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Echoes of Christ

"Echoes of Christ" Continued...

Issue: "Lord of the Rings," Dec. 20, 2003

Some scholars cite Eusebius's writing in around a.d. 303 and Jerome's writing later in the century about the mission of Pantaenus, a Christian philosopher sent by bishop Demetrius of Alexandria, "to preach Christ to the Brahmins and to the philosophers of India" in a.d. 189 or 190. Pantaenus is said to have found a Christian group with an Aramaic version of the Gospel of Matthew.

Other church fathers, including Ephraim (a.d. 306-373), Gregory of Nazianze (324-390), Ambrose (333-397), Rufinus of Aquileia (345-410), Gregory of Tours (538-593), and Isidore of Seville (seventh century), also wrote about Thomas and Christians in India. Some Europeans took back to their continent Indian religious practices: One that caught on was the use of rosary beads. Three sixth- or seventh-century stone crosses found in south India bear inscriptions like these: "Let us not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus."

Do Hindu writings show evidence of Christian influence?

The Vishnu Purana, thought to have been composed around a.d. 100 or 200, presents the idea of the god Vishnu having many avatars or incarnations, one of the most important of which is Krishna. According to the story, Krishna's foster-father, Nandu, journeys with his pregnant wife, Yashoda, to pay taxes. The result is that Krishna is born in a cow-stall, with shepherds coming to adore the baby. Moreover, a fierce meteor appeared at the birth; the prophet Narada told King Kansa that the child would overthrow him; Kansa ordered the male children of the country put to death.

Other Hindu stories that emerged after Thomas's time also seem imitative. The Jaimini Bharata includes tales of a pious man wishing not to die until he has seen Krishna, and of Krishna raising to life the dead son of Duhsala and healing a woman with a discharge of blood.

More significant, perhaps, are Indian echoes of Christian doctrines. Suddenly, after the time of Thomas, four key doctrines-a trinity of sorts, the appearance of avatars, the fulfillment of sacrifice, and salvation by faith-begin showing up in Indian writings such as the Tirukkural, the noted Tamil poems of the second century.

Tirukkural couplets include pleas to follow One who gives his life for others: "They prosper long who walk His way/Who has the senses singed away." Faith in that God, rather than sacrifices to Him, delivers believers from the great chain of reincarnation: "The sea of births they alone swim,/Who clench His feet and cleave to Him." God is a Trinity: "The ideal householder is he/Who aids the natural orders three."

Historians of religion note the way that leaders of an established religion under challenge from a new one may find new ways to market their beleaguered product-by adding attractive parts of the new high-flyer, and thus clipping its wings. Is that how some Indian gurus reacted to Christianity?

What does analysis of the Bhagavad Gita reveal?

The most famous Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, displays some surprising echoes of Christ. Scholars have long debated when it was written, but the consensus is that big chunks of it emerged in the decades after Thomas preached and died. Among the late additions are statements of Khrisna such as that in chapter 9, verse 18 of the Gita: "I am the goal of life, the Lord and support of all, the inner witness, the abode of all. I am the only refuge." Does that sound like a version of John 14:6's famous words, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me"?

What about the statement in Gita 10:20 that Krishna is "the beginning, the staying, and the end of creation.... I am the true Self in the heart of every creation ... the beginning, middle, and end of their existence." Might that have grown out of the Bible's emphasis on Christ as the alpha and omega, or is it just a parallel thought running on a wholly separate track? And look at statements in the Gita like this one from 17:27-28: "To engage in sacrifice, self-discipline, and giving without good faith is without worth or goodness either in this life or the next." Is that thought parallel to Romans 14:23, "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin"?

Of course, even if a writer or editor of the Bhagavad Gita picked up some of his understanding from biblical teaching, he still showed no awareness of Christ as the only One who can offer salvation: The Bible clearly teaches that there is only one way to heaven. But the possible echo of Christ in the later sections of the Gita, as commentator Stephen Neill noted, is worth noting because it was "completely without parallel in the earlier Vedic or Hindu literature. When toward the end of the Gita, Krishna twice says to his companion Arjuna 'thou art dear to me,' (18:64-65), we encounter a personal god concerned about the welfare of his votaries, and expressing himself in terms which ring familiar to a Christian, but must have seemed strange to those who first heard them against a Hindu background."

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