TO MY HUSBAND
“Thou art in my heart;
There is no other that knoweth Thee,
Save Thy Son, Akhnaton.
Thou hast made him wise in Thy designs
And in Thy might.”
Akhnaton — Longer Hymn to the Sun
(Translation by Breasted)
“The modern world has yet adequately to value or even to acquaint itself with this man who, in an age so remote and under conditions so adverse, became the world’s first idealist and the world’s first individual.”
Breasted — History of Egypt, page 392
Roughly fourteen hundred years before Christ, at the time Egypt was at the height of her power, King Akhnaton ruled over that great country for a few years.
He was a thinker; he was an artist; he was a saint — the world’s first rationalist, and the oldest Prince of Peace. Through the visible disk of the Sun — Aton — he worshipped “the Energy within the Disk” — the ultimate Reality which men of all creeds still seek, knowingly or unknowingly, under a thousand names and through a thousand paths. And he styled himself as the Son of that unseen, everlasting Source of all life. “Thou art in my heart,” he said in one of his hymns, “and no one knoweth Thee save I, Thy Son.” And his words, long forgotten, have come down to us, recorded upon the walls of a nobleman’s tomb — these amazing words in what is perhaps the earliest poem which can be ascribed with certainty to any particular author: “I, Thy Son. . . .”
Akhnaton is one of the very few men who ever put forth such a bold claim. The aim of this book is to show that, in doing so, he was no less justified than any other teacher of the truth, however impressive may appear the success of the latter contrasted with his defeat; however widespread may be his fame, contrasted with the total oblivion in which has lain the Egyptian king for the last thirty-three hundred years.
* * *
Who is a “son of God”?
There are men who vehemently deny the honour of that title to any person whosoever, in consistency with the fundamental idea of a transcendent God, above and outside the Universe and distinct from all that is within it. Others recognise no “Son” but the founder of their own creed, to
whom they attribute a miraculous birth as the proof of a divine origin.
In harmony with an entirely different conception of God, we believe that any man who realises to the full that true relation of his finite individuality to the immanent, impersonal Essence of all things can call himself the Son of God — at once human and divine — for the relation of which he is then aware is one of substantial identity with that supreme Essence. We also believe that, properly speaking, the word “God” has no meaning except to those who have realised this. Such men are rare, always and everywhere. But they alone stand to justify the existence of the human species.
The aim of this book is to show that Akhnaton was one of those few men, and the earliest known, perhaps, among those whose life can be dated.
* * *
The failure of his teaching to survive him as an established religion can be regarded as one of the tragedies of history. We can explain it; we can even try to redeem it. But the bitter fact remains, for nothing can undo the past.
Other great souls have had disciples to preach their message, martyrs to bear testimony to their greatness in torture and death, missionaries to carry their name and domination to the limits of the earth; they have had commentators, admirers, detractors — philosophers, poets, artists — to keep their memory alive century after century. But Akhnaton’s fate was different. He had no sooner died than the fervour of his followers seems to have been spent out. Within a few years, his name was anathematised, his new city pulled down stone by stone, his remains profaned and his memory systematically destroyed, without, apparently, a single cry of protest on the part of any of those eighty thousand1 or more who had, in their zeal, left Thebes with him, thirteen years before. Ever since then, until a part of his foreign correspondence and fragments of his hymns were
1 Arthur Weigall: Short History of Ancient Egypt (Edit. 1934), pp. 149-150.
brought to light, some fifty years ago, there was not a man on earth who knew of his existence. And to this very day, notwithstanding the genuine admiration of a learned few for his rational religion, there are hardly any people in the world whose daily life he fills with his presence.
Men who are in the habit of judging in haste will at once infer that his teaching cannot have been as perfect as those that have become the nucleus of living faiths.
But success is not the criterion by which one should decide on the value of a religion. In the diffusion of any doctrine far and wide there are too many factors at work for one to be able to ascribe its conquests to the sole amount of truth it contains. Moreover, it is only when that amount of truth appears to be of immediate and tangible use that it appeals to the herd of men sufficiently to help the propagation of the creed. The finer side of every religion is precisely that which escapes the attention and leaves unmoved the sensitiveness of its average followers. Therefore the number of people who profess a certain faith, and the extent of the geographical area in which it is recognised, prove nothing.
