Dr. Daya Hewapathirane
The Silk Road was well established centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, providing opportunities for diverse groups of people to share not only goods but also their ideas and knowledge, including their spiritual faiths. In Jesus’ time, Buddhism was already five hundred years old and had spread from India in all directions within and outside the Indian sub continent. The overland route westward was through Afghanistan, northern Iran (Persia) and Iraq and then branched to Palestine and Egypt and through Syria and Turkey to Greece. Alexander the Great travelled through the Silk road from Macedonia Greece to Northwest India
Historic evidence shows that by the 3rd century BCE, Buddhism has spread throughout the area from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Mesopotamia was a historical region in West Asia situated within the Tigris–Euphrates river system, roughly corresponding to most of present Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Turkey. When it was under the Achaemenid Empire, in 332 BCE, Mesopotamia fell to Alexander the Great, and after his death, it became part of the Greek Seleucid Empire. Around 150 BCE, Mesopotamia was under the control of the Parthian Empire. The empire, located on the Silk Road trade route between the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Basin and the Han Empire of China, became a center of trade and commerce. At its height, the Parthian Empire stretched from the northern reaches of the Euphrates, in what is now central-eastern Turkey, to eastern Iran.
The Parthians largely adopted the art, architecture, religious beliefs, and royal insignia of their culturally heterogeneous empire, which encompassed Persian, Hellenistic, and regional cultures. Native Parthian sources, written in Parthian, Greek and other languages, are scarce. Much of Parthian history is only known through external sources which include Greek and Roman histories, but also Chinese histories. The Parthian Empire, being culturally and politically heterogeneous, had a variety of religious systems and beliefs. There is some archaeological evidence for the spread of Buddhism from the Kushan Empire into Iran proper. It is known from Chinese sources that An Shigao (148 to 180 CE), a Parthian nobleman and Buddhist monk, traveled to Luoyang in Han China as a Buddhist missionary and translated several Buddhist canons into Chinese.
The Alexander Empire in 323 BCE, more than 300 years before Christ, included most of Greece, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and NorthEast India. Records from Alexander the Great indicate a steady stream of Buddhist monks and philosophers living in his Empire which was at the crossroads of commerce and ideas, influenced the philosophical currents of the time.
The legacy of Alexander the Great included a collection of Greek kingdoms and trade routes from the Mediterranean to the places in central Asia and the stage was set for Greek spiritual practices to mix with Buddhism and become Greco-Buddhism. Two Greek kingdoms the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom from 250 to 125 BCE, and the Indo-Greek Kingdom from 180 BCE to 10 CE, practiced Greco-Buddhism. Buddhist shrines and monasteries were set up on the Silk Road and these places had monks who preached Buddhism to locals and travelers. Over the centuries, merchants played an increasingly large role in the spread of Buddhist teachings and in exchange for their support, Buddhist monasteries offered them a place to stay as they moved along the Silk Road. By the first century BCE, the Greek kingdoms of Central Asia were Greco-Buddhist, and the stage was set at this time for Buddhism to spread far and wide to the West and East via travellers on the Silk Road.
In the 3rd century BCE, the Indian Emperor Asoka sent Buddhist missionaries to all parts of India and beyond up to the Mediterranean. Even several decades prior to Emperor Asoka’s reign, there were Buddhist missionaries spreading the teachings of the Buddha over all parts of Asia, including Egypt. Edicts of Asoka set on stone, some written in Greek, confirm that Buddhist emissaries were sent by Asoka to Greek lands in Asia and the Mediterranean. Buddhism was the first of the major missionary religions to expand its influence through travel on the Silk Road. By the 1st century BCE, Buddhism had spread to lands now known as Afghanistan, Pakistan and countries further west.
Historical evidence indicates that Jesus knew about Buddhism, because in his early years, he lived in Judea, the southern region of ancient Palestine, which was an important cosmopolitan shipping center for trade between India and the West. The overland routes from Judea extending to Persia and western India were especially active after the invasion and occupation of western India by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE. During Jesus’ time, Judea was a Roman dominion and being the wealthiest empire of the time, Rome had trade connections with India and other places in central Asia. Most of this trade reached the Mediterranean through Judea making it a cosmopolitan shipping center. Most traders exchanged information of places, people, and events along their routes. Inevitably, Buddhism was well known to the people in Judea and Buddhists settled in northern Arabia, including Judea. There were many Jewish settlements established during and after Alexander’s invasion of the East, especially along the invasion route through Persia and what is now Afghanistan and Kashmir/Punjab. This was a practice encouraged by Alexander to maintain his empire.
Given these East-West trade and settlement patterns, Jesus inevitably would have been exposed to Buddhism and there is the possibility that Jesus would have known about Buddhism as a teenager. The Bible makes no mention of where the young Jesus lived and provides no account of Jesus’ lost years between ages thirteen and twenty-nine. If Jesus was lost, where was he? Nonbiblical historical accounts indicate that Jesus traveled outside Judea. Old Muslim records refer to Jesus as the “traveling prophet” and as the “chief of travelers.” The more Jesus traveled about, the more he would have encountered Buddhist ideas. If he traveled outside Judea, especially to Mesopotamia, his exposure to Buddhist-influenced groups is inevitable. Historic evidence shows that by the 3rd century BCE, Buddhism has spread throughout Mesopotamia which was the region situated within the Tigris–Euphrates river system in West Asia.
