Essene roots of Christianity
At the time of Jesus of Nazareth there were two major currents or sects within Judaism: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees were extremely concerned with strict external observance of their interpretation of the Mosaic Law, ritual worship, and theology. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were very little concerned with any of these and tended toward a kind of genteel agnosticism. Today these two groups might be compared with the Orthodox and the Reformed branches of Judaism respectively.
There was also a third sect which both was and was not part of Judaism. They were the Essenes, whose very name means “the Outsiders.” (“Essene” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Chitsonim–“the outsiders.” Since Philo and other Jewish historians used “Essene” in writing about them, that has become the common usage.) Whether they chose this name for themselves or whether it was applied to them by the disdainful Pharisees and Sadducees is not known. But that they were incongruent (even incompatible) to the normal life of Israel at that time is certainly known.
Jesus of Nazareth was an Essene, as were most of his followers, including the twelve Apostles. When Jesus said “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18), the word used in the Greek text of the Gospels is ecclesia, which literally means “the called out” or “the separated” in the sense of “the aliens.” It is not far-fetched, then, to wonder if the correct translation should not be: “I will establish My Essenes.” Many elements distinguished and even separated the Essenes from the rest of Israel.
Their claims about their very existence was certainly a controversial matter. For the Essenes averred that Moses had created them as a secret fraternity within Judaism, with Aaron and his descendants at their head. The prophet Jeremiah was a Master of the Essenes, and it was in his lifetime that they ceased to be a secret society and became a public entity. From that time many of the Essenes began living in communities. Isaiah and Saint John the Baptist were also Masters of the Essenes. Their purpose was to follow a totally esoteric religious philosophy and practice that was derived from the Egyptian Mysteries.
As the grandson of the Pharaoh, Moses had been an initiate of those mysteries and destined to ultimately become the head of the Egyptian religion. It was common in Egypt for the eldest son of the Pharaoh to inherit the throne, and the next eldest son to be made the head of the Egyptian religion. Although Moses was the only son of the Pharaoh’s daughter, he was adopted and his bloodline was not known. For this reason he could not be Pharaoh, but he could be put into the position usually given to the second son. The Egyptian Mysteries were themselves derived from the religion of India: Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Religion. Because of this the Essenes had always maintained some form of contact and interchange with India–a fact that galled their fellow Israelites. Regarding this, Alfred Edersheim, in his nineteenth century classic The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, wrote: “Their fundamental tendency was quite other than that of Pharisaism, and strongly tinged with Eastern elements.”
The reality of this contact with India is shown in the Zohar (2:188a-b), a compilation of ancient Jewish mystical traditions and the major text of the Jewish Kabbalah. It contains the following incident regarding the knowledge of an illumined rabbi concerning the religion of India and the Vedic religious rite known as the sandhya, which is an offering of prayers at dawn and sunset for enlightenment.
“Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya were walking on the road. While they were walking, night fell; they sat down. While they were sitting, morning began to shine; they rose and walked on. Rabbi Hiyya said, ‘See, the face of the East, how it shines! Now all the children of the East [in India], who dwell in the mountains of light [the Himalayas], are bowing down to this light, which shines on behalf of the sun before it comes forth, and they are worshipping it.…Now you might say: ‘This worship is in vain!’ but since ancient, primordial days they have discovered wisdom through it.”
Their contact and interchange with Indian religion–Brahminical practices in particular–were manifested in several ways among the Essenes:
1. They practiced strict non-violence.
2. They were absolute vegetarians and would not touch alcohol in any form. Nor would they eat any food cooked by a non-Essene. (Edersheim says: “Its adherents would have perished of hunger rather than join in the meals of the outside world.”)
3. They refused to wear anything of animal origin, such as leather or wool, usually making their clothes of linen.
4. They rejected animal sacrifice, insisting that the Torah had not originally ordered animal sacrifice, but that its text had been corrupted–in regard to that and many other practices as well. Their assertion was certainly corroborated by passages in the scriptures such as: “Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?” (Psalms 50:13). “To what purpose [is] the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord:…I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats” (Isaiah 1:11). “For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices” (Jeremiah 7:22). The quotation from Isaiah is particularly relevant since he was himself the Master of the Essenes.
It was the Essenes’ contention that the “animals” originally offered in sacrifice were symbolic effigies of animals that represented the particular failing or fault from which the offerer wished to be freed. Appollonius of Tyana taught this same thing in relation to the ancient Greek sacrifices, and urged a return to that form. Long before that, in India dough effigies were offered in “sacrifice.” (See page 42 of Ganesha, by Chitralekha Singh and Prem Nath, published by Crest Publishing House of New Delhi.) In the Essene practice, each person molded the effigies with his own hands, while praying and concentrating deeply on the traits he wished to have corrected, feeling that it was being transferred into the image. The effigies were made of five substances: powdered frankincense, flour, water, olive oil, and salt. When these had dried, they were taken to the tabernacle whose altar was a metal structure with a grating over the top and hot coals within. The effigies were laid upon this grating and burnt by the intense heat. As they burned, through the force of the heat the olive oil and frankincense liquefied and boiled or seeped upward. This fragrant liquid was called “the blood” of the sacrifice. It was this with which Moses consecrated the tabernacle, its equipment, and the priests (Exodus 24:6,8), not animal blood. And it was just such a “lamb” whose “blood” was sprinkled on the doorposts in Egypt (Exodus 12:7).
For the Passover observance, the Essenes would bake a lamb effigy using the same ingredients–except for the frankincense they would substitute honey and cinnamon. (Or, lacking honey, they would use a kind of raisin syrup.) This was the only paschal lamb acceptable to them–and therefore to Jesus and His Apostles.
Consequently, the Essenes refused to worship in Jerusalem, but maintained their own tent-tabernacle on Mount Carmel made according to the original directions given to Moses on Mount Sinai. They considered the Jerusalem temple unacceptable because it was a stone structure built according to Greco-Roman style rather than the simple and humble tabernacle form given to Moses–a form that symbolized both the physical and psychic makeup of the human being. Further, the Jerusalem temple was built by Herod who, completely subservient to Rome, disdained Judaism and practiced a kind of Roman agnostic piety. Because of this the temple was ritually unclean in their estimation. They placated the Jerusalem Temple priests by sending them large donations of money. On occasion they gave useful animals to the Temple in Jerusalem, but only with the condition that they would be allowed to live out their natural span of life.
5. They interpreted the Torah and other Hebrew scriptures in an almost exclusively spiritual, symbolic, and metaphysical manner, as did the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo. They also had esoteric writings of their own which they would not allow non-Essenes to see. But even more objectionable to the other Hebrews was their study and acceptance of “alien” scriptures–the holy books of other religions–so much so that an official condemnation was made of this practice. In light of this we can say that the Essenes were perhaps the first in recorded history to hold a universal, eclectic view of religion.
6. Celibacy was prized by them, being often observed even in marriage, and many of them led monastic lives of total renunciation.
7. They considered their male and female members–all of whom were literate–to be spiritual equals, and both sexes were prophets and teachers among them. This, too, was the practice in Hinduism at that time, women also wearing the sacred thread.
8. They denied the doctrine of the physical resurrection of the dead at the end of time, which was held by some Pharisees–who usually believed in reincarnation–and later became a tenet of Mediterranean Christianity.
9. They believed in reincarnation and the law of karma and the ultimate reunion of the soul with God. This is clearly indicated by the Apostles asking Jesus about a blind man: “Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2. See May a Christian Believe in Reincarnation?).
10. They believed that the sun was a divine manifestation, imparting spiritual powers to both body and mind. They faced the rising and setting sun and recited prayers of worship, refusing, upon rising in the morning, to speak a single word until the conclusion of those prayers. They did not consider the sun was a god, but a symbol of the One God of Light and Life. It was, though, felt that appropriate prayers directed toward the sun would evoke a divine response. (See Jesus’ words to the king of Kashmir as recorded in the Bhavishya Maha Purana that are given later on.)
11. They believed in both divination and the powers of prophecy.
12. They believed in the power of occult formulas, or mantras, as well as esoteric rituals, and practiced theurgy (spiritual “magic”) with them.
13. They believed in astrology, cast horoscopes, and made “magical” amulets of plants and gems according to astrological aspects. They also believed that angels had taught Moses the practice of herbalism.