The quality of the nations that officially adhere to it does not stand any better as a guarantee of its value. For it is man who makes religion; not religion that makes man. Through some historic accident — migration, conquest, or the whims of some powerful chief — a sublime teaching can become and remain the collective creed of a pack of gross barbarians. They will no doubt misunderstand it; but they will, none the less, hold sacred the whole mythology and symbolism that tradition has attached to it. And reversely one has seen — and one sees still — cultured, progressive, rationally-trained nations adhere to childish dogmas invented or accepted by their uncritical ancestors. True, they do not fail to produce subtle theologians to interpret the nonsense in terms of hidden wisdom. But nonsense it remains.
A religion should be judged in itself, independently of its real or apparent influence upon any society, apart from its success or failure among men. And its founder — when it has a founder — is the only man whose life and personality one
should consider when speaking of it. Judged in that manner, from the sole standpoint of its inner beauty, Akhnaton’s simple and rational religion, of which hardly anybody knows, can be compared advantageously with recognised faiths professed by millions of men. And its promoter, with perhaps not more than one or two living disciples, can nevertheless be ranked among the divine souls that honoured this earth — among those whom we call “incarnations” or “Sons of God.”
* * *
We can now try to explain why the worship of Aton failed to endure as an organised collective cult. From the little that can be gathered of it through the existing fragments of Akhnaton’s hymns and through the history of his life, one can assert, to say the least, that it was far in advance of the time in which it appeared.
The abyss that separates a man of genius from his contemporaries does not necessarily awe them into accepting his leadership. If it be the result of his superiority in technical knowledge or in skill, it will make him powerful — a hero, a worker of wonders, a giant of war or of industry, whatever be the case. His counsels will soon be followed, and his inventions or discoveries soon admired and put to ever-increasing application because of the obvious advantages that they immediately procure. But if it be the abyss that separates a perfect man from the average human cattle, a rational mind and an enlightened soul from the superstitious crowd of believers; an all-loving, all-understanding heart, from the narrowly selfish majority of men, then, it only helps to render the great one lonely and powerless. The greater the difference between himself and his people, the lesser the immediate success of the man of moral, philosophical or religious genius. His words, his actions meet with no understanding; his lofty example has no imitators; the creation he strives to bring forth remains a dream. To be technically in advance of one’s time is a source of strength, an assurance of worldly achievements; to be morally or philosophically ahead of it, is not.
The towering superiority of Akhnaton over his fellow-men has no parallel in the mechanical sphere. “Were it invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions,” his religion “could not be logically improved upon at the present day,” writes Sir Flinders Petrie.1 Could we imagine a man of the fourteenth century B.C. in possession of the secret of our modern aeroplanes, we would then realise what would have been the mechanical equivalent of Akhnaton’s religious revolution. The very idea of it shatters us by its enormity. But, while our imaginary inventor could have safely conquered the world with the help of a single aircraft, the earliest rationalist failed to convince a minimum number of disciples capable of carrying on his work. His teaching “suitable for our own times,” met little response in his. Those who could easily have gathered it from his lips and transmitted it to posterity in all its details, were not moved to do so. And we, who would have done so, were not yet born. That is the main reason why nothing was left of it after the thirteen glorious years during which it flourished.
There are other reasons for its extinction.
One of them is that the cult of Aton was too rational to appeal to the average people of any time. Another is that Akhnaton himself was too good — and perhaps too farsighted, also — to establish it by means of violence.
Three elements seem to have contributed to the propagation of every widespread religion: a mythology; miracles; and a more or less definite doctrine concerning the hereafter. (By “mythology,” I mean the true or fictitious story of all natural or supernatural beings connected with the creed: men, angels, beasts, saints, demons, gods, etc.) I do not know of a religion which has stood up to now the test of time without one or two, at least, of these three elements. And most of the great international creeds owe much to all three.
But the cult of Aton seems to have been devoid of all three from the start. That is perhaps why some modern authors have called it a philosophy rather than a religion. But it did possess that stamp of devotion that distinguishes a religion from a philosophy. It was not purely a philosophy,
1 Sir Flinders Petrie: History of Egypt (Edit. 1899), Vol. II, p. 214.
whatever one may say. It even comprised a daily ritual, with hymns and music, incense and flowers. It was a religion, but one which offered its followers, at the same time, rational thought, the warmth of devotion, and a stately display of sensuous beauty.
