Tag Archives: Jesus in India

Why Jesus Went to India, Part Four.

In three previous posts I have introduced the myth of Jesus in India and examined its manifestations in its early Western authors and in Ahmadi Islam.  Now the big question: so what?  Why should these stories matter to scholars of antiquity or the Bible?

Of course, the myth of Jesus in India is useful to learn about for a biblical scholar because it is something that needs refuting.  What if you are riding the train and someone asks you if Jesus went to India?  While we can never finish correcting all the misconceptions of the Bible in popular culture, this is a fairly popular one.  Biblical scholars don’t even examine it because it is so far-fetched.  For a biblical conspiracy theorist (think of the Da Vinci Code believers!) this is just further evidence that the conspiracy theorist is real: the Church is scared to look at the evidence!

Throughout the history of Christianity, Jesus is often used as a heuristic device, a cipher to express whatever theological point or social-political program an authors wants to convey.  The point of these myths about Jesus is not historical accuracy, but polemic usefulness.  Many of these myths remain on the edges of a tradition.  Same with the tales of Jesus going to India and Tibet.  They employ Jesus for a broader point that really isn’t much about Jesus.  Once we understand this concept of a heuristic device we can see it at work in many religious contexts.  We may also see it at work in the Bible itself.

Mayan Jesus - that one never caught on either.

Somehow, this Jesus didn’t catch on among mainstream Christianity either.

We often think of stories of Jesus in India as religiously pluralistic, the kind of syncretism that affirms the truth of all religions.  After all, Jesus is learning from the Hindus and Buddhists, right?  Not quite.  It’s more complicated.  There are other motives at work, some still firmly unconvinced of the value of all or some non-Christian religions.  I mentioned how Dowling and Notovitch’s version of the story still portrays Jesus as the embodiment of all the wisdom of the world – very theologically triumphalist rhetoric.  Yet my hunch is that the New Age versions of the myth are more entranced by the idea of Jesus learning from other religions.  And that is my next big question in this vein.  How does Holger Kersten read the story of Jesus in India?  A blog series for another day.

Why Jesus Went to India, Part Three: Mirza Ghulam Ahmad.

In the first post of this series I introduced the figure of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, an Indian Muslim reformer and sectarian who argued that Jesus did not die on the cross.  Instead, according to his 1909 book Jesus in India, he went into a coma, woke up, and escaped to Kashmir in northern India.  There Jesus lived as a spiritual teacher until he died a natural death at 120.  Ahmad’s story about Jesus runs counter to both the Christian and the mainstream Muslim view.  I argue that his counter-myth was specifically designed to target Christian missionaries of his time.  But to understand Ahmad’s Jesus myth in context, I first need to give some background about Jesus in Islam, a topic I just finished an entire course on.

The Qur’an mentions many biblical characters, including Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, Mary,  John the Baptist, and especially Jesus. Most of these figures, including Jesus, are interpreted as prophets whose teaching is a precursor to the final revelation given to Muhammad.  As most Muslims read it, the Qur’an reveals that Jesus never went on the cross at all, but taught Islamic tawhid (unity of God) and ascended into heaven.  The New Testament’s crucifixion and divinization of Jesus were later inventions of false followers.

So according to most Muslims, the Ahmadis contradict the Qur’anic account of Jesus.  While the Qur’an affirms the ascension and denies the crucifixion, Ahmad affirmed the crucifixion and denied the ascension.  Why?  I do not take Ahmad’s message as revelatory, so I can only ask what might have motivated Ahmad to create this myth of Jesus that was not only historically unprovable but theologically unorthodox enough to make most Muslims ignore him and his movement.

One of the major issues the Indian umma faced in Ahmad’s day was the presence of foreign missionaries in India.  Due to the British colonization of India, missionaries not only had easy access to this “heathen” nation, but those missionaries could have the funding and force of a mighty nation behind them.  Christian missionaries translated Bibles and evangelical pamphlets into Punjabi, Urdu, Persian, Hindi, and Kashmiri.  Ahmad jumped into these debates, publishing a massive work of Islamic apologetics from 1880-1884 and even proclaiming death prophecies against Christian missionaries.

This counter-myth is calibrated to respond to missionary arguments.  One of the most common arguments missionaries used against Islam ran thus: whereas Muhammad is a human who died a natural death, they argued, Jesus was ascended into heaven by God, proving his greater prophethood.   Ahmad saw that he needed to refute this belief in order to counter the missionaries’ arguments.  This explains why Ahmad was so keen on denying the ascension and proving that Jesus died a natural death.  He wanted to undermine the credibility of the missionaries by creating his own story about Jesus.

