308: Conversation With Deepak Chopra on Jesus as East-West connector

We’re pleased, today, to welcome the best-selling author and interfaith activist Deepak Chopra to ReadTheSpirit for a conversation on his second — and most provocative — book about Jesus this year.

    This may seem like a strange spiritual twist: In 2008, a writer steeped in Hindu tradition is becoming one of the world’s most influential voices about the importance of Jesus’ life and teachings.
    Early this year, he published the non-fiction analysis of Christianity, called, “The Third Jesus: The Christ We Cannot Ignore.” Now, he is releasing a novel on the early years of Jesus’ adult life, “Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment.”
    He is not the first unlikely literary celebrity to pen a speculative novel about Jesus’ early years. Former vampire-novelist Anne Rice pretty much took all the surprise-factor out of that move in 2005 with “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” which has turned into a very popular series of novels about Jesus.
    If you think Deepak Chopra is doing this merely to sell more books — you’re mistaken. Already, he has written more than 50 books and has attained all the celebrity he wants.
    No, there’s something more important — even, dare I say it? — historic about this turn in his career.

    All around the world, even in the midst of a financial crisis and ongoing wars, there are many spiritual voices trying to find religious connection, rather than conflict, between the huge groups that make up the world’s population. And, before you dismiss that line as high-flown exaggeration, walk into a Target store near your home and look very closely at the shelves.
    You’ll find that ordinary men and women across the U.S. already are drawn toward themes in Eastern spirituality. Check out the prominent section of yoga gear, currently featuring huge banners in most Target stores. Check out the aisles for teas and other beverages, the housewares and especially candles, the music aisles, the shampoos and creams, the DVDs and even the game sections. If you’re looking closely, you’ll find dozens of themes borrowed from Hinduism and Buddhism.
    Deepak Chopra is well aware of those many forms of spiritual connection in the U.S. What he is doing in these new books about Jesus is arguing persuasively that the Christ figure worshiped by 2 billion Christians around the world can become a connective figure — if we can see Jesus Christ on one level as a “spiritual guide whose teaching embraces all humanity.” He does part company with orthodox Christianity in his interpretation of Jesus, but he is holding open an intriguing doorway for some rich conversation.

    He goes even further in his new novel, spinning his story so that Jesus — during the many years that go unmentioned in the four gospel accounts of his life — travels the Silk Road into India, where he develops the highest forms of his spiritual wisdom.
    To put this claim in context: He isn’t the first to pen this kind of story. At this point, however, most noted scholars of Jesus’ life in the West regard this as a myth not even worth exploring. Nevertheless, in this Conversation you are reading today — and in extended teaching Deepak Chopra is doing online and on television in coming months — he argues that such a journey to India was, indeed, likely for Jesus. He outlines some of the evidence that sometimes is used to pose this speculative argument. And, today, we have added a number of Web links where you can “read more” and decide for yourself.


    DAVID: In preparing for this interview, I talked with people about your recent book, “The Third Jesus,” to hear more about what is attracting so many American readers to that book. They’re the same people, I think, who will feel drawn to your new novel, “Jesus,” as well.
    I talked with one young woman who just attended a whole series of study groups on “The Third Jesus.” She was very enthusiastic about the book, so I asked her: “What one thing surprised you about this book?”
    She said, “I was raised Catholic and, through this study, I realized that Jesus is far larger than I ever thought he could be.”
    Is that the kind of impact you’re trying to have with these books?

    DEEPAK: Yes, she is talking about what we describe as the cosmic Christ. We are saying that Jesus cannot be confined to a specific demographic, let us say. Of course, we think of Jesus as coming from the Jewish background 2000 years ago in Israel, what was then Judea, and then everything follows from that.     In this understanding of Jesus, his God is also based on the Jewish God. If we limit ourselves to this understanding of Jesus, then he ends up being, if I may say so, a tribal chief with an ethnic background squeezed into a body in a single lifetime and then his followers go out and spread this limited word, mostly to the West. This is one approach.
    But there are those who from the beginning travel East. Thomas travels to the East. He and others spread the gospel, which literally means good news, but they do it in different ways. There are Eastern traditions of Christianity that started in Syria and Egypt and spread outward and some of them spread eastward into India. One of these traditions was the Nestorian group. They believed in two aspects of Jesus: the human and the cosmic. So there were many ways these traditions connected with the East.

