Christians have called Christ's coming the fulcrum of world history. But Hinduism and Buddhism, the two ancient religions that grew up in India hundreds of years before Christ's birth, were supposedly unaltered by the momentous events in western Asia—so how could Christ have changed everything, as we often claim? One theory: Hinduism and Buddhism did change radically 1,900 years ago. By Marvin Olasky, counselor to President George Bush and Chief Editor of the World Magazine.
Were Christ's birth, death, and resurrection the decisive events in human history? As "God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ" and "making peace through His blood, shed on the cross" (2 Corinthians 5:19, Colossians 1:20), did not just transformed individuals but world culture change in a noticeable way? Sometimes we take that on faith, saying that slow changes began at that time but major changes won't occur until near the end of the end times.
Many historians, though, have noted the positive contributions of Christianity over the centuries in fields as diverse as charity, education, medicine, government, justice, and science. And the research I've been doing suggests that, just as the veil at the Temple was ripped in two, so Christ's crucifixion and the resurrection changed every existing religion. Biblical Judaism, of course, morphed into Talmudic Judaism (WORLD, March 2, 2002).
Buddhists developed a new form of their faith that soon became dominant. Hinduism also went through a great change—at least according to the theories of a father-daughter team of Ph.D.s in southeastern India. Dr. M. Deivanayagam and Dr. D. Devakala Jothimani say the two major denominations of Hinduism today—Vishnu-followers and Shiva-followers—arose not from early Hinduism but from early Christian churches probably planted by the apostle Thomas in India from a.d. 52 to 68. They say that ancient India had five religions: three sacrificial (Indus Valley, Ancient Dravidian, Aryan) plus two nonsacrificial (Buddhism and Jainism), and that new doctrines emerging after Thomas's evangelism—salvation by faith, no more need for animal sacrifice—were part of a Trinitarian faith that proclaimed God's willingness to come to earth as an avatar (incarnation).
They state that the original argument between Vishnu and Shiva devotees concerned whether the Holy Spirit was male (as Vishnu followers stated) or female (the position of Shiva followers). They claim that ancient Indian sculptures—better to call them idols, as Hindus regularly do—repeatedly try to communicate a confused idea of trinity through Somaskanda, the depiction of God the Father with an uma (wife) and skanda (son). They emphasize the frequency of three in Indian religion. Followers of Vishnu draw on their foreheads three vertical lines in honor of their three most important gods: Creator Brahma, Preserver Vishnu, Destroyer (of Evil) Shiva.
Followers of Shiva often use ash to smear on their foreheads three horizontal lines depicting their trinity: Father Shiva, Son Ganesha, Holy Spirit Shakti. Shiva carries a trident. The sacred thread worn by Hindu young men has three strands. They say the frequent depictions of Shiva dancing in the cemetery suggest victory over death through resurrection. They say early Indian Christians tried to show that God was neither male nor female through depiction of Arthanareeswarar —artha (half), naree (female), Iswarar (God, Lord). They point out that Vishnu (his name derives from Ven, the term for heaven in south India's Tamil language) is often depicted as lying on a snake—controlling evil within biblical symbolism. They say the snake around Shiva's hips also shows him controlling evil, since the serpent has now become an ornament of God and a testimony to his power. They exegete Hindu mythology according to their sometimes peculiar interpretations.
For example, Shiva's wife Shakti makes a son, Ganesha, out of dust, but Shiva cuts off his head; Shakti, though, puts an elephant's head on Ganesha and he comes back to life, with the head of an elephant (India's most glorious animal). They say that is the Hindu representation of the Son of God dying and then being glorified. They explain the attributes of Hindu gods as reflections of biblical teaching. They say Shiva traditionally has a red body because Moses first saw God in the fire of the burning bush; Indians thus showed God as one who is fiery red. They say the wall of one temple refers to the flood when it shows Krishna—the god Vishnu incarnate—lifting up a big hill to make it an umbrella for his devotees and their cattle. My wife and I visited numerous temples alongside the father-daughter research team.
