Jesus in India?
By J. Davila Ashcraft
Could it be that Jesus spent his “lost years” in India and Tibet studying Hinduism and Buddhism? Some New Age and fringe history oriented authors and teachers think so. But is there any evidence for this belief?
Nikolai Aleksandrovich Notovich, known in the West as Nicolas Notovitch was a Crimean Jewish adventurer who claimed to be a Russian aristocrat and journalist. In 1894, he created quite a stir with the publication of his book, The Unknown Life of Christ. The book claims that during his lost years Jesus left Galilee for India and studied with Buddhists and Hindus there before returning to Judea. Notovitch’s claim was based on a document he said he had seen at the Hemis Monastery. His story says that he broke his leg in India and while recovering from it at the Hemis monastery in Ladakh, he learned of the “Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men” –Isa being the Arabic name of Jesus in Islam. Notovitch’s story, with the text of the “Life,” was published in French in 1894 as La vie inconnue de Jesus Christ. It was translated into English, German, Spanish, and Italian.
Notovitch’s tale was that the chief lama at Hemis told him of the existence of the work, which was read to him through an interpreter. He also claimed it had originally been translated from the Pali language, and that he himself afterward grouped the verses “in accordance with the requirements of the narrative.” As published, the work consists of 244 short paragraphs, arranged in fourteen chapters. The “Life of Issa” begins with an account of Israel in Egypt, its deliverance and leading to the Promised Land by Moses, its eventual apostasy, and its conquest by the Romans. Then follows an account of the Incarnation of Christ.
At the age of thirteen the young Jesus, rather than take a wife, leaves his home to wander with a caravan of merchants to India (Sindh), to study the laws of the great Buddhas. Issa is welcomed by the Jains, but leaves them to spend time among the Buddhists, and spends six years among them, learning Pali and mastering their religious texts. Issa also spends six years studying and teaching at Jaganath, Rajagriha, and other Hindu holy cities.
The claimed “translation” says:
“They taught him to read and understand the Vedas, to cure by aid of prayer, to teach, to explain the holy scriptures to the people, and to drive out evil spirits from the bodies of men, restoring unto them their sanity.”
Issa is said to come into conflict with the Brahmans (Hindu priests) over his teaching of the lower castes.
“But Issa listened not to their discourses and betook him to the Sudras, preaching against the Brahmans and the Kshatriyas. He inveighed against the act of a man arrogating to himself the power to deprive his fellow beings of their rights of humanity; “for,” said he, “God the Father makes no difference between his children; all to him are equally dear.”
It also has Jesus teaching pantheism:
“The Judge Eternal, the Eternal Spirit, comprehends the one and indivisible soul of the universe, which alone creates, contains, and vivifies all.”
“He is the principle of the mysterious existence of man, in whom he has breathed a part of his Being.”
“The Eternal Spirit is the soul of all that is animate.”
At twenty-nine, Issa returns to his own country and begins to preach. He visits Jerusalem, where Pilate is apprehensive about him. The Jewish leaders, however, are also apprehensive about his teachings, yet he continues his work for three years. He is finally arrested and put to death for blasphemy, for claiming to be the Son of God. His followers are persecuted, but his disciples carry his message to the world.
Notovitch’s book stirred up significant controversy as soon as it was published. Max Müller, a German philologist and Orientalist, who was one of the founders of the western academic field of Indian studies and the discipline of comparative religion, expressed incredulity at the accounts presented and suggested that either Notovitch was the victim of a practical joke, or had fabricated the evidence.
“Taking it for granted that M. Notovitch is a gentleman and not a liar, we cannot help thinking that the Buddhist monks of Ladakh and Tibet must be wags, who enjoy mystifying inquisitive travelers, and that M. Notovitch fell far too easy a victim to their jokes.”
Müller then wrote to the head lama at Hemis monastery to ask about the document and Notovitch’s story. The head lama replied that there had been no Western visitor
at the monastery in the past fifteen years, during which he had been the lama there, and there were no documents related to Notovitch’s story. Other European scholars also opposed Notovitch’s account. Indologist Leopold von Schroeder, notable for his translation of the Bhagavad Gita from Sanskrit to German, called Notovitch’s story a “big fat lie”.
J. Archibald Douglas, who was a professor of English and History at the Government College in Agra India, visited the Hemis monastery to interview the head lama who had corresponded with Müller and the lama again stated that Notovitch had never been there and no such documents existed.
Wilhelm Schneemelcher, a German Protestant theologian and expert on the New Testament Apocrypha (died 2003), states that Notovich’s accounts were soon exposed as fabrications, and that to date no one has even had a glimpse at the manuscripts Notovitch claims to have had, which remains a fact to this very day. Notovich at first responded to these investigations of his account by defending himself. But once his story had been re-examined by historians, he finally gave up and confessed to having fabricated the evidence.