But there were no marvellous tales connected with it. The one theme that could have become the centre of a whole literature, had the religion lasted a little longer, was the life of its Founder. And that was too simple, too human, too obviously natural to impress the coarse imagination of the commoners.
Akhnaton, in his love of truth, seems to have deliberately stripped himself of all the mystery that had helped his fathers to appear as gods in the eyes of their prostrate people. He was of unconventional manners and of kindly approach. His divinity was not the showy privilege of a Sun-born king, or of a prophet, asserted by external signs, but rather the innermost perfection of a man whose heart, will and understanding were in complete harmony with the eternal laws of life; of a man who had fulfilled man’s divine purpose as naturally as others drift away from it. He felt therefore no need of ascertaining it by a fastidious pomp, any more than by strange renunciations. There was no excess in him; nothing that the vulgar eye could look upon as “striking,” nothing that popular enthusiasm could catch hold of and magnify. He wrought no extraordinary deeds, as other teachers are said to have done. The only wonder of which he spoke was the everlasting miracle of order and of fertility — the rhythm of day and night, the growth of a bird or of a baby.
And he brought with him, apparently, no new ideas about death, and put no stress upon the ones that were common in Egypt in his time. From the beautiful prayer inlaid upon his coffin, and probably composed by himself, one infers that he believed in the eternal life of the soul. But that is all. No allusion to the nature of that life beyond death, and especially not a single reference to sin, reward and punishment can be found in at least what has survived of the young king’s hymns, or in the inscriptions in the tombs of the
nobles who boast of having “hearkened to his teaching.” Not that the religion of Aton was in any way devoid of a moral character, as some of its modern judges1 have supposed — a gratuitous assumption, contradicted by the very motto of Akhnaton’s life: “Living in Truth.” But its morality concerned what one was rather than what one did. It was the inherent character of a harmonious life rather than the outcome of any catalogue of “dos” and “don’ts.” As all natural things are, it was foreign to the idea of promises and threats. And that was a reason for it not to appeal to a number of followers. Most men do not want true morality any more than true religion. They want mythologies and miracles to wonder at, and police regulations to abide by; illusions in this world, and punishments and rewards in eternity. In one word, they want eternity made small and exciting to suit the measure of average life. They do not want life simply stripped of its shallowness and made divine — “life in truth.” And as Akhnaton had nothing else but that to offer them, his teaching left them indifferent. It did not spread beyond the narrow circle of courtiers.
* * *
The one means by which he could have secured its success as an international creed was violence.
The religion was, indeed, far in advance of its time and of many future ages. And it lacked the elements that generally make a creed popular. Men would, no doubt, have misinterpreted it, misused it, and degraded it within a few years. But it would have spread. Force of money and force of arms can make any people accept any faith, even one that does not suit them. And Akhnaton was both the most powerful and the richest king of his days. We are convinced that, had he chosen to use his strength to impose his new cult upon the world, he would probably have largely succeeded.
But he felt too deeply and he knew too much to sacrifice
1 J. D. S. Pendlebury: Tell-el-Amarna (Edit. 1935), pp. 156-157. Also Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, and Egyptian Monotheism, pref. XV; also pp. 114-115.
the spirit of his doctrine to an illusory triumph. Far from using violence to propagate his religion, he did not even persecute those who tried to destroy it. As a result, it is they who enjoyed the thrill of triumph — for the time being. It is they who imposed their will upon the world. They wanted Akhnaton to be cursed, and so he was; they wanted him to be forgotten, and so he was; it was their will that never, never again the world should hear his name, and for over three millenniums the world did not.
But his beautiful, rational teaching, however incompletely known, remains unstained by superstition, unmarred by compromise, unconnected with any of the crimes committed, in course of time, in the name of many a successful religion; pure, whole, as its Founder conceived it — a thing of beauty for all ages to come.
