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Spiritual Enlightenment: A Western Prejudice

There is a popular theory that Jesus had an important connection to India.  Some say that Jesus went to India during his “lost years” and studied with Buddhist monks.  Others say that Jesus traveled to India after surviving the crucifixion, and ministered to Diaspora Jews there, and preached against Hindu religious abuses.  That Jesus could have traveled to India is a possibility, of course, and any supportive evidence ought be carefully and critically sifted and assessed.  However, there is all too often a hidden agenda that drives this idea, namely, that Jesus’ teaching was un-Jewish, vastly superior to Jewish moral and theological views, and that Jesus must have imbibed Eastern ideas because (it is strongly implied) “Jews don’t get enlightened.”  This ideology is nothing but prejudice.

Although Jesus cannot be reduced to Jewish cultural categories, or entirely explained by them, nevertheless he was immersed in them, was at home in them, and expressed much of his mission in their terms.  He famously said that Torah would not pass away, and he frequently faulted would-be followers for not being faithful enough to Torah.  Moreover, he claimed that his mission was not meant to destroy or replace the Law, but to fulfill it.  He intensified rather than diminished Torah’s extant teachings on justice, mercy and compassion.

An understanding of Jewish mysticism, particularly the practice of “Ascent” (to the heavens), angelomorphology, Adam Kadmon/Son of Man/Second Adam christology goes far to establish a rich Jewish experiential basis for Jesus’ religious vision and sense of mission.

In Jesus’ day, the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s Realm ( particularly his throne room) were seen as accessible through mystical ascent, identification with angelic beings, and/or entering the membership of angelic councils (or, conversely, causing the heavenly realm to descend to earth).  One who ascended, like Enoch, might learn heaven’s secrets, meet heavenly figures, attain angelic status, and descend to earth with a divinely-given message or mission.  The Qumran sectarians, in fact, specialized in gaining spiritual power and wisdom by learning the names of angels and ascending to the heavenly court to attend Divine Worship as guests, or as mortals transformed into angelic beings.  The Qumranian author of the text “4Q 491” claims to have done exactly that.  So does Paul, who, whether “in” or “out” of his body, ascended to heaven and heard unspeakable things.  Practices existed whereby some Jews might obtain a tutelary spirit, just as Jesus was said to “have” – that is, to possess, or be possessed by – a (or the) holy spirit.

It is clear from all this that mystical experience and unitary theosis was readily available in Jesus’ culture, with no necessity for a leap to India, Buddhism, and Eastern religions generally.  Indeed, Jesus – with his mysterious pronouncements about God’s nature, his paradoxical parables, his claimed knowledge of the disposition and status of souls in the afterlife, his claim to be united to God, his claim to be versed in the ways of the Holy Spirit, and many other of his mystical assertions – surely resembles that other sage who revealed the Path of the Dharma.  The difference is that Jesus was a Jewish mystic in the stream of Jewish mysticism, not a Hindu reformer turned Tathagatha.

The issue of the source of Jesus’ authority was an important source of conflict during his ministry.  Given the several Jewish means of uniting with Spirit extant in Jesus’ time, it becomes highly plausible that through spiritual practice (or perhaps even spontaneously) Jesus had personal contact with “heaven.”  In the Synoptic gospels, Jesus speaks as one who reveals heaven, Spirit, and God because he knows of these things.  He seems almost to be  a man who came down from heaven.  Even more so in John’s Gospel, Jesus is explicitly the one who has gone up to, and come down from, heaven.   Moreover, he must return to the place where he enjoyed with God a glorious existence “before the world was made.”

Jesus, the man from heaven, taught a way of death and resurrection.  This was a spiritual, not a physical, process.  Those who would enter God’s Kingdom, said Jesus, must take up their cross (Luke says this must be done “daily”).  In historical context, the Roman cross meant a death preceded by carrying the crossbeam to the execution site where upright stakes awaited attachment of victim and crossbeam.  Thus to “take up” one’s cross meant death.  Jesus also alluded to losing one’s self or one’s life in order to find it.  This idea corresponds to ego-death in Buddhistic mysticism as well as in many other religio-mystical systems.  But again, the difference is that Jesus made these claims in a wholly Jewish context, using Jewish terms.  The Buddha, yogins, gurus and other Eastern figures may have presented similar means of dying to self, but Jesus formulated his means without assistance from the Orient.

That Jesus traveled to India is a fascinating historical speculation.  The point, however, is that much of what Jesus said, did, and taught was readily available – and readily available to develop and evolve in consequence of Jesus’ mystical experience – in his native Jewish culture.  If Jesus the Jew “got enlightened,” it was in a Semitic, not an Indian, context.