His life – and death – make up the most famous story in the history of mankind. Born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, his miraculous conception, so the story goes, was by the power of the holy spirit which entered a teenage peasant girl named Mary who then gave birth to the boy Jesus Christ.
Five hundred years prior, in the town of Lumbini in modern-day Nepal, a prince was born beneath a sal tree. His miraculous conception, so the story goes, followed a dream his mother had in which a white elephant with six tusks entered her right hand-side. The boy was born Siddhārtha Gautama, though most know him simply as the Buddha.
Much has been said and written about the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth with an estimated 30 gospels recorded, but the most famous four, which make up the New Testament, were chosen by a second century French bishop named Irenaeus as a means of unifying the church. According to National Geographic, Iranaeus “declared Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John the only Gospels that Christians should read. For Irenaeus the number four was extremely important: there were four directions, four winds, and he reasoned that there should be four separate gospels as well. Irenaeus and others believed that those four chosen Gospels portrayed the true word of Jesus’ life and teachings. By the late fourth century Irenaeus’ list had become church policy.”
Ancient texts considered heretical and not in keeping with the already somewhat contradictory words of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were destroyed. Though there are variations of varying degrees of significance throughout all four of the canonical gospels, one of the most striking consistencies is the dearth of information regarding a teenage Jesus right through to his twenties, commonly referred to as the ‘hidden years’. Jesus’s life-story, in fact, suffers a biblical-sized hole from the age of 12 until when he returns to be baptised at 30.
There are numerous theories as to what Jesus did during this period and among the most compelling of suppositions is that he made for the Silk Road to travel east, a relatively easy and common undertaking at the time, where he encountered the philosophies of Buddhism. For while his people expected a warrior messiah to crush the Roman rule, Jesus came preaching peace, compassion and forgiveness, views certainly not in keeping with the teachings of his day — views, in fact, with far greater ties to the Buddha.
This notion first came to prominence in the late 19th century when Russian Nicolas Notovitch published Life of Saint Issa, an account of his trip to the secluded Himis monastery in the Himalayas where he claimed to have seen a 3rd century manuscript telling of Jesus’s (known locally as ‘Issa’) training in India, Tibet and Nepal. The whole episode was denounced as a hoax in Europe and Notovitch’s credibility annihilated. But rumours of Jesus’s eastern links persisted.
In 1922, Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda visited Tibet and also claimed to have found evidence that Jesus spent time travelling throughout the region, publishing his findings in the book, Journey into Kashmir and Tibet. The BBC documentary Did Jesus Die on the Cross? examines not just the possibility of an eastern sojourn during those lost years, but of Jesus returning east to Kashmir after his crucifixion (there are arguments that the few hours Jesus spent on the cross would not have been sufficient to cause his death), where he spent his remaining days ministering.
“You don’t think Jesus could have reached India during his years as a young man?” asks Paul Davids writing for the Huffington Post. “The Silk Road to India and beyond was much-travelled. There were caravans of merchants. And if there were three Wise Men (the Magi) from the east who were present at Jesus’ birth, doesn’t it imply (as Indian sage Paramahansa Yogananda claimed) that a tug from the Orient was present in Jesus’ life from the beginning? Then why would the Lord not return the visit? Especially since the oldest temples in the world, belonging to the oldest religions, were in India.” Davids’s film, Jesus in India, explores this further, as does Jesus Lived in India, a best-selling book by German religious expert Holger Kersten which claims Buddhist monks schooled Jesus in the art of non-violence. There are numerous more similar manuscripts but understandably such theories are dismissed as being of no more value than conspiracy ones. But when so many scholars and scientists so disagree on so much of what we do know of history’s most famous man, then can we really be so certain of what we don’t?