Were Hinduism and Zoroastrianism responsible for Christianity
by Dr. Parviz Dehghani
Since the 19thcentury the academic world in the West has become interested in finding out who Jesus Christ really was. The historians were wondering whether or not he was the invention of the four Gospels. As a result of this investigation the phenomenon of historical Jesus was created. A group of American, British, and German scholars were involved in this project. This revisionist view led to the conclusion that there is a discontinuity between Christ of faith and historical Jesus. The former is what is believed by the Christians and the latter is the reality that he was not what he became to be.
We’re not the historians of the Jesus seminar, as it is also called. However, we approach Christianity from a totally different point of view. Like some scholars we wonder whether it is possible to purge Christianity from all the impurities and influences and see what it really was. The only problem with this mass undertaking is that we might throw out the baby with the bath water. In other word, by so doing we might ruin what has been believed for so long by the Christians.
The great metaphysician of the 20th century, the late Frithjof Schuon would have frowned upon dismantling the body of Christianity at the time when Religions, by and large, are no longer respected as they were before. This act would cater to the need of the secular thinkers in the West who, along with some other historians, believe we live in the post Christian era, namely, Christianity is history.
However, our research in this short paper is to see Christianity in its purest form if possible at all. Being a believer in the transcendent unity of all Religions, which happens to be the title of one of Schuon’s works, our intention is the preservation of this beautiful Religion and not its destruction.
The early Hebrews did not believe in the distinction between the soul and the body. For them we’re one being and the thought of “dualism” never crossed their mind. By comparison Buddha did not teach the permanence of the soul which was a belief among the Hindus called “Atman”. The soul, to Lord Buddha, consisted of five aggregates: body, feelings, disposition, perception, and finally consciousness.
All these are in constant motion. They‘re in ever process of change and becoming. On the other hand, either something is or is not. If is, then there is only one Being which is permanent. But if it is not, then it is becoming. If it is becoming, then it is not.
In reality for Buddha there is no river to step in. Because what appears as moving is an illusion or as the Hindus would have it, it is “Maya”. For this very reason Buddha told the Hindu philosophers if it is the case that the world is “Maya” (illusion), then “Atman” is also illusion. Once you name either the Ray or the ultimate Reality or the Sun, you have limited it. The very name of “Ataman” itself becomes the means of its limitation.
So Buddha in fact is not rejecting “Atman”. Because refuting something is logically to affirm its existence. If there is nothing there, then what am I rejecting? In order not to fall into this logical trap, Buddha, very cleverly, let his followers fill in the blank. He said that you only have yourself to save yourself. Don’t rely on anything permanent within you.
Buddha in real sense of the word, rejects what we have made out of “Atman” for our self. In this case, he like Abraham, the father of the three Religions, that is, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, was an idol (‘image’ in Greek) breaker.
Once you take a picture of a person, you have frozen its reality. There is no movement in the picture. So when we create an image in our mind, we have turned it into a static reality. You may need this permanent fact for your idea of motion to make sense. Otherwise, motion would have no meaning. But once we put away this constant Reality, then there is no reason to worry whether or not there is such a thing as motion. This is exactly where the idea of “Nothingness” enters Buddhism.
For Hebrews “Nafash” was one thing in which there is no distinction, separation or dualism. However, we learn, in perhaps later Judaism, that once we die, we go to an underworld called “Sheol”. But our bodies are buried in this world. Are not they? Then what is it that goes into “Sheol”, if it is not the soul?
We wonder if this was not the influence of the Persian religious thought on Judaism after the defeat of Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylonia (605-562 B.C.E.) by Cyrus the Great, the King of Persia. The Persian forces conquered the whole of the Middle East for about 200 years during which Jews were free to either return to their homeland or to stay in the Babylonia. Therefore, it is very much possible that some of Zoroastrian’s doctrines became part of Judaism, such as the belief in the soul and the body.
The second wave of the influence landed on the fertile soil of Judaism when Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E) King of Macedonia conquered Asia Minor, namely, Syria, Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia. We know that both Pythagoras (572-497 B.C.E.) and Plato (428-7_348-7 B.C.E.) believed in the doctrine of “Reincarnation” (Rebirth of the soul in a new body). Plato in deed was deeply influenced by the former. Some scholars of religious studies have concluded that it is possible this Hindu philosophy of afterlife or “Transmigration of the soul” reached Egypt at some point in history and arrived in Greece and influenced some thinkers in that part of the world. Let us not forget that the doctrine of the soul and the body is widely believed by the Hindus and the ancient Persians or Zoroastrians throughout the intellectual history of the world.
Thanks to Alexander the Great, the Bible was translated into Greek. Once the Greeks were defeated by the Romans, Judaism went through another round of influence in which the idea of life after death was discussed among the Pharisees. This group of Jews were going through a great reform in order to preserve Judaism before it was completely forgotten.
Although Jesus was also a Pharisee but he was not a reformer. However, he also spoke of the world beyond the present one without any reference to the existence of heaven and hell. One wonders where these ideas gradually penetrated the Christian doctrines!? There is a likelihood that these so called eschatological events were also Persian influence on Judaism.
Pharisees were blamed for their reformed ideas by the Sadducees who were the most orthodox community at that time. They(latter) were resisting the temptation of opening their religion to outside influences. Even though they had accommodated themselves to the new life under the Roman occupation, they were destroyed by them in 70 C.E.
Given these historical facts, not only is it probable but it is also possible that Buddhist “Anatta- vada”or no soul theory in deed corresponded to the early Hebraic belief before being influence by foreign ideas. For Buddha all concepts about a permanent self or soul or what is called “Atman” in Hinduism were illusory.
Nevertheless, it took Christianity more than 2000 years to develop and become what it is now. To reach the purity of this wonderful faith, we should not get rid of the whole tree and only concentrate on its roots lest we might destroy and weaken its foundation all together.
Our task by showing the influences of other Religions and civilizations on Judeo-Christian tradition has been to open up an avenue for better understanding among the followers of all Religions in general. We hope, as a result of this humble academic inquiry, there will be discussions which would eventually lead to more serious inter religious dialogues throughout the country.
At this 11thhour, when all Religions are in danger of complete annihilation, we need to know that we all depend on one another to save guard spirituality at all cost. We ought to emphasize the transcendent unity of all Religions as it was strongly urged by Frithjof Schuon.