    DAVID: That certainly is true. There have been many East-West connections.
    In reading your books on Jesus, I found many similarities to the writings of Yogananda, whose most important work was nearly a century ago in bringing these Eastern perspectives to Americans. He was very well received, became something of a celebrity himself and he also wrote about this cosmic Christ.
    Do you see parallels between what you are writing and the work of Yogananda?
    DEEPAK: Yes, this follows on Yogananda’s work and there are other people who have commented on this aspect of Jesus, as well. This is part of a long tradition among certain Hindus. Jesus is regarded as an avatar, an incarnation of God the Divine Intelligence and he is included in the whole array of Hinduism. In this tradition, Jesus is seen as a savior—just not the only savior.

    DAVID: So, you have given us two books now, almost a two-volume set. The first is nonfiction, talking directly to people about how you see the figure and teaching of Jesus as possibly moving beyond limited, Christian, doctrinal barriers. In that first book you’re trying to place Jesus in a role as enlightened sage for a larger global community. Then, in the new novel, you tell a very gripping story about how this might have unfolded in the years of Jesus’ life that we don’t find in the gospels.
    How did you intend people to read and use these two books?
    DEEPAK: I hope that people will read them together. They’re both teaching tools.
    The first one obviously is written as a nonfiction piece explaining these teachings. At the moment, this book is being used by people in over 1,000 Unity churches. If you go to my Web site, www.DeepakChopra.com, you can read more about these studies. These are very in-depth practical discussions.
    So, that’s the first thing: I am hoping that these books are practical tools that can help people to expand your consciousness from everyday consciousness to Christ consciousness and cosmic—ultimately God consciousness.
    DAVID: And the novel adds this dramatic dimension of stepping into what might have happened in these key years of Jesus’ unfolding consciousness.

    DEEPAK: Let me tell you how the novel came about. I grew up listening to legends and mythical stories about Jesus having come to India. But there is more to think about than legends.
    There is some scholarly work done by Russians. In the 1880s, there was Nicolas Notovich, who came to a monastery in Tibet and found documents that Jesus had visited there during the lost years. Nicolas said that Jesus met also with some Buddhist scholars, argued with them, debated with them and exchanged knowledge with them.

    There also was Nikolai Roerich from Russia (shown at left) who traveled to Tibet in the 1920s and there were books about this in the early 1900s.
    Later, there was work by Holger Kersten who wrote about connections between Jesus and Buddhism.
    And of course there is no question that Thomas the apostle and it is very well documented as having come to India.

    DAVID: Let’s talk for a moment about Thomas and India. Americans who have traveled to India and explored the enormous global diversity of Christianity may be familiar with this long tradition. But my guess is that most Americans have never heard much about this ancient Indian branch of the church.
    DEEPAK: There is a long tradition that Thomas came to India in 52 AD, which was before the other gospels were written down. He was buried there. I visited Mylapur while working on these books and in a church there you will find a statue of Jesus where he is not on a cross, but is seated meditating in enlightenment.
    Then, in the state of Kerala, where there were Christians originally converted by St. Thomas, there is a church and seminary. When I went to Kerala, I learned that for 400 years these fellows in Kerala thought that they were the only Christians in the world! For 400 years! They didn’t know that Christians existed outside of Kerala. I attended mass there and it’s one of the few places in the world where ancient Aramaic, Jesus’ original language, is still used. I don’t understand the language, but when I was there we sang these unbelievably uplifting hymns—beautiful, beautiful hymns. The sound was absolutely amazing!
    So, there are many connections between Jesus and Christianity and the East and much has been written about these connections before my books.
    DAVID: I think at this point, beyond your own best-selling work on Jesus, many Americans also have had contact with Yogananda’s work on this through his continuing movement that’s still publishing and updating editions of his work.
    DEEPAK: Yes, there is much to read. And I started to read these things about the connections as I worked on my books. I also read a lot of the other literature about Jesus and this era in which he lived. The history is fascinating.
    The Silk Road had already existed for 500 years before Jesus’ birth. It extended from China through India and Syria and Jerusalem and Egypt. There was a thriving trade. Some of the animals—camels and donkeys and etc.—around Jerusalem at that time were actually of mixed breed from the East. There was a lot of trade going on in spices, precious stones, etc., and then I also read a lot about what was happening with the Roman Empire at that time. I am fascinated by this whole history so I read about the various sects within Judaism during this time of subjugation by Rome.
    DAVID: We meet a number of these groups in dramatic scenes in your new novel.

