In my last post I introduced the myth of Jesus going to India and those who formulated it. I concluded with my observation that these narratives say more about their writers than Jesus himself. The evidence that Jesus went to India either before or after his ministry in Judea is so slim, it cannot be that facts compel people to believe this myth. There must be some other reason why this myth captivates people. I argue that different groups have different reasons for their creation of and fascination of the tales of Jesus in India.
In these next few posts I will look at these different groups and why each one finds these myths captivating. I’ll start with Nicholas Notovitch and Levi Dowling’s versions of the myth, since they are the two writers who invented the myth. Far from being the kind of New Age syncretism we associate with the tales of Jesus in India today, I argue these two tales were very much products of their colonial time.
I’ll be using the framework posed by Edward Said, who asked Western scholars of “the Orient” (or “the East”) to consider the ways in which their depictions of the Orient served to define Occidental (Western) self-identity. What do the kinds of dualities we construct about other cultures say about ourselves? An obvious example is the way some Western colonial p[owers painted themselves as civilized to justify the “white man’s burden” of civilizing other cultures. Said focused on Western depictions of the Arabic world, but scholars of Buddhism such as Philip Almond and Donald S. Lopez, Jr. extended his framework to early Western images of Buddhism.
First, these early myths reflected contemporary textualization of Buddhism. The Victorian era saw the beginning of Buddhist Studies in the gathering of ancient texts and the decoding of their languages. One of the most famous of these textual scholars was Thomas Rhys Davids, a British colonial officer in Sri Lanka who founded the Pali Text Society. Rhys Davids and other colonial scholars saw in the texts of early Buddhism a purely rational religion, free from the supernaturalism and superstition then criticized in Christianity. Unfortunately, living Buddhism failed to satisfy these standards. By bringing ancient Buddhist texts to Britain and claiming that these represented true Buddhism, colonial scholars created a realm of discourse where they appropriated Buddhism. True Buddhism was not in Asia, but in the university libraries of Europe!
The Jesus of India, like Rhys Davids and his colleagues, learns about Buddhism through texts:
“When the just Issa had acquired the Pali language, he applied himself to the study of the sacred scrolls of the Sutras. After six years of study, Issa, whom the Buddha had elected to spread his holy word, could perfectly expound the sacred scrolls.” (Notovitch, “The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ,” VI.3-4)
The text does not mention Jesus engaged in Buddhist ritual or meditation. For Jesus as for Rhys Davids, Buddhism is entirely a textual object. Jesus learns the texts of Buddhism, then becomes the best teacher of it there is – so good that he crowds believe he is the Buddha reincarnated! Jesus does the same with other religions, learning about them as entirely textual affairs.
Second, Notovitch and Dowling map Catholic-Protestant debates onto Buddhism and Hinduism. Many of the early British scholars of Buddhism were from Protestant backgrounds. They disdained Catholicism as a religion of an ignorant laity, meaningless ritual, and an authoritarian priesthood. When the Victorians discovered Buddhism, they cast the Buddha as a Protestant reformer:
“Buddhism in Asia, like Protestantism in Europe, is a revolt of nature against spirit, of humanity against caste, of individual freedom against the despotism of an order, of salvation by faith against salvation by sacraments.” (James Freeman Clarke, “Buddhism: or, the Protestantism of the East,” 1869)
This is reflected in the Jesus in India stories, where Jesus inveighs against the wicked Brahmin priests who exploit the lower castes in the name of their arcane and pointless rituals. For example, he chastizes the Hindus for perpetuating the caste system:
“And Jesus said no more to them, but looking up to heaven he said, ‘My Father-God, who was, and is, and ever more shall be; who holds within thy hands the scales of justice and of right; Who in the boundlessness of love has made all men to equal be. The white, the black, the yellow and the red can look up in thy face and say, Our Father-God. Thou Father of the human race, I praise thy name.’ And all the [Hindu] priests were angered by the words which Jesus spoke; they rushed upon him…” (Dowling, The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, 24.15-19)
Like Catholicism, Hinduism is portrayed as religion of unreasonable authority, of arcane rites that the people neither understand nor benefit from, of sacred knowledge kept in the hands of the few. In both texts, the Hindu priests try to kill Jesus for saying these things, just as the Jews did in the canonical gospels. In neither text does he perform this kind of rebuke against Buddhists.
Although neither Notovitch nor Dowling tell the same story about Jesus mainstream Christianity did or does, there is one way in which they are very traditionally Christian. Their unorthodox Jesus is still the Lord of the World. In Dowling’s narrative, he even portrays the “seven sages of the world” (great sages from Egypt, Persia, Judea, Greece, India, Assyria, and China) bowing down to Jesus as the fulfillment of all their wisdom. Jesus is no longer King of the Jews alone, but of all the world. This is hardly the kind of total syncretism we think of in the New Age Jesus in India narratives!
In my next post, I’ll examine the Ahmadiyya Muslims’ belief that Jesus escaped from Judea after his crucifixion and migrated to Kashmir.