"Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned" (Prov. 6:28)? But of course!
Objective and open-minded scholars long ago conceded that Christianity is at heart a revamped form of Judaism. In the process of its development as something distinct from its mother religion, it became hybridized with so much pagan influence that it ultimately alienated its original Jewish base and became predominantly Gentile. The source of this pagan influence is varied and vague in the minds of most advanced Bible critics, but it may owe more to Hinduism than most people suspect.
The average person does not connect India with the ancient Middle East, but the existence of some trade between these two regions is documented, even in the Bible. Note the reference to spikenard in the Song of Solomon (1:12 ; 4:13-14 ) and in the Gospels (Mark 14:3 ; John 12:3 ). This is an aromatic oil-producing plant (Nardostachys jatamansi) that the Arabs call sunbul hindi and obtained in trade with India.
It is axiomatic that influence follows trade, and the vibrant culture of India could not help but impact on anyone exposed to it. The influence on Judaism came for the most part indirectly, however, via the Persians and the Chaldeans, who dealt with India on a more direct basis. (Indeed, the Aryans, who invaded and transformed India over 1500 years before Christ, were of the same people who brought ancient Persia to its greatest glory. Persia's name today--Iran--is a corruption of Aryan.) The ancient Judeans absorbed much of this secondhand influence during the Babylonian captivity of the sixth century B. C., and during the intertestamental period, when Alexandria became the crossroads of the world, intellectuals both Jew and Gentile were exposed to a variety of ideas, some of which originated on the subcontinent.
The precise pattern of influence was neither observed nor documented, but it can be inferred from the numerous uncanny similarities in concept and expression, not all of which can be coincidental. Let us examine the telltale evidence (none of which, it may be added, depends upon any apocryphal account of the alleged "lost years" of Jesus in India).
Most Christians are familiar with Galatians 6:7 , "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." Less known is Proverbs 26:27 , "Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein, and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him." Both express the Hindu principle of karma (the sum and the consequences of a person's actions during the successive phases of his existence), but since no direct connection can be deduced, we'll merely consider it an interesting coincidence and move on.
The concept of a soul that is distinguishable from the body and can exist independently of it is alien to Judaism. It is first known in Hinduism. Only after the Babylonian captivity did any such concept arise among the Jews, and it is in the epistles of Paul, the "debtor to both the Greeks and the Barbarians," that the notion receives its first clear expression. (See 2 Corinthians 5:8 and 12:3 .)
The Brahmin caste of the Hindus are said to be "twice-born" and have a ritual in which they are "born in the spirit." Could this be the ultimate source of the Christian "born again" concept (John 3:3 )?
The deification of Christ is a phenomenon often attributed to the apotheosis of emperors and heroes in the Greco-Roman world. These, however, were cases of men becoming gods. In the Jesus story, the Divinity takes human form, god becoming man. This is a familiar occurrence in Hinduism and in other theologies of the region. Indeed, one obstacle to the spread of Christianity in India, which was attempted as early as the first century, was the frustrating tendency of the Hindus to understand Jesus as the latest avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu.
It is in the doctrine of the Trinity that the Hindu influence may be most clearly felt. Unknown to most Christians, Hinduism has a Trinity (or Trimurti) too: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, who have the appellations the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer (and Regenerator). This corresponds to the Christian Trinity in which God created the heavens and the earth, Jesus saves, and the Holy Spirit is referred to as a regenerator (Titus 3:5 ). It is interesting to note, furthermore, that the Holy Spirit is sometimes depicted as a dove, while the Hebrew language uses the same term for both "dove" and "destroyer"!
The Trinity was a major stumblingblock for the Jews, who adhered to strict monotheism. The inherent polytheism in the Trinity doctrine cannot be explained away with the nonsensical claim that three is one and one is three. Besides, Jesus himself undermined any pretense of triunity (or omnipotence, for that matter) in Matthew 19:17 , "And he said unto them, Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God...." Matthew 20:23 ; Mark 14:32 ; John 5:30 ; 7:16 and 14:28 also contradict the Trinitarian concept.
