We usually think of the process of myth-making as something that happened in ancient times and over many centuries. Not so. Myth-making is alive and well and the myths made today spread faster and become more widely accepted than in the past mainly because of modern communications. Take the “Jesus lived in India” myth for example. In 1894 a Russian journalist, Nicalos Notovitch about who little is known, published a book called The Unknown Life of Jesus which was rapidly translated into English and several other languages and attracted much attention. In the book, Notovitch claimed that during a journey to Ladakh in 1887 he had broken a leg, been put up at the famous Himis Monastery and while there the abbot had read out to him an ancient document called Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men. It told of Jesus’ visit to Kashmir/Ladakh/Tibet where he studied with Buddhist masters and of his eventual return to Palestine where he taught, was crucified and died. Some years later a Jewish merchant visiting Kashmir/Ladakh/Tibet met the teachers of Jesus, heard of Jesus and wrote an account of his “unknown years”. Notovitch claimed that the life of Issa was fairly well-known in Kashmir etc and even that detailed accounts of his life in India were to be found hidden away in the Vatican’s secret archives. In other words, Notovitch’s story had all the ingredients that would make it an irresistible to certain people – the “wisdom of the East” allurement, the romance of the Himalayas, an alternative to conventional Christianity and a good old-fashioned Catholic conspiracy. The book attracted a great deal of attention despite being panned by most reviewers.
But then the big guns were brought to bear on it. Prof. Max Muller, the most widely known and respected scholar of his generation gave his verdict on Notovitch’s book. He started by pointing out that despite the claim that the life of Issa was well-known it did not appear in any of the catalogues of the literature of Tibet (and there many of these catalogues, some of them very ancient). He continued by highlighting some of the extraordinary coincident in the book. “If we understand Mr. Notovitch rightly, this life of Christ was taken down from the mouths of some Jewish merchants who came to India immediately after the Crucifixion.” Muller asked how these Jewish merchants happened, among the uncounted millions of India, to meet “the very people who had known Issa as a casual student of Sanskrit and Pali in India…and still more how those who had known Issa as a simple student in India, saw at once that he was the same person who had been put to death under Pontius Pilate…Two things in their account are impossible, or next to impossible. The first, that the Jews from Palestine who came to India in about 35 A.D should have met the very people who had known Issa when he was a student at Benares; the second, that this Sutra of Issa, composed in the first century of our era, should not have found a place either in the Kandjur or in the Tandjur.” As Muller was writing his article about Notovitch’s book he receive a letter from an Englishwoman friend who happened to have just visited Himis Monastery. It was dated Leh, Ladakh, June 29, 1894, and read in part: “Yesterday we were at the great Himis monastery, the largest Buddhist monastery up here – 800 lamas. There is not a single word of truth in the whole story! There has been no Russian here. No one has been taken into the Seminary for the past fifty years with a broken leg!”
In June 1895 Professor J. Archibald Douglas of Agra wrote a letter to the papers concerning Notovitch. He was at that time a guest in the Himis monastery, enjoying the hospitality of the very abbot who was supposed to have imparted the Unknown Life to Notovitch. Douglas found that no memory of any foreigner with a broken leg lingered at Leh or at Himis. The abbot of Hemis indignantly repudiated the statements ascribed to him by Notovitch, and said that no traveller with a broken leg had ever been nursed at the monastery. He stated with emphasis that no such work as the Life of Issa was known in Tibet, and that the statement that he had imparted such a record to a traveller was an invention. When Notovitch’s book was read to him he exclaimed with indignation: ‘Lies, lies, lies, nothing but lies!’ Further, the abbot had not received from Notovitch the presents Notovitch reported having given him – a watch, an alarm clock, and a thermometer. In fact, he didn’t even know what a thermometer was.” The Victorians took great note of their scholars and scientists and The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ quickly lost its appeal and was relegated to well-deserved obscurity.
But literary frauds (and there are many of them) have an amazing ability to hang on – just think of the Roots, Book of Mormon, The Teachings of Don Juan, The Protocol of the Elders of Zion and the Mahatma Letters (these last two perpetrated by Russians incidentally). The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ was to become anything but “unknown” and to take on a life of its own.
In 1908 Levi H Dowling published The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ which he had been able to download from the “akasic records” and which included a chapter on Jesus’ life in India. The book only circulated amongst a few theosophists and other fringe groups. But in 1926 a newspaper in America reported the discovery in a monastery in Tibet of a lost Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men ( a rehash of Notovitch’s story), other papers, first in America and later overseas, took up the story and it came into popular consciousness again. This pumped a bit of life into the myth and allowed it to hang on until the 1960s. With the growth of the New Age movement in that decade the “Jesus lived in India” myth really became firmly established. We could call it an urban myth. Since then a small and rather profitable industry has developed around the myth. There are more than two dozen books dedicated entirely to the subject, many others allude to it as fact and there are literally hundreds of articles about it. Several pseudo-documentaries deal with it too. We even have authentic pictures of Jesus during his Indian sojourn – meditating, backpacking through the Himalayas and on the cover of Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s book staring wistfully at Lamyuru Monastery in Ladakh, founded in the 10th century CE, a thousand years after Jesus. Recently a Jesus thangka, a Tibetan painted scroll, has been “discovered” – it was only a matter of time I suppose. A quick examination of this thanka, particularly the careless and hasty brush strokes on the outlines and the use of chemical pigments, suggest that it was painted by one of those artists from Kathmandu who knock out fake thankas for tourists. I would date it circa 2000.