With the tap-tap-tapping of idolmakers' chisels and hammers at seventh- and eighth-century Mahabilipuram temple sites resonating in our ears, we felt like saying, for several reasons, that the Deivanayagam theory was too fanciful to be true. None of the temple sculptures we examined show fish symbols, crosses, or other iconograp
hic representations of early Christianity.
Besides, what would Christians who understood the biblical prohibition on graven images be doing making idols, anyway? And yet, late one evening we walked with the two researchers through the Valkuntha Perumal temple in the little village of Kancheepuram. Hindu temples today are essentially square, but to enter this ancient temple we walked through a gate into an outer courtyard, then up three steps into an inner courtyard, then three more steps into one further in. We stood before what the priest said was the Holy of Holies, and at that point it hit me: Hindu temples for the past thousand years have been squares, but was this temple, longer than it is wide, loosely modeled on the Temple in Jerusalem?
Non-Hindus normally are not allowed into the inner sanctum, but we were with Mr. Deivanayagam, who looks like a guru, and he expressed a willingness to participate in the temple's central rite. So the priest, naked from the waste up, gave him coconut water and some solid pieces of a medicinal leaf, chanting as he did. It hit me: Was that a Hindu imitation of communion? Then, holding a flashlight, examining the wall sculptures, I shone the light on a figure of a man undergoing punishment by being impaled on a sharp stake. Both of his arms were thrust out so the portrayal looked like a man on a cross.
Next to that icon was the figure of another man, hung upside down as (by tradition) Peter was in Rome. Is this what happened to the early Christians of India? Later, I kept asking Hindus why the number three was such a repeated motif in their religion. Standard answers were, "that's what my mother told me" or "we've been doing this for a long time."
Scholars had more complicated answers that generally amounted to a "we don't know." So it was time neither to accept the Deivanayagam theory nor curtly dismiss it, but to ask additional questions and take a first pass at some answers. Where I've come out does not satisfy the historian in me: The answers are murky. The Deivanayagam theory is speculation based upon piecing together scattered pieces of evidence, and I haven't gotten much further. But the possibility is so intriguing that I hope to pay attention in future years to research in this area, and I hope that knowledgeable readers will help by sending me information they run across.
Here are some questions I've asked, beginning with queries about the apostle Thomas, revered by Christians in India as the man who brought Christianity to their continent in a.d.52. Could Thomas have come to India? It would not have been hard for him to get there, because India and the Mediterranean world had been in contact for centuries. The port of Ophir mentioned particularly in the first book of Kings and both books of Chronicles may have been in India, with Israelite traders returning from there with sandalwood, ivory, apes, and peacocks. Some scholars think Ophir was located in Africa, but others have commented on patterns of trade and also noted that some words in Hebrew and Tamil, the language of southern India, are similar—such as the words for peacock, tukki and togai. Indians may have borrowed from Israel stories of Solomon's wisdom: One tale dating from at least several centuries after Solomon has a wise judge finding out which of two women is the real mother of a child by having them pull on the child's arms and legs. When the child cries out in pain the woman who stops pulling is the true mom.
Tales from India also suggest one reason the disciples had such difficulty recognizing Christ's Godhood when He walked on water: They may have heard about Indian gurus who purportedly could perform that feat. By the time of Thomas, India apparently had Roman colonies, including some Jewish ones. Roman coins have been found all over south India.
In about a.d. 100 the emperor Trajan hosted an Indian delegation in
Rome, and gave the diplomats seats at the theater that would otherwise have gone to senators. Meanwhile, the historian Pliny was complaining about Rome's shipment of gold to India for pearls, ivory, precious stones, and especially black pepper. (Pliny did not think that pepper, whose "only desirable quality [was] a certain pungency," was worth leaving Rome with a negative balance of trade—but "the desire for gain brought India near…. The voyage is made every year.")
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