Did Jesus travel to India?
April 28, 2013 10:12 AM   Subscribe

I have heard a rumor that some people believe that Jesus traveled to India and learned Buddhist ideas. The theory is that perhaps this occurred during Jesus' early adulthood, before he started preaching during his 30s. But I am a bit skeptical. Do you know where this idea comes from? Do you think it is probable? Are there books or movies that I should watch about this theory? Any insight would be most appreciated.
posted by mortaddams to Religion & Philosophy (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You can read more about this theory in Paramahansa Yogananda's "Second Coming of Christ" and other SRF books. Avoid any SRF materials published through Crystal Clarity as those make some major edits and non-scientific claims that are not reputable.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:16 AM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are numerous theories about the Lost Years of Jesus.
posted by zamboni at 10:19 AM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is some historical support for Eastern philosophy coming to the Mediterranean after Alexander's conquests, but I don't know possible it would have been for someone who wasn't a trader to travel there in Jesus's lifetime.
posted by stopgap at 10:25 AM on April 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Very funny fiction with that theme: "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal." by Christopher Moore. It is about the childhood and youth of Jesus with his best friend Biff, and their travels that get as far as China. It also explains the origin of the custom of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas.
posted by mermayd at 10:26 AM on April 28, 2013 [28 favorites]

AFAIK there is no documentary evidence or textual basis for anything like this, and it comes from absolute and total speculation.

My guess based on the fact that people say "India" and not some other part of the world is that this idea first started in the US in the 1960's somewhere in the nexus of New Age and the Jesus Movement. Like, you know, maybe Jesus went to India on a groovy pilgrimage, maaan, kinda like the Beatles, y'know? I mean, THINK ABOUT IT, we don't know anything that happened to him for most of his life, right, man? Groovy, man.

(I think if the historical Christ had literally come into contact with Buddhist teachings during his lifetime, it probably would have been somewhere a little closer to the Mediterranean world, like Persia or Central Asia.)
posted by Sara C. at 10:31 AM on April 28, 2013 [9 favorites]

Madame Blavatsky (fl. 1880) founder of the Theosophical Society, claimed that Jesus journeyed to Tibet (that's where The Masters, quasi-divine entities, resided).
posted by goethean at 10:43 AM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

That sounds like a recent, made up story, and though something of a reversal, it may have been inspired by other beliefs about Christianity and India. In particular, Syriac Christians in Kerala generally believe St. Thomas himself visited the area to spread Christianity around 52 AD.

This is even more remote as a connection, but when I was in India for just a few months, probably a half-dozen people assumed I was a Christian and spontaneously offered that Jesus was the tenth avatar of Vishnu, Kalki, whose coming would herald the end of the Kali Yuga.

I think you could call the first story a charter myth and the second syncretism, either of which are phenomena that might be involved in the story you've heard about Christianity and Buddhism, but it's also fair to say it's just religion, because those kinds of stories come up all the time pretty much everywhere.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:46 AM on April 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

When Jesus visited Japan, he died after living there a while.
posted by hortense at 10:53 AM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

As others have said, it's total speculation, without any basis in contemporary documentary sources. Traditions linking early Christianity with India do so through the figure of St Thomas; pseudepigraphical Acts are Syriac, early third century. Heading towards some nebulous 'East' to learn more and gain greater enlightenment is a very old tradition, though, and not out of place in the first centuries AD. Both Mani and Plotinus set out on journeys in that direction with the intention of augmenting their learning in the mid-third century.
posted by hydatius at 11:00 AM on April 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Mod note: One comment deleted; question is looking for info on the India aspect specifically, thanks.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:34 AM on April 28, 2013

Everyone else beat me to the Indo-Greek Buddhists.

The thing is that the middle east was much more spiritually diverse at the time of Christ than it is now. Now, you have Muslims, Christians, Jews, and a few tiny splinter groups. At the time of Christ, you had various forms of paganism, neo-Platonism philosophers, Jews, spiritual cults like Mithraism, evidence of Indo-Greek Buddhists establishing monasteries, Zoroastrians, etc. To argue that Jesus would have needed to go to India if you're trying to build a case that Jesus had some "eastern" spiritual views is highly anachronistic.
posted by deanc at 11:41 AM on April 28, 2013 [10 favorites]

probably a half-dozen people assumed I was a Christian and spontaneously offered that Jesus was the tenth avatar of Vishnu, Kalki, whose coming would herald the end of the Kali Yuga.

