By Alan Jacobs
London, Watkins Publishing, 2009. 10.99 British pounds. 216 pages.
Review by William Page
This book explores the theory that Jesus Christ visited India, a notion that first surfaced toward the end of the 19th century and has since become popular among Indophiles, occultists, and New Agers.
The author, Alan Jacobs, describes himself as a student of mysticism and a poet. At the outset he declares his intention to examine the evidence for and against the theory impartially. But his tone is often breathless, his enthusiasm for the theory is palpable, and he tends to downplay or ignore possible objections. He ends by urging readers to judge for themselves.
The theory comes in two versions. In the first, Jesus visited India and Tibet during the 18 “missing years” of his life (from age 12 to 30) that aren’t mentioned in the canonical gospels. In the second, he survived the crucifixion, traveled to India, and died at a ripe old age in Kashmir.
Jacobs covers both versions, but concentrates especially on the first. He devotes a great deal of attention to a book called the Aquarian Gospel, published in 1908 and supposedly channeled from on high by a self-professed psychic and medium, the Rev. Levi H. Dowling. But he also deals at length with an earlier book, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, first published in French in 1894, and later in English in 1895, by one Nikolai Notovich, a Russian explorer.
Notovich journeyed to Hemis Gompa in Ladakh in 1887. He claimed that the abbot told him of a Pali manuscript recording Jesus’ Indian sojourn. The original had been removed to Lhasa, but the abbot read the text to him from a Tibetan translation. Notovich’s interpreter translated it into Russian, and Notovich wrote it all down. So the version we have is purportedly an English translation from the French from the Russian from the Tibetan from the Pali.
I’ll restrict my comments to Notovich’s book—not only for want of space, but also because it has the greatest relevance for Vedantists. Swami Abhedananda visited Hemis Gompa in 1922, was shown the Tibetan text, had at least part of it translated, and believed it was authentic.
Jacobs gives us the entirety of Notovich’s English version (14 chapters), but he paraphrases it into contemporary English because of its “neo-Biblical phraseology.”
Issa goes to India
In Notovich’s narrative, Jesus is called Issa. At the age of 13, under pressure to get married, Issa escapes his parental home and sets out for India in the company of some merchants. At the Jagannath temple and other holy places, the Brahmins teach him the Hindu scriptures for six years. But he antagonizes them by preaching an exclusive monotheism. He also condemns the Vedas, the Hindu gods, idolatry, and the caste system—not a very gracious response to their tutelage, and not a good way to make himself popular in India.
Obliged to flee, he ventures northward to Nepal, where he studies the Buddhist scriptures for another six years. Eventually he travels westward to Persia, inveighing against idolatry all the while, and finally returns home at the age of 29. After teaching for three years, he is accused of inciting insurrection by Pontius Pilate and is executed.
If Issa had gone to India, absorbed its wisdom, brought it back home, and taught it to his fellow countrymen, all of this might be of interest. But in Notovich’s account he doesn’t do that. Instead, he spends all his time in India scolding the Brahmins for worshiping idols, for believing in the Vedas, and for keeping the Sudras in subjection. He goes to teach, not to learn, and returns home not a whit the wiser.
Much of his teaching in India is what one might expect of a first-century Jewish mind, which would naturally oppose idolatry. But he also teaches ideas that sound suspiciously modern. He thunders in favor of human rights and the equality of all mankind 1700 years before Jefferson was born.
What kind of mind would combine antagonism to the Vedas, idolatry, and the caste system with a zeal for 18th-century democratic principles? Well, how about a 19th-century Western mind influenced by a Christian background and democratic ideals? It hardly seems coincidental that Issa preaches ideas that Notovich, his discoverer, might have found congenial. The Christian missionaries of his time would have found them even more congenial, but the Christian establishment repudiated Notovich’s book.
It’s curious that Issa retains his bias against idolatry even after a six-year study of Hinduism. Surely he would have encountered the Hindu rationale for image-worship, which has always been perfectly simple and clear: if God is everywhere, he is also in the image. And if he is compassionate, he will take to himself sincere worship no matter how erroneous or misdirected it may be. In Notovich’s account there’s no evidence that Issa ever heard of such ideas.
In sum, Notovich’s book looks like a pious fraud. It reads much like a 19th-century Christian tract, embellished by an exotic Oriental setting to make it more exciting. It caused quite a stir when it was first published, and continues to fascinate some people even today.
