Buddhism and Gnosticism

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Certain modern scholars, notably Buddhologist Edward Conze (1966) and, following Conze, Elaine Pagels (1979), have proposed that similarities existed between Buddhism and Gnosticism, a term deriving from the name "Gnostics" given to a number of Christian sects by early Christian heresiologists.

History of scholarship

An early suggestion of the connection of gnostic-theosophic teachings with Buddhism was the Saint Petersburg Tibetologist and Mongologist Isaac Jacob Schmidt's pamphlet „Über die Verwandtschaft der gnostisch-theosophischen Lehren mit den Religionssystemen des Orients, vorzüglich dem Buddhaismus" (Leipzig 1828) ("About the relationship of Gnostic theosophical teachings with religious systems of the East , especially Buddhism") .[1][2] This was developed by Edward Conze in his paper Buddhism and Gnosis presented to the Origins of gnosticism: colloquium of Messina, held 13–18 April 1966 - a seminal event in modern revision of scholarship on gnosis and gnosticism in Judaism and early Christianity. Conze noted that his starting point for Buddhism as the Mahayana Buddhism contemporary with the origins of Christianity. Conze noted that "This Buddhism I propose to compare with "Gnosis" rather than "the Gnostics," because the connotation of the latter term is still so uncertain that this Congress has been specially convened for the purpose of defining it." Conze's suggestion were supported and expanded by Elaine Pagels in The Gnostic Gospels (New York, 1979), and followed by appeals to Buddhist scholars to find evidence for contact between Buddhism and gnosticism.[3][4] Pagels' suggestion however has not gained academic acceptance or generated significant further study. Although the book was a bestseller Donald Akenson (2001) concludes that the success of the book was due to it being a message the American popular audience was ready to hear.[5]

Suggested contact points between Buddhism and Gnosticism


Early 3rd-4th century Christian writers such as Hippolytus of Rome and Epiphanius write about a Scythianus, who visited India around 50 AD from where he brought "the doctrine of the Two Principles". According to these writers, Scythianus' pupil Terebinthus presented himself as a "Buddha" ("he called himself Buddas" Cyril of Jerusalem). Terebinthus went to Palestine and Judaea where he met the Apostles ("becoming known and condemned" Isaia),[6] and ultimately settled in Babylon, where he transmitted his teachings to Mani, thereby creating the foundation of what could be called Persian syncretic Buddhism, Manicheism. We find evidence that Buddhist thought had major influence on the teachings of Mani:

In the story of the Death of Mani:[7]

It was a day of pain
and a time of sorrow
when the messenger of light
entered death
when he entered complete Nirvana"

Following Mani's travels to the Kushan Empire (several religious paintings in Bamiyan are attributed to him) at the beginning of his proselytizing career, various Buddhist influences seem to have permeated Manichaeism:

Buddhist influences were significant in the formation of Mani's religious thought. The transmigration of souls became a Manichaean belief, and the quadripartite structure of the Manichaean community, divided between male and female monks (the "elect") and lay followers (the "hearers") who supported them, appears to be based on that of the Buddhist sangha.[8]
The spread of Manichaeism (300– AD 500). Map reference: World History Atlas, Dorling Kindersly.
Manichaeism spread with extraordinary rapidity throughout both the east and west. It reached Rome through the apostle Psattiq by AD 280, who was also in Egypt in 244 and 251. The faith was flourishing in the Fayum area of Egypt in 290. Manichaean monasteries existed in Rome in 312 during the time of the Christian Pope Miltiades. By 354, Hilary of Poitiers wrote that the Manichaean faith was a significant force in southern France.

Also, in the Great Song of Mani (13th-14th century) Mani is many times referred to as Buddha Mani.


Philip Jenkins writes:

Theories of a possible Asian influence on the Jesus movement usually focused on the Essenes. Even orthodox scholars like Dean Mansel argued that Buddhist monks and missionaries had provided the inspiration for the monks and ascetics whom we find recorded in the Middle East before the coming of Jesus, like the Essenes and the related Egyptian sect of the Therapeutae. Some writers explored the idea that Jesus himself might have drawn on these esoteric traditions, as suggested by the title of Arthur Lillie's 1887 book Buddhism in Christendom, or, Jesus, the Essene. In 1880, Ernst von Bunsen argued that Christian messianic concepts derived from a common fund of tradition that was shared by Buddhists and Essenes. The Essenes, it was thought, provided a crucial link between Eastern mysticism and Western heresy, with Jesus as the pivot between the two trends. If Jesus had access to Buddhist ideas, and the Gnostic sects themselves preached reincarnation and other Asian themes, then once again this was evidence that Jesus' earliest teachings were best preserved among the so-called heresies.[9]

Gospel of Thomas

Elaine Pagels has written that "one need only listen to the words of the Gospel of Thomas to hear how it resonates with the Buddhist tradition... these ancient gospels tend to point beyond faith toward a path of solitary searching to find understanding, or gnosis." She suggests that there is an explicitly Indian influence in the Gospel of Thomas, perhaps via the Christian communities in southern India, the so-called Thomas Christians.