With each new publication more “facts” come to light, more details are “discovered” and more sayings of Jesus emerge, so that now the account of his life in India is longer and more well-documented than his life in Palestine.
Here are some of the more popular books on the subject. King of Travellers – Jesus Lost Years in India by Edward Martin, The Lost Years of Jesus Revealed by Charles H. Potter, Jesus Lived in India by Halgen Kersten, Jesus In India by H. N.G. Ahmed, Jesus of India by Maury Lee, Jesus in India by James Deardorff (by this stage authors are struggling to think of titles that do not contain the words Jesus, lived and India). The Mystery of Israel’s Ten Lost Tribes and the Legend of Jesus in India by J. M. Benjamin, A Search for the Historical Jesus by Fida Hassnain, Jesus in Heaven on Earth by K. N. Ahmad and Christ in Kashmir by Aziz Kashmiri.
Now you have to admit, this is rather fascinating. More fascinating still is that there is not an iota, not a shred, not an atom of evidence that Jesus ever left Palestine. Not one inscription, not one fragment of ancient parchment exists, and not one “legend” or “account” can be traced back before the late 19th century. There isn’t even a puff of smoke and a few mirrors.
Indeed, the evidence that Jesus even lived in Palestine is scarce enough. Nearly all historians accept that there was a person called Yehoshua (Joshua) of Nazareth (Jesus is an Anglicized pronunciation of the Greek attempt to say Joshua) who attracted attention sometime between around 29-35 CE. But curiously, the earliest documents to mention Jesus, the letters of St. Paul, (a man who never met Jesus and whose letters make up nearly half the New Testament) contain hardly a single quotation of Jesus. The four Gospels date from between 35 and 70 years after the death of Jesus and no scholars consider them to be written by the direct disciples of Jesus or to be eyewitness accounts. That somebody named Jesus lived, taught and attracted attention there is little doubt, that he went to India there is no more evidence than that he went to Newfoundland, Outer Mongolia or Polynesia.
Except for Dowling’s 1908 akasic records, all the early books on Jesus in India relied on statements like “it is widely believed”, “in Kashmir ancient tradition says”, “historians think it is possible that”, i.e. they make at least some pretence at drawing on ancient evidence. But as the myth has become more accepted “evidence” is asserted as if it were general knowledge. The confidence with which this is done doesn’t even bother to take into account genuine and well-established facts. Swami Satyasangananda of the Bihar School of Yoga in his book on Indian gurus, for example, writes that Jesus studied at Nalanda, disregarding the unimpeachable fact that Nalanda wasn’t founded until about 350 years after Jesus death. But hey! We’re talking about belief here and when belief takes up the front seats facts sit right at the back.
Having said all this let us examine all the supposed evidence for the myth that Jesus visited, lived in and/or studied Buddhism in India.
(1) The belief seems to be that there should be some information about Jesus’ first 27 or 28 years and because there isn’t it is assumed that the information that was there must have been “lost”. The reality is that there probably never was any information about Jesus’ early life, undoubtedly because he did nothing during that time but hammer in nails, saw logs and plane planks. The situation is similar with the Buddha. Other than a few details about his birth, the fact that he was from a privileged background and the names of some of the members of his family, we know almost nothing about him until he renounced the world to become a monk. Nearly everything we do “know” about those 30 years is legends from a later period. The first, second and third generation of Buddhists were mainly interested in what the Buddha taught, not what he did before he became a monk. Incidentally, we know almost nothing about Shakespeare for the same reason. People only became interested in the man several generations after he died, by which time all the people who knew him were dead. We know nothing about Fred Smith of No 32 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam either – quite simply because he did never did anything of any significance beyond his own family, if he had one. If he had shot the prime minister, invented the can opener or painted a masterpiece someone would have taken some notice of him and recorded some facts about him. There are no “lost years” of Jesus.
(2) During Notovitch’s time it was already known that there was some contact between the Roman Empire and India and it was assumed that most of this was by land. Consequently Notovitch claimed that Jesus went to India by land. Now we know that most direct Roman-Indian contact was by sea. Many of the books about the “Jesus lived in India” myth have maps showing the supposed route Jesus took to India. Such maps prove nothing. A map showing the Buddha’s route up the east coast of Australia may well look “official” or “authentic” but it is not evidence that the Buddha made such a trip.