14. They believed that miraculous cures were natural extensions of authentic spiritual life.
15. They would wear only white clothes as a sign that they worshipped God Who is Light and were clothed by Him in light. This so provoked the other Israelites that praying in white clothing was prohibited by the Pharisees and Sadducees, and laws were drafted accordingly. (The Mishnah begins with such a prohibition.) The disciples of Saint Thomas in India had a similar rule, only wearing white clothes in worship.
16. They observed the identical rules of purity (shaucha/shuddhi) as the Brahmins in India at that time, especially in the matter of bathing frequently.
17. They practiced the strictest adherence to truthfulness. (Travelers in past centuries cited the strict adherence to truth by the Brahmins of India as a great and admirable wonder.)
It should also be noted that most of these Brahminical practices were observed by Buddhists as well, so it is not out of place to consider that the Essenes–and Jesus and His disciples–possessed the qualities of both Hindu and Buddhist religion in “the West” at that time.
From all this we can see why Edersheim states that “In respect of doctrine, life, and worship, it [the Essene community] really stood outside Judaism.” As a result of these differences from ordinary Judaism, the Essenes lived totally apart from their fellow Hebrews, usually in separate communities or in communal houses in the towns and cities. (The supposed “communal experiment” in the book of Acts (4:32) was really a continuation of the Essene way of life. The Last Supper took place in just such an Essene “house.”)
The History of Isha Messiah–Jesus the Christ
Among the Essenes of Israel at the threshold of the Christian Era, none were better known or respected than Joachim and Anna of Nazareth. Joachim was noted for his great piety, wealth, and charity. The richest man in Israel, his practice was to annually divide his increase into thirds, giving one third to the temples of Carmel and Jerusalem and one third to the poor, keeping only one third for himself. Anna was renowned as a prophetess and teacher among the Essenes. Their daughter Mary [Miryam], Who had been conceived miraculously beneath the Holy of Holies of the Temple, had passed thirteen years of her life as a Temple virgin until her espousal to Joseph of Nazareth. Before their marriage was performed, She was discovered to have conceived supernaturally, and in time She gave birth to a son in a cave of Bethlehem. His given name was Jesus (Yeshua in Aramaic and Yahoshua in Hebrew).
This Son of Miryam was as miraculous as his mother, and astounding wonders were worked and manifested daily in his life–for the preservation of which his parents took him into Egypt for some years where they lived with the various Essene communities there. But before that flight, when the child had been about three years old, sages from India (Matthew 2:1, 2) had come to pay him homage and to establish a link of communication with him, for his destiny was to live most of his life with them in the land of Eternal Dharma before returning to Israel as a messenger of the very illumination that had originally been at the heart of the Essene order. Through the intermediary of merchants and travelers both to and from India, contact was maintained with their destined disciple.
At the age of twelve, during the passover observances on Mount Carmel (not in Jerusalem), Jesus petitioned the elders of the Essenes for initiation–something bestowed only on adults after careful instruction and scrutiny. Because of his well-known supernatural character, the elders examined him before all those present. Not only could he answer all their questions perfectly, when the examination was ended he began to examine them, putting to them questions and statements that were utterly beyond their comprehension. In this way he demonstrated that the Essene order had nothing whatever to teach him, and that there was no need for him to undergo any initiation or instruction from them.
Upon his return to Nazareth preparations were begun for his journeying into India to formally become a disciple of those masters who had come to him nine years before. The necessary preliminaries being completed, Jesus of Nazareth set forth on a spiritual pilgrimage that would end at the feet of the three masters who would transform Jesus the Nazarene into Isha the Lord, the Teacher of Dharma and Messiah of Israel. Nicholas Roerich, in his book Himalaya: A Monograph, said that according to the Tibetan scrolls he found in 1925, Isha was thirteen when he left for India. The Nathanamavali of the Nath Yogis, which we will be considering later on, says that Isha reached India when he was fourteen.
The spiritual training of Jesus
In India the masters initiated Jesus into yoga and the highest spiritual life, giving him the spiritual name “Isha,” which means Lord, Master, or Ruler, a descriptive title often applied to God. It is also a title of Shiva.
The masters also instructed Jesus in the form his spiritual teachings should take and the specific yogic practices that should be given to his disciples. It was also decided that one of those disciples should be sent to India for the identical spiritual empowerment and instruction that was being imparted to Jesus.
For some time Jesus meditated in a cave north of the present-day city of Rishikesh, one of the most sacred locales of India. In the years He spent in the Himalayas, He attained the supreme heights of realization. To augment the teachings he had received in the Himalayas, Jesus was sent to live in Benares, the sacred city of Shiva.
The worship of Shiva
The worship of Shiva centered in the form of the natural elliptical stone known as the Shiva Linga (Symbol of Shiva) was a part of the spiritual heritage of Jesus, for His ancestor Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation, was a worshipper of that form. The Linga which he worshipped is today enshrined in Mecca within the Kaaba. The stone, which is black in color, is said to have been given to Abraham by the Archangel Gabriel, who instructed him in its worship. Such worship did not end with Abraham, but was practiced by his grandson Jacob, as is shown in the twenty-eighth chapter of Genesis.
Unwittingly, because of the dark, Jacob used a Shiva Linga for a pillow and consequently had a vision of Shiva standing above the Linga which was symbolically seen as a ladder to heaven by means of which devas (shining ones) were coming and going. Recalling the devotion of Abraham and Isaac, Shiva spoke to Jacob and blessed him to be an ancestor of the Messiah. Upon awakening, Jacob declared that God was in that place though he had not realized it. The light of dawn revealed to him that his pillow had been a Shiva Linga, so he set it upright and worshipped it with an oil bath, as is traditional in the worship of Shiva, naming it (not the place) Bethel: the Dwelling of God. (In another account in the thirty-fifth chapter, it is said that Jacob “poured a drink offering thereon, and he poured oil thereon.” This, too, is a traditional form of worship and offering.) From thenceforth that place became a place of pilgrimage and worship of Shiva in the form of the Linga stone. Later Jacob had another vision of Shiva, Who told him: “I am the God of Bethel, where thou anointedst the pillar, and where thou vowedst a vow unto me” (Genesis 31:13). A perusal of the Old Testament will reveal that Bethel was the spiritual center for the descendants of Jacob, even above Jerusalem.
Although this tradition of Shiva [Linga] worship has faded from the memory of the Jews and Christians, in the nineteenth century it was evidenced in the life of the stigmatic Anna Catherine Emmerich, an Augustinian Roman Catholic nun. On several occasions when she was deathly ill, angelic beings brought her crystal Shiva Lingas which they had her worship by pouring water over them. When she drank that water she would be perfectly cured. Furthermore, on major Christian holy days she would have out-of-body experience in which she would be taken to Hardwar, a city sacred to Shiva in the foothills of the Himalayas, and from there to Mount Kailash, the traditional abode of Shiva, which she said was the spiritual heart of the world.
Benares and Jagannath Puri
Benares, the spiritual heart of India, was the major center of Vedic learning. During his time in the Himalayas, Jesus’ endeavors had been centered almost exclusively on the practice of yoga. In Benares Jesus engaged in intense study of the spiritual texts of Sanatana Dharma, especially the upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita–which he later quoted in his discourses in Israel.
When Jesus had come to the point where the acharyas of Benares were satisfied with his level of scriptural and philosophical knowledge, he was sent to the sacred city of Jagannath Puri, which at that time was a great center of the worship of Shiva, second only to Benares. In Puri Jesus lived some time in the famous Govardhan Math, today a major center of the monastic order of the foremost philosopher-saint of India known as Adi Shankaracharya. There he perfected the synthesis of yoga, philosophy and renunciation, and began to publicly teach the Eternal Dharma. In the nineteen-fifties, the former head of the Govardhan Math, and head of the entire monastic Swami Order of Shankaracharya, Jagadguru Bharat Krishna Tirtha, claimed that he had discovered “incontrovertible historical evidence” that Jesus had lived in the Govardhan Math as well as in other places of India. He was writing a book on the subject, but died before it could be finished. Unfortunately the fate of his manuscript and research is presently unknown.
As a teacher Jesus was as popular as he was proficient in teaching, and gained great notoriety among all levels of society. However, those who were making religion into a business became intensely jealous and even began to plot his death. Therefore he left Puri and returned to the Himalayan regions. There final instructions were given him regarding his mission in the West and the way messages could be sent between Jesus and his Indian teachers. Jesus also lived in various Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayan region at this time.