Controversial author Bart D. Ehrman, writes,
“Today there is not a single recognized scholar on the planet who has any doubts about the matter. The entire story was invented by Notovitch, who earned a good deal of money and a substantial amount of notoriety for his hoax.”
This was not, however, the end of the Jesus in India myth, as others picked up on Notovich’s story and embellished it.
In 1899 Mirza Ghulam Ahmad wrote Jesus in India (published in 1908) and claimed that Jesus had traveled to India after surviving crucifixion, but specifically disagreed with Notovitch that Jesus had gone to India before crucifixion.
Contemporary New Age authors have taken these themes and incorporated them into their own works. For example, in her book “The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus’ 17 Year Journey to the East”, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, former leader of the Church Universal and Triumphant cult in Montana, relying heavily on Notovich, asserts that Buddhist manuscripts provide evidence that Jesus traveled to India, Nepal, Ladakh and Tibet.
In his book Jesus Lived in India, German fringe author Holger Kersten, who
ridiculously enough led an expedition in 2005 searching for the birthplace of the mythical pagan god Mithras, promoted the ideas of Nicolas Notovich and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Gerald O’Collins classified Kersten’s work as the repackaging of the same stories, which it very much was. Wilhelm Schneemelcher, noted New Testament Apocrypha scholar, characterized Kersten’s work as, “fantasy, untruth, and ignorance (above all in the linguistic area)”, and that it has “nothing to do with historical research.”
So is there any evidence whatsoever for the belief that Jesus went to India? The clear and unavoidable answer is an emphatic no. The facts are that Notovich’s story and the text itself does not hold up to academic scrutiny. Also, the words Notovich places in Jesus mouth, reflective of a pantheistic view of God, would never have been uttered by an orthodox Jew living an orthodox Jewish life, such as Jesus lived. Pantheism was the view of the surrounding pagan cultures that Jesus and other Jews certainly clashed with on many levels.
The word pantheism comes from two Greek words-pan, meaning “all”, and “theos”, meaning “god”. Essentially many pagans believed that God is in everything, and everything is in God. Even today many religions hold a pantheistic view, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christian Science, Unity School of Christianity and the many New Age ideologies out there. Undoubtedly Notovich gleaned the philosophy he places in the fictional Issa’s mouth from Hinduism, Buddhism and Theosophy. Jesus clearly taught God as wholly other- distinct from His creation and sovereign over it- not contained by it. His miracles were evidence that the created universe could not contain Him in the fullness of His power.
Pantheism, as a worldview, fails to explain the nature of ultimate reality, the existence of the material universe, the relationship between God and humanity, and the problem of evil. Consider the following problems with the pantheistic worldview.
First, the pantheistic concept of ultimate reality is self defeating. If, as pantheists teach, all of reality is one and everything else is simply an illusion, then there is existentially no difference between you, a chair, a rock, or a squirrel. Further, if the pantheism taught in the Life of Saint Issa were true, then you also do not exist as an individual. And to even suggest that you do not exist as an individual is self-refuting, since you would have to exist as an individual to affirm that you do not, which is a contradiction. Beyond this, common sense and human experience tells you there is a distinct difference between you and a rock or tree. Any suggestion otherwise is irrational.
Second, the pantheistic view of the universe is not scientific. Pantheism teaches that the universe is eternal, while the scientific data says otherwise. The Second Law of Thermodynamics informs us that the universe is running out of usable energy, which tells us the universe cannot be eternal.
Another problem with the pantheistic view is the idea that we must realize that we are God. This is yet another point which demonstrates the great distance between the teachings of Jesus, who clearly taught we are the created, not the Creator. If, as pantheism has it, God, the universe, and humanity are all eternal, and we know that eternal things do not change, then how could we possibly come to know anything new? The fact that humans learn new things means we change from a state of not knowing to a state of knowing, which is impossible for an eternal, unchanging, all knowing being.
Contrary to the teachings of the fictional Issa, Jesus consistently taught God as being the loving, personal Creator of all things. He is separate from the created world, and yet intimate with His creation. God is indeed omnipresent, but God is not everything. The Psalms, which the historic Jesus studied and memorized, declare that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the works of His hands.” (Psalm 19:1) Jesus taught in concert with Judaism that God is not an impersonal force, but a personal being. Not only did Jesus teach God as a personal being, but He also supported the Genesis account of the creation of humanity. That is, that we are created in the image and likeness of God- and not that we are God. (Genesis 1:26, 27) Jesus absolutely knew that God “formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) This stands in direct contrast to the pantheistic view that humanity is God, since as a created being, we cannot be God nor become God.
To put to rest the fiction of Issa, Notovich’s admitting to have invented the entire story must be taken into account. It is clear we are at a dead end here and there is absolutely no evidence that Jesus ever set foot in India or taught the pantheistic philosophy contained in the Issa story.
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