Did Jesus really ever visit India and Tibet? This is a question people all around the world will shortly be asking themselves when the $20 million Hollywood blockbuster movie, The Aquarian Gospel, is released in 2010. The film is about Jesus' missing years and is directed by Australian-born Drew Heriot, who was launched onto the world stage in 2006 when he directed The Secret.
English author and poet, Alan Jacobs, happened to be in India in 2008 when he read about this blockbuster film in the Indian press, and was intrigued. The idea that Jesus travelled to India has been called "the tale that won't go away" and has captured the imagination and interest of millions, Jacobs recounts. He suggested to his publisher that he write a book giving the evidence for and against the hypothesis that Jesus travelled to India and Tibet - and the result was When Jesus Lived in India published earlier this year. I speak to him on the phone about the book and his personal opinion on the matter...
In the Bible, the only reference to Jesus' life between the ages of 12, when he is debating with the elders in the temple, and 30 when he is baptised by John the Baptist, is "the boy grew in stature and wisdom".
An interesting source of evidence for the idea that Jesus did live in India is a book entitled The Aquarian Gospel written by the Reverend Dr Levi H Dowling, which is now in its 53rd reprint and 18th edition. Levi Dowling, who lived from 1844 to 1911, was the son of a minister and by the age of 16, Levi himself was preaching to large congregations. He served in the United States Army as a chaplain during the American Civil War and, after attending university and medical college, practised medicine until he retired.
According to his second wife and biographer, in addition to practising medicine, he also spent 40 years studying the esoteric sciences and in deep meditation. He found himself able to access the Akashic records, a huge collection of knowledge, which is believed to record every event in the history of the cosmos and to be stored in a non-physical plane of existence, Jacobs explains.
Other people who have claimed to be able to access the Akashic records are Madam Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, Edgar Cayce, the most documented psychic of the 20th century, and Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher.
In The Aquarian Gospel, Dr Levi Dowling claims that Jesus did visit India and Tibet during his missing years. It describes him travelling with the royal prince Ravenna of Orissa through India, and studying for four years with the Brahmins at the Jagannath Temple in Orissa where he learnt about the Vedas, the ancient sacred texts of Hinduism. The Brahmins were astonished by this young Jewish boy's understanding of these ancient texts. But they became angry and drove him out of the temple when he began to question the Hindu caste system, and why the Untouchables were not allowed access to sacred texts and teachings.
The Aquarian Gospel also mentions that Jesus went to Tibet's capital Lhasa where he was given access to all the sacred Buddhist manuscripts, before he travelled on to the province of Ladahk in Northern India, and then into Lahore. In addition, it recounts that Jesus returned to India after the crucifixion when he arose from the dead.
Scholars have found discrepancies with The Aquarian Gospe,l Jacobs explains. For instance, it mentions that Jesus visited Lahore, which did not exist in his time, and also claims that Jesus knew the Chinese sage Meng-tzu, but the latter actually preceded Jesus by three centuries. However, The Aquarian Gospel has a very large following, particularly in the United States, and has never been out of print.
The idea that Jesus spent his missing years in India first came to light at the end of the 19th century when a Russian called Nicolai Notavitch published his book, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, in the 1890s. Notavitch was an author and historian and in 1887 he visited a Buddhist monastery in Ladakh. There he was told by the head lama it was believed that the essence of the Buddhist teachings were in those of Christianity because the prophet Issa, their name for Jesus, had visited Tibet 2,000 years earlier.
The lama told him to go to the monastery of Hemis, near Leh, in Ladakh, and there the abbot read him the verses of an ancient manuscript which related to Issa's visit to Tibet. With the help of an interpreter, he recorded them.
These verses are known as the Tibetan Gospel of Issa.
They give a history of the people of Israel and an account of Jesus' birth, as well as of his death. Like The Aquarian Gospel, the Tibetan text also says that Jesus travelled to India, where for six years, he was taught about the Vedas by the Brahmins. It also supports the claim in The Aquarian Gospel that Jesus spoke out about the Brahmins' treatment of the Untouchables, and spent time with and taught these downtrodden people.
