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Notovitch Revisited

Nicolas Notovitich recieved a lot of very bad press in his time. With the authors permission included here is a portion of a web article entitled A New Ecumenism based upon reexamination of the "Lost Years" Evidence by James W. Deardorff of Oregon State University dated September, 1994, 2003

This article has been edited to retain the parts primarily relating to Notovitch the "Lost Years' evidence. For the full text and additional commentary, visit

It was in 1894 that news first reached the Western world of Buddhist manuscripts existing in Tibet indicating that the "lost years" of Jesus' youth had been spent in India. The alleged discoverer was Nicholas Notovitch, Russian journalist and war correspondent, who journeyed through Kashmir and Ladakh (Little Tibet) and then wrote a book about his findings, including a translation into French of the verses in Tibetan about Isa (or Issa) existing in the library of Himis monastery near Leh.1 The find was swiftly discredited by the noted Orientalist Max Müller and by one other, though whether or not their responses were credible and fair form part of the subject of the present study.2 We shall come to find that Müller's only relevant objections were satisfactorily answered by Notovitch in an extended preface to the English translation of his book in 1895,3 and that his answers were ignored by later expositors who continued to debunk him.

Upon examining the responses to Notovitch's presentation, one unfortunately finds that theological commitment played a dominant role in causing the conclusion they reached to be the only one that the Christian faith could allow -- that Notovitch was either duped by a Buddhist lama or was a deceiver and charlatan.4 Until that time, however, Notovitch had enjoyed a favorable reputation, and his decision to proceed and publish his findings, which was not made hastily, seems to have been based upon positive ecumenical feelings. Since theological commitment ought not to be allowed to play a negative role within either scholasticism or ecumenical efforts, a reexamination of this matter is long overdue, along with some discussion of the ecumenical implications for both Christianity and New Testament scholarship.

The present paper is motivated also by the fact that, unknown to Western scholasticism, a complete and independent verification of Notovitch's findings occurred some thirty years after Notovitch's Asian trek. Indirect verifications have occurred more recently.

I. The Primary "Lost" Years Evidence

The "lost" years refer to the years of Jesus' youth from an age of about 12 until his Palestinian ministry commenced. That these years were spent in India is a rather well known story, as it was debunked, following Müller, by Goodspeed in 1931 and again by Beskow in 1983.5 To review the matter briefly, an unusual circumstance on his travels in 1887 allowed Notovitch the opportunity to gain the attention and confidence of the head lama within the Buddhist monastery at Himis. He had earlier on his Asian travels heard that some verses about Isa existed within that monastery, but he was unable to persuade the lama to show them to him and his translator. Soon after departing, however, his horse stumbled, pitching him to the ground and fracturing his leg. He requested his travel party to take him back to the monastery for aid, and there during a stay of several days and with his leg in a splint he gained the confidence of the chief lama who read the Isa verses, in Tibetan, to him and his translator, who apparently wrote them down in French.6 He was told that their earlier source had been written in Pali.

The verses describe the young Jesus as having traveled to India in order to spend many years studying under the yogic masters there, and they depict in general terms some experiences he had along the way, as well as a Buddhist or Hindu view of the crucifixion after he had returned to the Holy Land. Merchants from Israel, apparently of Indian or Tibetan origin, later returned to India to bring news of the crucifixion to one or more there who had known Jesus during the "lost years."7 After acquiring this evidence, Notovitch painfully made his way back, in a litter carried by his travel party, via Kashmir to Bombay where he could receive treatment for his broken leg.

An impartial assessment of Müller's paper reveals that, aside from a distressing number of points of witty sarcasm and irrelevancy, his treatment contained three potentially valid points. One was just how news of Jesus' crucifixion could have been brought, by Jewish merchants from Israel, to the attention of one or more Brahmans and Buddhists Jesus had known during the "lost" years of his youth, considering how great is the area of India. Notovitch responded to this problem in the extensive preface to his 1895 book by pointing out that the merchants in question had been indigenous to India or Tibet, and not Jewish.8 There are then any number of possible answers to Müller's question, such as the young Jesus having befriended one or more Indians who were traveling with him on the Silk Road from India back to Palestine, and a few years later one or more of them either having informed returning Indian merchants of Jesus' crucifixion and who in India should know about it, or having returned themselves to do so. Müller had assumed without justification that "merchants from Israel" meant Jewish merchants.

