The last Biblical account of the childhood of Jesus tells of the time when, at age twelve, he traveled with his parents to Jerusalem at the feast of the passover, and how, at the start of the return trip to Nazareth, his parents discovered he was missing. After a separation of three days, they found him in the Jerusalem temple “amidst the doctors,” who were “astonished at his understanding and answers.”
In response to his mother’s concern, Jesus replied: “How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”* (See sidebar below for Bible account)
From then on nothing more appears in the Bible on the life of Jesus until his apparently sudden arrival on the scene at the age of thirty. Often people have asked the question: What transpired during those missing eighteen years?
Jesus had begun his mission
Assuming that what we find in the Bible is true—that Jesus returned to Nazareth with his parents, and was “subject unto them”—his “subjection” to them can hardly have lasted for eighteen years considering the “declaration of independence” he made to them at the age of twelve. Christian tradition has him working as a carpenter. Jesus, however, seems flatly to contradict that tradition, for his own words were, “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”
After this strong statement, it is unthinkable that he would have simply gone home, remained there for eighteen years, and become a common apprentice and journeyman carpenter under Joseph until the age of thirty, and only then commenced his life’s mission. At twelve he had already told his parents he had God’s work to do. And, as he strongly implied, he had begun that mission already.
Westerners are likely to object, “But twelve is too young for any boy to begin a life mission!” His parents evidently held the same view. It is obvious, however, that Jesus did not hold it, for we find him telling them in no uncertain words—words very different, moreover, from what one would expect of any child of twelve—what he must do. In fact, he seems almost to have scolded them for finding him. Reflect that he made that statement after he had been missing for three whole days. Surely the event was extraordinary.
The tradition in India
The only episodes I know that were comparable to this story about Jesus, who was virtually renouncing every blood tie to his family, have occurred in the lives of great reincarnated masters. Paramhansa Yogananda recounted the following story to me as a historic fact: Swami Shankara told his mother at the age of six that he had decided to renounce the world for God. When she tried, quite naturally, to hold him, he jumped into a river and allowed himself—so the story goes—to be caught by a crocodile.
“Look, Mother!” he cried. “Either you give me your consent, or I will let this crocodile take me. Whatever happens, you won’t have me anymore!” Hastily she gave her permission. And the child, who had been born with divine power, made the crocodile release him, whereupon his life mission began.
Another example which occurred more recently involved Swami Pranabananda, a disciple of Lahiri Mahasaya.** Pranabananda, my Guru told me, attained full liberation and left his body. “In his next incarnation,” Yogananda said, “he left home at the age of six. His declared purpose was to join Babaji in the Himalayas.” After a brief pause, Yogananda continued with a smile, “It caused a lot of commotion in that village at the time!”
In the light of spiritual tradition—especially in India, where the lamp of spirituality has burned brightly for centuries—the declaration by Jesus at the age of twelve, that he must “be about his Father’s business,” was not unique. That he had, moreover, a karmic tie with India had already been indicated by the visit, soon after his birth, of the three wise men of the East.
Clearly then, those eighteen years must have been deliberately omitted from the official account of Christ’s life. Two vital questions forcibly intrude themselves on this picture: What was omitted? And, What was the reason for that omission?
The decision of the early Church Council
In 1958, I had an interesting conversation with a prominent spiritual leader in India: Swami Bharati Krishna Tirtha, the Shankaracharya of Gowardhan Math. He was at that time the senior representative of the ancient Shankara Order of Swamis. Throughout the land people respected him highly as a man of truth and honor. My own experience with him, which covered many months, supports that reputation. I will quote something he told me, in his own words as exactly I can remember them, about one of the early Church Councils of Constantinople. He told me the date of that council, but I don’t recall it:
Some years ago I came into possession of one of only three copies of an ancient document which purported to be an account of the proceedings of one of the early Councils of Constantinople. In that council, the question was raised as to how the Church should deal with the record, which still existed, of the missing eighteen years of Jesus Christ’s life.
