The Siren’s Call: Jesus in the East; two extraordinary Victorian ladies
Jesus is everywhere. There are plenty of books about his presence in the holy scriptures of Christianity’s sister faiths (in the Talmud, in the Koran) and about secret traditions brought to light by the Gnostic gospels. There are also plenty on more provocative views of his life and death on a cross, if he really did die on a cross -- think of books such as “The Passover Plot,” “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” and that really successful novel by that guy whose name I can’t seem to recall right now.
There is yet another tradition about Jesus: During his life, he went to India, Tibet and Kashmir.
Not on SpiceJet airlines but via the Silk Route -- the legendary trading route linking the East to the Mediterranean.
Alan Jacobs’ “When Jesus Lived in India: The Quest for the Aquarian Gospel: The mystery of the Missing Years” (Watkins: 216 pp., $19.95 paper) isn’t the first book on this topic -- there have been several as well as a recent Paul Davids’ television movie -- but Jacobs’ is a helpful, enlightening guide to this theory, its scriptural sources and contending viewpoints -- all delivered without that true-believer tone that can ruin a promising presentation.
One finds stories of Jesus in India in ancient Hindu texts -- he’s called Isha Masiha (Jesus the Messiah) and Isha Natha. There’s also the “Rajah Tarangini,” a 12th-century history of Kashmir, which describes a miracle-worker named Isana, and the so-called Tibetan Gospel of Issa that Russian explorer Nicolai Notovitch claimed to discover in the 1880s. You have to plug-in the words “so called” because the actual gospel vanished: The document Jacobs reproduces in his book is a transcription Notovitch copied out on a visit to a monastery in Lhasa, Tibet.
How did Jesus get into these texts?
Word of mouth is one way -- as the apostles preached the Good News, Jesus stories spread along many channels, probably including that same Silk Route “connecting all the regions of Asia with the east and west . . . widely used by merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads.” Wendy Doniger’s authoritative recent study, “The Hindus: An Alternative History” (Penguin Press: 780 pp., $35), points out that, according to the apocryphal Acts of St. Thomas, this apostle was “assigned” the duty of preaching in India and was sent to Kerala in the country’s southwestern region.
Others, however, like religious scholar Holger Kersten, still believe that the answer is more complicated, that “a story so highly respected . . . and maintained for over 2,000 years, must have some foundation in folk memory, although difficult to prove,” Jacobs explains. They’ve been able to develop a Jesus-in-India theory thanks to the fact that the four canonical Gospels say little about what Jesus did between the Nativity and the beginning of his ministry. The most said, in fact, is recorded by Luke, a very pat, generic statement at the end of that gospel’s Chapter 2 (from the New Jerusalem Bible):
“And Jesus increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and with people.”
Doesn’t that just mean that Jesus trained as a carpenter and hung around his parents’ house? Or, Jacobs notes, perhaps Jesus spent time in a local religious community, like that of the Essenes, Theraputae and the Gnostics. Or, he went East -- soaking up Hindu and Buddhist teachings, encountering followers of Jainism and preaching against injustice, caste systems and greed in India, Tibet and Kashmir. It became a testing ground for his later work in Judea. As Notovitch’s Tibetan gospel says:
When Issa had attained the age of 13 years, the time when an Israelite entered manhood, and could take a wife, the house where his parents earned a livelihood . . . began to be a place for rich and noble people, desiring of having for a son-in-law, the young Issa. . . . Then it was that Issa left his parental home in secret, departed from Jerusalem, and with some merchants set out towards Sind, with the aim of perfecting himself in the Divine Word and of studying the laws of the Great Buddhas.
It’s a thrilling idea, especially considering the short life expectancies in Jesus’ time. Why, if people died young, would Jesus have waited so long to begin his world-changing mission? For Jacobs and others, of course, he didn’t. The author also recounts other legends: about Jesus’ eventual return East after fainting -- not dying -- on the cross and being revived with salves like Marham-i-Isa (the Ointment of Jesus).
Where Jacobs shows his greatest strength isn’t in cataloging this lore, however; it’s in a late chapter in which he draws parallels between Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. He cites the striking similarities between the “ethical and moral dimension” of the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha, and he points out how, to Hindus, “Jesus is . . . the perfect embodiment of Dharma” Jacobs also connects the Hindu belief in self-realization with Christianity’s: “Like many an Indian sage, Jesus affirms that one can realize and attain that God-consciousness right here and now, everywhere and at all times.”
It’s a poignant chapter that Jacobs uses to support his own argument that Jesus visited India and was influenced by the teachings he encountered. But for someone not so inclined to this theory, the chapter is illuminating in other ways. The Jesus-in-India theory, at the very least, can be seen in an ecumenical light -- as an effort to bring another religious tradition into the common area shared by Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
EXPLORING EXOTIC LOCALES has hardly been an exclusively male pursuit. Jacobs mentions several books by female travelers, and Janet Soskice focuses on the adventures of Victorian-era twin sisters in her marvelous “The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels” (Alfred A. Knopf: 316 pp., $27.95).
Agnes and Margaret Smith turned their passion for exploration into a stunning discovery of an early copy of the Gospels written in Syriac during the heyday of British mania for such artifacts. A theology professor at the University of Cambridge, Soskice has crafted a thoughtful, detailed reconstruction of the lives of two people with unique resources that led to even more unique opportunities.
The Smiths chanced upon this precious object in 1892, locked away in a “dark closet” in St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. Though other treasure-seekers had been there before them, those earlier visitors ignored a filthy-looking, ruined volume with “its leaves nearly all stuck together.” This item, the sisters realized, turned out to be a palimpsest text: Long ago, monks had scratched away the older text (the Syriac version of the Gospels) to reuse the pages for something else. But somehow the old text didn’t entirely disappear and was “revived by the action of the common air.” It bled through the other writing on the pages.
This dramatic moment, however, doesn’t occur until about midway into Soskice’s book. Instead, what she first gives us is a rich portrait of the Smiths and all the circumstances in their lives that led them, link by link, to their startling discovery. The sisters, born in 1843 and raised by their widowed father, a Scottish lawyer, were seekers. They didn’t fit the traditional expectations for women of their time. Their intellectual curiosity was nurtured by their father, by their Scottish Presbyterian faith, by fiery public debates challenging the unquestioned authority of the Bible . . . and by an unexpected windfall left by a distant relative that bankrolled their travels.
These factors -- along with the antiquarian interests of the men they married -- enabled them to search for a deeper meaning for their lives. They wanted, as Soskice shows, more than the “butterfly existence” that they saw in the lives of other women.
In preferring a world without frills and lace, however, the Smiths battled against snobbery, academic jealousy and the dangers facing females traveling in the Middle East. Thankfully they did, for if they hadn’t, that ugly, matted bulk of pages avoided by other travelers’ hands might’ve wound up as kindling. Thankfully they did, for if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t have Soskice’s fine, fascinating account.
Owchar is deputy book editor of The Times. The Siren’s Call appears twice monthly at www.latimes.com/books.
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