Müller's second potentially relevant point was that these writings about Jesus should in his opinion have been listed within a Tibetan or Buddhist catalog known to Western scholars, or within one of their sacred sets of books: the Kandjur or the Tandjur.9 However, Notovitch had learned from the head lama at Himis that there was over an order of magnitude more manuscripts or books just within a monastery at Lhasa than Müller had acknowledged were listed in all the aforementioned sources, so the odds were very slim that the volume or two in question at the Himis monastery would have been listed. Besides, if they had been so listed, the existence of the "lost years" verses would not then have come as any surprise to religious scholars in the West.10 In addition, there is the practical certainty that such verses had long been recognized by knowledgeable lamas as sensitive material not to be divulged to unsympathetic or intolerant Westerners, lest it cause future problems for the monastery in question.

Müller's third potentially relevant point was that he had heard that some missionaries in Tibet had claimed that no one by the name of Notovitch had ever visited the monastery.11 The evidence he presented on this consisted of a letter from an English traveler through Leh expressing this belief while at the same time severely denouncing the lamas. However, another critic to be discussed soon, a Professor J. Archibald Douglas, had to acknowledge evidence that Notovitch had indeed been to Leh at least,12 and in responding to Müller, Notovitch mentioned names of those who could attest to his having traveled there.13 And Notovitch's description of both the exterior and interior of the Himis monastery, like those of his travel experiences themselves, are sufficiently detailed without appearing in any way contrived as to dispel doubts that he had been to the monastery.14 Thus, none of Müller's three main points seem to have been relevant.

In 1896 this Professor Douglas of Government College in Agra, India, wrote of his own trip to Leh and Himis the previous year for the express purpose of checking up on Notovitch's finds. Unfortunately we know absolutely nothing about Professor Douglas, such as his field of interest or how long he was affiliated with Government College in Agra, other than what his article in the Nineteenth Century journal tells us. He apparently did not write any books, and in his paper he did not mention any colleague or other person to whom he discussed his plans for traveling to Himis or with whom he discussed his findings, except for Müller, to whom he quickly communicated his charges against Notovitch's alleged findings. He reported that the same head lama of Himis personally attested to him, through a Ladakhi translater, Shahmwell Joldan, of knowing nothing of any visit there by Notovitch or by any Russian with a broken leg.15 There is an interesing resolution to this contradictory testimony that Müller himself mentioned, though with a different application in mind.

Müller noted that there indeed had been travelers to the East "to whom Brahmans or Buddhists have supplied, for a consideration, the information and even the manuscripts which they were in search of." He felt that Notovitch might have been such a victim of a Buddhist monk who supplied him with an invented story.16 However, it appears more likely that Douglas instead was the unknowing victim of a monk's discretion or subterfuge. After having learned of some potentially dangerous reactions that Notovitch's 1894 book could cause, the head lama of Hemis could either tell the truth and stir up a hornet's nest of trouble for him and his monastery's library, or he could deny to Douglas and his converted-to-Christianity translator, Joldan, any knowledge of Notovitch's visit there. The latter was a much more expedient course of action than for the lama to invent on the spot a collection of 244 verses about Isa to read to Notovitch and his translator. Moreover, the translator Douglas used, Joldan, having been the postmaster of Leh under the British Imperial Post Office, was in a position to cause continuing problems for the Buddhist library at Hemis from the information that Notovitch had exposed, as he (Joldan) had close ties to the Christian Moravian missionaries in Leh.16.1 It must have been psychologically intimidating for the head lama to be quizzed by a professor intent upon attacking a text that was upsetting to Christianity through a Ladakhi translator who had abandoned the Buddhist traditions. Click here to learn more on this from the research of A. J. Trebst. At the same time, any impartial reading of Notovitch's book discloses no good motivation why he, of Russian Orthodox belief, would have invented the verses about Isa, though he was obviously excited at the prospect of being the one to fill in this gap within the Gospels and bring the "Lost Years" information to the attention of the West.17

One of Douglas's questions to the chief lama that suggests it was Douglas, not Notovitch, who had been misled was: "Is the name of Issa held in great respect by the Buddhists?" The lama's reply is said to have been, "They know nothing even of his name; none of the Lamas has ever heard of it, save through missionaries and European sources."18 This stands in strong contrast to what Jawarhar Nehru wrote his daughter, Indira, in a 1932 letter: "All over Central Asia, in Kashmir and Ladakh and Tibet and even farther north, there is still a strong belief that Jesus or Isa travelled about there."19 It stands to reason that the lamas were even more aware of this tradition than was the general population.

