I grew up hearing about three kinds of Jesus. To the Irish and Italian Catholics in my Brooklyn neighborhood he was the only begotten son of God, Savior of all Mankind. Among the Jews there were two versions: the laudable ethical teacher -- a nice Jewish boy who met with a terrible fate -- and the Jesus that never existed, a creature of mythology, like Apollo or Zeus. In my atheistic home, where religion was the opium of the people, Jesus was largely irrelevant, except as a proponent of the Golden Rule and as the founder of a religion that perpetrated horrors in his name.
Then came the 60s, and I was introduced to a different Jesus, by way of India. Like millions of my contemporaries, my hot pursuit of truth and personal fulfillment led me to the spiritual teachings of the East. I read the sacred texts of Hinduism and Buddhism as well as modern interpreters such as Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts and Huston Smith. It was called mysticism, but I found it, ironically, non-mysterious and eminently rational. I tracked down a yoga class -- not easy to do back then, believe it or not -- and learned to meditate. Throughout my explorations, the name of Jesus cropped up surprisingly often, and always with respect. In Paramahansa Yogananda's seminal memoir, Autobiography of a Yogi, the rabbi of Nazareth is treated with such reverence that I thought I must be missing something.
So I bought a New Testament, and it blew my mind. Because my spiritual reference point was more Hindu than Judeo-Christian, the Gospels seemed more like the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita than the churchy dogma I expected to find. The main character was a master teacher, a guru who prodded his disciples not just to better behavior but to union with the divine. His term for the Ground of Being was "Father," but it was easy to evoke the language of the Vedic seers and substitute Brahman or Self. When he tells the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount not to pray conspicuously like the hypocrites, but to "go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret," I saw a guru directing his disciples to meditate. This was a Jesus I could live with: exalted in a way that befits a giant of history, but without the grandiose, cosmos-altering triumphalism that relegates non-believers to either irrelevance or damnation.
I soon learned that Hindus in general, and the swamis and yoga masters who came to the West in particular, saw Jesus in much the same way, as a sadguru (true teacher) and a jivamukti (enlightened being) of the highest order. Some afforded him the status of avatar, placing him on the same level as Krishna, Rama, and other divine incarnations. In keeping with their pluralistic tradition, they considered the teachings of Christ, when followed properly, to be a legitimate pathway to the unified consciousness that is yoga's true aim.
In researching my book, American Veda, I discovered that this perspective has been filtering into America's bloodstream ever since Henry David Thoreau equated Jesus with Buddha and called himself a yogi in Walden. It gathered steam as a stately parade of gurus arrived on our shores and exploded after the Beatles' legendary sojourn on the Ganges in 1968. For a great many angry or alienated Christians, seeing Jesus in this way enabled them to reconcile with their religious heritage; many returned to active participation on terms they could live with, although their Christianity was often closer to that of mystics like Meister Eckhart or Thomas Merton than to the mainstream church. Even Christians whose spiritual lives were, for all practical purposes, more Hindu than anything else have been encouraged by their own gurus to remain connected to their Christian roots. This often entailed seeing Jesus as their ishta devata (preferred form of God). That these prodigal sons and daughters found their way back to the Jesus they love by way of a tradition that has been besieged by missionaries for centuries is one of the great ironies of religious history. And, in similar fashion, thousands of Jews who studied Hinduism and Buddhism have come to see Jesus as a mystical rabbi, a passionate religious reformer and a moral leader whose legacy was sadly corrupted.
The image of Jesus as a sage and sadguru may not sit well with clerics for whom Christ can only be the one true messiah and the hinge of human history. They ought to be glad that millions of people like me, who might otherwise view this season as merely a respite from work, or as humbug, will instead celebrate the birthday of a great holy man.