The only place I have ever heard this whole "Jesus Visited India" thing spoken as fact was in India.

Then again, I heard a lot of completely bizarre nonsensical things spoken as fact in India. Especially in Varanasi, the city where reality goes to die.

(Just about every country with a sizable Christian population claims that Jesus visited there during the "unknown years". See also all the mystical tales about Glastonbury.)
posted by Sara C. at 11:55 AM on April 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I watched this BBC documentary a few years ago. Basically it posits that Jesus was the reincarnated Dalai Lama at the time (hence the search for him by the three wise men from the East) who travelled to Tibet for his education during the "missing years". It also suggests that he didn't die at crucifixion but rather escaped and travelled to India to preach to one of the lost tribes of Israel, one of his messianic duties. (I think I'm getting this right...) It's an interesting theory, I'm not sure what kind of support it's received.
posted by billiebee at 12:01 PM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

How much support has that idea received?

Zero support. That's how much.

This, right here, is the reason I hatehatehate all those bullshit speculative "historical" "documentaries" about Nostradamus, aliens building the pyramids, the Apocalypse, etc.
posted by Sara C. at 12:14 PM on April 28, 2013 [6 favorites]

Like Madam Blavatsky, the American psychic Edgar Cayce also claimed that Jesus spent time in India. It's my understanding that the claim wasn't all that uncommon amongst the European and American mysticism communities in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

To my knowledge, there is no scholarly evidence to support these claims. But they do seem to have been inspired, at least in part, by Nicolas Notovitch's (alleged) experiences in an Indian monastery, where he learned about a man named St. Issa (allegedly Jesus) who had spent time studying in Egypt, Persia, and India.
posted by skye.dancer at 12:31 PM on April 28, 2013

Some suggest that Jesus also visited Japan. Others suggest that he lived in America for a time.

The information we have even with in the gospels is conflicting and doesn't necessarily match up with other records from the time. If the stories of his family fleeing into Egypt are true, it is possible they lived in Alexandria and he might have been exposed to a lot of diverse thought. He could have ended up traveling on various ocean voyages and trade routes. These might have taken him as far as England or across the Indian ocean. According to the biblical account his ministry didn't start until he was 30 and ended at 33.

The rituals, myths and stories about Jesus were edited and refined for hundreds of years after his death as the Church became key to the Roman empire. New ideas were included and rejected along the way with various schisms and old pagan rituals mixing into the Jesus story.

In conclusion the stories of him visiting far away lands are no less ridiculous than stories of a virgin birth, Bethlehem or many of the other things in the new testament. If those stories provide some meaning or help to the lives of people who believe in them, I wouldn't judge them to harshly.
posted by humanfont at 12:44 PM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

humanfront: LDS beliefs do not state that Christ visited the Americas before his death and resurrection, which is the issue at stake here. The "lost years" stuff and the "visited after he said that one thing about having other sheep to tend to" stuff are so different I have a hard time seeing that the one is even remotely worth mentioning in the context of the other. I'm contemplating adding words to that effect on the talk page of that Wikipedia article.

And OP: oh my gosh the "lost years" stuff. This is such a huge area of speculation, rumor, legend, belief, intrigue... If you're wondering why there could be "lost years," i.e., why the years between Christ being 12 and being way more wise than other kids his age, and Christ being 30ish and having a ministry, aren't covered in detail in the New Testament, it's probably mostly to do with when someone in his culture was old enough to serve as a priest. I personally really doubt someone who was younger than that could effectively run a ministry, in that culture, just because of the way society viewed young adults.

This is also one of the arguments used by everyone in the "Christ must have been married" camp.
posted by SMPA at 1:49 PM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Tourists Flock to 'Jesus's tomb' in Kashmir, BBC, 3/27/10.

"It's a story spread by local shopkeepers, just because some crazy professor said it was Jesus's tomb. They thought it would be good for business. Tourists would come, after all these years of violence.

"And then it got into the Lonely Planet, and too many people started coming.

"And one foreigner…" he gave me an apologetic look, "broke off a bit from the tomb to take home with him. So that's why it's closed now."

posted by gimonca at 2:12 PM on April 28, 2013

I think the issue here isn't so much the plausibility that it factually could have happened. As humanfont says, we're talking about an individual who was born without his parents having sex, the son of god, who turned water into wine at a whim and walked on water. And, yeah, it is physically possible that Jesus could have traveled outside of Judea to any number of places that legend says he traveled to. In a sense, Jesus is more likely to have visited Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh than he is to have risen from the dead.

