The story of Jesus dying to save humanity is generally accepted as bearing similar qualities to many, many stories of human saviors throughout history. In fact, many go so far as to suspect that the Jesus-on-the-cross story is a rip off of a rip off of a rip off… I count myself among the skeptics.
In my graduate studies I researched for my thesis self-immolation as a form of altruistic suicide. Jesus’ death can accurately be called altruistic suicide (self-immolation too, since the term refers merely to self-destruction, not just fiery deaths). When I began with the existing literature, I had to consider an interdisciplinary approach. I investigated auto-cremation (and other forms of sacrificial suicide) throughout the ages. The scope of my project, however, only considered suicide protest, or self-immolation from 1963 onward. But I became at least somewhat aware of the phenomenon throughout recorded history. Here I discovered stories similar to the Jesus Myth in unsuspected places. Namely, similar stories turned up in the Orient in times that greatly predated the life of Buddha.
In one we have a man named Mahasstava (claimed to be a pre-incarnation of the Buddha), who noticed a hungry mother tigress (tigers in ancient China were considered incarnations of evil) who was too weak to lactate for her cubs. Fearing that the cubs would starve to death (or be eaten by the mother tigress), Mahasstava cut his throat to give his body to the tigress so that she could grow strong enough to feed her cubs. When he did this there was a great earthquake and an eclipse that announced his death to his family.
Mahasstava sacrificed his body to evil. If we look to the Jātaka we can make more sense of Mahasstava’s sacrifice (and perhaps more connections to Jesus). For my part, I will pull some insight from James A Benn’s book Burning for Buddha: Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism and add insight of my own.
Mahasstava’s suicide was not merely to discard his body; rather, his sacrifice was to transform his being from an impermanent human to a permanent Bodhisattva. Here we see a direct link between Mahasstava and Jesus. Both are claimed to have shed their earthly forms in exchange for heavenly bodies.
Just as importantly, Mahasstava, prior to his sacrifice, also claimed that his sacrifice was not just for the tigress; he was sacrificing himself for the welfare of all beings. Although Jesus sacrificed himself only for humans (Mahasstava’s kindness to animals propels his morality above Jesus), we can still see a link. Both Jesus and Mahasstava publicly declared the purpose of their sacrifices: to benefit others.
If you read the link to the story above, you’ll find that Mahasstava’s death was not easy. It was gory, extremely painful, and extended. This is much in the same way of Jesus. In order to make his sacrifice profound, Jesus had to suffer immensely. Benn sums up the idea nicely: “The jātaka makes clear in the most graphic and horrific way the heroic determination that was necessary to make an offering of the body.” Jesus’ sacrifice would not have been “heroic” enough if he had merely been pushed (or jumped) from a cliff.
In the Jesus story, his death is announced by earthquakes, an eclipse, and “miracles.” These are also found in the Mahasstava story. These supernatural events act as “proof” that these stories are true (strangely enough).
Finally, relics belonging to Mahasstava, which possessed supernatural powers, became spiritually significant. His clothing and bones were enshrined and acted as a beacon for the hopeless and hopeful. The Jesus story, both inside and outside the bible, is mystified by the claims of the “existence” of Jesus’ relics. These artifacts are necessary to bolster the claim and to embellish the significance of the sacrifice. Indeed, the claim that these relics exist offers the believer with a hope that these claims can be validated (unfortunately for them, no such relics exist, or if they do, they have not been discovered).
I don’t mean to imply that Mahasstava’s sacrifice to the tigress was ripped off by early Christian scribes. This post is merely to highlight how heroic tales of altruistic suicide are similarly designed to meet certain expectations and hopes. The two men sacrificed themselves for different (albeit similar) reasons, but the literary elements surrounding their actions and demises are identical in the points listed above. Dissimilarities between the stories exist, sure, but one should take a moment to consider if supernatural heroes are constructed rather than born.