Deepak Chopra on Jesus

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Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and...Deepak?

This week, Deepak Chopra, medical expert, ayurvedic entrepreneur and New Age savant picks up another title: New Testament author. Chopra's book, Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment, speculates a story of the Messiah-to-be during what might be called his early Wanderjahr. And wander he does. We meet Jesus consulting with a guru on an icy mountaintop in what seems like Tibet. He gets caught up with armed Jewish zealots, dallies with the Essenes (who collected the Dead Sea Scrolls) and eventually achieves a oneness with God. Chopra spoke with TIME about his novel.

Your Jesus story is tremendous fun to read, but where is it in the Bible?

It's not in the Bible. In the Bible, you have Jesus as a child in the nativity scenes, then at age 12 at the Temple in Jerusalem, and then you don't see him until he's 30. Where was he for those 18 years?

O.K. Where?

There's a lot of mythology, some of it involving the East. There was a German scholar who claimed in the 1940s that Jesus traveled the Silk Road, lived in India and may have visited a monastery in Lhasa where there were Buddhist texts. The church of St. Thomas in India's Kerala state is the only place where Christ is not pictured on a cross but in a meditative samadhi posture. I also researched that period in history for Jesus's religious context, political and cultural contexts, the Jewish sects at the time, the occupation by Rome. Then I went into incubation, meditation, and I allowed this story to unfold. It fits into the category of "religious fiction."

Your version of Jesus' "missing years" is heavy on his search for enlightenment, on both external and internal journeying. Is that an area in which you felt the Gospels needed supplementing?

When I was growing up, I went to an Irish-Christian missionary school. I was totally fascinated by the New Testament. I must have read it a few thousand times. One day I was reading the Gospel of John 10: 30, where Jesus says, "I and God are one." The crowd immediately wants to stone him for blasphemy. But he quotes a psalm that says "You are Gods, sons of the most high," which he tells them was addressed to "those to whom the word of God came." He clearly sees himself as equivalent to that group.

I interpreted this as "those who have knowledge of God are God." In Eastern philosophical systems there's an established idea of a path through personal consciousness to a collective conscience to a universal conscience, which people call the divine. I concluded that Jesus must have experienced this consciousness, and that he must have followed a path. The story is about that evolution.

In fact, you write "making [Jesus] the one and only son of God leaves the rest of humankind stranded."

Because we end up worshipping the messenger instead of the message and excluding all the theologies that existed before Jesus was born.

But it's also the one thing that inspires Christ's most fervent followers: that Jesus was God's only son, who died for them and so took away sin. Isn't your premise of an acquired godhood heretical to orthodox Christians?

It may be. Fundamentalist Christians always quote Jesus in the Gospel of John saying "I am the way. I am the life. Nobody comes into the kingdom of heaven except through me." But what does Jesus mean by "I"?" In his language, Aramaic, the word is translated as "the I within the I." So he may be speaking about himself as a universal spirit. In that case he can't be squeezed into a body or the span of a lifetime.

But God's crucifixion and resurrection as Jesus are all normative in Christianity.

All religions develop, become exclusive, become divisive and quarrelsome.

In your book there is a crucifixion, but only reported secondhand by Jesus as something like a dream.

The symbolic language of the crucifixion is the death of the old paradigm; resurrection is a leap into a whole new way of thinking. The language of the Sermon on the Mount — if someone hits you, turn the other cheek — he's making a creative leap, and that's the death of an old way of thinking and the birth of a completely new way. Every spiritual tradition has this idea of death and resurrection. It's not unique to Christianity.

On a less rarified level: You were a consultant, and also a partial model, for Mike Myers' movie The Love Guru, which unfortunately didn't do very well. What had you been hoping to achieve with that, and why do you think it failed?

Mike is a friend and has been a friend for a long time. He's a very intelligent human being, and he is extraordinarily funny. When he did this movie, I was not a consultant. I wish I had been. Because it wasn't well done. What Mike was trying to do was aim at 14-year-olds, but at the same time he was trying to bring some fairly esoteric complex concepts from Eastern philosophy. It didn't work.

Do you have any advice for Americans in the face of recession? What would Jesus say?

Jesus would say, Recognize the difference between wealth and money. Wealth is the progressive realization of worthy goals, the ability to love and have compassion, meaningful and caring relationships. There's $2.9 trillion circulating in the world's markets every day, less than 2% of which goes to provide goods and services to humanity. The rest is one big casino, making money off money or losing money off money. We have a culture where we spend what we haven't earned to buy things we don't need to impress people we don't like, and now the situation is such that we are being drawn to find the real meaning in our lives. When we shift from consumption to relationship, then we will be doing what Jesus would do.

See TIME's 10 Questions interview with Deepak Chopra

See TIME's 2002 profile of Chopra