NEW DEHLI, INDIA — NEW DELHI, India -- This weekend, Christians by the hundreds of millions the world over mark one of the most joyous events in the ecclesiastical year. But what became of the infant ++ whose birth is celebrated at Christmas?
The Bible, of course, tells the story. But a German dissenter with a diploma in theology is offering his own version in a controversial book now for sale in bookstores in India and elsewhere.
The title of Holger Kersten's work, amplified and republished this year after selling 1.5 million copies worldwide, says it all: "Jesus Lived in India."
In a nutshell, he proposes that the son of Joseph and Mary traveled to India when young, imbibed the Buddhist philosophy and world view at the feet of Buddhist monks, then returned to propagate his findings among his people in Palestine.
Marshaling evidence including the now-discredited Shroud of Turin, etymology, the writings of a 19th-century Russian adventurer and sermons preached by Jesus as he tramped through the Holy Land, Mr. Kersten asserts that Christ did not die on the cross but survived and returned to India.
In the remote Himalayan land of Kashmir, Jesus (known then as "Issa") lived to a ripe old age as a Buddhist monk, according to Mr. Kersten. His tomb, he says, appears to be situated in the Kashmiri city of Srinagar, where, in point of fact, it is venerated to this day.
Whatever the truth about Jesus,the book is a reminder of the extraordinary importance India has exerted through the centuries the human spirit.
Ritual baptism and monastic asceticism are among its exports. According to Mr. Kersten, even Jesus' parable of the widow's mite, cited in the Gospel according to St. Mark, seems to be a reworking of an older Buddhist story.
Another work of Mr. Kersten, to be published in English next March, enumerates the parallels between the teachings of Jesus and Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian prince and ascetic who founded Buddhism.
Mr. Kersten contends that Jesus' original message was hijacked by the Apostle Paul, who introduced new elements, including misogyny and the concept that Christ's death absolved others of their sins.
"I am a follower of Jesus but not a Christian in its original meaning," said Mr. Kersten, who used to teach the precepts of Christianity in state adult vocational schools until his doubts sent him on a search that ended in India.
Mainstream Christians could rightly note that Mr. Kersten's ideas are heresy. In its 264 pages, the book denies the central tenet of Christianity: that the Son of God died to atone for humanity's sins.
"There are so many kinds of books from this 'New Age' stream that the church doesn't take any notice of them anymore," said Brother Jeffrey Gros, associate director of ecumenical and religious affairs at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Kersten's book notes similarities in the lives and messages of Jesus Christ and Buddha. The Sermon on the Mount, he says, has its forerunners in older Buddhist scriptures like the Lalitavistara.
"What Jesus really meant is the way of karma, that you are of course responsible for your own doings," Mr. Kersten said.
And what of Christmas? Mr. Kersten says research shows it is the Christian reworking of the annual celebrations that used to mark the Dec. 25 birth of the ancient Persian sun deity, Mithras. He plans to celebrate it anyway: "I go to my parents' because they like it."