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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Jesus in India

Even the staunchest Christian has to concede that what scripture tells us about the life of Jesus hardly amounts to a comprehensive biography. For any details at all we rely almost solely upon the four gospels. These collectively (and at times conflictingly) inform us of his birth, his early childhood (but even this only partially), and his ministry, which effectively took place over the last two years of his life. All texts are strangely silent about what happened in between – a hiatus of almost twenty years.

Did Jesus once walk in the shadow of the mountains of the Hindu Kush, perhaps to seek new forms for the Spirit that were then unknown in his native Galilee?
In other words: most of Jesus’ life, and what he did during those many years, is a total unknown. Why are all the gospels so strangely silent about those intervening years? Or perhaps more to the point: why is this stark fact so summarily brushed aside within Christianity itself? It is as if this yawning void of non-information is considered to be a minor inconvenience in our knowledge of the Saviour: something perfunctorily acknowledged before swiftly moving on to more familiar events. Jesus, the young boy encountered in Luke’s gospel going [1]‘about his Father’s business’ in the temple, a few verses later emerges as the adult Jesus being baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan. It is as if a biographer of the Duke of Wellington were to describe his early boyhood in a brief introductory chapter – and then begin the next chapter by describing his victory against Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo.

This timeline graphically illustrates how little is known about the life of Jesus. The gospels collectively describe only the light areas on the line; the rest of the intervening years are a total unknown. Conflicting dates make the exact span of Jesus’ life uncertain, although it is usually taken to be 32-33 years.

So whether or not we care to address this issue of Jesus’ missing years, whether we choose to sweep it under the carpet as being ‘unimportant’ or ‘not the point’, the issue is still there. And the existence of the issue leaves us free to speculate upon what he might have done, and where he might have been. He might, of course, simply have spent those years in Galilee as an itinerant sage and healer, perhaps performing local exorcisms (‘casting out devils’, to use the scriptural phrase), or just keeping a low profile in preparation for the momentous final years of his life. Or perhaps he journeyed farther afield, even as far as India.

Seeking an answer to whether the footsteps of Jesus ever were imprinted in Indian soil must begin with the question: how feasible would the journey itself have been? Just how do-able was it at the time to get from Galilee to the distant Hindu Kush? It seems a long way, but startlingly, the answer is: entirely possible, even plausible. If we follow the trade routes of the time, we ourselves can plot a likely route on the map. The Silk Road had principal connecting points in the port city of Antioch and in Damascus. From Damascus the Silk Road then went eastward via Palmyra to Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia, where two alternative routes presented themselves. Either by a river and sea voyage, first down the Euphrates and then by sea to Hormuz in Persia, or farther south to the Indian port of Barbaricon. Either option would have allowed for a direct connection inland to northern India along principal known trade routes.

Following the Silk Road and other major trade routes, either overland or by land and sea, would have made a journey from Galilee to India entirely feasible.
The second alternative would have been overland, journeying east from Ctesiphon along the Silk Road to Bactra northwest of the Hindu Kush, then southeast through the Khyber Pass to [2]Taxila in the foothills. These alternatives all followed time-tested trade routes. Join a caravan, and off you go. After all, Alexander the Great trod the same route in his conquests of three centuries before, and we know that Alexander at any rate left his own footprints in Taxila. So for Jesus the journey itself was entirely feasible, and would have needed no arduous trailblazing as such. The next question should be: can we detect any signs of such a sojourn accounting for his [3]missing years, both in his teachings, which thereafter presumably would have been Eastern-influenced, and in [4]India itself? Again the answer, startling perhaps for some, could be: yes.

The mountains of the Hindu Kush. Mountains have always exhorted us to reach out for the Divine. Often they have been seen as the dwelling places of gods and spirits, and for many, treading their snowy fastness feels like walking on sacred ground.
For those long unaccounted-for years, Jesus simply vanishes from the record. If at least part of that time was spent in India, then we would expect his own ministry to be informed by [5]Buddhist influence. It has been [6]suggested that Jesus’ lifestyle resembled that of a Cynic philosopher. Cynicism (not to be confused with our own contemporary use of the term) was a Greek school of philosophy, a lifestyle, which urged its adherents to live a simple life, to wear simple garments and not pay heed to worldly possessions, and peaceably to live in harmony with their surroundings. Galilee and regions northward were subject to Hellenist influence (Paul’s first language was Greek), and Jesus actually urges his apostles to embrace such a [7]lifestyle.

