for ISKCON News on March 4, 2011
An interesting piece of information caught my attention during my journey across the sacred sites of Egypt during early 2010. During the light and sound show in the magnificent temple complex of Karnak, I heard a voice booming over the loudspeakers: “I am Amon-Ra...The waters of the Nile sprout from my sandals.” This immediately reminded me the Vedic Creator God Vishnu.
In the typical depiction of Vishnu in Hindu iconography, the sacred river Ganges is always shown emerging from the toe of the Vishnu, while in Egypt, we find a very similar imagery associated with Amun. But who was this Amun? I knew that Amun was the presiding diety of Karnak, and he was worshipped there as the Creator God, along with his wife Mut, and his son Khonsu. The next day, while discussing about the light and sound show with my tour guide, he suddenly gave me another piece of information that I was not aware of, and that took me completely by surprise: “Amun was always depicted in funerary art and temple inscriptions with a ‘blue skin colour’ and having two feathers in his headdress.”
Now, if anyone ever travels to India, and he talks to the people there about a god having a blue skin colour, with a couple of feathers in his headdress, and from whose sandals or toes a ‘sacred river’ emerges, he will get a single answer: Vishnu, or more correctly, Krishna, for it is Krishna who was always depicted with two ‘peacock’ feathers in his headdress. This realization has significant implications. Krishna is an exclusively Indian diety, whose demise in 3102 BC signified the start of the present Kali Yuga in the Vedic Yuga system. Amun on the other hand, was not worshipped in Egypt prior to the establishment of the Temple complex at Thebes. He is mentioned in the creation myth of Hermopolis as one of the four pairs of divinities who were present in the Primeval Waters of Nun. As Amun-Amaunet, he represented the ‘hidden’ properties of the Primordial Ocean. However, he was not a part of the Egyptian Ennead, the Divine Company of Gods, who were the primary deities of worship. But suddenly at Karnak, sometime during the Middle Kingdom, Amun usurped the position of Atum, as the head of the state patheon. He became the self-engendered Creator God; an early Twelfth-Dynasty inscription in the jubilee chapel of King Senusret I (c.1965 – c.1920 BC) at Karnak describes Amun as ‘the king of the gods’. Current evidence indicates that the construction of the temple complex at Luxor and Karnak may have started as early as the Middle Kingdom (c.2055 – c.1650 BC), although the buildings visible today date from the reign of Amenhotep III (c.1390 – c.1352 BC), the great temple builder of the Eighteenth Dynasty. What could have trigerred his precipitous rise to the head of the Egyptian pantheon from relative obscurity as a diety of the Primeval Ocean? And how did a whole new patheon of deities, along with associated symbolisms, rites and rituals, with gigantic temple complexes dedicated to them, suddenly spring up in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom?
I was also taken aback by the descriptions of the annual Opet festival that used to be celebrated in Karnak, during the season of the flooding of the Nile. In this grand festival, the idols of Amun, Mut and Khonsu were placed on sacred boats, which were carried in a splendid, joyous procession down the Avenue of the Sphinxes, along the 2 mile road that connects the temples of Karnak and Luxor. The celebrations have been depicted in detail on the walls of the Great Colonnade at Luxor. At Karnak, the idols of the Thebian triad were first ceremoniously washed and magnificently dressed with colorful linen and precious jewelry and placed on sacred boats. The pharaoh then offered his obeisances to the boats, which were then carried by the priests, accompanied by musicians, and soldiers carrying standards decorated with brilliant plumes and streamers. Elegantly decorated horse drawn chariots, would also accompany the procession. Huge crowds of people gathered along the road, blowing trumpets, dancing and singing, clapping, offering prayers, burning incense sticks and generally raising a tremendous din. Nubian musicians and female acrobats entertained the crowd. The boats rested along the way at six way-stations that were built by Queen Hatshepsut. Once the idols reached Luxor Temple, the coronation rites of the king were repeated in a sacred ritual, which effectively transferred the power of divine rulership from Amun to the pharaoh. The idols rested in Luxor for a period of time and subsequently came back to Karnak, in another procession along the river Nile. Although the Opet festival was initially celebrated over only 11 days, later it was extended to nearly 24 to 27 days. The festival not only symbolized a restoration of the divine right of the king to rule, but also signified a rejuvenation of the creative forces of the cosmos, through the sacred rituals and boisterous celebrations.
Amazingly enough, an exactly similar festival is still celebrated every year in the tiny coastal town of Puri, in the state of Orissa in eastern India, after the onset of monsoon in the month of July. Here, in the yearly Rathayatra festival, the idols of Krishna (or Jagannath), his brother Balaram and his sister Subhadra are carried in three magnificent chariots pulled by thousands of devotees along the 2 km (1.5 mile) road that connects the Jagannath Temple to the Gundicha Temple. I had the good fortune of being able to witness this grand spectacle last year. An immense collection of humanity had descended on Puri on this day from all over India. The actual festival, of course, had started nearly two weeks earlier when the idols of Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra were given a ritual bath and redecorated. On the day of the Rathayatra, the idols were installed on the three massive chariots, nearly 45 feet high, which had been constructed for the three deities. The chariots were kept outside the Jagannath Temple walls and the endless stream of devotees blew conch-shells and played trumpets as soon as the idols were brought out of the temple and placed in the chariots. Then the King of Puri paid his obeisance to each of the chariots. He sprinkled sacred water on the chariots, and swept the chariots clean with his golden broom. The chariots then started making their way along the Grand Avenue one by one, pulled by ropes by the thousands of devotees. Needless to say a considerable din ensured. There was loud chanting and singing, beating of drums and blaring of trumpets, as the procession slowly made its way to the Gundicha Temple. The chariots stopped at many points along the way, in order to provide an opportunity to the devotees to catch a glimpse of the idols inside the chariot and offer their prayers. It is said that one who observes the face of Jagannath during the Rathyatra festival gets absolved of all past sins. I did not accompany the procession the entire way to the Gundicha Temple. But what happens is that, after the procession reaches the Gundicha Temple, the idols rest there for a period of 7 days. After this they return back to the Temple of Jagannath, in another joyous, noisy procession known as the Ulta-Rath. The entire celebration, starting from day of Jagannath’s bathing ceremony, till his return from the Gundicha Temple, lasts for 25-26 days, nearly the same as the Opet festival of Karnak and Luxor.