The problem raised was that the account might unsettle the faith of devout Christians. The Bible stated that Jesus had spent at least a number of those ‘lost’ years with great masters in India, to which land he had gone to study with them. The question raised in the council was whether Christians might not be shaken in their faith if they thought that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, had studied under anyone. The general feeling of the prelates was that the account should be removed in order to protect the devotion of the faithful.
At that point, someone in the audience got up and stated, ‘I am a layman, not a priest, and am aware that it is not customary for such as I to speak at these councils. However, I feel I must speak out. What I have to say is, if the apostles themselves were not shaken in their faith by this revelation, why should we who truly believe, all of us, that Jesus was the Son of God, have less trust then they? Surely the simple truth will not in any way diminish his stature in people’s eyes!’ The man’s objection was not considered, however, and the account of those eighteen years was removed forthwith from the Bible.
Testimony of a Master
Let me submit, also, what to me is the strongest testimony of all: the fact that Paramhansa Yogananda himself declared many times, as a definite fact, that Jesus Christ did visit India, and that he lived there for some years.
I had been with my Guru for just a month when he invited me to his desert retreat at Twenty-Nine Palms, California, where he was dictating his revised correspondence-course lessons. During one evening’s session he stated during dictation: “The three wise men who came to honor the Christ Child after his birth in Bethlehem were the line of gurus who later sent me to the West: Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Swami Sri Yukteswar.” This was heady stuff, especially for a young neophyte!
Yogananda announced to us also, “Jesus, in his youth, paid a return visit to India to study under the ‘wise men’ who had come to honor him as a baby.” People may wonder, as those prelates did at the Council of Constantinople, why an Incarnation of God needed to learn from anybody.
A liberated master, whose mission it is to mix with the public, must comport himself in such a way as not to impose his wisdom on those who hear him. It would be no help to them were he to overwhelm them with his omniscience in everything. He must, for their sake, seem down-to-earth and, in that sense, perfectly normal. Thus, it was perfectly normal for a great master—indeed, for an avatar like Jesus, which is to say an Incarnation of God—to assume for a time the slight veil of delusion, as well as the behavior of a normal human being, in order to help others, later.
The discovery of an ancient manuscript
There are records in India which support the claim that Jesus lived in that country for several years. In 1887, the Russian writer Nicolas Notovitch discovered in the ancient Tibetan monastery of Himis, in Leh, a province of Ladakh in northern Kashmir, an ancient manuscript which detailed the life of Jesus (called Issa in that work). It recounts that Issa had traveled there as a young man, and had later “preached the holy doctrine in India and among the children of Israel.” It tells how Jesus (Issa) left home to avoid pressure from his parents, Joseph and Mary, to take a wife. Legend has it that he traveled by camel caravan over the “Silk Road,” which was the main passage between the East and the West. Notovitch published a book which became famous in his time, called The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. In it he described Issa (Jesus) spending time in Puri, Orissa, among the priests at the famous Jagannath Temple.
A prominent disciple of the great Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Abhedananada, later (in 1922) went to Ladakh in order to verify the account by Notovitch, and actually succeeded in doing so. Later still, Nicholas Roerich, the Russian artist who was then already well known as a veritable “Renaissance Man,” wrote in 1929 of the many legends he had heard in Kashmir about the visit of Jesus Christ to that land, and about the manuscripts at Himis monastery. In 1939, Madam Elisabeth G. Caspari, a Swiss musician, and her husband visited the Himis monastery and also learned about the manuscripts, which were shown to them.
The account of Jesus leaving home as a boy to avoid marriage is very much in keeping with ancient tradition in India. Marriage in Israel, too, was arranged in those days after a boy reached the age of thirteen. Jesus himself explained his return to Israel, after the “lost eighteen years,” when he declared that it was his destiny to fulfill his mission in Israel. He therefore returned to Israel.
Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem. And, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. They, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey and then sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances.
And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, and after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.” And he said unto them, “How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.
And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.