* * *
But if there are psychological reasons for which Akhnaton’s teaching had little chances of becoming one of the widespread creeds of the world, it could have remained, at least, the religion of an elite. It could have; and it most probably would have, in different surroundings. One of its main features is the diversity of its appeal. It satisfies reason; it fulfils our highest aspirations towards the beautiful; it implies love, not of man alone, but of all creatures. In the midst of general superstition and strife, the better men could have sought in it an ideal to live up to. A pious tradition could have kept the name of Akhnaton sacred to the few who are worthy to know of him.
But such a tradition was never started, or at least never permitted to develop. Egypt, in the fourteenth century B.C., was already too deeply engrossed in formalism to respond to the forgotten message of living life. And the countries around her were either too barbaric or too decadent to understand it. Strangled at home by priestly fanaticism and by popular indifference, the new religion was submerged, abroad, amidst a crowd of conflicting practical faiths that promised men tangible advantages in this world as well as
in the next. Persecuted as an organised cult, it soon ceased to exist even as a secret worship. To keep it alive, it would have needed an atmosphere of earnestness and of toleration, a truly religious atmosphere as it was difficult to find anywhere on earth for many centuries, except perhaps among a minority of Hindus.
We may remark here that none of the lofty doctrines of antiquity which originated before Christianity have survived, west of India. And, unexpected as this may seem, India might well be the only land that would have given the youthful worshipper of Radiant Energy a place worthy of him in his time, had she heard of his teaching; the only land, also, who probably would have continued to venerate him to this very day as one of the incarnations of the Supreme Soul.
* * *
The aim of the present book is to tell the world how perfect Akhnaton was.
We believe that no teaching would meet, better than his, the exigencies of the critical modern mind. Yet, it is not our intention to try to revive it on a broad scale, as the basis of a public cult. We do not think it desirable to attempt what its Founder himself does not seem to have aimed at — he who, though fully conscious of its universal value, did not try to explain it to the many. With all their pride in progress, our times are no less foolish and no less barbaric than his. We now use electric fans, while in Thebes they did not; that is about all the difference. The resuscitated religion of Cosmic Energy would soon offer, in the hands of any crowd, as ludicrous a sight as that of the great “living” faiths of to-day. We do not wish to rob the other world-teachers of a few millions of insignificant admirers in order to give a noisy following to the great man who is dear to us. We know too well, through daily experience, what the quality of that following would be.
But we do wish to make the name and teaching of Akhnaton popular among the best of our contemporaries — among those who really represent the higher tendencies of
our sceptical and at the same time mystical age; among those to whom dogmas no longer appeal, whom wonders no longer impress, whom religion without a background of positive knowledge, and science without the feeling of the seriousness of life, leave equally unsatisfied. It is among such people that we earnestly wish to revive the spirit of him who, a thousand years before Socrates and nearly nine hundred years before the Buddha, united the boldest rationalistic views to the deep intuitive certitude of the oneness of God, the oneness of Life, and the brotherhood of all creatures.
Modern scholars have already recognised his undeniable greatness. The earliest and most eminent of all those specialists who have laboured to revive his memory among the learned, Sir W. Flinders Petrie, has paid him a magnificent tribute.1 But what we want also is that Akhnaton’s name be held sacred by all those who, without being scholars, can think in terms of truth and feel in terms of beauty and who are capable of modelling their lives on an immortal example of living perfection.
More so, if few be likely to live up to the spirit of his teaching, let all at least know that there has been such a man as he, once, long long ago. Let them remain superstitious, vulgar and violent, if they will; but let them know that there has been a man in whose life religion and reason walked hand in hand; a man whose very being was harmony, balance, supreme elegance, and who lost an empire for the sake of truth. Few meditate upon the beauty of the Sun; yet all behold it. Above man’s unchanging mediocrity He shines in glory. In a similar manner, worshipped by a few, but familiar to all after thirty-three hundred years of silence, we want the name of Akhnaton, Son of the Sun, young for ever, to live once more in the consciousness of our old world.
This will no doubt appear as a stupendous dream.
The aim of this book is to make others feel that the dream will become true the moment they sincerely realise its beauty.
1 In his History of Egypt (Edit. 1899), Vol. II, pp. 214 and 218. Also in his Tell-el-Amarna (Edit. 1894), pp. 41-42 (§102).