It may be mentioned that the present traditions of Jesus having lived in India during his youth indeed date far back in time. They were known to the tenth-century Muslim historian, Shaikh Al-Said,20 who wrote down some of the Hindu/Buddhist legends of Isa's travels in India.

The traditions are known also in northwestern Afghanistan, centered at Herat, by some thousand devotees of Isa, son of Maryam, who live within several scattered villages. This has been brought out by O. M. Burke, who personally interviewed their spiritual leader, Abba Yahiyya (Father John), while researching Sufism in this area of the globe.21 However, these traditions are not particularly well known outside of their local areas, and there is no indication that Notovitch knew of them before coming upon word of the existence of a manuscript or two at Himis to the effect that Jesus had been there in his travels during his youth.

Sadly, both Goodspeed and Beskow repeated and amplified the ill-founded accusations against Notovitch that Müller and Douglas had made, frequently assuming or implying that he was guilty of fraud, without ever mentioning Notovitch's telling responses to Müller's major questions, and without mentioning the role that Christian theological commitment and Buddhist wisdom likely played in generating Müller's third point and the charges in Douglas's paper.22

One of Goodspeed's points that may be valid in part, however, is that these Isa verses "read more like a journalistic effort to describe what might have happened if Jesus had visited India and Persia in his youth," and that they would not withstand the test of literary and textual criticism.23 This possibility is understandable, in that only after Christianity and the Gospels had made Jesus a celebrated figure in the West would Isa's earlier activities in India likely have been set into writing. By then -- mid-second century at the earliest24 -- the Buddhist or Hindu priest(s) involved would have had to rely on oral tradition nearly a century old, if not older, plus the Gospels as a supplementary aid. Yet, the Isa verses might fare no worse under present-day textual criticism than have the Gospels.25 We should note that neither Hinduism nor Buddhism would seem to have had any substantial motivation for inventing the historical context of these verses.

One cannot say with any certainty when the bulk of the Isa verses, assuming they are historical, was first set into writing. However, the text strangely treats Jesus' arrest as being the full responsibility of the Romans, in contrast to the Gospels' emphasis of chief priests and Pharisees in this role,26 and this may be a clue. It suggests that this portion of the verses, at least, was formed before any of the Gospels became available, since the Indian merchants who would have returned from Jerusalem to India with the news about Isa's crucifixion in the years immediately following the event would likely have known only of the Romans' role in bringing about this end result; they would not have had the inside information of a disciple close to Jesus.27

In Beskow's discussion he analyzes the implied claim of a later Russian -- the painter, Nicholas Roerich -- of having acquired the Isa verses afresh during his Asian travels in 1924- 25, and finds this claim to be insupportable.28 Here my own analysis agrees, as Roerich indeed seems to have exhibited a strong tendency towards plagiarism, as noted by Beskow. Although a statement by Roerich of having come across word that the Isa verses existed within Himis monastery may have been truthful,29 the implication that he received a translation of those verses, which he later presented in his book Himalaya, does not seem to be. It reads too much like a plagiarism of Notovitch's verses, and missing is any description of the efforts that would have been necessary to gain access to the Isa verses.