The Hindu scriptures, which are the oldest in the world, contain a number of astonishingly familiar expressions. The Upanishads mention things like "the blind led by the blind" (Matt. 15:14 ) and God's being "the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow" (Heb. 13:8 ). The path is said to be "narrow and difficult to tread" (Matt. 7:14 ). They also make reference to "a voice from out of the fire" (Ex. 3:4 ) and a man's face shining after encountering God (Ex. 34:29 ). They refer to those who are "wise in their own conceits" (Prov. 34:29 ; Rom. 12:16 ), warn against "fleshly desires" (1 Pet. 2:11 ), and advise that "it is not by works alone that one attains the Eternal" (Gal. 2:16 ]), and "to many it is not given" to know of metaphysical truth (Matt. 13:11 ). They describe the Self as "smaller than a mustard seed" (Matt. 17:20 ), and they speak of "the highest knowledge, having drunk of which, one never thirsts" (John 4:14 ). And how about this: "Man does not live by breath alone, but by him in whom is the power of breath" (Matt. 4:4 )?
Sounds a little too familiar, I'd say!
Then there is the Hindu epic, the Bhagavad-Gita, a story of the second person of the Hindu Trinity, who took human form as Krishna. Some have considered him a model for the Christ, and it's hard to argue against that when he says things like, "I am the beginning, the middle, and the end" (BG 10:20 vs. Rev. 1:8 ). His advent was heralded by a pious old man named Asita, who could die happy knowing of his arrival, a story paralleling that of Simeon in Luke 2:25 . Krishna's mission was to give directions to "the kingdom of God" (BG 2:72), and he warned of "stumbling blocks" along the way (BG 3:34; 1 Cor. 1:23 ; Rev. 2:14 ). The essential thrust of Krishna's sayings, uttered to a beloved disciple, sometimes seems to coincide with Jesus or the Bible. Compare "those who are wise lament neither for the living nor the dead" (BG 2:11) with the sense of Jesus' advice to "let the dead bury their own dead" (Matt. 8:22 ). Krishna's saying, "I envy no man, nor am I partial to anyone; I am equal to all" (BG 9:29) is a lot like the idea that God is no respecter of persons (Rom. 2:11 ; see also Matt. 6:45 ). And "one who is equal to friends and enemies... is very dear to me" (BG 12:18) is reminiscent of "love your enemies" (Matt. 6:44 ). Krishna also said that "by human calculation, a thousand ages taken together is the duration of Brahma's one day" (BG 8:17), which is very similar to 2 Peter 3:8 .
In fairness, however, one purported similarity needs to be discredited. Skeptics sometimes cite Kersey Graves in Sixteen Crucified Saviors or Godfrey Higgin's Anacalypsis (which Graves drew from) in asserting that Krishna was a crucified deity. No such event occurred in the Gita or in any recognized Hindu scripture. Given the pronounced syncretic tendency of Hinduism, it is safe to assume that any odd tales of Krishna's being crucified arose only after the existence of Christian proselytism, in imitation of the Christian narrative. It is neither authentic to Hinduism nor is Hinduism the source of that portion of the Christian narrative. The same may be said for most of the purported nativity stories. In my opinion, both Higgins and Graves are highly unreliable sources and should be ignored.
That notwithstanding, the existence of uncanny similarities in concept and phraseology in those Hindu writings that are both ancient and authentic leaves Christians in a difficult quandary. With the historical reality of Indian influence on the Middle East being an established fact, how can they account for these similarities with anything less feeble than coincidence, or less bizarre than the notion of "Satanic foreknowledge and duplication," which is sometimes invoked to explain the similarities of Judeo-Christian precursors?
I'll close with Ecclesiastes 1:10 , another inconvenient and uncomfortable passage: "Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us."
(Stephen Van Eck, Route One, Box 62, Rushville, PA 18839.)