Comparative religion is a recent luxury. Until about two centuries ago, each religion was jealous and exclusive. If you preached Buddhism in Medieval Europe, you’d be stoned to death. If you preached Islam in the Aztec Empire, your heart would be sacrificed to the sun-god. Wisely, each culture minded its own business.
But a century or two ago, ancient barriers began to crumble through a process we now call globalization. You could read the Koran without it being implied that you’re Muslim or visit a Buddhist temple without having to convert to Buddhism. The study of foreign cultures was no longer life threatening.
So in the long run of human civilization, comparative religion is a recent phenomenon. Consequently, many remarkable discoveries on the patterns of mankind surfaced only recently, as the barriers between race, culture and religion began to dissolve.
Ancient Wisdom in Myths
One such discovery was the universal usage of myth. All cultures expressed their ancient wisdom in story-form: the Gospel teaches through the life-story of Jesus; the Buddhacarita teaches through the life-story of Buddha; the Mahabharata teaches through the life story of Krishna.
Another more striking discovery was that these stories often proved to be identical.
Buddha, for example, was conceived miraculously.
Queen Maya dreamt that a white elephant encircled her and tapped her side. Her husband the king summoned sages to interpret his wife’s auspicious dream. The wisest of them prophesied that the queen would bear a son who would either be a great monarch or a great Buddha.
Nine months later, the prophecy was fulfilled and prince Siddhartha was born. The sculpture to the right portrays Buddha popping out of Maya’s right side – the very same side on which she had been tapped in her dream.
‘Maya’ means illusion, and Queen Maya was given her name for being pure of illusion. According to Buddhist lore, she had to be entirely pure to give birth to an enlightened one.
Shortly after the birth of her miraculous son, Maya died so that her womb not be defiled by any other being apart from the oure one she had been destined to deliver.
Krishna, the Hindu Avatar, was also conceived miraculously.
Krishna’s parents, Devaki and Vasudeva, were avid worshippers of the god Vishnu. They’d visit Vishnu’s shrines regularly, make sacrifices and practice austerities on his behalf. They kept themselves pure from human defilements.
Their dedication attracted a boon: Vishnu chose to incarnate as their son, Krishna. When they returned home from one of their visits to the temple, Devaki was pregnant.
An Indian miniature portrays Devaki nursing the young Krishna in an oddly familiar fashion. The immaculate Hindu mother holds her divine son just like the Christian Virgin Madonna holds the baby Jesus.
But until recently, people who looked at this Indian miniature avoided its Christian equivalents and vice versa. Religions were jealous and exclusive. Each kept its myths to itself.
Finally, Jesus was also conceived miraculously.
The Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and announced that she had been chosen to be the mother of God.
Mary’s virginity, of course, falls in line with Queen Maya’s purity from illusion or Devaki’s unstained devotion to Vishnu.
Mary wondered how she could conceive while retaining her virginity. Gabriel explained that she had conceived by the invisible Holy Spirit: “Therefore that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
Or was it history? Could it be that the founders of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity were all born by the same extraordinary miracle?
Trunk of Ancient Wisdom
When worldwide cultural barriers began dissolving, that very secret that each religion had jealously hid from its neighbor turned out to be common intellectual property. Surprisingly, everyone had coined and patented the same ideas independently.
When the patent began expiring, this odd resemblance came to light. Who knows, but that the origin of all those branches was the same mother trunk, some source of ancient wisdom predating them all and seeding them with identical stories?
Whatever that mysterious trunk may be, its branches have produced apples that haven’t fallen too far from their tree.