Here it has been primarily those points made by Müller, Douglas, Goodspeed and Beskow having the potential for being relevant that have been discussed. Their more numerous irrelevant or slanderous statements, and especially their important omissions, are the prime reasons why their analyses must be labeled as unscholarly.30

II. The Later Evidence

The findings of the Hindu monk, Swami Abhedananda, support Notovitch's discovery in practically all respects. This monk was a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna of the Barahanagar Temple, near Calcutta. Having learned of Notovitch's find and read his book, he decided to take his own trip to Himis monastery to check it out, which he did in 1922, accompanied by some others, including an expert translator from Leh. They persuaded a lama to show them a manuscript containing the Isa verses, which he read to Abhedananda and his interpreter, who then translated them into Bengali. The Himis manuscript was in Tibetan; the original was said to have been written in Pali and to exist in the monastery of Marbour near Lhasa, all of which confirms what Notovitch had learned. Abhedananda wrote his book containing their travelogue and a fresh version of the Isa verses in stages, with the help of an assistant and a later editor; in 1987 it was translated into English.31

The Swami ordered and numbered his set of Isa verses after the manner of Notovitch's set; however, the set he presented contained far fewer verses than the 244 within Notovitch's set, which is consistent with Abhedananda mentioning that his set was derived from just one book at the monastery,32 while Notovitch had mentioned a second book or manuscript being involved also.33 In addition, however, Abhedananda omitted publication of many verses, apparently because they contain material that could be deemed offensive to different branches of Hinduism. Comparison of those verses that are common to the two sets of Isa text indicates little difference in substance but very appreciable differences in sentence structure and detail, as is to be expected from different translators and languages of translation having been involved.

One particular distinction between the two sets of verses is worth mentioning, in that Beskow had caught an evident error within the following verse from Notovitch's set: Beskow alertly pointed out that Isa verses 5:2-3 speak erroneously of a god Jaine and of worshipers of Jaine. Verse 5:2 reads:

Fame spread the reputation of this marvelous child throughout the length of northern Sind, and when he crossed the country of the five rivers and the Rajputana, the devotees of the god Jaine prayed him to dwell among them.34

Beskow noted that "The Jains, or Jainas, do not believe in any god at all."35 Within Abhedananda's set of Isa verses, this same verse about the Jains is rendered in English as follows:

As he was traveling all along through the land of the five rivers, his [Isa's] benign appearance, face radiating peace and comely forehead attracted Jain devotees who knew him to be one who had received blessings from God Himself.36

This translation does not contain the error of a "god Jaine," though it is independent of Beskow's observation.37 However, it is written from the viewpoint of a Hindu priest who does believe in God or a Godhead. It thus supports the likelihood that in Notovitch's version of the Isa verses the primary error had been due either to Notovitch or his translator.

I have found no reason to suspect that Abhedananda's set of Isa verses was not freshly acquired from the Himis monastery source. His confirmation of Notovitch's find is not discussed by Beskow, who was probably not aware of it.

According to Abhedananda, in India Jesus likely obtained the name Isa or Issa from "Isha," which means Lord in Sanskrit. "Lord" here relates to their great deity, Shiva, for which another name is "Ish."38

There have been various instances in which visitors to Himis monastery unexpectedly learned that a set of the Isa verses was located there, and Elizabeth Clare Prophet has made known three of these cases. One such visitor was Elizabeth Caspari, who in 1939 made the journey through that region in the company of a Mrs. Clarence Gasque. They were told by a monk in charge of the Himis library that "These books say your Jesus was here!"39 Madame Caspari later became noted for having established the first Montessori school in the U.S.

Another visitor was the late Edward F. Noack, a lover of the high country of the Himalayas, who with his wife visited Himis monastery in the late 1970s.40 A monk there told him that "There are manuscripts in our library that describe the journey of Jesus to the East."41

A third visitor to the area who obtained information on this subject was Robert Ravicz, once professor of anthropology at California State University at Northridge. While at Himis in 1975 he learned of the "lost years" Jesus-in-India tradition from an eminent Ladakhi physician.42

It appears that word of the existence at Himis of these one or two manuscripts about Isa's "lost years" has very occasionally been leaked to Western visitors to the region, but only when the lama or monk involved felt the visitor was open minded or receptive and not inclined to take any threatening action against the monastery. If so, it is reasonable to expect that any future attempts by investigators to acquire or read the manuscripts in question at Himis or Marbour monastery will fail if the relevant lama suspects that the investigator or his sponsor in any way holds a non-ecumenical or militantly Christian attitude. As explained by V. R. Gandhi, the causes of this suspicious attitude on the part of custodians of the sacred literature of the East trace back several centuries to the Muslim invaders of India once having destroyed thousands of the Indians' sacred documents, and to early Christian missionaries having acquired and belittled some of their documents.43 This distrustful attitude persists today, at least at Himis monastery, according to Tibetologists David L. Snellgrove and Tadeusz Skorupski.44

