The Gods Are Where We Are: Living Polytheism in the 21st Century/ Part 4
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
NOTE: This feature was originally published on April 13, 2021 by Aparna Sridhar in Soft Power Magazine
Have you been to India? Do you think our ways of worship are similar?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: I have never had the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to India, but this is something I yearn to do, for many reasons, the most important being that India is the oldest Dharmic civilization on our planet. She is the benchmark for how human beings can cultivate a direct relationship with the Divine and maintain that relationship without fail. The Sanātana Dharma of India gives us a more than 6,000-year-old record of what happens when human beings respond to the innate calling of the Divine, and develop their culture as a dialogue between the Gods and the human conscience.
As a devotional polytheist, my strongest inclinations are towards the actions that bring us into direct contact with our Gods, the active engagement of the Gods through the activities of prayer, worship, ritual, pilgrimage, meditation, the maintenance of cult images or idols, and the maintenance of sacred spaces such as shrines and offering places. I also live a tradition that has not had the fortune of being handed down in an unbroken chain since ancient times, as is the case with the Sanātana Dharma. Kemetics today have a difficult time in responding to the call of our ancient gods because we are not raised with an awareness of the authentic prayers, ritual forms, and modes of service native to the worship of our netjeru. We do not have an instantly accessible lineage of clergy or living temples to help us in the cultivation of our faith. These are all things Kemetics must uncover and study on their own, which means we need examples of how ancient polytheisms can be lived in the contemporary world.
This brings me to the answer to your question. Sanātana Dharma is in a unique position amongst the world's living belief systems in that it recognizes many Gods, devas or Mahādevas, thus its practitioners are raised with a strong sense of plurality in approaches to the Divine and in lifestyle choices rooted in these different approaches. It has maintained the same ritual forms for thousands of years, the same sacred architecture for temples, and the same sacred proportions and guidelines for mūrtis or Divine images. For devotional polytheists like me, striving to live a very ancient tradition rooted in the veneration of many gods, the milleniums-old practices of the Sanātana Dharma serve as living examples of how devotees today can engage the Gods through the maintenance of ancient ritual forms and modes of service. There are many layers of similarities one can detect between the sacred ideals and symbolism expressed in the worship of the devas of Sanātana Dharma and the netjeru of the Kemetic traditions.
One significant aspect that has thankfully remained from the ancient Egyptian religion is its temple
record concerning the highly specialized ritual texts, offering procedures and types, ritual gestures, and iconography of different types of Divine images. These have all been preserved down to the intimate details, which give us a step-by-step record of how the netjeru are to be approached and venerated in Their Divine cultic temples. Something I should note is that while most Kemetics maintain some kind of shrine or sacred space for the veneration of Divine images and the presentation of offerings, the complex scale and sumptuousness of the ancient temples is a phenomenon relegated- for now- to the past. Kemetic priest/priestesshood does exist, and temple spaces are being established for the Kemetic Gods, but the scale of these spaces and the ritual observances taking place in them have been reduced considerably from those in existence in ancient times. However, there are still many similarities between modes of worship of the Sanātana Dharma and Kemetic traditions.
The mūrti is central to all places of worship in the Sanātana Dharma, whether in large temples or in private family shrines, and the procedures for maintaining and venerating mūrtis bears strong resemblance to the tradition of kau or sekhemu or cult images for the Egyptian Gods. In the Kemetic tradition, the cult statue, once enlivened through the correct ritual process, becomes the ka or visible aspect of the God, which is inhabited by the ba or spiritual essence of the God, making the image a tangible manifestation of the Deity's sekhem or power. For the Deity's essence and power to remain in the cult image, specific sacred acts and offerings must be presented to the sekhem perpetually (ideally every day), otherwise the Deity concerned will depart from the image and it will revert back to the status of inanimate object- meaning that the Deity's boons are no longer being transferred to the holy place or community via the tangible manifestation of the Deity's power on earth.
The experience of darśana in Sanātana Dharma certainly has correlations with concepts present in the traditional worship of the Egyptian Gods, and so too with the main elements of pūjā and āratī. Receiving darśana or a direct vision/sight of the Deity in Their mūrti is one of the primary aims of worship in Sanātana Dharma, which has an inner and outer, physical and spiritual meaning. In the worship of the Kemetic netjeru, the Daily Ritual performed for the Goddess or God is called Wen her, "uncovering (or revealing) the face", that is, disclosing the countenance or likeness of the Deity, which is either veiled or housed in a shrine with closing doors. The highlight of the Wen her is called ma'a netjer, literally "seeing the God", the moment the officiant actually beholds the God. But this is a two-way seeing, for just prior to seeing the God, the officiant makes a preliminary offering of purifying incense to appease the Cobra Goddess dwelling on the Deity's forehead; this is understood as being the dynamic protective power of the Deity which prevents the impure from having access to the Deity's physical presence. So there is an understanding here that the Deity is seeing the officiant of the Daily Ritual as much as the officiant is seeing the God. This is the most awe-inspiring and solemn moment of the entire ritual, and the officiant throws their body upon the ground in prostration before the majesty of the Deity.
One of the initial acts of the Kemetic Daily Ritual is the iret teka or making the torch, the striking of
the Divine fire embodying the revelation of light on the two horizons at dawn, corresponding to the moment of cosmic creation when light pierced the darkness of the void for the first time. The presentation of the torch to the Deity fills not only the sanctuary with light, but also the material world with the light of creation, dispelling chaos and making way for the light-body of the God. This aspect of the ritual would correspond to the āratī for the devas of Sanātana Dharma. An elaborate series of purifications is carried out with incense, water infused with sacred natron-salt, and scented oils that resonates with the abhishekam and vibhūti/ kuṅkuma application. Kemetic deity images also receive adornment with necklaces and regalia corresponding to the alaṅkāram, and a series of food/beverage/flower offerings corresponding to the naiveydyam and mangalākshatān of Sanātana Dharma. In both traditions we find the bathing, anointing, ornamentation, and feeding of the Gods Who are spiritually present in Their material images, and both traditions have a very long, rich history of how Divine images are crafted, enlivened, and maintained in their respective temple homes.
We cannot overlook the similarity in how the Gods of Kemet exit Their temples or shrines in processions, and how the devas in India are placed on Their vāhana mounts to emerge from Their temples during auspicious festival occasions. The traditional vehicles for transporting the Kemetic Deities on holy occasions are the wiau or boat-shrines, which were in ancient times elaborate replicas of divine boats made of wood and sheathed in gold and precious stones. The sekhem or cult image of the Deity was placed in a shrine in the center of the wia, which was then hoisted on the shoulders of priests who carried the boat in public processions. Though this sacred phenomenon is not being replicated in the present day exactly as it was, my own household maintains the tradition of taking the divine images of the Gods out on pilgrimage during festival times or on holy days. This is something that would obviously strike a chord with practitioners of the Sanātana Dharma, who are used to taking part in ecstatic celebrations where the mūrtis of their devas are taken on pilgrimage by the community.
A final observation here would be the similarity between how devotees of the devas and devotees of the netjeru develop fiercely loyal, loving relationships with their Gods, which are expressed in daily life in some surprising ways. Something I've noticed in both traditions is how even pop music songs, secular films, and experiences in the secular world can be received by devotees as signs or blessings or messages from their Gods. All Kemetics I've met have these types of relationships with the netjeru, which are based on very deep engagement with the Gods as living beings Who utilize the material world in ways that devotees will understand and respond to.