When, it's claimed, the Brahmins decided to kill Jesus, he quickly left the Juggernaut area where he had been based and went to Gautamides, the birthplace of Buddha, and here studied the sacred sutras. In the Tibetan Gospel of Issa it is said that after six years, Issa, whom Buddha had chosen to spread his holy word, had become a perfect example and teacher of the sacred writings. It also says that Jesus visited the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh and describes his return to Judea and his subsequent preaching, arrest and crucifixion.
When Notavitch's sensational book was published, an Oxford professor called Dr Max Muller was asked to investigate its veracity. He sent an English schoolmaster based in Agra to Ladakh where he was allegedly told by the Hemis Monastery abbot that he had not met Notavitch, and that he knew nothing about the manuscript.
Yet 40 years before Notavitch visited the monastery, according to Dr Holger Kersten, author of Jesus in India, a Mrs Harvey went there and described viewing the manuscripts. Also, after Notavitch, a man called Kaliprasad Chandra went to Hemis and was told by the monks that Notavitch's account was truthful and was shown the manuscript. Further, in 1939, a Swiss nun and the President of the World Association of Faith were also shown the manuscripts.
Dr Holger Kersten went to visit the Hemis monastery in 1979, but the manuscripts in question could not be found. But he did see evidence that Notavitch had actually been to Hemis. Kersten also discovered Hindu texts written between the 3rd and 4th centuries describing how Jesus had come to India.
Another interesting piece of information comes from the Koran, which does not mention Jesus' missing years, but says that he escaped the crucifixion and travelled to India, settled in Kashmir and later died there. It is a view supported by highly respected Islamic scholars. There is actually a temple at the place in Kashmir where he is believed to have lived and died.
There is no definite evidence as to whether Jesus did or did not visit India and Tibet. As Alan Jacobs says, "You are really in the field of possibilities and probabilities.
What I have discovered is this. Christians don't like it, so it is not credible. Hindus like it, because the idea that Jesus visited India is as attractive as if he visited Great Britain or anywhere else. Islam likes the idea that he was in Kashmir and the Buddhists like the idea that he was in Tibet, so really it is where you stand on this. You could say that your own attitude is conditioned by your own religious belief, or what you would like to believe. But what actually happened we will never know, unless more evidence comes up."
However, what does fascinate Jacobs is the folk legend which has existed for 2,000 years that Jesus was seen in Tibet, Nepal, northern India and Kashmir.
In his book, Alan Jacobs also considers other possibilities to account for Jesus' missing years, one of which is that he lived with the Essenes, a Jewish ascetic community. It was a religious community that had a lot of rules that Jesus later preached, Jacobs explains, including communal meals, baptism and the monastic life. Some of his friends including John the Baptist were known to have been Essenes. If this is the case, the likely reason it is not mentioned in the four Gospels in the Bible is due to the Essenes' link with Orthodox Judaism, and the Christian Church's desire to disassociate itself from Judaism.
Parahamsa Yogananda, founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, contributed hugely to bringing greater awareness to the West of the spiritual wisdom of the East. In his two volume work, The Second Coming of Christ, he shows Jesus' teachings are connected to yoga, one of the world's oldest spiritual paths to achieving oneness with God. Yogananda's belief is that the three wise men who came to Bethlehem when Jesus was born were great rishis, sages from India. So, from the beginning of his life Jesus had a very special connection with India. Then, when he was 12 or 13, he joined one of the caravans travelling from Palestine to India, and spent many years there and also in Tibet.
Alan Jacobs is Jewish by birth, but he explains he has studied all the main religions and written extensively about Christianity, including two books on the Gnostic Gospels.
When Jesus Lived in India includes paraphrased versions of the relevant texts of Dowling's The Aquarian Gospel and also the Gospel of Issa and Jacobs puts forward the evidence for and against the idea that Jesus lived in India, but admits that we shall probably never know one way or the other.
Finally, Jacobs adds, perhaps today in this Age of Aquarius, world of globalisation and era of communication, there is also a desire to emphasise more what the main religions have in common rather than their differences. And that explains why the idea that Jesus lived in India and embraced the teachings of both Hinduism and Buddhism is now so popular. Having personally studied both Buddhist and Hindu teachings, but also feeling very aligned to Christianity and its beliefs, I am certainly excited by this possibility.
When Jesus Lived in India by Alan Jacobs is published by Watkins Publishing and costs $24.99.