There is a report that records exist in the Puri Jagannath Temple archives confirming that Issa had spent some time in India. This comes from Sri Daya Mata of the Self-Realization Fellowship, when in 1959 she interviewed Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha in India; he was the Shankaracharya of Puri.44.1 In the article she says, "In 1959 I discussed this [Jesus being in India during the 'unknown years'] with one of India's great spiritual leaders, His Holiness Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha, the Shankaracharya of Puri. I told him that Guruji had often said to us that Christ spent some of his life in India, in association with her illumined sages. His Holiness replied, 'That is true. I have studied ancient records in the Puri Jagannath Temple archives confirming these facts. He was known as "Isha," and during part of his time in India he stayed in the Jagannath Temple. When he returned to his part of the world, he expounded the teachings that are known today as Christianity.'" In the above, "Guruji" refers to the yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, and Puri is a coastal city in southeast India, where the Jagannath Temple is located. The Lost Years verses mention that Issa had spent time at this location. Yogananda has authored a couple of books, and in his The Divine Romance (1986) one may read (p. 257) that he was indeed well aware of the Lost Years evidence. The writings that Bharati Krishna Tirtha studied could well be independent of those discovered at Hemis monastery by Notovitch and Abhedananda. However, we find that the final sentence in the above quote, to be correct, should read "When he returned to his part of the world, he expounded the teachings that were converted into the Christianity we know today."



1. Nicholas Notovitch, La Vie inconnue de Jésus-Christ (Paris: M. Paul Ollendorf, 1894). In India, Jesus is known primarily as Isa or Issa.

2. F. Max Müller, "The Alleged Sojourn of Christ in India," The Nineteenth Century, (Oct., 1894): pp, 515-522.

3. Notovitch, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, transl. V. Crispe (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1895), xxiii-xxx.

4. Despite Müller's valuable life work of translating sacred Hindu writings into English and German, it is evident that he considered a simple form of Christianity to be far superior to any of the world's other great religions. See Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Scholar Extraordinary (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), 70-72, 325, 335, 374-375.

5. Edgar J. Goodspeed, Strange New Gospels (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1931), 16-24; Per Beskow, Strange Tales about Jesus: A Survey of Unfamiliar Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 59-63. Goodspeed was the originator of the first American translation of the New Testament, and a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Beskow was an associate professor of patristic studies at the Swedish Council for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences in Lund, Sweden.

6. Although Notovitch failed to clearly designate who his translator was, he did mention earlier in his travelog that he had acquired an interpreter who had been highly recommended to him by a Frenchman (M. Peychaud) who was the cultivator for the vineyards of the maharajah in Srinagar. Thus one infers that he translated them into French, which is the same language in which Notovitch wrote his book.

7. Notovitch, Unknown Life, p. 134.

8. Notovitch, Unknown Life, p. xxx (in Note to the Publisher).

9. Müller, "Alleged Sojourn of Christ," pp. 518-519.

10. Notovitch, Unknown Life, pp. xxvi-xxvii.

11. Müller, "Alleged Sojourn of Christ," pp. 516, 521.

12. J. Archibald Douglas, "The Chief Lama of Himis on the Alleged `Unknown Life of Christ'," Nineteenth Century (Apr. 1896): pp. 667-678; 669.

13. Notovitch, Unknown Life, pp. xxiii-xxiv.

14. Ibid., pp. 92, 94, 100, 110.

15. Douglas, "On the Alleged `Unknown Life'," p. 671.

16. Müller, "Alleged Sojourn of Christ," pp. 516-517.

16.1. Bishop, Isabella Bird, Among the Tibetans (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1894), pp. 101-102.