The similarities between these two ancient festivals are obvious and striking. There was no doubt in my mind that the Opet festival of Karnak is identical in form and spirit to the Rathayatra festival of Puri.
As per Vedic accounts, the festival of Rathayatra has been celebrated in India for thousands of years, although the current Temple of Jagannath only dates from the 12th century CE. The festival has been mentioned in multiple Puranas, which are Vedic historical documents of unknown antiquity. The Skanda Purana states that the first Jagannath Temple was established in Puri in the Krita Yuga, which, as per the currently accepted Yuga Cycle doctrines, began at around 10,900 BC. Since Jagannath refers to Vishnu i.e. the Lord of the Universe, he was worshipped in different forms in the different Yugas. In the Kali Yuga he is worshipped in the form of Krishna. The Skanda Purana also specifies the date of the Rathyatra festival. In many other Vedic documents such as the Narada Purana, Padma Purana and the Ramayana, the virtues of worshipping Jagannath have been extolled. The festival is, therefore, indubitably Vedic in origin.
That would imply that this ancient festival, along with the cult of Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra was transferred from India to Egypt, sometime prior to 2000 BC!
That is a phenomenal idea. Although we know that Indian traders had extensive trade relations with the first Pharaohs of dynastic Egypt in 3000 BC, and sold them cotton, muslin, spices, gold and ivory, such a major influence of India on Egyptian religious systems has not been explicitly identified by historians till now. Some scholars have, however, pointed out the similarity between the culture of Egypt and Eastern India. Peter Von Bohlen, a German Indologist, mentioned that there are elements of folk art, language, place names and rural culture of Bengal (the state adjacent to Orissa and included in it in ancient times) which have an affinity with their Egyptian counterparts. However, when you consider the fact that an entire patheon along with associated ceremonies and rituals seems to have been exported to Egypt from India, it appears that the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Emperors of India must have maintained very close relations since ancient times. This ‘pantheon’ transfer would have been possible only through express royal patronage. But when and why did this happen? Who all were involved? Was this also accompanied by a transfer of armed forces which resulted in the reunification of entire Egypt under the Pharaohs? History provides us with no answers.
Interestingly, the people of Egypt themselves claimed to have come from a land called ‘Puanit’ (corrupted to ‘Punt’) located on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Punt can be reached leading off the Red Sea, in a south-east direction, and is described by the scholar Dr. Adolf Erman as ‘a distant country washed by the great seas, full of valleys, incense, balm, precious metals and stones; rich in animals, cheetahs, panthers, dog-headed apes and long tailed monkeys, winged creatures with strange feathers to fly up to the boughs of wonderful trees, especially the incense tree and the coconut trees.’ Col. Henry Steel Olcott, a former president of the Theosophical Society, explained in the March, 1881 edition of The Theosophist that, “by the pictorial hieroglyphic inscription found on the walls of the temple of the Queen Haslitop (Hatshepsut) at Der-el-babri, we see that this Punt can be no other than India. For many ages the Egyptians traded with their old homes, and the reference here made by them to the names of the Princes of Punt and its fauna and flora, especially the nomenclature of various precious woods to be found but in India, leave us scarcely room for the smallest doubt that the old civilization of Egypt is the direct outcome of that the older India." . The expedition of Hatshepsut to the land of Punt was done primarily with the objective of acquiring incense and a number of exotic goods, which she dedicated to Amun, the presiding diety of Thebes. Does that not indicate that ‘Punt’ and ‘Amun’ may somehow be connected? Is it possible that Hatshepsut felt that by bringing these items from the land of her forefathers, and from the place where Amun himself had originated, she would be performing a great service to her ‘father’, Amun, and thereby acquire his blessings.
Many questions are raised here. If Punt is India, then when did the ancient Egyptians migrate to the shores of the Nile from Punt? If we assume that the migration took place sometime around 3000 BC, at the beginning of the ‘Kali Yuga’, then who built the Giza Pyamids? Since the Pyramid complex at Giza has now been dated to around 10,500 BC (Hancock and Bauval), and since this magnificent pyramid complex is entirely devoid of any hieroglyphic engravings or inscriptions, which is very unlike the Egyptian pysche, it raises the question whether the Giza Pyramid complex was built by the ancient Egyptians or by others before them. Is it possible that was it built by a ‘race of giants’ who built similar megalithic structures around the world, including many of them in Mesoamerica? Maybe the arrival of the ancient Egyptians to the shores of the Nile from the distant Punt displaced this ‘race of giants’ and a new civilization was initiated? Whatever be the truth about ancient Egypt, it is clear that we are barely scratching the surface of it in the present times.
About the author: Bibhu Dev Misra is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Management and has been working as an IT consultant for more than 12 years. He has deep interests in ancient civilizations, myths, traditions, symbols, religion and spirituality and has travelled to many places of religious, architectural and historical importance.