapor rising from a pot and dissipating in the air.  An excellent character, a good name, and good works have enduring value.  Borzuya instructed himself:

O my soul! look not at the wealth of the rich, or at knotted bridal chambers and ornamented harems.  … O my soul! care for the sick, support the weak, relieve the distressed. [2]

The transience, decay, and changeability of the temporal world are themes in Sassanian court literature.[3]  Zoroastrianism encouraged doing good works to gain credit in the coming, eternal world.  So too did Christianity.  Concern for eternal goods animates both Augustine’s Confessions and Borzuya’s autobiography.

Like Augustine, Borzuya vacillated between choosing a life of worldly pleasures and a life of piety and asceticism.  Borzuya recounted:

When I perceived these miseries which attach to the world’s pleasures and enjoyments, which pass away like a dream in the night, my soul hated them.  They were accounted in my eyes as dung.  And I thought I would be an ascetic or hermit, for his occupation is excellent and his portion good, his innocence is desirable, and his ways are without snares.  … Then my mind, from the intelligence which is implanted in nature and resides in the brain, brought to remembrance what happens to him who guides his steps this way of ascetics: bodily weakness which affects beings made from dust; and many trials, varied troubles, and lurking enemies.  Those enemies thirst for his ruin, and contend with him without ceasing.  Then there is the fear that this poor, weak person would not persevere, but be overcome by force of suffering and multitude of trials.  He would turn back his face in defeat and become a laughing-stock among his brethren and the derision of his friends, and I should lose all the excellent things which I had amassed …. [4]

In this remarkably self-conscious passage, Borzuya brings to mind appealing and frightening aspects of an ascetic’s life.  His imagination of the ascetic’s difficulties slips into the first person.  His imagination seems colored with the importance of honor to Borzuya as the leading physician to the Persian king, and with his own lack of self-confidence.

Borzuya’s self-conflict appears in two contrasting stories of a dog with a bone.  The first story figures Borzuya leaving his position in the Persian court to seek greater goods:

{I could be} like the dog who once passed by a pond with a bone in his mouth.  Seeing the bone’s reflection in the pond, he thought that another bone was in the water.  Descending to the water, he let the bone fall out of his mouth.  He got nothing but distress and want.

On the other hand, perhaps Borzuya misperceived the appeal of his current position:

{The delights of him who is attached to pleasures} resemble a bare bone, void of all juiciness.  A dog takes it that he may taste it.  As long as he keeps hold of it, and splinters it with the strong grasp of his teeth, his mouth is filled with his own blood.  When he tastes the blood which flows from his mouth, he tightens his grasp and bites the bone all the more firmly, and it hurts him more severely.[5]

Just as do the wisdom books of Hebrew scripture, the wisdom that Borzuya acquired from Indian sages encompasses contradictions.  Borzuya personally recognized these contradictions.

Borzuya represented the contradictions of his will in a story of a judge.  Borzuya explained:

I was like the judge to whom two suitors applied about the same matter and with the same object and contention.  After the first suitor had told his story, the judge pronounced him innocent and his opponent guilty and confuted.  Then the second suitor told his story.  That story differed from the first’s story.  Then the judge condemned the first, whom he had acquitted before, and acquitted the second, whom he had earlier pronounced guilty.[6]

Borzuya’s autobiography embeds seven such reversals within Borzuya’s consciousness.  They occur as Borzuya ponders following the religion of his parents, searching further for wisdom, and leading a life of asceticism or pleasure.

Within Borzuya’s autobiography, the story of a pearl borer highlights moral ambiguity. A merchant hired the pearl borer to bore precious pearls for 100 dinars a day.  When the pearl borer entered the merchant’s house, he saw a cymbal.  Rather than working and without the merchant objecting, the pearl borer played the cymbal all day long.  At the end of the day, the pearl borer asked for his wages.  In a tenth/eleventh-century Syriac manuscript of the autobiography, the merchant declared:

Through a weak will, were you not overcome by the love of amusement, so as to spend the whole day in vanity, which impoverishes, like the steam which ascends from a pot and vanishes in the air, when its place is known no more?

In later Arabic manuscripts, the pearl borer argued:

I have done exactly what you ordered.  I was employed by you, and whatever you requested, I obliged. [7]

In the Syriac manuscript, the pearl borer doesn’t get the 100 dinars.  In the later Arabic manuscripts, he does.  The later Arabic manuscripts seem to have incorporated a change in the story’s ending.[8]  The story has ambiguous moral typing.  The changed ending shows an effect of that ambiguous typing in the course of the text’s transmission.