17. Notovitch, Unknown Life, pp. l-li.

18. Douglas, "On the Alleged `Unknown Life'," p. 672.

19. Jawarhar Lal Nehru, Glimpses of World History (New York: John Day Co., 1942) 84.

20. His full name was Al-Shaikh Al-Said-us-Sadiq Abi Jaffar Muhammad Ibn-i-Ali Ibn-i-Hussain Ibn-i-Musa Ibn-i-Baibuyah al-Qummi, according to Khwaja Nazir Ahmad, Jesus in Heaven on Earth (Woking, England: Woking Muslim Mission & Literary Trust, 1952) 365.

21. Omar Michael Burke, Among the Dervishes (London: Octagon Press, 1976) 107.

22. That Douglas was highly committed theologically is evident from his vehement opposition to an Isa verse that practically denies the resurrection: Douglas, "On the Alleged `Unknown Life'," p. 670.

23. Goodspeed, Strange New Gospels, pp. 16, 24.

24. Arthur J. Bellinzoni, "The Gospel of Matthew in the Second Century," Second Century 9 (1992): 197-258, see p. 235 specifically.

25. The Jesus Seminar, "Voting Records," Forum 6 (1990): 9-47. There some 86% of the verses comprised of the sayings and teachings of Jesus within Matthew, for example, are found to be probably non-genuine.

26. We may note that since World War II a substantial fraction of New Testament scholars have adopted this very view: assuming that all Gospel verses denigrating scribes, Pharisees and chief priests are redactions or reflect biased opinions of the Gospel writers.

27. This is not to imply that the Gospels were written during the lifetimes of the disciples. The author subscribes to the view that the main source for the Gospels was written by a disciple but was not made available to a church scribe until early second century. See James W. Deardorff, The Problems of New Testament Gospel Origins: A Glasnost Approach (Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press (Mellen Research University Press), 1992) 11-22, 63-73.

28. Beskow, Strange Tales, pp. 62-63; Nicholas Roerich, "Banners of the East," in Himalaya (New York: Brentano's, 1926) 148-153.

29. Roerich, "Banners of the East," p. 172.

30. For full details on this, see James W. Deardorff, Jesus in India: A Reexamination of Jesus' Asian Traditions in the Light of Evidence Supporting Reincarnation (Bethesda, MD: International Scholars Publications, 1994) 103-134.

31. Swami Abhedananda, Kashmir O Tibbate (In Kashmir and Tibet), 2nd Ed., ed. Swami Prajnanananda (Calcutta: Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, 1953); idem, Swami Abhedananda's Journey into Kashmir and Tibet, Transls. Ansupati Dasgupta and Kunja Bihari Kundu (Calcutta: Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, 1987; available from Vedanta Press, 1946 Vedanta Pl., Hollywood, CA 90068; Tel.: 213-465-7114).

32. Abhedananda's Journey, p. 119. Abhedananda or his editor arranged and numbered their presented text so that it would conform with Notovitch's ordering. With only a few exceptions, verses may be directly compared.

33. Notovitch, Unknown Life, pp. 128, 205.

34. Ibid., p. 145.

35. Beskow, Strange Tales, p. 59.

36. Abhedananda's Journey, p. 120.

37. Although Beskow's 1985 book predates the English translation of Abhedananda's Kashmir O Tibbate, an earlier English translation of relevant portions of it had been made and published within the 1984 book of Elizabeth Clare Prophet, The Lost Years of Jesus (Livingston, Montana: Summit University Press, 1984). This latter translation also does not make the error about the Jaines. Prophet was unaware of Beskow's 1979 (Swedish) version of Strange Tales about Jesus.

38. Abhedananda's Journey, p. 122.

39. Prophet, Lost Years, p. 317.

40. He is author of Amidst Ice and Nomads in High Asia (Burbank, California: National Literary Guild, 1984).

41. Prophet, Lost Years, p. 345 (see photo caption).

42. Ibid.

43. Virchand R. Gandhi, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Indo-American Book Co., 1907) 48.

44. David L. Snellgrove and Tadeusz Skorupski, The Cultural Heritage of Ladakh (Columbia, Missouri: Prajana Press, South Asia Books, 1977) 127.

44.1. Sri Daya Mata, "Remembering Paramahansa Yogananda," in Self-Realization Magazine, Winter, 1992, p.16.



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