Jesus was aware of the form and purpose of his death from his very birth. But it was the Indian masters who made everything clear to him regarding them. They promised Jesus that he would be sent a container of Himalayan Balsam to be poured upon his head by a close disciple as a sign that his death was imminent, even “at the door.” When Saint Mary Magdalene performed this action in Bethany, Jesus understood the unspoken message, saying: “She is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying” (Mark 14:8).
Return to the West
Jesus then set forth on his return journey to Israel with the blessings of the masters. All along his way, Jesus taught those who were drawn to his spiritual magnetism and who sought his counsel in the divine life. He promised that after some years he would be sending them one of his disciples who would give them even more knowledge and benefit.
Arriving in Israel, Jesus went directly to the Jordan where his cousin John, the Master of the Essenes, was baptizing. There his Christhood was revealed to John and those who had “the eyes to see and the ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:4). In this way His brief mission to Israel was begun. Its progress and conclusion are well known, so we need not recount it here except to rectify one point.
Misunderstanding becomes a religion
Throughout the Gospels we see that the disciples of Jesus consistently misunderstood his speaking of higher spiritual matters. When he spoke of the sword of wisdom they showed him swords of metal to assure him they were well equipped (Luke 22:36-38). When he warned them against the “leaven” of the Scribes and Pharisees they thought he was complaining that they did not have any bread (Mark 8:15,16). Is it any wonder, then that he said to them: “Perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened? Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? How is it that ye do not understand?” (Mark 8:17, 18, 21). Even in the moment of his final departure from them, their words showed that they still believed the kingdom of God was an earthly political entity and not the realm of spirit (Acts 1:6).
This being so, the Gospels themselves must be approached with grave caution and with the awareness that Jesus was not the creator of a new religion, but a messenger of the Eternal Religion he had learned in India. As a priest of the Saint Thomas Christian Church of South India once commented to me: “You cannot understand the teachings of Jesus if you do not know the scriptures of India.” And if you do know the scriptures of India you can see where–however well-intentioned they may have been–the authors of the Gospels often completely missed the point and garbled the words and ideas they heard from Jesus, even attributing to him incidents from the life of Buddha (such as the Widow’s Mite) and mistaking his quotations from the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada for doctrines original to him. For example, the opening verse of the Gospel of John, which has been cited through the centuries as proof of the unique character and mission of Jesus, is really a paraphrase of the Vedic verse: “In the beginning was Prajapati, and with Him was the Word.” (Prajapati vai idam agra asit. Tasya vak dvitiya asit. Krishna Yajurveda, Kathaka Samhita, 12.5, 27.1; Krishna Yajurveda, Kathakapisthala Samhita, 42.1; Jaiminiya Brahmana II, Samaveda, 2244).
Having confused Christ with Jesus, things could only go downhill for them and their followers until the true Gospel of Christ was buried beneath two millennia of confusion and theological debris.
Return to India–not ascension
It is generally supposed that at the end of his ministry in Israel Jesus ascended into heaven. But Saint Matthew and Saint John, the two Evangelists that were eye-witnesses of his departure, do not even mention such a thing, for they knew that he returned to India after departing from them. Saint Mark and Saint Luke, who were not there, simply speak of Jesus being taken up into the heavens. The truth is that he departed to India, though it is not unlikely that he did rise up and “fly” there. This form of travel is not unknown to the Indian yogis.
That Jesus did not leave the world at the age of thirty-three was written about by Saint Irenaeus of Lyon in the second century. He claimed that Jesus lived to be fifty or more years old before leaving the earth, though he also said that Jesus was crucified at the age of thirty-three. This would mean that Jesus lived twenty years after the crucifixion. This assertion of Saint Irenaeus has puzzled Christian scholars for centuries, but if we put it together with other traditions it becomes comprehensible. Basilides of Alexandria, Mani of Persia, and Julian the Emperor said that Jesus had gone to India after His crucifixion.
Why did Jesus return to India? Anna Catharine Emmerich said that in her visions of Jesus’ life she clearly saw that in India Jesus loved the people and was wholeheartedly loved in return. Even more, everyone there understood everything Jesus had to say and teach. In contrast, he was little liked in Israel and virtually no one knew what he was talking about. This would certainly be an inducement to return. There may be another reason. Some contemporary anthropologists and historians believe that Abraham was a member of the Yadava clan of Western India, the family of Krishna, who disappeared from India after Krishna’s departure from this world. Swami Bhaktivedanta, founder of the Hare Krishna movement said the same. If this is so, then Jesus was really returning to the homeland of his ancestors.
And finally, Jesus may have realized that his teachings could only be preserved in the context of Eastern religion and philosophy. An ancient Chinese text on the history of religions and their doctrines, known as The Glass Mirror, had this to say about Lord Isha (Jesus) and His teachings: “Yesu, the teacher and founder of the religion, was born miraculously.…His doctrines did not spread extensively, but survived only in Asia.”
Some Buddhist historical records about Jesus
A contemporary written record of the life and teachings of Jesus in India was discovered in 1887 by the Russian traveler Nicholas Notovitch during his wanderings in Ladakh. He had it translated from the Tibetan text (the original, kept in the Marbour monastery near Lhasa, was in Pali) and, despite intense opposition from “Christians” in Russia and Europe, published it in his book The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ.
As would be expected, the authenticity of Notovitch’s book was attacked and various articles written claiming that the monks of the Himis monastery, where Notovitch had found the manuscript, told investigators that they knew nothing of Notovitch or the text. But both Swami Abhedananda and Swami Trigunatitananda–direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna and preachers of Vedanta in America–went at separate times to the Himis monastery. The monks there not only assured them that Notovitch had spent some time in the monastery as he claimed, they also showed them the manuscript–part of which they translated for Swami Abhedananda, who knew from having read Notovitch’s book that it was indeed the same writing found in The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. Subsequently, Abhedananda had the English translation of Notovitch’s text printed in India where the “Christian” authorities had until then prohibited both its publication or its importation and sale. Immediately after the publication of the English edition of Notovitch’s book, the British Government in India hired Moslems to go throughout Ladakh and neighboring areas posing as Hindus in search of further manuscripts about Jesus in India. They were to buy the manuscripts and bring them to their employers to be destroyed. Whether this shameful ruse succeeded to any degree we have no knowledge.
Swami Trigunatitananda not only saw the manuscript in Himis, he also was shown two paintings of Jesus. One was a depiction of his conversation with the Samaritan Woman at the well. The other was of Jesus meditating in the Himalayan forest surrounded by wild beasts that were tamed by his very presence. In America the Swami described the painting to an artist who produced the following:
Later, Dr. Nicholas Roerich, the renowned scholar, philosopher, and explorer, traveled in Ladakh and also was shown the manuscript and assured by the monks that Jesus had indeed lived in several Buddhist monasteries during his “lost years.” He wrote about his own viewing of the scrolls in his book The Heart of Asia.
In 1921 the Himis monastery was visited by Henrietta Merrick who, in her book In the World’s Attic tells of learning about the records of Jesus’ life that were kept there. She wrote: “In Leh is the legend of Jesus who is called Issa, and the Monastery at Himis holds precious documents fifteen hundred years old which tell of the days that he passed in Leh where he was joyously received and where he preached.”
In 1939 Elizabeth Caspari visited the Himis monastery. The Abbot showed her some scrolls, which he allowed her to examine, saying: “These books say your Jesus was here.”
Robert Ravicz, a former professor of anthropology at California State University at Northridge, visited Himis in 1975. A Ladakh physician he met there spoke of Jesus’ having been there during His “lost years.”
In the late 1970s Edward Noack, author of Amidst Ice and Nomads in High Asia, and his wife visited the Himis monastery. A monk there told him: “There are manuscripts in our library that describe the journey of Jesus to the East.”
Toward the end of this century the diaries of a Moravian Missionary, Karl Marx, were discovered in which he writes of Notovitch and his finding of scrolls about “Saint Issa.” Marx’s diaries are kept in the Moravian Mission museum. The pages about Notovitch and the scrolls have “disappeared” and their existence is now denied in an attempt to discredit Notovitch, but before their disappearance they were photographed by a European researcher and have been made public.
Notovitch also claimed that the Vatican Library had sixty-three manuscripts from India, China, Egypt, and Arabia–all giving information about Jesus’ life.