But the answer to any question about where the belief that Jesus traveled to India comes from is that it doesn't come from any scriptural source, or any fact-based evidence, but from 19th century mystics who either invented it out of whole cloth or based their theories on bogus accounts from missionaries. The reason it has currency in modern day society is likely based on the popularity of New Age ideas and Western curiosity about Buddhism.

It's not canonical according to any mainstream branch of Christianity, nor is it taken seriously by any legit theologian. It's just a fairy story, like the myths at the root of Arthurian legend, but with a mystical hippie angle.
posted by Sara C. at 2:15 PM on April 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

There is a bit of history related to why that tomb in Kashmir is viewed as Jesus', and it relates to Ahmadiyya beliefs: Jesus in Ahmadiyya Islam

So, to answer your question, and as pointed out earlier, it appears that Notovitch was a key instigator in the emergence (revival?) of this idea in the late 19th/ early 20th century, though he was certainly playing off of existing beliefs among Theosophists, mystics etc. Another key figure is the founder of the Ahmadiyya movement, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who seems to have independently written about Jesus in India, but disagreed with Notovitch's writings and reasoning.

Interestingly, while Notovitch later confessed to fabricating the whole idea "under cross-examination", Ahmadi writers picked it up in the early-mid 20th century and, along with their founder's original writings from ~1900, they carried it forward. The belief that the shrine Roza Bal in Srinagar, Kashmir is that of Jesus was thus historically primarily driven by Ahmadi beliefs in the matter. As the BBC article points out, others have become interested more recently.

(Completely unrelated, but Notovitch lived a pretty crazy life!)
posted by strangeloops at 2:27 PM on April 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Keep in mind, too, that the Ahmadi beliefs about Jesus in India are rooted in the belief that their guy is the Messiah and differ wildly from beliefs about Jesus in mainstream Islam.

The Ahmadi movement was also created in response to Christian missionaries in what is now northwestern India and Pakistan, so it's not like this is some kind of ancient special knowledge that people in The East had which was revealed to select Western travelers. The Ahmadi movement was taking part in a conversation about the relevance of various religions in a European-dominated colonial environment.

(By the way, only tangentially related, but religious movements during the British Colonial period in South Asia are really fascinating. I'm also curious about connections between these religious movements and the Second Great Awakening in the US. Ahmadiyya Islam feels very like the rise of the Mormons. Why doesn't the BBC/History Channel/Etc do documentaries about THIS and not "HURF DURF DID JESUS REALLY DIE OR WHUT"?)
posted by Sara C. at 3:11 PM on April 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

After doing your serious research you are looking for some entertainment, you can watch the Red Dwarf episode "Lemons" which is based on this theory.
posted by trialex at 9:20 PM on April 28, 2013

SPOILER - don't click or hover over the link if you haven't seen a movie about Jesus and the Buddha, because then somebody will say 'Hey, let's watch [the movie]' and you'll know the ending. "Hey, why so cranky? What would Jesus and the Buddha do?" I'd say. And you'd get confused and cranky and nail me to a fig tree. So don't click it.

This movie covers this territory.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:55 AM on April 29, 2013

From one of my favorite articles:
The great German Catholic theologian, Romano Guardini, wrote a profoundly insightful and orthodox meditation on the life of Christ entitled The Lord.

In it, he noted that no man in history ever came closer to rivaling the enormity of Christ's claim to transform human nature itself, at its roots, than did Buddha (though in a radically different way).

Huston Smith says in The Religions of Man that there have been only two people in history about whom others asked not "Who are you?" but "What are you: a man or a god?" They were Jesus and Buddha.

Buddha's clear answer was: I am a man, not a god; Christ's clear answer was: I am both "Son of Man" and "Son of God."

Buddha said, "Look not to me, look to my dharma (doctrine)"; Christ said, "Come unto me." Buddha said, "Be ye lamps unto yourselves"; Christ said, "I am the light of the world."

Yet contrary to the original intentions of both men, some later Buddhists (the Pure Land sect) divinized Buddha. And some later Christians (Arians and Modernists) de-divinized Christ.
--Peter Kreeft.
posted by resurrexit at 4:10 PM on April 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

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