Digression: Indian thought and the historical Jesus
There is a theory, popular in some quarters, that the historical Jesus not only visited India, but was influenced by Indian ideas. If so, he was remarkably reticent about communicating them once he got back home. Aside from the gospel of John, which was the last to be written and shows gnostic influences, there is nothing in Jesus’ canonical teachings that would have been beyond the reach of an intelligent, inspired, first-century Jewish mind. His message focuses on a single personal Father-God who is about to establish his Kingdom on earth. Both concepts are perfectly compatible with what we know of first-century Jewish thinking. Both are conspicuously absent from Buddhism and Hinduism.
Indeed, the canonical teachings of Jesus show no trace of the signature doctrines of Buddhism and Hinduism. Unlike Buddhism, there’s no emphasis on suffering and its cause; no Four Noble Truths, no Three Characteristics of Existence, no Noble Eightfold Path, no Chain of Causation, no Nirvana. Unlike Hinduism, there’s no mention of an all-pervading universal Spirit that functions at once as the Godhead, the matrix of the universe, and our own innermost nature; no mention of meditation, yoga, or any spiritual practice other than prayer and fasting; no emphasis on reincarnation or the law of karma; no mention of liberation (moksha) from rebirth as the ultimate goal of life.
In a chapter devoted to similarities between the gospels and the scriptures of Buddhism and Hinduism, Jacobs tries to conflate the Kingdom of God with Nirvana and moksha. But for anybody who knows anything about these concepts, it’s a bad fit. Of course there are similarities in ethics—there are similarities in the ethics of most religions—but the metaphysical assumptions could hardly be more different.
In short, those who believe that Jesus got his ideas from India have the obligation not only to demonstrate Indian influence on his recorded teachings, but also to explain the overwhelming number of teachings that show no Indian influence whatsoever.
Afterword: A bolt from the blue
Just about the time I was ready to wrap up this review, I googled “Nikolai Notovich” in search of additional information. At the website of the Atma Jyoti Ashram, www.atmajyoti.org/sw_unknown_life.asp, I found an account of Notov-ich’s book. It included a version of the complete text that is very close to the one given by Jacobs. It mentioned Swami Abhedananda’s visit to Hemis Gompa, and added that Swami Trigunatitananda had also gone there and seen the Tibetan manuscript that Notovich’s book was based on. This was something new, so I checked to see what Gargi (Marie Louise Burke) might have to say about it in her biography Swami Trigunatita: His Life and Work.
Big surprise. On pp. 39-40, Gargi notes that Swami Trigunatita visited Hemis Gompa earlier than Swami Abhedananda—in 1895—saw some old manuscripts, and believed that Notovich’s book was authentic.
With Swami Abhedananda and Swami Trigunatita both vouching for the authenticity of Notovich’s book, the average Vedantist, like myself, will naturally feel diffident about expressing skepticism. But then comes the bombshell. Swami Trigunatita wrote to Swami Vivekananda about his discovery, and the latter fell upon him like a thunderbolt. Gargi quotes his reply in a letter dated March 2, 1896:
“On perusal of your letter on Tibet, I came to lose all regard for your common sense. In the first place, it is nonsense to say that Notovitch’s book is genuine. Did you see any copy, or bring it to India? Secondly, you say you saw in the Kailas Math the portrait of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. How do you know that it was Jesus’ portrait and not that of a man in the street? Even taking it for granted, how do you know that it was not put up in the said Math by someone who was a Christian?”
Apparently the whole business aroused Swamiji’s ire, because he elaborated in a lecture, “The Sages of India,” in 1897, quoted by Gargi (footnote, p. 40) and recorded in CW 3:264: “There was a book written a year or two ago by a Russian gentleman, who claimed to have found out a very curious life of Jesus Christ, and in one part of the book he says that Christ went to the temple of Jagannath to study with the Brahmins, but became disgusted with their exclusiveness and their idols….That very statement proves that the whole thing was a fraud, because the temple of Jagannath is an old Buddhist temple.”
Swami Trigunatita had been writing a serialized account of his journey to Tibet for an Indian newspaper. Some time after receiving Swamiji’s letter, he stopped. He never even got to the part where he reached Hemis Gompa and saw the manuscript. It would have made fascinating reading.
WILLIAM PAGE retired from teaching English at Thammasat University in Bangkok. He has been connected with the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Massachusetts since 1960 and is a member of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Thailand.