In 1812, Meer Izzut-oolah, a Persian, was sent to Ladakh and central Asia by the East India Company. Though religion was not his mission, he observed much and subsequently wrote in his book Travels in Central Asia: “They keep sculptured representations of departed saints, prophets and lamas in their temples for contemplation. Some of these figures are said to represent a certain prophet who is living in the heavens, which would appear to point to Jesus Christ.”
When Swami Abhedananda was in the Himis monastery doing his research on the records of Jesus life in India he was told by the abbot that Jesus had not departed from the earth at the time his apostles saw him ascend, but that he had returned to India where he lived with the Himalayan yogis for many years.
The Bengali educator and patriot, Bipin Chandra Pal, published an autobiographical sketch in which he revealed that Vijay Krishna Goswami, a renowned saint of Bengal and a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, told him about spending time in the Aravalli mountains with a group of extraordinary ascetic monk-yogis known as Nath Yogis. The monks spoke to him about Isha Nath, whom they looked upon as one of the great teachers of their order. When Vijay Krishna expressed interest in this venerable guru, they read out his life as recorded in one of their sacred books, the Nathanamavali. It was the life of him whom the Goswami knew as Jesus the Christ! Regarding the Nath Yogis’ tradition, Sri Pal comments: “It is also their conjecture that Jesus Christ and this Isha Nath are one and the same person.” Perhaps they were the yogis with which Isha lived either before his return to Israel or after his secret return to India after his ascension. Here is the relevant portion of the Nathanamavali:
“Isha Natha came to India at the age of fourteen. After this he returned to his own country and began preaching. Soon after, his brutish and materialistic countrymen conspired again him and had him crucified. After crucifixion, or perhaps even before it, Isha Natha entered samadhi by means of yoga. [Yogis often leave their bodies in samadhi, so it is not amiss to say that Jesus did indeed “die” on the cross.]
“Seeing him thus, the Jews presumed he was dead, and buried him in a tomb. At that very moment however, one of his gurus, the great Chetan Natha, happened to be in profound meditation in the lower reaches of the Himalayas, and he saw in a vision the tortures which Isha Natha was undergoing. He therefore made his body lighter than air and passed over to the land of Israel.
“The day of his arrival was marked with thunder and lightning, for the gods were angry with the Jews, and the whole world trembled. When Chetan Natha arrived, he took the body of Isha Natha from the tomb, woke him from his samadhi, and later led him off to the sacred land of the Aryans. Isha Natha then established an ashram in the lower regions of the Himalayas and he established the cult of the lingam there.”“The cult of the lingam” refers to the Shaivite branch of Hinduism. We will speak more on that later.
This assertion is supported by two relics of Jesus which are presently found in Kashmir. One is his staff, which is kept in the monastery of Aish-Muqan and is made accessible to the public in times of public catastrophe such as floods or epidemics. The other is the Stone of Moses–a Shiva linga that had belonged to Moses and which Jesus brought to Kashmir. This linga is kept in the Shiva temple at Bijbehara in Kashmir. One hundred and eight pounds in weight, if eleven people put one finger on the stone and recite the bija mantra “Ka” over and over, it will rise three feet or so into the air and remain suspended as long as the recitation continues. “Shiva” means one who is auspicious and gives blessings and happiness. In ancient Sanskrit the word ka means to please and to satisfy–that which Shiva does for His worshippers.
I have met two people who have “raised the Stone of Moses.” One of them said that the number required to raise the stone relates to their spiritual development–that he had raised it with only three others.
The Bhavishya Maha Purana
One ancient book of Kashmiri history, the Bhavishya Maha Purana, gives the following account of the meeting of a king of Kashmir with Jesus sometime after the middle of the first century:
“When the king of the Sakas came to the Himalayas, he saw a dignified person of golden complexion wearing a long white robe. Astonished to see this foreigner, he asked, ‘Who are you?’ The dignified person replied in a pleasant manner: ‘Know me as Son of God [Isha Putram], or Born of a Virgin [Kumarigarbhasangbhawam]. Being given to truth and penances, I preached the Dharma to the mlecchas.…O King, I hail from a land far away, where there is no truth, and evil knows no limits. I appeared in the country of the mlecchas as Isha Masiha [Jesus Messiah/Christ] and I suffered at their hands. For I said unto them, ‘“Remove all mental and bodily impurities. Remember the Name of our Lord God. Meditate upon Him Whose abode is in the center of the sun.”’ There in the land of mleccha darkness, I taught love, truth, and purity of heart. I asked human beings to serve the Lord. But I suffered at the hands of the wicked and the guilty. In truth, O King, all power rests with the Lord, Who is in the center of the sun. And the elements, and the cosmos, and the sun, and God Himself, are forever. Perfect, pure, and blissful, God is always in my heart. Thus my Name has been established as Isha Masiha.’ After having heard the pious words from the lips of this distinguished person, the king felt peaceful, made obeisance to him, and returned” (Bhavishya Maha Purana 3.2.9-31. The word mleccha means a foreigner, a non-Indian.)
Another Kashmiri history, the Rajatarangini, written in 1148 A.D., says that a great saint named Issana lived at Issabar on the bank of Dal Lake and had many disciples, one of which he raised from the dead.
When teaching in Israel, Jesus told the people: “Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold” (John 10:16), speaking of his Eastern disciples. For when Jesus came to the Jordan at the beginning of his ministry, he had spent more years of his life in India than in Israel. And he returned there for the remainder of his life, because he was a spiritual son of India–the Christ of India.
As Swami Sivananda wrote in Lives of Saints: “[Lord Jesus] disappeared at the ages of thirteen and reappeared in his thirty-first year. During this period, from his thirteenth to his thirty-first year, he came to India and practiced Yoga.…Jesus left Jerusalem and reached the land of Indus in the company of merchants. He visited Varanasi, Rajgriha and other places in India. He spent several years in Hindustan. Jesus lived like a Hindu or a Buddhist monk, a life of burning renunciation and dispassion. He assimilated the ideals, precepts and principles of Hinduism. Christianity is modified Hinduism only, which was suitable for those people who lived in the period of Christ. Really speaking, Jesus was a child of the soil of India only. That is the reason why there is so much of similarity between his teachings and the teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism.”
Master and disciple
In India it is often said that “the father is born again in the son.” This ancient adage applies also to the worthy disciple–in him the master continues his work. This being so, the character and mission of Jesus the Christ of India can be traced in that of his apostle Thomas. Thomas is a nickname derived from the Syrian (Aramaic) word t’omo, which means twin. The Apostle’s true name was Judas, as is recorded in the ancient Syriac Gospel texts, but it was not used in the Gospels so he would neither bear the name of the Betrayer nor be mistakenly identified with him by those who would only hear them read.
Saint Thomas the Apostle in India
After the departure of Jesus from Israel and the empowerment bestowed on the Apostles at Pentecost, it was decided that they would separate and go throughout the Mediterranean regions teaching those who sought the revelation of their own Christhood. Accordingly, eleven of the Twelve Apostles and many of the Seventy determined through divination where they should go and preach the Good News of Christ.
One alone did not participate in this, and that was Judas Thomas, called “the Twin.” His assignment had been given him by Jesus himself. Thomas was to depart for India where he would live with Jesus and those great masters who had taught Jesus before him. For Jesus had destined him for a work completely unlike that of the other Apostles. He was indeed to become the “twin” of his Master, perhaps the most true in his likeness to Jesus both inwardly and outwardly. (It is a matter of record that Judas Thomas was also physically identical to Jesus. This was unusual but not impossible or even unknown, since he was a cousin of Jesus–as were most of the Apostles.)
In the forty days between his resurrection and his leaving Israel Jesus had fully outlined to the apostles and disciples how they should teach others who would also spiritually be his disciples through them. But in India Thomas was to teach and follow the purest Arya Dharma, as had Jesus before him.
So overwhelming did his task seem to Saint Thomas that he tried to avoid this mission. Yet it was not long before a government official from India came to Israel to find an architect for his king, who wished a palace built by an artisan from the land of the renowned Hiram Abiff, whose construction of the Temple of Solomon was known throughout the world. Jesus manifested in a physical body and sold Saint Thomas to the man as a slave, giving him a signed document to that effect. When confronted with this document, Saint Thomas abandoned his resistance and left for India where he did in truth follow the steps of his Master and become his “twin” in all things.