Within Borzuya’s autobiography, a story of a married woman and her paramour represents harmful deliberation.  In this story, a married woman dug a tunnel behind a water jar to give her paramour covert access to her house.[10]  One day when the woman and the paramour were together in the house, the husband arrived at the outer door. The women told the paramour to escape quickly through the tunnel behind the water jar.  When the man came to the mouth of the tunnel, he found that the water jar had been taken away.  He returned to the woman and told her, “I did not find the water jar in the place you told me.”  The woman responded:

O unlucky fool, what have you to do with the water jar?  Wretched man, do you not know that I placed the jar so that you should recognize the spot, and know where to find the door of the tunnel through which you came in?

The man countered:

Since the water jar was not there, you need not have said anything about it, because it confused me and made me think that I did not know, and delivered me into the hand of justice, which will take vengeance on me for having done wrong.

The woman sensibly replied:

Cease from your folly and answering back, and make haste and save yourself, lest I be put to shame as well as you. [11]

They continued arguing, blaming each other, until the husband arrived.  The husband then beat the paramour severely.[12]  Borzuya, struggling within his own conscience, apparently recognized the possibility of harm from continuing, inconclusive deliberation.

Both Borzuya and Augustine lived in societies with vigorously conflicting belief systems.  Augustine felt the competing attractions of Manichaeism, pagan hedonism, neo-platonism, and Christianity.  All these beliefs systems, as well as Zoroastrianism and Indian religions, were active in sixth-century Persia.  Manichaeism particularly affected Augustine.  It was almost surely a stronger competitor to Christianity in Burzoya’s sixth-century Persia than it was in Augustine’s fourth-century north Africa.  Manichaeism emphasizes dual forces of good and evil structuring the cosmos.  Both Borzuya and Augustine brought worldly conflict within their personal consciousnesses.

Borzuya’s autobiography and Augustine’s Confessions have different literary relations to Christian scripture.  Augustine, a former professor of rhetoric in Milan, became a Christian bishop.  He quoted Christian scripture extensively in his Confessions.  Borzuya’s autobiography doesn’t quote Christian scripture.[13]  But Borzuya’s autobiography makes use of illustrative stories much like the Christian gospels do.  Actors in these stories are human, not animals as in the Indian fables of the Panchatantra.  Moreover, both Borzuya’s autobiography and the older account of his journey to India feature explicitly interpreted stories much like Jesus’ explications of parables.[14]

Christians appreciated Borzuya’s Kalilah wa Dimnah from its creation.  A Persian-Christian church official living about Borzuya’s time made a translation into Syriac of Borzuya’s middle-Persian work.[15]  In the tenth or eleventh century, another Persian-Christian, who despaired of the contemporary behavior of Christian priests and the Christian church, made another Syriac translation from an Arabic version of Borzuya’s work.[16]  In addition to Borzuya’s explicitly expressed dissatisfaction with the parochialism of religious teachers and religious institutions, Kalilah wa Dimnah contains many stories morally dubious from a Christian perspective.  Borzuya’s struggle and quest were sufficiently attractive to Christians to offset his life and work’s challenges to Christianity.

Medicine and healing were central to both Borzuya’s and Augustine’s life paths.  Augustine addressed god as “my inner physician”: “thou are the physician, I am the sick man.”[17]  As a scholar and a royal physician in sixth-century Persia, Borzuya almost surely was aware of Christian medical claims.  Ignatius of Antioch, who died about 108, described the Christian Eucharist as “medicine of immortality, and the antidote which prevents us from dying.”[18]  According to a separate account of Borzuya’s journey to India, Borzuya sought in India medicine of immortality.  He did not find such medicine.

Burzoya’s inner struggle did not end in a coherent, well-institutionalized new life.  Borzuya declared in his autobiography that he sought truth from “scholars and leaders in every religious fraction.”  His findings were discouraging:

I discovered that all of these people merely repeat what was handed down to them.  Each one praises his own religion and curses the religion of those who disagree with him.  It became clear to me that their conclusions are based on illusions and that their speech is not motivated by a sense of fairness.  In not one of them did I find that degree of honesty and rightmindedness which would induce rational persons to accept their words and be satisfied with them.[19]

Those findings leave Borzuya spiritually apart from other persons and institutions.  According to the separate account of Burzoya’s journey to India, Burzoya’s journey “led him to piety and asceticism.”[20]  Borzuya’s autobiography ends on a note of warning: the story of a man in a well, in danger of dropping into the mouth of a dragon.  Borzuya’s autobiography does not clearly lead to a specific new way of life, or even to a clear commitment to such a life.[21]  Compared to Augustine’s Confessions, Borzuya’s closely related autobiography speaks more directly to divided selves who do not find Augustine’s new faith, self, and city.

