Posted by: Isidora | November 18, 2012

Isis in India?

It has always seemed to me that if ancient Egyptian religion had survived to modern times, it might look quite a bit like Hindu religion in India today.

Egyptian offerings

Puja offerings

For instance, in a Hindu temple, puja or worship happens several times a day, including a morning service that serves to awaken the Deity indwelling the temple. This is very much like the thrice-daily services in an ancient Egyptian temple, including a morning awakening. The puja is basically an offering ritual; just as the Egyptian daily rites were. In both India and Egypt, the sacred image of the Deity is important; the Goddess or God is honored in and through the sacred image of the Deity and the image is considered to be imbued with some of the energy of the Deity. Holy magic is to be found in both ancient Egyptian texts, such as the Pyramid Texts, and in ancient Indian texts, such as the Vedas. Home shrines and home worship were and are important to both cultures.

An example of India art showing Hellenistic influence

We know that there was a great deal of contact between the Greek world and India from the time of Alexander the Great onward. For a while, Greeks even ruled parts of northern India. There is a whole genre of Graeco-Buddhist art in which we begin to see typical Greek details come into Indian sacred art (and vice versa). Apollo seems to have made a particular impression. Dionysos made His inroads as well, perhaps even before Alexander. Alexander recorded that when he entered into the Swat valley of India, now in Pakistan, he encountered a free city of Greeks who claimed to be the descendants of the soldiers of Dionysos. The city was called Nysa (one of the sacred mountains of Dionysos). The Nysians welcomed Alexander as a fellow Greek, promptly pointed out their sacred mountain, crowned Alexander’s army with ivy and vine, and proceeded to throw a Bakchic festival that lasted ten days.

The Goddess Pattini

All this is simply to point out that it would not be at all strange to find Isis making a home in India as well. I’m looking at a small ebook right now by amateur scholar Mogg Morgan that attempts to prove that the Tamil Goddess Pattini is Isis. According to Morgan, 9th-century-CE Hindu reformers drove Her rites out or underground and Kali was worshipped in Her place.

Today, Pattini is a Goddess honored by both Buddhists and Hindus as a patroness of Buddhism and a Goddess of health, healing, and chastity. She is especially prominent in Sri Lanka.

Pattini’s story is one of apotheosis; a human who becomes a Deity. Pattini was originally a human woman named Kannagi who was happily married to a man named Kovalan (or Palanga). Everything was wonderful until Kovalan strayed and spent all their money on a famous courtesan. Yet Kannagi forgave him and provided him with the last bit of their wealth, a gold anklet. Kovalan was to trade it and rebuild their fortune. But at this same time, an anklet that looked just like Kannagi’s was stolen from the queen. Kovalan was accused and brutally butchered. Kannagi searches for Kovalan, eventually finding him dead. Mourning, she proves that Kovalan was innocent, but in revenge, tears out one of her breasts, dashes it to the ground, and a huge fire breaks out in the city. Kannagi, showing herself to be the epitome of wifely duty and chastity, is deified as Pattini.

A heroic statue of Kannagi holding her anklet

You see where we’re going here, right? Happy couple, husband unrightfully killed, perhaps dismembered (some accounts just say beheaded), wife/Goddess taking revenge. I get it; but I’m not super convinced yet. But wait, there’s more. A guardian God of the city where all this takes place comes to Kannagi and tells her that she will see her dead husband again in fourteen days time. Yet he will not be in the form of men of this earth; he will be in heavenly form. The fourteen-day time period is significant: Osiris is cut into 14 pieces and 14 are the days in half a moon cycle. Osiris is, in one aspect, a lunar God, so the 14 days may be considered the time from new to full moon, or in this case, from full to dark, a period in which He is dead. After the 14 days, He appears to Kannagi/Pattini in heavenly form. Osiris, His 14 pieces reassembled by Isis, is resurrected in heavenly form, too, as Lord of the Dead, rather than restored to His previous life.

This is pretty thin evidence, but interesting. Given the strength of Isis’ cult, the relations between the Graeco-Roman world with India, and the propensity of merchants and sailors to bring Isis’ worship with them to harbor cities, it seems almost certain that Isis worship would have come to India. After all, the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus tells us that Isis brings the flood tide of the Ganges as well as that of the Nile. But is Pattini Isis? I don’t know. It bears more research. I’ll let you know if I find out anything interesting. In the meantime, what do you think?

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Responses

  1. Indeed, check out the Michael Woods documentary called ‘In the Footsteps of Alexander’ part4. There is a fascinating scene showing a 20th cc Dionysian ritual in that very part of Pakistan! Thank you for posting this.

  2. Here is an interesting looking book on Goddess Pattini. http://www.amazon.com/Cult-Goddess-Pattini-Gananath-Obeyesekere/dp/0226616029

    • Yes…that looks like the source for all things Pattini! Thanks!

      • My pleasure.

  3. As always, I love when similarities are found within traditions. I love the Hindu traditions and dieties and am learning more about Isis every day. So, I for one, am happy to see this connection, no matter how thin the evidence might be…

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  5. Being an India lover and quite acquainted with Egyptian spiritual traditions I agree that many of the rituals and aspects really resemble or even match in a way that it is incredibly tempting to connect them, like the act of giving life to a statue of a deity that lays overnight within a naos (a ‘garbhagriha’ or ‘womb house’ in Indian tradition) located in the innermost part of a three tripartite temple, a place only visited by properly shaved purified and white robed priests… Not to mention the sacredness of a Cow Mother Goddess being so strong as to have turned into an institution in India and the association of osiris/apis and shiva/nandi bull connection.

    In India however, a myth of a dismembered Goddess (Sati, who becomes Parvati and virtually all the other goddesses) is the most popular: quite the inverse of the Egyptian myth. Other facts, however, like the presence of a trans-sex community mourning a god to whom they are ritualistic married exactly like the priests of Cybele would do to their Attis is also worthy of note. Another influence via greek connection or a mystery understood in two or more parts of the globe in a similar manner? What comes to my mind is that strangely (well, not that strange at all) Pattini’s iconography shows her in a very Sumerian posture more than anything else… compare her posture with that of the yet to be properly identified statue labeled as the ‘Queen of the Night’ at the British Museum… Quite intriguing. Lions are regarded as the ‘vahana’ or vehicle of the goddess in India, just like they were to Cybele and many other deities of the mesopotamic/greek/roman world (just as the ‘queen of the night is trumping over lions or Ishtar appearing stepping on a lion having with many weapons in a posture identical to the Durga puja icons of this day). Curiously, the seat for a deity in India is called ‘simhasana’ or ‘lion throne’, and just yesterday I came across an egyptian similar lion throne. I firmly believe in some import/export in this ‘deity trading’, but also believe that some things are just the same and were equally perceived so by humanity whenever it is.

    • Very interesting! Thank you! I will definitely go have a look at the Queen of the Night.


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