Jesus' tomb in India.

Jesus’ tomb in India.

While all Muslims appropriate the figure of Jesus through the Qur’an, Ahmadi went one step further.  He marshalled historical evidence (dubious as it may have been) to support his narrative of Jesus, most famously claiming to have found the tomb of Jesus in Kashmir.  Not only is the Bible theologically wrong about Jesus, Ahmad could say, but we have his tomb right down the street!  The tomb of Jesus was a visible proof that the Christians were wrong.  Jesus’ dead body in the tomb is the proof that the ascension could not have happened.  Ahmad’s story of Jesus directly responds to claims made by the missionaries.  This is what makes it not just a myth, but a counter-myth designed to sway people from the Christian narrative of Jesus’ life.  Ahmad’s claim to have the true story about Jesus was akin to British scholars’ claim to have the true Buddha:

“I bear the same feelings of love and sincerity towards Jesus as do the Christians; rather, I have a stronger attachment to him, for Christians do not know the man whom they praise, but I know him whom I praise, for I have as good as seen him.” (Ahmad, Jesus in India, 50)

There is very little scholarship on Ahmadiyya theology, but two good starting-places might be Friedmann’s Prophecy Continuous and Valentine’s Islam and the Ahmadiyya Jama’at.  In the next post I will conclude this series by looking at the New Age Jesus in India and speculating on the significance of these tales for biblical scholars.

Why Jesus Went to India, Part Two: The Earliest Versions.

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.

“Jesus Approaching Ladakh as a Youth,” J. Michael Spooner

“Jesus Approaching Ladakh as a Youth,” J. Michael Spooner

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.

jesus_meditating_forestAlthough 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.

Why Jesus Went to India, Part One.

No, I don’t think he did. When I ask “Why did Jesus go to India?”, what I mean is “Why do we feel the need to create stories of Jesus going to India?”  For these myths, though scorned by scholars, are popular with many devotees of New Age or other alternative spiritualities.  They show how myths about Jesus can be created for any purpose.  Jesus just becomes a useful mythological heuristic device.

I first began research these myths in a course I took last year on the Bible and postcolonialism.  I saw then, and still hold now, that these narratives are inseparable from a colonial context.  I also saw that virtually no scholar had examined the subject.  I was going to present my continuing researches at the regional AAR meeting last month, but my car broke down and I was unable to make it.


Jesus in India myths take two basic forms: those that portray him going there between 12 and 30, and those that portray him migrating there from Judea and living to die of old age.  In this first post I will give a brief overview of the originators of both of these myths.

The first mention of Jesus’ trip to India that I know of was written by Nicholas Notovitch, a Russian journalist and explorer.  His 1894 book The Unknown Life Of Jesus Christ claimed to translate a manuscript which Notovitch saw at Hemis Monastery about Jesus’ travels in India and Tibet.  Needless to say, it caused quite a controversy in his time!  Although famed philologist Max Muller travelled to Hemis Monastery and discovered Notovitch had never been there, the myth persisted and was echoed in Theosophical doctrine.

zzlevi_dowling01In 1907, a Civil War chaplain named Levi Dowling wrote The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ.  Dowling did not claim to have found a manuscript, but experienced a series of revelatory visits to the “Akashic realm” in deep meditation cultivated over forty years.  Dowling’s Jesus is very ambitious, travelling not only to India and Tibet, but to Persia, Greece, Assyria, and Egypt.  Although it makes laughingly implausible history, Dowling’s astrological vision continues to inspire New Age practitioners and conspiracy theorists convinced churches are hiding the truth.

Mirza_Ghulam_Ahmad_(c._1897)The second type of Jesus in India myths, the myth of Jesus going to India after his Judean ministry, originates with the Ahmadi Muslims of Pakistan.  Ahmadiyya is a late-19th century Islamic revivalist movement seeking to reform the Islamic umma and reunite it against British colonizers.  Its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, wrote a 1909 tome claiming that Jesus did not die on the cross.  He went into a coma, woke up, and migrated to Kashmir, where he died at 120.  If this sounds incredible, rest assured that the evidence is clear: his tomb can still be found today!

It is impossible to refute the belief that Jesus went to India.  After all, there was trade between Rome and India, so it is possible that Jesus was an international explorer.  However, it is quite possible to question the validity of the “evidence” that Jesus ever went to India.  This has been done quite well by other scholars, so I will not re-invent the wheel.

In the next post in this series, I will examine the first type of Jesus in India myth, showing how it is a creation of the Orientalist imagination.