Legends of the “Lost Years” of Jesus

There are legends among the Buddhists throughout Kashmir, Ladakh, and southern Tibet of a great bodhisattva, called Issa. During a trek through Central Asia, Russian physician and explorer, Nicolas Notovitch, became the first known modern Westerner to encounter the legends of Issa.

While in Leh, the capitol of Ladakh, Notovitch broke his leg and was forced to take refuge in the Buddhist monastery, Himis. While recuperating from his injury, Notovitch was told of Issa, a bodhisattva who was greatly esteemed to the people of the region. Upon questioning the Lamas further, Notovitch was shown a manuscript written in Tibetan called “The Life of Saint Issa.” Notovitch had one of his guides translate this text, so that he could record it in his travel diary.

The Ladakhi legend describes a man obviously meant to represent Jesus of Nazareth. The name "Issa" itself is a transliteration of Jesus - identical to the one used by Muslims. The scroll describes Issa’s birth in the land of Israel. At the age of 13, Jesus left home with India traders and traveled via ancient trade routes to India. When Issa came to India he was educated by yogis in the Vedanta. Issa began his preaching in Ladakh and surrounding regions in India. His message, according to the document, seems to be akin with that of Jesus, just transposed to Indian culture. Here are a few teachings attributed to Issa:

"The anger of God will soon be let loose against man; for he has forgotten his Creator, he has filled his temples with abominations, and he worships a crowd of creatures which God has made subordinate to him” (Notovitch, 5:20)

"Those who deprive their brethren of divine happiness shall be deprived of it themselves. The Brahmans and the Kshatriyas shall become the Sudras, and with the Sudras the Eternal shall dwell everlastingly.” (Notovitch, 5:23)

Issa was, like Jesus, a champion of the oppressed, supporting Sudra caste, while denouncing the Brahman priests, and Kshatriyan rulers (compare this to message of the Beatitudes). Also as Jesus once did, Issa, too, criticized how man has lost sight of his spirituality defiling his temple. The text goes on to describe Issa’s return to Israel and his crucifixion – which is attributed solely to the Romans and bears no mention of the Pharisees. This story struck Notovitch even further because it seemed to “fill in” the void of information the Gospels provide about Jesus from the time he is 12 and is seen until the time he begins preaching, age 30. Thus, Notovitch’s story, he speculated, chronicled these “lost years” of Christ.

Notovitch returned to the West and sought to make his discoveries known. After publishing a book entitled The Unknown Life of Christ in 1894, Notovitch, once a man of high reputation, was labeled a charlatan and was accused of creating a hoax. F. Max Muller, an Orientalist from the University of Oxford published a refutation of Notovitch’s book later in 1894, explaining how it was untenable. Later in 1895 J. Archibald Douglas, Professor at Government College in Agra, India supposedly retraced Notovitch’s steps to Himis. Muller published an article stating that the head Lama at Himis had said that Notovitch had never been there and that there were no stories of Jesus in the area. These events hurt Notovitch’s credibility and he begun to be held with suspicion.

In 1922, Swami Abhedananda, a Hindu monk and disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, journeyed to Ladakh in hopes of exposing Notovitch as a fraud, once and for all. Abedananda arrived at Himis and, upon questioning the head lama about Issa, was shown a manuscript which he recorded in his travel notes, lo and behold, discovered a manuscript of two hundred twenty-four verses virtually identical to the Notovitch text at the Himis monastery. Abhedananda was thus convinced of the authenticity of the Issa legend.

Later, in 1925, Nicholas Roerich, the artist-philosopher, while on a trek in Central Asia, supposedly encountered the infamous manuscript as well. One of the many purposes of Roerich’s trek was to record customs and legends of the peoples of Central Asia. Heart of Asia and Altai-Himalaya two travel-diaries published by Roerich contain such tales of Issa. Roerich stated that it could never be delineated whether Jesus actually traveled to India or not – and it really didn’t matter. What is more important is the cultural phenomenon of the spread of Jesus’ legend to these “remote” regions. He writes the following in Altai-Himalaya concerning this:

”Whoever doubts too completely that such legends about the Christ life exist in Asia, probably does not realize what an immense influence the Nestorians have had in all parts of Asia and how many so-called Apocryphal legends they spread in the most ancient times…Many remember lines from the book of Notovitch, but it is still more wonderful to discover, on this site, in several variants, the same version of the legend of Issa. The local people new nothing of any published book but they know the legend and with deep reverence they speak of Issa. One might wonder what relation Moslems, Hindus, or Buddhists have with Issa. But it is still more significant to see how vital are great ideas and how they penetrate even the most remote places. Never may one discover the source of such legends. But even if they originated from ancient Nestorian Apocrypha, at present it is instructive to see the widespread and deep consideration paid to the subject. It is significant to hear a local inhabitant, a Hindu, relate how Issa preached beside a small pool near the bazaar under a tree, which no longer exists. In such purely physical indications you may see how seriously this subject in regarded. (Roerich, Altai-Himalaya, pp. 89-90)

Thus, Roerich’s message is that the Issa story is significant not because it “fills in” the “lost years” of Jesus, but because it shows how “great ideas” spread and are embraced. Roerich even indicates that the Issa legends are a result of the Nestorians, who brought the teachings of Jesus with them when they brought Christianity from Persia into China and surrounding regions in the 8th century, CE.

Sources:

1) A New Ecumenism Based upon Re-examination of the "Lost Years" Evidence, (Deardorff, 1994)

2)Altai-Himalaya (Roerich, 1929)

3)Heart of Asia (Roerich, 1929)

4)The Unknown Years of Christ (Notovitch, 1894)

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