Heretics and Conspirators as Reformers

This newsletter was originally sent on April 8, 2007.
Moses the Egyptian Prince, Jesus the Jew, and Buddha the Hindu

Today is Easter Sunday and we left KTM to fly on to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha.(Yes, Buddha was born in Nepal!) Lumbini is in the lowlands of southern Nepal called the Terai, and 2500 years ago was the site of a small, ancient Hindu Kingdom whose queen gave birth to a young prince. Prince Siddhartha was raised in luxury in the seclusion of the palace. When as a young man, he finally ventured out of the palace grounds, he was so disturbed to discover the sufferings of old age and the ravages of disease and death that he renounced the throne, abandoned his wife and child, and set out to uncover the meaning of life.

It is a bit ironic, then, that on Easter Sunday we would find ourselves staying on the grounds where the Buddha was born. Like Jesus, Buddha was purported to have had a virgin birth and a mother by the name of Mary (actually her name was Maya which is the Indo-Aryan cognate of Mary). Queen Maya was not visited by an angel to announce the conception, but by a white elephant in a dream! Although many cultures also have virgin birth stories, the importation of Eastern ideas into the Western world is well established through trade routes and conquests. The three Magi following a star to Bethlehem nicely exemplify this transmission. Going the other way, Alexander the Great’s triumphs in the 3rd century BC brought Greek ideas as far as the Khyber Pass in Pakistan.

The early evolution of Buddhist sculpture of this period in the Kushan Dynasty of Gandhara (Kandahar), Afghanistan reflects Greek stylistic influences as seen in the small, carved stone Buddha displayed on the mezzanine at Fountain Street Church. This exquisite piece of sculpture of the Buddha is probably 500 years older than the giant Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, and there it is resting serenely in our church! The Buddha’s robe and the way it drapes, imitate depictions of the Greco-Roman “togas” of this period. Instead of the typical snail curls of hair as seen in early or later Buddhist sculpture, there are the long, wavy, flowing locks of Adonis on the Gandharan Buddha heads of this period. There are many depictions of the Buddha with “Mongolian eyes” since he acquired those features once Buddhism migrated into China, Korea and Japan, but in fact he was an “Aryan Blueblood” with “round eyes” who spoke a “Western Language” somewhat midway between Nepali and English!

Georgia’s on my Mind
David and Marty from Maine have been living and working in Georgia over the last 4-5 years not Jimmy Carter’s state, but the former Soviet Republic, now a CIS country situated in the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas. This area is thought to have been the homeland of the Caucasian race some 5000 or more years ago. From here the “Aryan” nomadic tribes spread forth in waves into Europe, the Mediterranean, Persia and the Indian subcontinent thus many of the Indian-derived languages such as Sanskrit, Hindi and Nepali are related to the European Languages including the Romance, Germanic and Slavic Languages.

Often some of the oldest rudiments of a language are found in the names of body parts. Thus, Nepali words mukh, naak, and aakha are in fact related to its English designations mouth, nose and eye. If you doubt any semblance between aakha and eye, just take a look at “eye” in other European languages: ojo in Spanish is perceptibly related to eye (vowel, j=y, vowel), and auge in German is perceptibly close to aakha (vowel, velar stop, vowel). Verb tenses, cases, plurals, and less so, syntax are very similar throughout the Indo-European languages. Up until recently, one of the best ways to understand the ancient connection of literate peoples were through linguistic influences, but now with the development of DNA typing much of this is now being more fully understood.

Getting back to Georgia, it is not only the homeland of our language but is also a crossroads between East and West. I remember reading a translation and study of an ancient Georgian tale called The Balavarani (approx 6th century AD, I think). It is the tale of the wondrous deeds of an early Christian saint by the name of Jehosovat (yes, Virginia there is a Jumping Jehosovat, and not so far removed in time or place from the original St. Nicholas). This name is none other than a “Christian” rendition of the Buddhist word for “saint”, viz., “Bodhisattva”! The concept of “Bodhisattva” along with the practice of devotion or “Bhakti” in Buddhism and Hinduism arose in India about the time of the birth of Christ and so one can see an almost simultaneous transference of devotional belief and practice arising together in East and West. How could this be?

One only has to look at the Roman legions. Most of us focus on Julius Casesar’s conquest of Gaul, Hadrian’s Wall, or the Roman oppression of the Jews, but the Roman armies, like those of Alexander, were also being dispatched far to the East as well. It is no accident that Jesus, the Jewish reformer, soon acquired many traits similar to Buddha, the Hindu reformer, and Moses, the Jewish Miracle-worker and Liberator. It is no wonder they seemed patterned after each other.

What’s in a Name?
It sometimes comes as a shocking revelation when a Christian fundamentalist realizes that Christ was, in fact, not a Christian, but a Jew. On the other hand, many contend that the Great Reformers would probably be shocked to learn that their very names have since become the appellations of the religion they “founded” and that of their followers. Calling ourselves “Christians” seems a bit self-righteous and flies in the face of the humility that Christ demonstrated and wanted us to follow. I do not want to offend or convert anyone, but am self-examining and exploring, as I am one of those who is horrified by crucifixes hanging around people’s necks and taking center stage behind the pulpit. The WWJD bracelets are innocent reminders compared to the crucifixes. What a way to be remembered nailed and run through, hemorrhaging and heaving! Why not leave the sword or spear inserted for maximal effect! A cross with a heart seems so much more forgiving.

What if instead of “Christianity,” we called Christ’s teachings something like “Philomnia” or “Universal Love” since that is at the heart his teachings. His followers would be “Philomnians” or “Philomnists,” I guess. Wouldn’t Jesus rather be remembered for teaching Universal Love than to be the oft-disputed Son of God? Afterall, is not His divinity that is the very point of disagreement between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at the cost of the many lives and the many things they share?

If Muslims don’t recognize Jesus as the Son of God, they at least see him as a prophet. We are finally ridding our vocabulary of Mohammedism in favor of Islam or the Muslim religion, and even Osama’s followers don’t call themselves Osamists. One cannot say as much for the Wahabi fundamentalists, however.

Would not the Buddha have preferred to have his religion called “Selflessness” rather than incorporating his “self” (Buddh-)into the very name Buddhism? (Actually, the name refers to his enlightenment, not his name per se, which was Gautama.) The Dalai Lama, an incarnate Buddha, calls his religious practice, one of “Kindness,” avoiding any reference to the personage.

So, in the end, to spend Easter at Buddha’s birthplace is in many ways an appropriate place to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Afterall, doesn’t Universal Love and Selflessness go hand in hand? For two days, we explored the grounds, the monasteries, the Peace Pagoda, the Ancient Ashokan Pillar (as old as our little Gandharan Buddha) and the Maya Devi temple where an ancient monument was unearthed that designated the very spot where the “Prince” was born. Some of us did this by riding bicycles, some by bicycle-rickshaws. Peggy took some time off to visited schools in the area to meet her children, bringing them Easter presents of books and paints.