Monday, February 2, 2009

Did Jesus Live In India? I

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 a 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', the romance of the Himalayas, an alternative to conventional Christianity and a good old-fashioned Catholic conspiracy. The book attracted a lot 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. Did you hear of a Russian who could not gain admittance to the monastery in any way, but at last broke his leg outside and was taken in? His object was to copy a Buddhist life of Christ which is there. He says he got it and has published it since in French. 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 traveler 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 traveler 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 Book of Mormon, the Protocol of the Elders of Zion and the Mahatma Letters (these last two perpetrated by Russians incidently). The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ was to become anything but 'unknown' and to take on a life of its own.


yamizi said...

But did Jesus really exist in the first place?

Jamie G. said...

You blog is awesome. I love how you hold no punches.

But literary frauds (and there are many of them) have an amazing ability to hang on - just think of the Book of Mormon...

Best line!

I really appreciate your use of reason and critical thinking skills. (But I am a little disappointed about your use of a poor study in GQGC to "prove" rebirth). I also greatly appreciate that you are a scholar.

Anyways, thank you so much for what you do.

anotherqueerjubu said...

Conscious myth-making has long been a part of our tradition of sacred stories. I begin every semester teaching storytelling with the phrase "Just because it didn't happen doesn't mean it isn't true."

When I teach Jewish teens, I ask about the story of Abraham and his destruction of the idols in his father's shop. Everyone knows the story. Many think it is in the Torah. It is not, it is midrash, a kind of jazz riff story on a section of the Torah that purports to explain some inconsistency or missing part of a story. This story of Abraham was only first written down by a rabbi sometime early in the Common Era.

This very human urge can be seen in the myth making of American history, with the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. It was completely made up by his first biographer, one Parson Weems. In the mid 19th Century, when the fraud was uncovered, one woman said, "Well, if it isn't true, it should be."

One could say the same of the Jataka tales in Buddhism.

Of course, I tend to you agree with you that this sort of thing opens to the door to all kinds of foolishness and worse; the Protocols being only one example.

In fact, pseudepigraphic writings include the Zohar, a work of great wisdom, written in the middle ages but purported to be by a 1st Century rabbi.

The Lotus sutra is a pseudepigraphic work, believed to be the words of the Buddha, but not recognized as part of the official Pali Canon. The mythology around this sutra is quite wonderful for those of us who love sacred story. The sutra itself is one of great wisdom, regardless of its origin.

By the way, the Japanese believe that one of the lost tribes of Israel lived in Northern Japan.

A good question might be, what is it about we humans, that we need to construct these stories of connection?

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Jamie,
You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you can't please all of the people all of the time. I hope you'll forgive me.
Dear AQJB,
You are quite right about myths, like poetry they sometimes have the ability to transmit truth better than factual language can. So they have their place and it should be in the front row with fact helping fact explain itself. But confusing myths with concrete reality has not served humanity well, e.g. the Protocols, the Gift of Constantine, the belief in witches, etc. And the best types of myths are organic, they have grown naturally. The Unknown Life of Christ was a deliberate, conscious fraud, with no ill intentions as with the Protocols, but dishonest nonetheless. It is therefore a manufactured myth, the least interesting type.
Concerning the lost tribes, I think it would be more correct to say that a tiny number of Japanese believe that one such tribe lives in Japan. I suspect most Japanese have never even heard of this tiny sect and their strange belief. They are busy with their own myths, some of them rather nasty if the newspapers are to be believed.

Logical American said...

Many myths are based on actual events that are then embellished to lend more interest or more credibility to a story. This may be one of those sorts of myths. There is a gap in the life of Jesus from the age of about 14 to about 29. The trade routes from Israel to India were established so many travelers have made the journey. Jesus may be gone along those routes and studied Buddhism in Kashmir or Tibet or a number of any other places. This author may have taken some rumored teachings and then overlaid that with his knowledge of certain temples and ascribed that teaching to his knowledge of the area. What is certain is that Jesus' teachings are very un-Jewish and much more Buddhist in nature. How did Jesus come to learn such Buddhist-like teachings? Where was Jesus for those 15 or so years of his life? (some say the desert but there is no record). There are a lot of parallels between the story of Christ and the story of Krishna (Hindu god from India which would have been heard in those parts of the world and Buddha was raised learning Hindu) besides just the name. Notovitch may have made up parts of the story to make it more believable or more interesting as a read, but the basis may still be true.
As a side note, from what I understand, child lamas are sought out by wise men. This may explain the story of the wise men visiting the young Jesus and then it later ascribed to wise men visiting the baby Jesus.