In the life of Saint Thomas written by the Christian Gnostic Bardaisan based on letters written by Saint Thomas, perhaps to his Persian disciples, he is referred to as: “Twin brother of Christ, apostle of the Highest who shares in the knowledge of the hidden word of Christ, recipient of His secret pronouncements.” Regarding the records of Jesus’ life that he found in the Himis monastery, Notovitch wrote this interesting remark in relation to Saint Thomas: “[The scrolls] may have actually been spoken by St. Thomas, historical sketches having been traced by his own hand or under his direction.”
In the Himalayas Saint Thomas was reunited with Jesus until he received the inner call to return to “the West” for the impending departure of the Virgin Mary from this earthly life. Just as he had been separated from his brother apostles for a special mission, so he was in the final hour of the Virgin’s life. For he did not reach Ephesus in time to be present at her going forth from the body, but only came there on foot the third day after her burial. As he was approaching her tomb unawares, he was astounded to see her radiant living body emerge from the stone sepulchre and ascend. Realizing that she had finished her span of life without his presence, and fearing that he would never see her divine form again, he cried out to her in anguish of heart, imploring her not to leave him desolate. Looking upon him with loving tenderness, the Virgin took from her waist the belt she habitually wore and threw it down to him with words of blessing.
Carrying the precious relic of her belt, Saint Thomas hastened into Ephesus and announced to the grieving apostles and all those gathered in the Mother’s house that she, too, was risen from the dead. Whereas he had doubted the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and had received proof of its reality by touching the resurrected body of his Lord, now it was Thomas who gave physical evidence that Mary, too, was “alive for evermore” (Revelation 1:18).
Saint Thomas took the Virgin Mother’s belt with him to India, and there it became the most valued treasure of his disciples, whose descendants in time came to be known as “Saint Thomas Christians.” A few centuries ago, in times of upheaval in India, it was taken into Syria, where during subsequent troubles in that country it disappeared. About thirty years ago the present head of the Syrian Jacobite Church, Patriarch Zachariah, felt an intense urge to find the belt, and began studying the ancient records concerning it. Noticing that one of the handwritten books he consulted had an unusually thick binding, he was inspired with the thought that the belt might be hidden there. Cutting it open, he found the prize, whose simple touch began to work great miracles. Most of the belt has been returned to India and enshrined in a great church where every Saturday (the day sacred to the worship of the Mother aspect of God in Hinduism) thousands of Christians, Hindus, and Moslems gather for the sacred Eucharist (Qurbana) and prayers to the Virgin. The miracles granted are beyond number. When I visited the shrine one Saturday as the guest of its administrator, Bishop Gregorios–who preached on the subject of the concept of Mahashakti (Supreme Power: the Divine Feminine) in Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam–I witnessed this wonderful demonstration that it is worship and not theologizing that can unite the adherents of all religions in love and harmony. Bishop Gregorios also spoke of Mahashakti being the same as the Holy Spirit, and the Virgin Mary as a perfect reflection of the Holy Spirit.
Before returning to India for the fulfillment of his commission from Jesus, Saint Thomas went to visit the Essene communities of Israel, urging that some of them come with him to India to both escape the imminent destruction by the Romans and to help him in his spiritual work. Many did so, and a company of Essenes headed by Saint Thomas arrived in South India (Kerala) in 52 A.D. These Essenes started several villages in the same area. At the end of the twentieth century those sites were excavated and many coins like those found in the Qumran caves were unearthed.
A Hindu Brahmin family near the town of Palur, Kerala, has a document of family history wherein it is written: “In the Kali year 3153 [52 A.D.] the foreigner Thomas Sannyasi came to our village and preached there.” It is noteworthy that Saint Thomas is described as a Hindu monk (sannyasi), which he would have to have been if he truly followed in the steps of Jesus.
Ancient records say that frequently Jesus was seen in South India and mistaken for Saint Thomas. He and Saint Thomas were sometimes seen speaking together. Apparently Jesus occasionally came down from his Himalayan abode to visit Saint Thomas and supervise his work.
The disciples of Saint Thomas
By their own preference the disciples of Saint Thomas were usually referred to in India as “Ishannis.” This means “of Isha,” just as Lutheran means “of Luther.” Although Jesus’ Aramaic name was Yeshua, in India he was known as Isha. Perhaps Ishanni could awkwardly, but accurately, be translated “Jesusites” or “Isha-ites.” Some Indian scholars such as Swami Abhedananda make the conjecture that either Ishanni is actually a derivation of Essene (Essenees), or that the Essenes themselves were called Ishannis, “Isha” in their case being a reference to God “the Lord.” This would certainly reveal their Indian spiritual roots.
In his commentary on the Gospels, Paramhansa Yogananda wrote: “It is important to note the difference between Jesus the man and Jesus the Christ. Jesus was the name of the man. The Sanskrit origin of this name is found in the word ‘Isha,’ or Lord of Creation. Mispronounced by travelers in many lands, and being used in many different languages, the word ‘Jesus’ came to be used in place of Isha.” This very sentiment was spoken long before by Saint Thomas himself. According to The Acts of Thomas, when King Mazdai, who would eventually have him martyred, asked Saint Thomas: “Who is thy master? And what is his name?” Saint Thomas answered: “Thou art not able to hear His true Name now at this time, but the Name that is given to Him is Jesus the Messiah”–that is, Jesus Christ (Yeshua Messiah). After the death of Saint Thomas his murderer, King Mazdai, became converted to the Ishanni Marga (Ishanni Way), and it was then that he learned the true Name, Isha, which he had not been qualified to even hear beforehand.
Nearly all those who accepted the teachings of Saint Thomas were devout Brahmins of the highest level (Nambudiri and Nair) who continued their religious observances, but did so according to the principles Isha and Saint Thomas had received as disciples of the masters. Acknowledging this fact, Cardinal Eugene Tisserant wrote in Eastern Christianity in India: “Christianity was introduced in Malabar [Kerala] and accepted spontaneously without changing the indigenous character of the inhabitants.” So strict and correct were they in their Brahminical character and observance that they were frequently asked by the other Hindus to perform the rites of purification (shuddhi karanam) for defiled objects and even of Hindu temples. Even today, some Saint Thomas Christians wear the sacred thread (yajnopavita) that is the distinctive mark of Hindu Brahmins. But all the Saint Thomas Christians are considered Brahmins by contemporary Hindu society.
Ancient Indian historical records sometimes refer to the Ishannis as Naassenes. This may be a corruption of “Essene” but in the ancient Gnostic Christian texts discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, we find the term “Nazoreans,” so the Saint Thomas Christian Essenes must also have used it in referring to themselves. So this would indicate their esoteric Christian character and affinity with those esoteric Christians of Egypt–most of whom were Essenes or descendants of Essenes. Regarding the Essenes, Edersheim further wrote that in later times “the general movement had passed beyond the bounds of Judaism, and appeared in some forms of the Gnostic heresy.”
Because of the great number of Ishanni (Saint Thomas) Christians in the southernmost state of Kerala, it is sometimes called “the country of the Nazaranis” even today. The daily train from Madras to Kerala is known as “the Nazarani Express.” When the Pope of Rome wrote a letter to the Ishannis in the fourteenth century he addressed them as “the Nazarani Christians.” Considering the spiritual character of the Ishannis this expression could mean either that they were “Nazarenes”–followers of Jesus of Nazareth–or that because of their ascetic character and usual observance of celibacy they were Nazarites–the term used for semi-monastic ascetics among the Hebrews as outlined in the sixth chapter of the book of Numbers. Whatever the derivation, this was definitely a name sometimes used in reference to themselves. In the book of Acts it is said of Saint Paul by his accusers that he was “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5).
The Ishannis had much in common with both Hindus and Buddhists. In fact, Tamil historical records contemporaneous with Saint Thomas say that he taught “a Buddhist religion.” This was no doubt because of Saint Thomas’ intense monastic and philosophic nature which contrasted with the usual form of Hinduism at that time which was extremely bound up in external rituals and the use of religion to attain utterly materialistic goals.
The Ishanni Sampradaya
A sampradaya is a lineage of spiritual teaching stemming from an enlightened teacher, such as the Shankara Sampradaya, Ramanuja Sampradaya, Madhavacharya Sampradaya, or according to the form of God they particularly worship such as the Shaivite, Vaishnava, Shakta, or Ganapatya sampradayas.