    DEEPAK: Yes, there were the Zealots, an underground movement that was intent on overthrowing the Roman empire by violence, you had the Pharisees and the Saducees who were controlling the temple in Jerusalem, then you had the Samaritans who weren’t looked upon as a pure Jewish race by other Jews, then there was this wonderful interesting group of people called the Essenes who were very mystical and who were very tuned into what we would normally consider Eastern philosophy today. There’s a lot of lore about Jesus being taught by the Essenes or having some associations with the Essenes.
    DAVID: In these two books, you’re really grappling with this question of how Jesus moved from his infancy to become this figure with an amazing awareness of the larger spiritual reality about his life.
    DEEPAK: I was asking: How does a person go from the childhood we read about in the gospels to this adult figure. In the Bible, we read in Luke that there was this episode when he was 12 years old in the Jerusalem temple. His parents were going back to Nazareth and they found Jesus missing. They go back to the temple and he’s 12 and he’s arguing and debating with the priests in the temple with amazing finesse and what seems to be theological scholarship.
    After that, Luke says the child grew in wisdom and stature and in the grace of God—and then there’s nothing until the baptism. So, I also went to Jerusalem and all over Israel and I spent time in the places I wrote about from Jesus’ life. I kept asking this question: If someone was moving from man to messiah-ship, and from ordinary consciousness to God consciousness—what happens in that story?
    DAVID: Given everything you have read and all of your other research for these books, are you saying: “I have concluded that Jesus definitely traveled to the East”? Or, are you saying: “I think that perhaps Jesus could have traveled to the East”?
    DEEPAK: I think we would be safer saying: Perhaps it might have happened. How could one know this for sure? But if you travel to areas of India and also to some places that are today in Pakistan, you do find so many stories there and even relics that people attribute to Jesus and his mother Mary.
    DAVID: Why does it seem so important to say that Jesus completed his awareness of his God nature, his God consciousness, in relation to the East?

    DEEPAK: There is a very specific map in the Eastern traditions that goes back almost 5,000 years and then that map became more sophisticated by the work of the writers we call the rishis, the sages who developed this wide array of Hindu scriptures. One of these known to many Americans is the Bhagavad Gita, which is considered like a Bible by some people growing up in the Hindu part of the world.
    But there is another text called the Yoga Vasistha. It’s a very interesting text because the story begins with Ram, who is an incarnation of God and is a young prince in the royal family. Ram is sent by his father, the king, to the great sage, the guru Vasistha (image at left), to be tutored.
    When Ram arrives at the sage’s ashram, something happens that was customary in that time. Ram falls to the ground and touches the feet of the guru Vasistha—but the great sage says, “Stop it! I am just a teacher. You’re a reincarnation of God himself. You’re not supposed to do that.”
    The boy Ram says, “I may be God, but I have forgotten. Can you help me remember?” This is an extraordinary story.
    DAVID: Well, I don’t want to spoil the “Jesus” novel for readers by talking about details late in the book, but hearing you describe this, I can see the kind of stories you’re recalling in the novel.
    DEEPAK: Yes, these are extraordinary stories from thousands of years ago. If you go back into this literature, your mind will reel in bewilderment and excitement, because the insights help us to see how someone could move from the individual domain, to the collective domain, to the domain of cosmic consciousness. I grew up hearing, reading, studying this literature and I thought it would be helpful to give Jesus this experience in this story I was writing about him.
    DAVID: It’s more than a story about a person, though. For 2 billion people around the world who call themselves Christian, Jesus is divine. As you wrote this novel about what might have unfolded in his life, you faced a lot of literary challenges. Let me ask you about one startling scene that takes place in the middle of the novel, so it won’t spoil the ending of the story to ask about it.
    I’m talking about the scene in which the young Jesus, before he has fully realized what his identity really represents, finds himself confronted by a couple of angry Roman soldiers. They’re threatening him and others around him with great harm. And, in your novel, you have Jesus punch one of the soldiers in the face and deck the guy. It’s quite a punch. It will come across as a startling moment for Christian readers: Jesus slugging someone.
    Did you struggle over that scene?
    DEEPAK: Oh yes! That is a pivotal moment in the book and I thought about that a lot—a lot. Finally, I decided: At this point in the story, he is still on his way to enlightenment. I know that some people believe that Jesus always was aware of who he was and was perfect in everything that he did all his life. But I am writing about how this boy came to realize his messiah-ship, how he came to full enlightenment and he wasn’t fully there yet when this happens in the book, so I finally decided that, at that moment, he would react in that way.

