Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Hinduism and Gnosticism

In 1945, an Arab peasant named Muhammed Ali and his brothers were digging near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi for soft soil that they used to fertilize their crops. While digging near a boulder, they found a one meter high earthenware jar which contained thirteen papyrus books. Some of these papyrus books were destroyed because Ali's mother used them in the oven for kindling the fire. After a long and complicated process, the rest of the papyrus books reached scholars who understood their importance. 

The Nag Hammadi texts were the coptic translations, made in the second and third centuries AD, of much more ancient manuscripts written in Greek. They contained gnostic writings which had been denounced as heresy in the beginning of the Christian age. When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the Christian bishops acquired the power to prosecute the heretics. The gnostic preachers were martyred and their books were burned. The destruction of gnosticism by the Christian theologians was so thorough that before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi papyrus almost everything known about the gnostics came through approved Christian sources. 

Historians believe that the earthen jar containing the gnostic papyrus books, which had been denounced as heresy, were buried by a gnostic monk in the region of Nag Hammadi. The jar remained buried for almost 1600 years, until it was found by Mohammad Ali. The papyrus books contained fifty-two texts—six of them were duplicates, so there were forty-six original texts, out of which forty-one were not previously extant. 

The story of the origin of mankind that these texts tell is different from the Christian theology. For instance, the Testimony of Truth, tells the story of Adam and Eve from the viewpoint of the serpent who is depicted as the principle of divine wisdom. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says: “If spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders, indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth [the spirit] has made its home in this poverty [the body].” This is in line with the Eastern or Hindu teaching that the soul resides in the body. 

In her book on Nag Hammadi texts, The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels, points out that the living Buddha could have said many of the lines that the Gospel of Thomas attributes to living Jesus. She asks the question: “Could Hindu or Buddhist tradition have influenced gnosticism?” In the Nag Hammadi texts, there are several passages which seem to be connected with the teachings of the Upanishads and other Hindu and Buddhist texts.

The gnostic thinkers were exposed to Hindu philosophy. One of the last gnostic philosophers, Bardaisan (11 July 154 – 222 AD), was in contact with Brahmin thinkers from India. In two of his texts, Porphyry talks about the meetings between Bardaisan and the Brahmin thinkers. In his book, Refutation of All Heresies, the Christian theologian Hippolytus of Rome includes Brahminism in the list of heresies which have inspired the gnostic movement. Here’s an excerpt from Refutation of All Heresies (passage 1.24): 

“There is… among the Indians a heresy of those who philosophize among the Brahmins, who live a self-sufficient life, abstaining from (eating) living creatures and all cooked food… They say that God is light, not like the light one sees, nor like the sun nor fire, but to them God is discourse, not that which finds expression in articulate sounds, but that of knowledge (gnosis) through which the secret mysteries of nature are perceived by the wise.” 

Another interesting question that Pagels asks in her book is: “Could the title of the Gospel of Thomas—named for the disciple who, tradition tells us, went to India—suggest the influence of Indian tradition?”

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