Externally the Saint Thomas Christians were an integral part of Vedic, or Aryan, religion (dharma). Even though they would have primarily described themselves as Ishannis, they would have meant it in the sense of a sampradaya within Sanatana Dharma, not a separate religion. Whatever distinctive customs a sampradaya might possess, they would all consider themselves to be fundamentally followers of Sanatana Dharma, the religion based on the Vedas and the teachings of the vedic seers known as rishis. And the majority of their customs and spiritual doctrines would be absolutely identical and harmonious with one another. This is the trait that most horrified and infuriated the “Christians” from outside when they encountered the Ishannis.
The Ishannis never referred to themselves as Christians. Among themselves and with other Indians they used Ishanni in reference to themselves. After their “discovery” by European Christians they began to call themselves “Saint Thomas Christians” to make their spiritual nature comprehensible to them and also to affirm that their form of the teachings of Jesus (Isha) was their heritage from the Apostle Thomas himself and was positively to be distinguished from the Petrine (Roman Catholic) or Pauline (Eastern Orthodox or Protestant) forms of Christianity.
Although they had friendly interchange with the Eastern Christians of Persia, Syria, and Iraq, they were insistent upon their distinction from them, as well. Bar-Hebraeus, an early Syrian Christian writer, records that when Christians from Persia visited India the Ishannis told them: “We are the disciples of Saint Thomas.” It was those Persians who created the phrase “Saint Thomas Christians” and first began to use it. And that it why I am sometimes using that appellation now.
Because there were profound ties between India and Persia–many Persians being followers of Vedic Religion–the Saint Thomas Christians (Ishannis) always considered themselves brethren of the Persian Christians, who were of the Chaldean tradition which after the destruction of Christianity in Persia became centered in Iraq. Both the Persian and Iraqi Christians were condemned as heretics by the other churches of East and West since they did not believe that Jesus Christ was God in the sense of being an incarnation of one of the Trinity. Rather, they believed that he had begun as a man just like us and had attained the status of Christ–Son of God–as could (and should) all Christians.
The Ishannis believed this as well, and they, too, were called heretics by the Western Christians who persecuted them. Just as modern “Christians” ignore the fact that reincarnation is an orthodox Jewish belief, so they ignore that there exist two churches–one founded by the Apostle Thomas in India and the other founded by the Apostle Thaddeus in Iraq–with a continuous history from the Apostolic age that do not believe in the Mediterranean doctrine of Jesus being the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity.
The fact that the Ishannis did not originally use the expression “Christian” underscores their fundamental difference from the Mediterranean Christianity derived from the other Apostles. In the last century or so, mostly as a result of pressure from the latterly mentioned Christians of the East, for the sake of expedience the titles of “Indian Orthodox Christians” and “Indian Orthodox Church” have become current for external use.
Again, the Ishanni Sampradaya should not be equated or confused with the Christian religion as it developed in the Mediterranean world and is now embodied in the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches. In modern times, to give something of an idea of its character to those who know only these just-mentioned churches, it is also called “Saint Thomas Christianity.” But it is not a “church.” Rather it is a sampradaya–spiritual current or movement–within the Vedic Religion of India that is commonly (though somewhat inaccurately) called Hinduism. In other words, Ishannis are not Christians in the generally accepted sense, though they are followers of Sri Isha Deva. Rather, they are followers of the Sanatana Dharma, the religion of India.
Regarding this, Father Jacob Kurian, teacher of theology at the Kottayam seminary in Kerala, had this to say to Christine Chaillot, the author of The Malankara Orthodox Church: “We should feel that we have an Indian role to play and we should present to the world a specific picture of our church. We cherish so much the [fact] that we could build our Christian tradition on the foundations of the Sanatana Dharma. Of course, there is the foundation laid by Christ and the Apostles and the long spiritual tradition of Christianity. But the theological tradition of the Indian Church has to be in line with the Indian philosophical tradition, which is not necessarily only the Hindu one, but also that of the Buddhists, the Jains and other non-Christian traditions which also contribute to the Indian philosophical tradition. So we have to take this into consideration together with the Eastern Orthodox spirituality and theology. We want to present to the world a model of Christianity that has lived for the last twenty centuries in a tradition of pluralism, but at the same time we want to keep the central elements of Orthodox Christian spirituality and doctrinal integrity.…When Christians adopt this attitude of Sanatana Dharma which incorporates all truth, they will be able to overcome all anxiety regarding syncretism”–an anxiety not on the part of the Saint Thomas Christians but on the part of those who simply do not understand their historical and spiritual character any more than they understand the historical and spiritual character of Isha Masiha, the Christ of India, the spiritual heir of the Vedic Rishis and Gautama Buddha, whose teachings contain quotations from the Veda, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Dhammapada.
History of the Ishanni Sampradaya
In Mylapore near modern Madras, the Apostle Thomas was pierced with a lance on December 19, 72 A.D., but he did not die until December 21. He was buried nearby, and the earth from his tomb worked many miracles. In 1292 Marco Polo visited his tomb and took some of the red-colored earth from there. Upon his return to Venice he healed many people with it according to his own testimony.
The spiritual family of Saint Thomas continued and grew. Just before his martyrdom, King Mazdai said to him: “I have not been in haste to destroy thee, but have had patience with thee; and thou hast added to thy deeds, and thy sorceries are spoken of through the whole country. But I will do unto thee so that they shall accompany thee and go along with thee, and that our country shall be relieved of them.” To this Saint Thomas answered: “These ‘sorceries,’ which thou sayest shall accompany me, shall never fail from this place.” And so it has been seen to be. The Ishanni Sampradaya spread throughout India, though never of large numbers. It is remarkable, but historical records indicate that there was no region of India in which the Ishannis were not represented, though they were mostly in South India. In 1430, Nicholas di Condi in writing of his travels in India said that the Ishannis “are scattered over India like the Jews with us.”
Except for the vicissitudes that all societies endure, the Ishannis lived in complete peace, enjoying spiritual interchange with various Eastern Christian churches, though jealously maintaining their autonomy and distinctive ways.
More than one unsuccessful attempt was made in the early centuries by the Mediterranean Christians to establish their form of Christianity in India. At the coming of the Europeans in large numbers, however, this began to change, culminating in a full-scale persecution by the Portuguese colonialists, who first came to India in 1498. Christians from Europe were always received in total friendship by the Christians of Saint Thomas and often given places to live. In many instances the Ishannis interceded with the local rulers in gaining residency and trade permissions for the Europeans. But sadly, on the part of the opportunistic Europeans there was no such sincere openness, and as soon as any political ascendancy was attained, pressure would be brought to bear on the Ishannis to convert to the Christianity of the Westerners.
This came to an appalling climax in the last year of the sixteenth century when the Portuguese Roman Catholic Archbishop of Goa, Alexius Menezes, summoned all the Ishanni clergy and a considerable number of laymen to the town of Diamper to supposedly bring peace and reconciliation between the two churches. In response one hundred fifty-three priests and about six hundred and sixty laymen attended. The Ishannis were asked to bring all their liturgical and theological texts–especially their ancient texts containing the teachings of Saint Thomas–so they could be “examined.” Believing that the Europeans wanted to sincerely discover the apostolic traditions of Saint Thomas (and, therefore, of Jesus), they did so. Their chagrin cannot be described when they found themselves surrounded by Portuguese soldiers who forced them at gunpoint to surrender their precious manuscripts, which were then burned in their presence at the order of the Archbishop. Because of this “It is not possible to write a complete history of the Christians in South-West India, because the ancient documents of their churches were destroyed by fire at the Synod of Diamper in 1599,” as Tisserant also admits.
“What history will not willingly forgive is the literary holocaust which was carried out on the authority of this decree, when all books that could be laid hands on were consigned to the flames. It was comparable in many ways with the vandalism of Omar, who by similar wanton destruction ordered the noble library of Alexandria to be consumed by flames. The Syrian Christians of today believe that because of this cruel decree, no records are available with them to recover and establish beyond all dispute their past Church history. None will deny that there is some substance in this belief” (S. G. Pothen, The Syrian Christians of Kerala).
Among the books burned were many copies of three books. Two of them, The Book of Charms and The Ring of Solomon, were on Christian magic. The third was a book on esoteric healing and the making of amulets from gems and herbs (as the Essenes had also done) called The Medicine of the Persians. They now exist only as nearly-forgotten names.