Some have suggested that of all of the Nag Hammadi texts, the Gospel of Thomas has the most similarities with Pure Land Buddhism. Edward Conze has suggested that Hindu or Buddhist tradition may well have influenced Gnosticism. He points out that Buddhists were in contact with the Thomas Christians.[10]

Early encounters

Early 3rd century–4th century Christian writers such as Hippolytus and Epiphanius write about a Scythianus, who visited India around 50 CE from where he brought four books and "the doctrine of the Two Principles", in which the early church fathers describe as assigning both "good" and "evil" to God. According to Cyril of Jerusalem, Scythianus' pupil Terebinthus presented himself as a "Buddha" ("He called himself Buddas").[11] Terebinthus went to Palestine and Judaea ("becoming known and condemned"), and ultimately settled in Babylon, where he transmitted his teachings to a woman who left his books to a young Mani, thereby creating the foundation of Manichaeism:

"But Terebinthus, his disciple in this wicked error, inherited his money and books and heresy, and came to Palestine, and becoming known and condemned in Judæa he resolved to pass into Persia: but lest he should be recognised there also by his name he changed it and called himself Buddas."

In the 3rd century, the Syrian writer and Christian Gnostic theologian Bar Daisan described his exchanges with the religious missions of holy men from India (Greek: Σαρμαναίοι, Sramanas), passing through Syria on their way to Elagabalus or another Severan dynasty Roman Emperor. His accounts were quoted by Porphyry (De abstin., iv, 17) [12] and Stobaeus (Eccles., iii, 56, 141).

Finally, from the 3rd century to the 12th century, some Gnostic religions such as Manichaeism, which combined Christian, Hebrew and Buddhist influences (Mani, the founder of the religion, resided for some time in Kushan lands), spread throughout the Old World, to Gaul and Great Britain in the West, and to China in the East. Some leading Christian theologians such as Augustine of Hippo were Manichaeans before converting to orthodox Christianity.

A number of scholars have stated that suggestions of an influence from Buddhism on Christianity is fanciful, without any historical basis and a form of Parallelomania.[13][14][15][16][17]

The "lost years" of Jesus & New Age theories

One tradition claims that Jesus traveled to India and Tibet during the "Lost years of Jesus" before the beginning of his public ministry. In 1887 a Russian war correspondent, Nicolas Notovitch, visited India and Tibet. He claimed that, at the lamasery or monastery of Hemis in Ladakh, he learned of the "Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men." His story, with a translated text of the "Life of Saint Issa," was published in French in 1894 as La vie inconnue de Jesus Christ. The "Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men" purportedly recounts the travels of one known in the East as Saint Issa, whom Notovitch identified as Jesus. After initially doubting Notovitch, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Abhedananda, journeyed to Tibet, investigated his claim, helped translate part of the document, and later championed his views.[18]

Notovitch's writings were immediately controversial. The German orientalist Max Müller corresponded with the Hemis monastery that Notovitch claimed to have visited and J. Archibald Douglas visited Hemis Monastery. Neither found any evidence that Notovich (much less Jesus) had even been there himself, so they rejected his claims.[19][20] Once his story had been re-examined by historians, Notovitch confessed to having fabricated the evidence.[21] Bart D. Ehrman states that "Today there is not a single recognized scholar on the planet who has any doubts about the matter. The entire story was invented by Notovitch, who earned a good deal of money and a substantial amount of notoriety for his hoax".[22]

A number of New Age or spiritualist authors have taken this information and have incorporated it into their own works. For example, in her book The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus' 17-Year Journey to the East, Elizabeth Clare Prophet asserts that Buddhist manuscripts provide evidence that Jesus traveled to India, Nepal, Ladakh and Tibet.[23]


