Westerners often say that fundamentalist Muslims are entirely isolated from the world and focus only on their immediate environment. By and large, this can be true. One of the worrying things about the current Kashmir agitation is how virulent the hatred of India is among the young. But this is less baffling when you realize that this generation grew up during the insurgency, after the Pandits had been driven out and when the only Hindus they ever saw were soldiers. They have no experience of the world outside the valley and no sense of how Kashmir would collapse as an independent nation.
But I sometimes wonder if the same isn’t true of Western Christians as well. The fundamentalists of America’s Bible Belt may be ignorant bigots, almost by definition, but even educated Western Christians seem remarkably ignorant about the origins of their own religion.
They have been brought up to think of Christianity as a Western religion and of Jesus Christ as the blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan messiah of European paintings. When you point out that the chances of Jesus having fair skin and blond hair are roughly on par with Osama bin Laden being outed as a secret Catholic, they look at you in astonishment.
The truth is that Christianity is a West-Asian religion, born in the same general vicinity as Islam. Jesus was a West-Asian Jew and probably had dark skin, curly hair, brown eyes and Semitic features. The parallels with Islam do not end there. All three West-Asian religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) subscribe to the Old Testament and the Quran includes many references to Jesus. Further, the “Allah” whom credulous Americans have come to regard with such dread is a Biblical figure; Allah is simply the Aramaic word for God. The Bible is written in Aramaic so whenever God is referred to, it is as “Allah”. And when Jesus talked about his divine father, he probably referred to “Allah”.
Say this to most Western Christians and you’ll freak them out.
Integral to many currently popular views of Christianity is the notion that Jesus asked his Western brethren to go to the Third World and to save the heathen black and brown hordes. Tell an American or a European that there were Christians in India many centuries before Christianity had taken over the West and he is startled.
But the truth is that the Syrian Christians of Kerala are among the world’s oldest Christian communities. According to legend, they were converted by St Thomas (the Doubting Thomas of the Bible) who journeyed to India after Jesus’s crucifixion. The Syrian Christians had flourishing churches at a time when Europeans were worshipping trees and animals.
Once you see Jesus as a brown man and Christianity as a West Asian religion, it rather changes your perspective on all the claims advanced for the Christian basis of Western morality.
But what stuns Western Christians the most is the idea that Christianity may have had a Hindu link. Though the evidence for this is sketchy and scant (fair enough: the evidence for the existence of the historical Jesus is also hard to find), there is a legend that suggests Jesus came to India before and after the crucifixion.
The theory is based on three planks. The first is the persistent Indian legend that Jesus was here. The second is the mystery of the missing years. We know from the Bible that Jesus spend much of his youth travelling, though the Gospels are unforthcoming about where he went. By the time he was ready to found the sect that became Christianity and be treated as the messiah, he was already a grown man. So where did he go during those missing years? Is it plausible that he came to India? After all, we know that travel between West Asia and India was easy: How else could the Syrian Christians have converted so soon after the crucifixion?
The third plank has to do with the nature of his teachings. The God of the Old Testament is a vengeful God — it’s all “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” stuff. The God of the New Testament, on the other hand, is gentle and forgiving: turn the other cheek etc.
Where did this peace-and-love message come from? Of the world’s great religions, the only one that advocated this kind of message was Hinduism (and perhaps, Buddhism which spun off from Hinduism).
Could it be that, on his travels during the missing years, Jesus came to India and picked up on our spiritual tradition?
It’s only a theory, of course, and one that has no evidence to support it. But it is a worth a thought, isn’t it?
Then, there’s an entirely distinct legend. At most Indian airports, you’ll find copies of Holger Jensen’s book on Jesus’s Kashmir years on sale. Jensen picks on the persistent Kashmir legend that a tomb of a holy man who is buried in the valley is actually the tomb of Jesus Christ (I gather that the same claim is advanced for other tombs in the region as well.)
According to this legend, Jesus did not die on the cross. (Others routinely survived crucifixion too.) He fainted and was taken away by his disciples. A couple of days later when he was better, they moved him to a safe location (this explains the missing body and the Resurrection) and then, he went off to Kashmir where he lived and preached for many years.
I’m not sure I believe any of this myself. It rests on too much guesswork and too little history. But then, so does most of the Bible. Is there any evidence for the parting of the Red Sea? Of Jesus walking on water? Of the raising of Lazarus?
In these matters, you either believe or you do not. I’m not a believer in any of these views. But if the origins of religion are not about evidence but about faith, then here’s one theory that deserves to be heard.