Not only were the books brought to Diamper destroyed, Archbishop Menezes went from church to church searching for “bad” books and burning entire libraries in many places–even in areas where the Portuguese had no political power whatsoever. The liturgical texts containing the rites of the Chaldean tradition were especially sought out and destroyed because they revealed how utterly the other churches had departed from the original ways of Christianity, and because they expressed the correct view of Isha as a Son of God by attainment and not as the creator God incarnate as the Mediterranean Christians held. A list of forbidden books was made at Diamper, and any who read or listened to them being read were condemned out of hand.
Over the course of the next days the Archbishop also engaged in harangues to “correct” the ways of the Ishannis and bring them into conformity with those of “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic See of Rome.” The Portuguese even forced the Christians of Saint Thomas to change the way they made the Sign of the Cross (right to left) to the way the Western Christians had only recently themselves come to do it (left to right).
The official acts of the Synod particularly inveighed against the Ishannis who taught school and made provisions for the religious instructions of the students in their own religions, even keeping the images of Hindu deities in the schools so the students could learn and perform their daily worship. Those who sent their children to schools taught by Hindus where they, too, worshipped the deities were declared excommunicated, and the children were forbidden to enter a church.
Since participation in “idolatrous” worship and the making of offerings in Hindu temples was the norm for the Ishannis–since they were Hindus–that, too, was soundly castigated.
Especially denounced was the use of Hindu rites of exorcism by the Ishanni priests, as well as other “idolatrous” and “superstitious” Vedic rituals. Priests who dared to have themselves registered as Nair Brahmins were condemned, not for a religious reason, but because it supposedly made them liable to be called up for military service.
Saint Thomas had given the Ishannis a book which they used for divination to obtain guidance in the making of important decisions and to determine the future. This was a special target of the Portuguese, who also railed against the use of Hindu diviners by the Ishannis, and all copies of this invaluable document were consigned to the flames of bigotry. (The Saint Thomas Christians still use divination of various sorts.)
The Ishannis considered astrology a legitimate means of forecast and guidance, and used it accordingly. There were considered to be especially skilled in determining astrologically what days and times were the most favorable for marriage and the starting of journeys or any other type of endeavor. In David Daniel’s book The Orthodox Church of India, published and sold by the Orthodox Church in India, we find this: “The Saint Thomas Christians are accustomed to consult astrologers to ascertain the auspicious moment for setting out for any purpose, e.g., for a journey, a wedding, etc. Drawing horoscopes in not uncommon amongst them.” Many Saint Thomas Christian priests are astrologers.
Oddly, condemnation was even pronounced against the Ishannis’ laudable custom of adopting as many orphans as they could so they would not be homeless. This was a custom of the Essenes, also.
As it is the Hindu custom to name their children after deities, the Ishannis naturally were accustomed to sometimes name their male children “Isha.” This–along with their habit of giving Old Testament names, as well–was violently censured by the Portuguese. They were also condemned for piercing their ears and taking too many baths!
Hardly any of the Ishannis could even understand the language in which all this was done, and they were forced through cajolery and threats to sign documents of concurrence with all that had taken place–these documents being represented to them as nothing more than statements that they had been present at the gathering. Before sending them to Rome, Archbishop Menezes interpolated many items into the signed documents to make it appear that the Ishannis had agreed to things either not actually spoken about or that were firmly resisted by them when they were brought up.
The Synod of Diamper did have one positive effect, though a backhanded one. By reading the fulminations against the “pagan” ways of the Ishannis and the official condemnations of them we are able to establish that the Ishannis were indeed practicing Hindu Brahmins who worshipped Isha but considered the other segments of Hinduism–as well as the other religions of the world–to be equally viable in the search for God.
Finally, “approved” Syriac liturgical texts were issued to the clergy along with other written directives, and they departed in a daze to their flocks, accompanied by Portuguese “assistants” who were to make sure that they carried out the demands of the Europeans.
When the Jesuits that were present at the Diamper assembly officially objected to the outrageous actions of Archbishop Menezes, he coolly remarked that “he behaved like that just to show the way of salvation to the assembled without hindrance.” Cardinal Eugene Tisserant was apparently of the same mentality when, in 1957, he wrote in Eastern Christianity in India: “Instead of destroying the existing Syriac manuscripts, he [Archbishop Menezes] could have had them corrected, but his method was that of certainty, so that any future heresy could be more easily averted.”
Thus was “the beginning of sorrows” that were to continue for nearly a century. Slowly the ways of “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” were eroded, though in the rural and mountainous areas not prosperous enough to attract the rapacious attention of the Portuguese clerics and traders little changes occurred.
Friendly clergy from the Syriac-speaking Orthodox Churches who came to visit their Indian brothers were arrested and deported or imprisoned. (The fact that these “Syrians” made no objections to the Ishannis’ “Hindu” character indicates that in earlier centuries they themselves held comparable or compatible ideas or else considered them neither heretical nor of any spiritual detriment.) Some were actually taken to Portugal and Rome and subjected to “interrogation” by the Inquisition. A few were burned to death for heresy. Others vanished forever. Atrocities committed against the Indian Christians were not unknown, though never officially sanctioned by the invaders–a common tactic of tyrants.
In 1653, at the order of Portuguese ecclesiastics, a Syrian bishop, who had come to find out why communication with the Ishannis had been so long in abeyance, was imprisoned. When the Ishannis learned of this outrage they came in thousands to protest. The bishop was then smuggled out of the prison and eventually murdered. This so exasperated the Ishannis that many thousands of them assembled at the church in Mattanchery and swore on the Coonan Cross the solemn vow that they would no longer have any association whatsoever with the Portuguese or their “Petrine” religion. Happily, this was successful, and the yoke of spiritual bondage was thrown off permanently. Despite skirmishes with the Europeans who were determined to re-impose their enslavement, the Ishannis managed to keep their spiritual integrity, protected by the Hindu rulers from further persecution.
It is tragically true that unworthy friendship is often more treacherous than enmity, and so it proved to be in the nineteenth century when the Protestant missionaries (mostly Church of England) managed to exert great influence over the Ishannis and bring about the abandonment of many valued traditions and beliefs. In time this form of invasion was repulsed to some degree, but not until many had forsaken the ways of their ancestors and embraced the minimal religion of the missionaries. In this way both Catholic and Protestant Europe managed to wreak undeniable and profound damage on the Ishanni Sampradaya.
I saw the effects of this for myself when speaking at a church meeting in Niranam where Saint Thomas had founded the congregation. (Several examples of his woodwork–especially carvings in traditional Hindu temple style–were shown to me.) During my talk, I felt so galled by not being able to speak freely of the higher, esoteric aspects of religion that I decided to break loose and say what I pleased, and hang the consequences. At the far back many very elderly men and women were sitting, their heads bowed down in abject boredom and disinterest. But when I had spoken just a few sentences of real Christian (Hindu-Ishanni) belief, they all began looking eagerly at me, smiling, nodding, and gesturing to one another in approval. At the end they all surged forward to express their appreciation of my talk. It was evident that as children they had heard the very things I was now speaking, but it had been a long and dreary time since those truths had been publicly expressed.
We can confidently say that in reality the Ishanni Sampradaya, in its fidelity to its heritage from the Lord Isha and Saint Thomas, was a legitimate segment (sampradaya) of Vedic Religion (Hinduism), vastly differing from what is commonly known as Christianity. This is why Cardinal Tisserant could (uncomprehendingly) write: “It does not seem, however, that the Indian Christians were ever greatly concerned with the great Christological disputes of bygone days.” That was because the doctrinal controversies, alterations, and aberrations of Mediterranean Christianity meant nothing to them as followers of Arya Dharma according to the teachings of Isha and Saint Thomas. History substantiates this, so a brief look should suffice.
The witness of history
When, because of the movement of population, the Ishanni temples became Hindu temples, the Ishanni icons remained in those temples and were worshipped by the Hindus along with the other images. Even more revealing was the discovery in 1925 and 1926 of scores of ancient stones at Kodiveri upon which are engraved symbols of the various Hindu sampradayas, including those of the Ishannis. (At Tangste, in Ladakh, there are also large stone boulders upon which crosses have been carved.) It is a matter of historical record (sometimes by European Christians who were displeased) that as a matter of course the other Hindus contributed money and labor for the building of Ishanni temples and the Ishannis did the same when other types of Hindu temples were built. This was because they were of one religion.