     DAVID: Let me also ask you about Jesus’ friend and follower Mary Magdalene, who is a major figure in your novel. You had a choice to make in depicting her in the book. There is a long tradition in arts and letters of depicting this Mary as a prostitute, but the Bible never says she was a prostitute. This idea that she was a prostitute comes along later in history—from a mistaken association of Mary Magdalene with the unnamed woman caught in “adultery” who is brought before Jesus. The people who made that connection, then, sparked centuries of paintings and literature casting her that way.
    But most serious contemporary Bible scholars say it was a mistake to make that association and, although Mary Magdalene may have been afflicted with some spiritual problems when she met Jesus, she wasn’t a prostitute.
    So, why did you choose this older lore about Mary Magdalene and cast her as a prostitute in your novel?
    DEEPAK: I was following an inner sense of what could have been. That’s what dictated a lot of my choices in this book. There is so much controversy about this point that you could go either way in writing a new story about Jesus’ life. As a writer, I wanted to show Jesus as a redeemer and I wanted to show that in his relationship with Mary. In the depths of Jesus’ being, he was not judgmental of so-called “sinners.” I wanted to write about the character of Mary in a way that we see this non-judgmental relationship Jesus had with people as a redeemer.

    DAVID: Again, I don’t want to spoil the novel for people, but a lot has been written in popular fiction about Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene. We’ve had Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” in which they had children together.
    In your novel, they are very close friends. You raise this question of an attraction between them, specifically sexual attraction between them, and you do something much different with it than Dan Brown and others have done. To perhaps put some readers’ anxiety to rest, in your novel, they do not wind up having a sexual relationship. But something else dramatically unfolds from their attraction to each other. I think it’s another moment in your book in which Eastern religious traditions are powerfully at work. Is that a fair way to describe it?
    DEEPAK: Yes. There are spiritual traditions in Christianity and in other religious traditions that like to paint celibacy as a path to enlightenment. But if you truly understand the movement of consciousness toward higher development, I don’t think that celibacy itself is a path to enlightenment. I think that celibacy can become a byproduct of enlightenment in which a higher level of love overrides passionate arousal.
I’ve written about this elsewhere. Sexual energy is similar to spiritual energy. Both are creative energies.     Great passion comes out of these energies. Great art comes out of this. Great deeds come out of this. When people fall in love, sexual arousal is a part of that process and can lead to extraordinary things in life. But, when you find a higher spiritual energy, then the sexual arousal is transcended. That’s what I was trying to show in this book.

    DAVID: I found some intriguing connection points—points that would be fascinating to discuss further, sometime in the future—involving spiritual principles you describe in your new novel and the writings of some of the younger evangelical writers. I’m specifically thinking about the best-selling evangelical writer Rob Bell who we’ve also featured on our Web site in this Conversation series. Rob Bell writes about the biblical teaching that Christ “reconciles all things.” Rob says that this is a far larger truth than most of us realize.
    In your book, you explore this kind of idea from a broader Eastern perspective. You write about how Jesus’ sense of reconciliation eventually embraces everything—that Jesus moves even beyond a sense of specific labels of good and evil to reconcile the whole world.
    DEEPAK: We speak of God as being both immanent and transcendent. When I talk about this, I say that the immanent faith of God involves both what we think of as the sacred and the profane at the same time. Another way to say this is: You cannot have creation unless you have contrast. Part of what unfolds is hot and cold, pleasure and pain, good and evil. These are the forces of creation and creativity that we experience as good and evil depending on your stage of consciousness.
    Then, once you transcend all of this, then you move beyond separate categories of good and evil. We reach a point where all possibilities exist. I personally can see this kind of spiritual truth when Jesus says, “Resist not evil,” and also says, “Deliver us from evil.” I think he is talking about getting in touch with this larger consciousness.

    DAVID: In an earlier book, you wrote about the life of Buddha. Now, you’ve written about the life of Jesus. Where are you headed from here?
    DEEPAK: I just signed a contract. It took me a long time to decide and I want to do this with integrity. I am going to try to get comfortable at the deepest level in understanding Muhammad and his experiences. I am drawn to the Quran, which was dictated to him by the angel. The verses of the Quran are so melodic. I’m working on that now, but I won’t complete it unless I’m totally sure that I can do this with integrity and honesty.
    DAVID: Fascinating. So, over the years, you’re developing a whole body of Eastern-influenced reflections on the great religious leaders known around the world today.
    As you do this work, are you hopeful about the future? You’re trying to enlarge the appreciation of each of these faith traditions—and you’re trying to open up the members of those religious groups to a greater compassion for people outside the boundaries of their groups. Are you hopeful that we are moving in that direction?
    DEEPAK: I think so, but there is also a lot of fear out there, generated by people who do not want anyone breaking up the traditional stereotypes. This fear of breaking up old ideas generates fundamental reactions in many people. This is happening in Hinduism, in Islam and in Christianity, too.
    But there are also other teachers and other traditions, even within the traditional religious groups, that are trying to open up the world. For example, there are the Sufis in Islam who are bringing new aspects into interfaith discussion that many people have not heard before. When we open ourselves to learn from new insights, then there is hope.

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