Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Egyptian Ankh and the Hindu Pasha are Equivalent Symbols

The Ankh was one of the most popular symbols of Egypt, symbolizing “life” or the “breath of life”. It’s a very ancient symbol, dating from the Early Dynastic Period (c.3150 – 2613 BCE), and appears widely in inscriptions and iconographic art. Relief carvings often depict gods holding the ankh at the nose of the pharaoh and conferring on him the “breath of life” or “eternal life”. It, thus, represented the life-giving powers of the deities.
Horus holding the ankh at the nose of the pharaoh Ramses, Abydos, Egypt
Figure 1: Horus holding the ankh at the nose of the pharaoh Ramses. c. 1275 BCE, Abydos, Egypt. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Although a multitude of gods are depicted carrying the ankh, the symbol rose to prominence with the cult of Osiris and Isis. Osiris was the god who had died and was resurrected as the Lord of the Underworld, while Isis was his wife who played a fundamental role in bringing him back to life. The depictions of Osiris and Isis holding the ankh at the nose of the dead pharaoh or his queen conveys the idea that the soul of the dead will be resurrected, renewed, and given eternal life in the Underworld. 
The Goddess Isis holds the ankh at the nose of Queen Nefertari
Figure 2: The Goddess Isis holds the ankh at the nose of Queen Nefertari. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The key-like shape of the ankh encourages the belief that it provides the keys to the “gates of death”, and it is viewed in this way by the modern Rosicrucians and other hermetic orders.[1] This is probably why the symbol was depicted extensively in tomb paintings, and ankh amulets were kept inside coffins to ensure a safe passage for soul in its journey to the Underworld. 
Ankh-shaped mirror from the tomb of Tutankhamun, Valley of the Kings, Egypt.
Figure 3: Ankh-shaped mirror from the tomb of Tutankhamun, Valley of the Kings, Egypt. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
A symbol that looks very similar to the ankh can be found in Hindu art. It is called a pasha, which means a “noose”. The pasha is a symbol that is closely associated with Yama, the Lord of the Underworld. It is used by Yama to draw the soul from the body at the time of death and conduct it to the Underworld.[2] The pasha is also held by Kali – the Goddess of Death and the consort of Yama (who is also called Kala or Kala Bhairava). Other deities such as Ganesha and Varuna are also shown holding the pasha, which they use to bind foes or remove obstructions. 
Yama holding the pasha (noose) in his left hand.
Figure 4: Yama holding the pasha (noose) in his left hand. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Nomu420 CC-BY SA 3.0
Many scholars believe that the ankh is a “knot” formed of cloth or reeds,[3] which is identical to the Sanskrit meaning of the term pasha viz. “knot”. The early versions of the ankh resemble the tyet symbol, also known as the “Knot of Isis”. The tyet carried the same meaning as the ankh i.e. “life”. It looks same as the ankh, except that its arms curve down, which suggests that it may have been a knot made with a cloth. 
A tyet amulet, also known as the Knot of Isis. New Kingdom, Abydos, Egypt
Figure 5: A tyet amulet. New Kingdom, Abydos, Egypt. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Isis used to be depicted with the tyet girdle, prior to the appearance of the ankh.[4] Sir Wallis Budge regarded the two symbols – ankh and tyet - as equivalent, and both Heinrich Schafer and Henry Fischer thought that the two signs had a common origin.[5] During the New Kingdom (c.1550 – 1070 BCE), people were buried with the tyet amulets inserted into the mummy wrappings, in order to ensure the protection of Isis.

The connections between the Egyptian ankh and the Hindu pasha reveal that they are equivalent symbols. Not only do they look quite similar with their looping shape, they are both regarded as “knots” made with rope, cloth, or reeds. Both the symbols are primarily associated with the deities of the Underworld – Osiris & Isis in Egypt and Yama & Kali in India - and are believed to provide a safe passage to the soul of the deceased and grant him eternal life. 
The Egyptian Ankh and the Hindu Pasha are equivalent symbols
Figure 6: The Ankh and the Pasha are equivalent symbols
One wonders, naturally, what this symbol really means, and why it played such an important role in funerary art and beliefs. How did the simple symbol of a knot formed by ropes or reeds take on such an esoteric significance?

An explanation for the symbol can be obtained from the Sutratman doctrine of Vedic philosophy, which had been explained in detail by Ananda Coomaraswamy, the well-known art historian, philosopher and metaphysician of the early 20th century.[6] 

The term Sutratman means “Self-thread” or “Soul-chord” (sutra means “thread” or “chord”; atman means “self” or “soul”). As per this doctrine, each soul is connected to the Sun by a thread, which is cognate with a ray of light. It is through the Soul-chord that the “breath of life” or prana is transmitted to each living entity. Since the Self-thread transmits the “breath of life” it is also called Breath-thread. It is through these invisible chords that we receive the cosmic energy prana which circulates throughout the universe. Prana animates and enlivens us. It is the divine energy of the Cosmic Soul Brahman, who is the “Inward Ruler” of all beings. By means of the Breath-threads, Brahman exercises his sovereignty over the cosmos, and moves all things. 

The Breath-threads intersect at certain points which are the knots in the Breath-chord. The knots are called the vital nodes - the places where the breaths channels converge.[7] Every breath-knot represents an individuality. In other words, every person is a knot in the Breath-cord. 

At the time of death, the soul leaves the body and the breath-knot is untied. As soon as that happens the body falls down dead. Hence it is said of a person who has died that “his limbs are unstrung”, or “he has been cut-off”. The soul then moves upward along the Breath-thread to the Sun, and from there to the Otherworld. The ultimate control of these Breath-threads resides with the Underworld deities. They are the ones who nourish the soul with prana as long as we are alive, and are, therefore, depicted holding the ankh at the nose of the Egyptian pharaoh. When our allotted time is over, they untie the breath-knot and guide the soul to the Underworld. 

The ancient Egyptians were certainly aware of the Sutratman philosophy. Egyptian art from the time of the pharaoh Akhenaten (c.1353 BCE) shows rays of light extending downwards from the sun disc (Aten), some of which terminate in human hands holding ankh signs that give the “breath of life” to the nose of the king, and the royal wife, Nefertiti. In the hymns to Aten, this ability to give breath is extolled. For instance: “breath of life is it to [their] nostrils to see thy beams”[8].
Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children receiving the “breath of life” from the rays of Aten.
Figure 7: Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children receiving the “breath of life” from the rays of Aten, some of which terminate in hands holding ankhs. Source: Wikipedia / Gerbil.
The ankh and the pasha can, therefore, be interpreted as being symbolic of a knot in the breath-thread. The knot represents an accumulation of breath or prana which sustains the individual, while the thread is the channel through which prana circulates in the universe. After death, the soul travels along the breath-thread and reaches Sun, and then moves on to the Otherworld. The symbol, therefore, encapsulates an esoteric understanding about the nature of the cosmos and the destiny of the soul after death, which explains why it attained so much popularity in the religious art of ancient Egypt and India. 

References
  
[1] "Ankh", New World Encyclopedia 
[2] James G. Lochtefeld, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Vol.2, p 505. 
[3] Gordon & Schwabe 2004, pp. 102–103 
[4] "The Ankh", Ancient.eu 
[5] Fischer 1972, p. 13 
[6] Adrian Snodgrass, the Symbolism of the Stupa, p 112-113 
[7] Adrian Snodgrass, The Symbolism of the Stupa, p 112-113 
[8] Wallis Budge, Tutankhamen, Hymn to Aten by the King, p 121