The traditions of the Ishannis say that Saint Thomas built a temple in Nilackal, presently a completely deserted area. Recent excavations in the area of Nilackal have revealed that a kind of Hindu temple city existed there at the time of Saint Thomas and that the Ishanni temple had been built within the compound of the Mahadeva (Shiva) temple as a subsidiary temple. This demonstrates that Saint Thomas and his followers were viewed as a Shaivite sampradaya (sect) of Hinduism. (Many Saint Thomas Christians still wear rudraksha beads, a mark of worshippers of Shiva.) However, at the time of Jesus and Saint Thomas Shaivism was something very different from what it is now in India. “Shiva” did not mean the mythological ascetic with matted hair, smeared with ashes, riding on a bull, and married to the daughter of King Himalaya. “Shiva,” which literally means “He Who is All Bliss and the Giver of Happiness,” was considered a name of the Absolute Being and often carried the connotation of God as Infinite Light. It was not the name of a “god.” Originally Shaivism was that philosophy which now is called Advaita Vedanta, and Yoga was its prime characteristic.
In 345 A.D., when the ruler of Carnellur gave the suburb of Muziris to the Ishannis for their exclusive use, they renamed it Mahadevar Pattanam, the City of Mahadeva (Shiva). The king laid the first brick for the Ishanni temple that was built there, and upon its completion he led the first service of prayers to be conducted there. This would not have been done if the Ishannis were not themselves Hindus. Eventually an Ishanni kingdom, with Mahadevar Pattanam as its capital, was established. At Nilamperur, near the site of a Hindu temple, the effigy of a king wearing a pectoral cross was unearthed at the end of the last century. In the north, in the area traditionally known as “the Hindu Kush” a coin from the first century was found depicting the local raja riding a horse and carrying a cross in his hand.
Whenever a child reached the age of three years the Ishannis always had a Brahmin pandit come to their home and symbolically begin his formal education by guiding the child’s fingers to trace the mantra Om Sri Ganapataye Namah–“I bow to Lord Ganesha”–in a plate of rice before which a ghee lamp was burning that had previously been worshipped as an emblem of the goddess Saraswati. This is still the custom among the Saint Thomas Christians, but the mantra is now usually Hari Sri Ganapataye Namah. Ganesha is the Hindu deity that is depicted with the head of an elephant. He is always worshipped before any undertaking, including, in this instance, the beginning of education. Hari is a name of the god Vishnu, the Preserver in the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. It is interesting that many of the very old Ishanni temples in South India have golden “dharma towers” in front of them just like those in the temples of Vishnu.
In The Orthodox Church of India the author, David Daniel, himself a Saint Thomas Christian, writes: “The festivals in Hindu temples and Christian Churches are often festivals of the entire village community. A church procession, for example, will have the same familiar music played in Hindu temples, the same type of lace silken umbrellas, flags and festoon, decorated elephants and ear-breaking beating of drums and noise of crackers. The festivals invariably end with remarkable displays of fireworks in the night.” And he concludes, “Needless to say, the Saint Thomas Christians have assimilated many of the social customs and practices of the land and are indistinguishable as an entity in the society.”
The crowning glory of Saint Thomas Christianity was the great bishop-saint Gregorios of Parumala who lived in the nineteenth century. Every days thousands of pilgrims of all religions visit his island-shrine in Parumala. I can bear witness that the moment you enter the boundaries of the island you step into another world altogether, and that the room where he left his body is one of the most spiritually powerful places I have ever been. (Fortunately I was able to meditate there for some time.) In America I was fortunate enough to meet and remarkable yogi and Hindu scholar, Sri Nandu Menon. He told me that although his uncles were strictly traditional Hindu Brahmins, Saint Gregorios was their best friend who spent a great deal of time with them in spiritual discussions. Nanduji told me that Saint Gregorios told his uncles that he considered his mission in life was to bring about the restoration of three essential teachings to the Saint Thomas Christian Church: 1) the belief in karma; 2) the belief in reincarnation; and 3) the belief that God and the individual spirit-Self are one.
Some Distinctive Traits of the Ishanni Sampradaya
A great number of the Ishanni Sampradaya’s characteristics have already been discussed, but a few more should be mentioned to help us better understand the Ishanni Sampradaya.
1. Ishannis were vegetarians, abstaining absolutely from meat, fish, and eggs–as well as from alcohol–in any form or quantity. (In 1604, many Ishannis of Cranganore fled into the hills to escape being forced by the Western missionaries to eat fish.)
2. Like the Essenes, Ishannis usually interpreted the Bible as allegory, believing that even if actual historical events are recorded there, they were meant to be symbols of mystical and esoteric principles. This is especially true of the Gospels, Jesus’ life being looked upon as a mystery drama outlining the journey of the soul to perfection. The Old Testament is also part of that drama, showing the progress of the soul known as Adam to its perfection as Jesus the Messiah. The Old Testament past lives of Jesus were: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Elisha, and Isaiah. (Since the ninth life of perfection was that of Isha, the number nine was particularly sacred to Ishannis.) Thus the entire Bible is at its core the history of one person, all the rest of the material being adjuncts for its understanding.
Ishannis considered that much of both the Old and New Testament texts had been altered to suit the exoteric ways and prejudices of Judaism and Mediterranean Christianity. Moreover, some of the books included in the present-day Bibles were considered of negligible value, if not altogether valueless. (Saint Paul and the other Apostles simply did not come into the picture for the Ishannis.) On the other hand, the Ishannis accepted many “apocryphal” books about the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary as valid history–though not holy scripture–and used them accordingly.
Ishanni tradition says that when Saint Thomas returned to India with some of the Essenes from Qumran he brought an Aramaic text of the Gospel of Saint Matthew which had been given him by the evangelist. The other three New Testament Gospels were not considered to be as authoritative as that of Saint Matthew, and many Ishannis would used no other as a source for Jesus’ teachings. (The Saint Thomas Christians today possess Aramaic copies of all four Gospels that are the oldest texts of the Gospels in existence, antedating all known Greek texts.)
Most importantly, no text was considered authoritative that conflicted with the fundamental scriptures of Arya Dharma and the six orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy. This was because Jesus was considered to have been a teacher of the purest Vedic Religion, as was Saint Thomas, his twin. As I mentioned earlier, one Saint Thomas Christian priest from Kerala once remarked to me: “You cannot understand the teachings of Christ unless you know the scriptures of India.” What about the so-called Gospel of Thomas? It has been conjectured that it was compiled by the Ishannis after Saint Thomas’ death. But any copies must have been burnt by the Portuguese. Whether the Coptic text is an accurate translation from the Indian text cannot be known. But the same rule applies to it as to the Bible and, for that matter, to the sacred writings of any religion.
3. Ishannis held that the twin laws of karma and rebirth were the fundamental truths about human existence, and that without them no religious or personal philosophy can be either true or viable.
4. Ishannis believed that there are three eternal things: God (Parameshwara), the individual souls (jivas), and primordial matter (pradhana or mulaprakriti). These three are the real Father, Son(s), and Holy Spirit (Mahashakti)–or: Pita, Putra, and Prakriti. From the standpoint of God these three are one in an incomprehensible manner. From the standpoint of the individual soul these three are distinct from one another.
5. For Ishannis the means by which the state of union with God could be attained by them were the classical samskaras (initiatory and sacramental rites) of Hinduism and the traditions of ancient Shaivism, which included Yoga. They also had their own forms of the Christian Sacraments as Saint Thomas had transmitted to them. These, too, perished in the persecutors’ fires, so they adopted the rituals of the Iraqi and Syrian churches. Among the present-day Saint Thomas Christians there are those who wish to discontinue them and return to their original practices–but who can determine what those are? A few congregations have built churches in the traditional Hindu style, but that is as far as they have gone. Some Saint Thomas Christians use the earlier forms of the Western Sacraments, and the mission to the West in the nineteenth century adopted the rituals of the Old Catholic Church of Holland translated into English.
6. The purpose of the Ishanni Sampradaya was clearly stated by Jesus when he petitioned the Father that: “they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one” Divine Consciousness (John 17:22, 23). This is the common goal of all the other sampradayas of Vedic Religion, and of true religion wherever it is found throughout the world.
This is the cave north of Rishikesh in which Jesus lived for some time. In the last century both Swami Rama Tirtha and Swami (Papa) Ramdas lived there (at separate times), and had visions of Jesus meditating there, though they had no prior knowledge of his having lived there.
- The Apostle of India
- Basic Beliefs of Saint Thomas Christianity
- Our View of Dharma as Saint Thomas Christians