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[1]  The phrase “contest of self against self” is from Augustine, Confessions, bk 8, ch. 11, from Latin trans. Outler (1955) p. 108.  Borzuya may have read Augustine’s Confessions.  Christians were well-established in sixth-century Persia.  Paul the Persian, a Christian theologian and philosopher, participated in the court of the Persian King Khosrau I.  Borzuya, who was a scholar as well as a physician, was also part of that court.  Khosrau welcomed Hellenistic thinkers and received in Ctesiphon philosophers expelled from Athens.  Blois describes the religious skepticism in Borzuya’s autobiography as common among Greek intellectuals of that time.  Blois (1990) p. 32.

[2] Borzuya’s autobiography in Kalilah wa Dimnah, from Syriac trans. Keith-Falconer (1885) p. 251.  The Syriac text was translated from Arabic in the tenth or eleventh century.  Nöldeke (1912) provides a German translations of Borzuya’s autobiography based on early manuscripts.  The corresponding text in English translation:

O soul, let me not be deceived by riches and honors …  O soul, stick to your work, treat the sick

Trans. from id. p. 13.  Knatchbull (1819) obscures Borzuya’s self-address to his soul.  Id. is an English translation based on Silvestre de Sacy’s 1816 Arabic text.  That Arabic text is from the Paris manuscript arabe 3465 as well as some other manuscripts.  Regarding arabe 3465:

this codex is certainly not one of the better copies of our book.  Many authentic passages are missing from it, while many others appear in a badly corrupted form.

Blois (1990) p. 3.  Jallad (2002) is based on Sacy’s text, as printed in Egypt in 1817 (Bulaq imprint).

[3] Shaked (1984) pp. 53-9.  Id. p. 77 notes “the positive attitude towards human activity in this world” in Zoroastrian religion.

[4] Trans. Keith-Falconer (1885) p. 259-60.  Here and in subsequent quotations from the Syriac translation, I’ve adapted the text’s style in translation to make it more readable.  A subsequent similar passage worries that the ascetic would:

be in fear lest you be vanquished by the sufferings, when they befall you, and succumb to the trials, when they attack your weakness, and you stand in great shame before your brethren and kinsmen, and become a laughing-stock to all your acquaintances.

Id. p. 61.

[5] Id. p. 260 (including previous quote).

[6] Id. p. 261.

[7] Syriac text: id. p 259.  Arabic text: trans. Jallad (2002) p. 71.  Nöldeke (1912), p. 19, provides a similar translation based on a variety of early manuscripts.

[8] Nöldeke (1912), p. 19, n. 5, laments that the “morally pedantic Syriac translation” gets the story wrong and gives the worker nothing.  To the contrary, giving nothing to the worker who plays the cymbal (lute in the surviving Arabic manuscripts) is more consistent with Borzuya’s ascetic ponderings.  Moreover, the Syriac text appears to be from the tenth or eleventh century.  It is appears to be the earliest surviving witness to the Arabic text.  Keith-Falconer (1885) p. lix, Blois (1990) p. 5.  The earliest surviving Arabic manuscript (Azzam manuscript) was completed in 1221.  The next earliest Arabic manuscript (Shaykhu manuscript) was completed in 1338.  Id. p. 3.  Scribes modified Kalilah wa Dimnah manuscripts over time:

A comparison of the various manuscripts reveals at once such a degree of discrepancy that one must often wonder whether they are really copies of one and the same book. It appears that the Arabic Kalilah wa Dimnah has to a large degree become a victim of its own popularity.  For one thing, the frequent reading of the book insured that all the old copies were rapidly worn out and had to be replaced.  For another, editors and copyists felt free to alter the text, to add new stories and rewrite old ones, to combine material from various manuscripts, and so on, in a way which would have unthinkable in the case of a “serious” work, say on theology.


[10] In a tale in the 1001 Nights, ‘Ubaid’s wife shows similar initiative in securing the construction of a tunnel to allow Qamar al-Zaman to tryst with her.  See Night 972, from Arabic trans. Lyons (2008) v. 3, p. 630.

[11] Trans. Keith-Falconer (1885) pp. 257-8 (previous three quotes).  Jallad (2002) omits this story.  Knatchbull (1819) pp. 72-73 provides an English translation from the Silvester de Sacy’s Arabic text.  Nöldeke (1912), p. 18, provides the story in German from early manuscripts.