  1. Selected essays on gnosticism, dualism and mysteriosophy - Page 303 ed. Ugo Bianchi - 1978 "1 As for docetism in Buddhism, for example, see E. Conze, "Buddhism and Gnosis," in Le origini dello gnosticismo ("The Origins of Gnosticism"), Colloquium of Messina, 1966 (Leiden, 1967), pp. 657-58.
  2. Origins of Gnosticism: Colloquium of Messina, 13–18 April 1966 Page 651 ed. U. Bianchi - 1970 BUDDHISM AND GNOSIS BY EDWARD CONZE "The topic of my paper has a fairly long ancestry. Already in 1 828 Isaac Jacob Schmidt, a German living in Russia, published a pamphlet entitled „Über die Verwandtschaft der gnostisch-theosophischen ...
  3. In search of Jesus: insider and outsider images - Page 68 Clinton Bennett - 2001 "Pagels does not rule out Buddhist and Hindu influence on the Gnostic corpus. She cites the eminent Buddhologist Edward Conze (1904-79): 'Buddhists were in contact with Thomas Christians (that is, Christians who knew and used such .."
  4. Deconstructing the New Testament - Page 126 David Seeley - 1994 "69 See EH Pagels, The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis (SBLMS 17; Nashville: Abingdon, 1973). 70 EH Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979) 120. P. Perkins maintains that Pagels mistakenly finds a
  5. Surpassing wonder: the invention of the Bible and the Talmuds Page 455 Donald H. Akenson - 2001 "That this particular product sold so well to Americans is an important piece of social history, one that tells a great deal about the cultural yearnings of the upper-middle class in that country in the 1970s and '80s."
  6. Catechetical Lecture 6 Concerning the Unity of God. On the Article, I Believe in One God. Also Concerning Heresies. Isaiah xlv. 16, 17. (Sept.)
  7. According to The Gnostic Bible by Willis Barnstone, here is one of many authenticating references proving the centrality of Buddhism in Mani's formulation of Gnosticism
  8. Richard Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd edition, 2010 ISBN 978-0-230-62125-1
  9. Jenkins, Philip. "How Gnostic Jesus Became the Christ of Scholars". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Conze, Edward. Buddhism and Gnosis.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Cyril of Jerusalem Catechetical Lecture 6, paragraph 23
  12. Porphyry, De abstinentia ab esu animalium, book IV
  13. Van Voorst, Robert E (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 0-8028-4368-9 page 17
  14. The Historical Jesus in Recent Research edited by James D. G. Dunn and Scot McKnight 2006 ISBN 1-57506-100-7 page 303
  15. Who Is Jesus? by John Dominic Crossan, Richard G. Watts 1999 ISBN 0664258425 pages 28–29
  16. Jesus: The Complete Guide 2006 by Leslie Houlden ISBN 082648011X page 140
  17. Gerald O'Collins, "The Hidden Story of Jesus" New Blackfriars Volume 89, Issue 1024, pages 710–714, November 2008
  18. Swami Abhedananda (1987). Journey into Kashmir and Tibet (the English translation of Kashmiri 0 Tibbate). Calcutta: Ramakrishna Vivekananda Math.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Bradley Malkovsky, "Some Recent Developments in Hindu Understandings of Jesus" in the Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies (2010) Vol. 23, Article 5.:"Muller then wrote to the chief lama st Hemis and received the reply that no Westerner had visited there in the past fifteen years nor was the monastery in possession of any documents having to do with the story Notovitch had made public in his famous book" ... "J. Archibald Douglas took it upon himself to make the journey to the Hemis monistry to conduct a personal interview with the same head monk with whom Meuller had corresponded. What Douglas learned there completely concurred with what Mueller had learned: Notovitch had never been there."
  20. New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1: Gospels and Related Writings by Wilhelm Schneemelcher and R. Mcl. Wilson (Dec 1, 1990) ISBN 066422721X page 84 "a particular book by Nicolas Notovich (Di Lucke im Leben Jesus 1894) ... shortly after the publication of the book, the reports of travel experiences were already unmasked as lies. The fantasies about Jesus in India were also soon recognized as invention... down to today, nobody has had a glimpse of the manuscripts with the alleged narratives about Jesus"
  21. Indology, Indomania, and Orientalism by Douglas T. McGetchin (Jan 1, 2010) Fairleigh Dickinson University Press ISBN 083864208X page 133 "Faced with this cross-examination, Notovich confessed to fabricating his evidence."
  22. Ehrman, Bart D. (February 2011). "8. Forgeries, Lies, Deceptions, and the Writings of the New Testament. Modern Forgeries, Lies, and Deceptions". Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (First Edition. EPub ed.). New York: HarperCollins e-books. pp. 282–283. ISBN 978-0-06-207863-6. Retrieved September 8, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Prophet, Elizabeth Clare (1987). The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus' 17-Year Journey to the East. Livingston, MT: Summit University Press. p. 468. ISBN 0-916766-87-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>