The biblical silence about Jesus’ lost years is one of the strangest hiatuses in history. It is a total silence about one of the greatest personalities in human history, covering seventeen years of the life of Jesus, between the ages of twelve and twenty-nine. From the second century CE, onwards until about the turn of the twentieth century, when the question of Jesus’s travels as a young man was raised by Nicolas Notovitch, the church of Christ was destroying every piece of evidence of the life of Jesus Christ that did not support its doctrines. The doctrine of the church was that Jesus started his own religion as the Son of God. Any evidence not supporting this view was condemned. Therefore, the travels of Jesus and his exposure to Buddhism could not be acknowledged under any circumstances by the church. Hence, the inexplicable lost years of Jesus.
Nicolas Notovitch as he was called in the West, was in actual fact a Jewish Russian known as Nikolai Aleksandrovich Notovich, born in 1858, known for his 1894 book published in 1894, disclosing that Jesus left Galilee for India during the unknown early years of his life, and studied with Buddhists and Hindus before returning to Judea when he was 29 years of age. His observation was based on a document he had seen at the Hemis Monastery that he had visited in India. This was a Tibetan Buddhist monastery located in Hemis, Ladakh, India. Although Notovitch had been discredited in Europe for his proclamations on Jesus’s early life, subsequent research led to its confirmation.
Swami Abhedananda, a contemporary and colleague of the famed Swami Vivekananda, visited the Hemis monastery in 1922 to confirm the reports of Notovich that he had heard the previous year in the USA. The lamas at the monastery confirmed to him that Notovich visited the monastery and that the manuscript on Jesus Christ was shown to Notovich and its contents were interpreted to him, so that he could translate them into Russian. The original manuscript was in Pali in the monastery of Marbour near Lhasa. The manuscript preserved at Hemis was in Tibetan. Swami Abhedananda himself was shown the manuscript, which had 14 chapters containing 223 couplets (slokas). The Swami got some portions of the manuscript translated with the help of a lama, about 40 verses appearing in the Swami’s travelogue. According to the manuscript Jesus Christ came secretly to Kashmir and lived in a monastery surrounded by many disciples. The original manuscript in Pali was prepared “three or four years” after Christ’s death, based on reports by local Tibetans and the accounts from wandering merchants regarding his crucifixion. In 1927, the manuscript was published serially in Visvavani, a monthly publication of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Samiti, and subsequently published in a book form in Bengali. The fifth edition of the book in English was published in 1987, which also contains as an Appendix, an English translation of Notovich’s book titled Life of Saint Issa.
Another author named Elizabeth Clare Prophet, in her book titled The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus’ 17-Year Journey to the East, asserts that Buddhist manuscripts provide evidence that Jesus traveled to India, Nepal, Ladakh and Tibet. In his book titled Jesus lived in India, a German author namedHolger Kersten, makes a thorough, methodical and authoritative examination of the evidence of Jesus Christ’s life beyond the Middle East, in India, before crucifixion and again in Kashmir India after it where he arrived with Mother Mary. After many years in Kashmir, teaching people who venerated him as a great prophet and saint. His death and entombment were in Kashmir. Jesus travelled to Kashmir via Turkey and Persia. Holger Kersten cites ancient stories in Turkey and Persia of a saint called ‘Yus Asaf’ whose behavior and teachings are remarkably similar to that of Christ. Kersten claims that there are more than twenty-one historical documents that bear witness to the existence of Jesus in Kashmir, where he was known also as Yuz Asaf and Issa.
It is possible that Jesus travelled extensively throughout Asia which increased his exposure to Buddhism. His travel is indicated by the many records found in India and China. Textual evidence shows that Buddhism not only had spread West through the Silk Road travelers and contacts between East and West from conquests of Alexander, but also had been deliberately propagated through emissaries sent from India during the 3rd century BCE. This influence is revealed both by the actions and statements of Jesus Christ and by the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, a term derived from Sanskrit, which means “Maithri” (the future Buddha of this world). Jesus revealed to Peter information about his life, which Peter passed over to Matthieu and Luke. Most of what Jesus Christ said is confined to the gospels of Matthieu, Mark, Luke and John were said more than five hundred years earlier by the Buddha. Much of what Jesus Christ did was done more than five hundred years earlier by the Buddha. What Jesus Christ said is explicit in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Therefore, educated and trained as a Buddhist, Jesus spoke and acted like a Buddhist.
Numerous scholars long ago discovered Buddhistic elements in the Gospel of John and recognized the Buddhistic background of Essenism, by which Jesus was greatly influenced. Essenes was an ascetic Jewish sect or a monastic brotherhood of Jews in Palestine that existed from the 2nd century BCE to 2ndcentury CE. There are strong similarities between Buddhist monastic teachings and Jewish ascetic sects, such as the Essenes, that were part of the spiritual environment of Palestine at the time of Christ’s birth. The Gospel of John, is one of the four canonical gospels in the New Testament along with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all written between 65 and 95 century CE. John was one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles and the Gospel of John was considered in ancient times to be the “spiritual Gospel,” and it wielded a profound and lasting influence on the development of early Christian doctrine. The conclusion is inescapable that Palestine, together with many other parts of Asia Minor, was inundated with Buddhistic propaganda for two centuries before Christ.
Given the foregoing plausible evidence, it is possible that Jesus Christ was a Buddhist, perhaps a Bodhisattva or an Enlightened Being with a compassionate determination to help others on their quest for the highest state of spiritual development. Nineteenth century Christian missionaries in India translated and read ancient Buddhist Sanskrit and Pali documents in India and ironically, referred to Buddhism as the Christianity of the East. But the real fact is that Christianity is Buddhism of the West because Buddhism existed five hundred years before Jesus Christ.