(3) Notovitch claims to have travelled through Ladakh/Tibet in 1885. That the British India Secret Service has no record of him having done so is very strong evidence that he never did. The last decades of the 19th century were the height of the Great Game, the imperialist competition between Britain and Russia. The North-west Frontier Agency, Gilgit/Swat/Kashmir/Ladakh, was perhaps the most sensitive and closely watched border in the world at that time. It was said that a third of the population were spies for the British and the other two thirds spied on the spies. The presence of a Russian “journalist” (read spy) snooping around Ladakh, which was under British suzerainty, would have set off alarm bells in Calcutta and Simla. It is highly unlikely that Notovitch would have been given permission to enter Ladakh and if he was he would have been followed every inch of the way. And yet his name does not appear in any official British documents.
(4) Some later versions of the “Jesus lived in India” myth say that Jesus studied Buddhism at Hemis Monastery, no doubt a detail originating in a careless reading of Notovitch’s claim that he heard about Issa while convalescing at this monastery. The problem with this claim is that Hemis Monastery was only founded 1672, quite a few centuries after Jesus. In 1989 I stayed at Hemis as the guest of a senior monk there and had the good fortune to witness the famous Hemis Festival. I asked my host about the Jesus story. He groaned, rolled his eyes upwards and told me that Westerners often come to the monastery and ask about Jesus and that some of the younger monks string them along for both fun and profit – mainly for profit.
(5) Notovitch claimed that the document about Jesus which was read to him was written in Pali, probably because he knew enough about oriental studies to know that it was the oldest Buddhist language. Had he known just a little more he would have claimed the book was in Sanskrit which was by far a more widely used language. And if it were in Pali it is virtually impossible that a monk in Ladakh or Tibet in the 19th century would have known or even known about this language.
(6) Despite Notovitch’s claim that the Issa story was well-known in the Himalayan region, no copy of this text has ever been found, nor are there any quotations from it or even a mention of it in other ancient writings. The famous Blue Annals (Deb-ther sngon-po) for example, chronicles the early history of Buddhism in India and Tibet and refers to hundreds of scriptures and hundreds of teachers but makes no mention of Issa or his biography.
(7) Those who accept the “Jesus lived in India” myth usually make much of the supposed tomb of Jesus in Kashmir. According to the original 1894 tale, Jesus came to India and then returned to Palestine where he was executed. A later expanded version of the story (myth have a tendency to grow) says that he survived the crucifixion, decided that the Jews weren’t worth the effort, and returned to India where he lived happily ever after and finally died there. Now I have not been able to find any archaeological account of Jesus’ tomb so I’m going to give you my conjectures on it. It is hardly surprising that there should be such a tomb. Muslims have always considered Jesus to be one of the prophets of God, at least at some period there may have been a desire to have or visit some “relic” of this prophet, and as it the case of pilgrimage in all religions, the law of demand and supply operates. When the devote want a relic or a holy site, one inevitably emerges. The inscription on the supposed tomb mentioning Jesus proves nothing. It is in Arabic script so it must date from after the 13th century when Kashmir became Islamic, although its probably much later and likely rather recent. Further, judging by from the photos of the inscription it looks more like graffiti. The great gate at the entrance of the Taj Mahal in Agra has the names of all the prophets revered in Islam carved on it, including the name of Jesus. This does not prove that Jesus visited the Taj.
(8) The other evidence that Jesus went to India and studied with Buddhist masters is the supposed similarities between some passages in the Buddhist scriptures and the Bible. Perhaps it’s just because I’m out-of-step with current trends but I have always considered this to be the weakest of all the “evidence” that Jesus did go to India and have contact with the Dhamma. If Jesus knew the Dhamma you would expect there to be some reference to Buddhism’s most characteristic teachings – the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, etc. Instead, we have a few vaguely similar similes, sayings and parables, most of which are found in other religious traditions too and which could have been borrowed from a common source. On the other hand, when we compare Jesus’ parables, similes, theology and sometimes phrases or even whole sentences, they look very like a continuation of the great Jewish sages and teachers who preceded him. Almost everything he said fits well with the Jewish world-view and Jewish spirituality from around the first millennium. His few ideas which do deviate from Jewish tradition (in the John’s Gospel “I am God”) have no parallel in Buddhism. And his beloved Kashmir and the Himalayas? Why didn’t he make at least one or two references to them?
Years ago I happened to be in a remote Sri Lankan village and amongst the supplies I had was a few cans of food and one of those can openers with a sharp disk which you put on the rim of the can and turn with the handle. An old Sinhalese govitang who must have never seen such a can opener before, looked at and said, “Meka carika vage” (Its like a car). At first I laughed at this; a can opener doesn’t look anything like a car. But then I became intrigued and asked the old man what he meant. He said, in affect, that both have wheels, both have moving parts, both are made of metal and both perform a task. He mentioned how like turning the handle of the can opener and having the wheel go round was to putting a key in the ignition and having the car’s wheels move. An interesting way at looking at it! In my opinion, the similarities between Buddhism and Christianity are like the similarities between a can opener and a car.