According to Christian tradition, today marks the birthday of Jesus Christ. Christianity actually has a very long history in the subcontinent; there have been settled communities of Christians in India for hundreds of years longer than there have been Christians in northern Europe (including Britain). Thomas the Apostle is also believed to have been sent to India by Jesus to spread his message; St Thomas is buried in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Apocryphally, there are some unconfirmed legends of Jesus visiting Buddhist monasteries in northern India and Tibet during the “missing years” between his childhood and his early thirties.
More recently (relatively speaking), several of the Mughal emperors, who were all Muslims, were particularly broad-minded about Jesus, Christianity, and Christian artefacts.
For example, the arch over the gateway to the main mosque in Akbar the Great’s old imperial capital near Agra displays a quote attributed to Jesus; a large mural of the Nativity was displayed in Akbar’s sleeping chambers; and Jesuit missionaries were allowed to set up a chapel within the imperial palace itself.
Akbar’s son & successor Jahangir, who owned a large carving of Jesus on the Cross, kept large-framed pictures of Jesus and the Madonna in his own sleeping quarters.
In fact, Jahangir appeared to be so amenable to Christian theology that Jesuit missionaries mistakenly believed that he was on the brink of formally converting from Islam right until the very end. During the reigns of Akbar and Jahangir, missionaries built churches at several locations in the Mughal Empire, and Christians were free to openly celebrate major festivals such as Christmas and Easter.
Multiple paintings and murals depicting various aspects of Jesus, Mary and Christian saints were commissioned by the Mughals, and were displayed not only on the walls of the palace but also on Mughal tombs and caravanserais. The picture at the top of this article is a painting of the Nativity, created during the reign of the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah, circa 1720. During the 1850s, the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s own physician formally converted to Christianity, to which the emperor simply replied that the man’s faith was his own private matter and “there was no cause for shame in what he had done”.
In modern-day India, Christmas is a major national holiday.
Parallels and mysticism
In Christianity, King Herod is believed to have ordered the murders of all the young male children in Bethlehem as it had been prophesised by the visiting Magi that a divine “King of the Jews” had been born, and Herod believed this to pose a threat to his throne; in Hinduism, the tyrannical King Kans, who was the brother of Krishna’s mother Devaki, imprisoned Krishna’s parents and successfully managed to murder their first six newborn children, due to a prophesy that Devaki’s eighth child (who turned out to be Krishna) would kill him.
Furthermore, according to Christian traditions, as a newborn Jesus was visited by three “wise men from the East” or Magi; in Sikhism, the newborn Gobind Singh – or Gobind Rai, as he was called at the time – was visited by a Sufi Muslim saint from Haryana who had prophesised his birth in the city of Patna as a divine child sent to the world on a sacred mission by God.
The Gospel of Thomas, discovered amongst the “Gnostic” texts at Nag Hammadi and which is not part of the canonical gospels in the Bible, includes some concepts which will be instantly recognisable to readers familiar with the more mystical aspects of the other major religions in India. The following saying is attributed directly to Jesus:
“The Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty, and it is you who are that poverty.”
The core teachings of Jesus place a strong emphasis on love, which is also integral to Sikhism, most mainstream South Asian versions of Sufi Islam, and devotional (‘bhakti’) Hinduism; in fact, Guru Gobind Singh wrote in the Akal Ustat that “Only those who love can attain/experience God.”
Some suitable music to celebrate the occasion:
Seal singing “Love’s Divine”:
Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole singing “The Christmas Song”:
Whatever you are doing to celebrate during the holiday season, have a wonderful time, be safe, and make sure you wear your Santa hat at a suitably jaunty angle.
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