A lake in Srinagar, Kashmir. Did these same contemplative reflections offer their silent mirror to Jesus two millennia ago? Places far from home often invite us to gain new insights. When we return from such sojourns we might view the familiar in unexpected ways, and discover our own native soil anew.
But Cynicism in its turn, however coincidentally, closely resembled the lifestyle of Buddhist monks. Such a monk as well lived a life of utter simplicity and devotion, depending for his or her existence on the charity of others. The precepts of Jesus to a way of non-violence, to loving your neighbour, to placing yourself in the service of others, which were revolutionary for and otherwise unknown to other teachings in Palestine, and which otherwise seem mysteriously to have emerged from a social milieu utterly foreign to them, were the very fabric of Buddhism. Buddha also healed the sick and fed multitudes with a few loaves of bread, not as magic tricks, but as manifestations of his divine Buddha nature. Were these ideas, so novel for the near East, imported from a farther East by Jesus himself? Did Jesus sojourn in a Buddhist monastery in the very shadow of the Hindu Kush? 

We are left to wonder. The ease of travelling the trade routes, and the quietly-spoken and deeply-human teachings of Jesus himself, so radically different for his social environment, makes such speculation at least plausible. As to any protests that Jesus never visited India because there is no firm proof that he did, the only reasoned response must be that there also is no proof that he did not.

[1] Luke 2: 41-49. In this passage relating the boy Jesus’ visit to the temple in Jerusalem, his age is given as twelve (Luke 2: 42). The following chapter mentions that Jesus is ‘about thirty years of age’ (Luke 3: 23). The few intervening verses between these two quotes concern themselves with John the Baptist. No mention whatever is made of Jesus’ activities or whereabouts in the intervening eighteen years of his life.

[2] The city of Taxila is now within the borders of present-day Pakistan.

[3] There is the further claim that Jesus was in India – but travelled (or perhaps returned) there after his presumed resurrection, living as a respected foreigner in the community as ‘Yuz Asouf’. This person lived into old age, and was buried in a tomb according to the Jewish tradition (that is: orientated east-west) in Srinagar, Kashmir (left): a tomb which still exists and can be visited. The clear implication is that Jesus did not die on the cross, but passed into coma before being taken down and was secretly revived in the tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea. Accepting this possibility means that the ‘resurrection’ in Christian terms never actually happened, which if true would undermine the very cornerstone of Christian belief. This heretical idea is too complex to be examined here, and will be covered in a future post.

[4] There are two further issues which I have chosen not to cover in the body of this post. The first is the claim by the 19th-century Russian adventurer Nicolas Notovitch (right) that he discovered a manuscript in a northern Indian monastery relating the deeds of a certain foreigner named as ‘Issu’ who healed others, which at face value seems to hint at evidence of Jesus’ presence in that monastery. But this story is too clouded by controversy and accusations of hoax to be included in a post in which I have concentrated only on ‘plausibles’. The second issue is the Hindu manuscript known as the Bhavishya Maha Purana, which mentions a Messiah-like individual named as Issa Masih, who had taught a doctrine of peace, and who had fled east from his homeland due to persecution. Being therefore post-resurrection, this also relates to my ‘resurrection’ point in note [3] above.

[5] Buddhism was founded some five hundred years before the time of Jesus.

[6] The idea that Jesus actually was a Cynic philosopher is mentioned (among others) by Paula Fredriksen in her book Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Professor Fredriksen points out that dressing in simple garb was one of the features of the Cynics. So if you tend to picture Jesus in a humble coarsely-woven garment, rather than in the tassel-fringed robes that were normal Jewish attire, then you are picturing him as a Cynic philosopher. But the hints are not in appearance alone. The at-times enigmatic and koan-like wisdom of Jesus, which is so in evidence in that source for the canonical gospels of the teachings of Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas, and which predates them, is also typical of the Cynic style of teaching – and also of Eastern mysticism.

[7] Mark 6: 7-9. “And he called unto him the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits; and commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, save a staff only; no *scrip, no bread, no money in their purse: but be shod with sandals; and not put on two coats.” K.J.V. (*‘Scrip’: a bag.)

Paula Fredriksen: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999.
Hindu Kush mountains photo by Hindu Kush Adventure. Srinagar lake adapted from a photo by Singh Suninder Jeet. 'Jesus in the Hindu Kush' painting, Silk Road map and Life of Jesus timeline by Hawkwood for the ©David Bergen Studio.

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