[12] The text makes no mention of action against the wife.  Then and now, violence against men is considerably more frequent than violence against women.  If the paramour had obeyed the woman’s commands, he would have avoided punishment.

[13] The Syriac translation quotes scripture.  See trans. Keith-Falconer (1885) p. 257.  Cf. Matthew 12:13.  The Syriac translations clearly includes interpolations.  Id. pp. 264, 265.  Quotations of Christian scripture in the Syriac translation almost surely are interpolations.

[14] Borzuya’s formulates an allegorical interpretation of the concluding tale of the man in the well.  See, e.g. id. p. 266.  In the older version of Borzuya’s journey to India, Borzuya complained to Indian sages that his books’ account of Indian medicine to revive the dead were wrong.  The Indians sages studied their books and confirmed Borzuya’s account.  However after considering the matter at length, “they found something like an interpretation of it in special books of wisdom.”  The interpretation was an abstracting allegory of Borzuya’s quest and circumstances:

Those mountains are the sages and scholars.  Those shrubs and plants are the wisdom which god has caused to be implemented in their hearts.  The medicines which were described are the books of counsel and the books of learning.  The dead who are brought back to life with these medicines are the ignorant among men who have no knowledge …

Trans. Blois (1990) pp. 80-1.

[15] Keith-Falconer (1885) p. xliii.  A fourteenth-century eastern Christian author listed the translator as “Bod the periodeutes.” A periodeutes is an eastern church official ranking below a bishop. Bod wrote other books:  “Discourses on the Faith,” “Against the Manichaeans,” “Against the Marcionites,” and “Greek Questions.”  His name indicates that he was Persian.  Blois (1990) p. 2.

[16] Keith-Falconer (1885) provides an introduction, English translation, and notes to that text.  For the translator’s despair, see id. pp. 264-5.  Nöldeke (1912) p. 27 is similar.

[17] Augustine, Confessions, bk 10, ch. 28; bk. 10, ch. 3, from Latin trans. Outler (1955) p. 108.

[18] From Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians, Ch. 20.

[19] Trans. Blois (1990) p. 26, based on Nöldeke (1912) and additional review of manuscripts.  The literature contains some dispute about whether this text should be attributed to Borzuya.  Blois argues strongly that it should be.  The  overall themes of Borzuya’s autobiography, as discussed above, support that position.

[20] Trans. Blois (1990) p. 82.

[21] Borzuya concludes:

I resolved to be content to remain as I was, and to perfect my course of action as much as I was able, that perhaps in after life I might happen on a time when I should meet with a guide for my path, a power to rule my soul, and one who would order my affairs; and in this state I remained.

From Sacy’s Arabic text, trans. Keith-Falconer (1885) p. 312.  Nöldeke (1912), p. 27, is similar. The Syriac text has a lacuna, but it also appears to be consistent with the above.

[image] Borzuya and an Indian sage.  From Bodleian Library Kalilah wa Dimnah, transcribed by Muhamad ibn Ahmad in 1354 (Pococke 400).


Blois, François de. 1990. Burzōy’s voyage to India and the origin of the book of Kalīlah wa Dimnah. London: Royal Asiatic Society.

Keith-Falconer, I. G. N, ed. and trans. 1885.  Kalilah and Dimnah: or, The Fables of Bidpai: being an account of their literary history. Cambridge: University Press.

Knatchbull, Wyndham, trans. 1819. Kalila and Dimna, or, The Fables of Bidpai. Oxford: W. Baxter for J. Parker.

Jallad, Saleh Saʻadeh, trans. 2002. The fables of Kalilah and Dimnah. London: Melisende.

Lyons, Malcolm C. 2008. The Arabian nights: tales of 1001 nights. vols. 1-3. London: Penguin.

Nöldeke, Theodor. 1912. Burzōes Einleitung zu dem Buche Kalila waDimna. Strassburg: K.J. Trübner.

Outler, Albert Cook. 1955. Augustine: confessions and enchiridion. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Shaked, Saul. 1984.  “From Iran to Islam: notes on some themes in transmission 1. ‘Religion and sovereignty are twins’ in Ibn al-Muqaffa’s theory of government. 2. The four sages.” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 4 , pp. 31-67, reprinted as Ch. VI in Shaked, Shaul. 1995. From Zoroastrian Iran to Islam: studies in religious history and intercultural contacts. Aldershot, Great Britain: Variorum.

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