In 1460, Cosimo de Medici stumbled across a manuscript that would amaze Europe. The wealthy Italian nobleman had been eagerly collecting the nearly forgotten writings of ancient Greek masters like Plato. Only a small fraction of such texts had survived the burning of libraries by Christian and Muslim fanatics. Then one day a monk, knowing Cosimo paid handsomely for old books, arrived from northern Greece with an astonishing manuscript—the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of essays attributed to the legendary Egyptian master Thoth. One ancient Greek master after another, from Thales to Pythagoras to Plato, had acknowledged his indebtedness to the priest/philosophers of Egypt. And now, here was the long-lost book of Thoth (called Hermes in Greek), Egypt’s greatest spiritual teacher, an adept who understood and commanded the hidden laws of nature. Cosimo rushed to have the manuscript translated into Latin.
Today, scholars believe the 13 surviving chapters of the Corpus Hermeticum were written by several different authors somewhere between 400 b.c.e. and 300 c.e. The authors were probably either Greeks who were steeped in Egyptian lore or Egyptians who had learned to write in Greek. Their essays, brimming with mystical insights, expand on the spiritual contents of hieroglyphic texts painted on Egyptian tomb walls and provide a glimpse into the lost legacy of ancient Egypt’s spiritual wisdom.“I am the Shepherd of Men, the Supreme Awareness. I am always with you and know what you desire,” begins the opening discourse of the Corpus Hermeticum.
“I want to understand the universe and I want to know God,” the disciple responds.
“Focus your mind—I will teach you. You must understand that that within you which sees and hears is divine awareness itself and that the highest consciousness inside you is nothing other than the Supreme Reality. There is no difference between your innermost being and God. Experience the light of your consciousness and realize what it really is.
“Those who remember their real nature attain the greatest good. Knowing they come from a world of light, they return to that immortal light. But those who prefer the life of the body become lost and confused and are subject to death,” the Divine Shepherd explains.
“How can a person recognize his real nature?” the disciple asks.
“I, the Supreme Awareness, am always present to those who are good and kind, pure and full of reverence. I guide them back to their innate nature, helping them quickly recognize their true Self. But those who are violent and disrespectful, unthinking and greedy, do not feel me near. These people go on desiring more and more from the world, craving lasting happiness it can never provide. Their unfulfillable desires cause them endless torment.
"Let go of everything else and merge your awareness in God alone. Do this not for your own sake, but so that you can help others."
“The path back to your Divine Father leads beyond your body, from which you must shift your attention. Your thoughts, feelings, and sensations arise from contact with matter; you must release them. Move upward through the seven spheres of your being into the highest region of your awareness. Let go of everything else and merge your awareness in God alone. Do this not for your own sake, but so that you can help others.”
Under the Divine Shepherd’s direction, the disciple ascends to the heights of consciousness and achieves God-realization.
“Why have you surrendered to death, you men and women who are capable of immortality?” the disciple now challenges his friends. “Wake up! Stop your ignorant behavior, step out of the shadows, and claim your birthright—everlasting divine awareness.”
Reading a text like the Corpus Hermeticum is a startling experience because it is so similar to the teachings of yoga.'
Although many of us have studied yoga or read books on Eastern philosophy, today few people are familiar with the religion of ancient Egypt. Reading a text like the Corpus Hermeticum is a startling experience because it is so similar to the teachings of yoga. Even the title Divine Shepherd reminds us of names for the Supreme Being like Govinda or Gopala (“cowherd”) and Pashupati (“lord of livestock”). We souls are the flock the divine guide cares for.
The identity of our inner self with the Supreme Self is a central tenet of yoga philosophy. The “seven spheres” through which we must lift our consciousness before merging in the Supreme remind us of the seven chakras, which, like the spheres in the Corpus Hermeticum, are associated with the seven classical planets.
Even the five bodies that encase our innermost being are identical in the two traditions. One chapter of the Corpus Hermeticum called “The Key” describes these five “envelopes” of consciousness. “The innermost Spirit is carried about in this way: the nous is in the logos, the logos in the psyche, the psyche in thepneuma, and the pneuma in the soma.”
“The Key” echoes in precise detail the Taittiriya Upanishad, which describes five progressively subtler koshas, or “sheaths,” that envelop consciousness. “The Key” goes on to say that reason is the “shroud” of mystical awareness, while our ordinary sensory awareness wears the vital force “like armor.” The vital force is understood as the “governor” of the physical body, a statement homeopaths, acupuncturists, martial artists, and yogis would all recognize today.
Are these Greek terms prefigured in Egyptian religion? In ancient Egyptian texts, the physical body is called khat, the vital force is called ka, the mind is ba, the reasoning faculty is djed, and the intuitive self or being of light is akh. Even so technical a Sanskrit term as karmashaya (the portion of the intuitive body in which one’s karma is stored) has an Egyptian equivalent, ab, represented as a vase in tomb art. It is weighed after death to determine the individual’s postmortem destiny.
The Egyptian hermetic tradition has more in common with yoga. The hermetics were vegetarians who followed their lectures with “a pure, vegetarian meal.” Hermes taught that the flesh of animals killed violently shouldn’t be eaten because the aftershocks of the animal’s terror remained in the meat and would hamper an aspirant’s spiritual growth. As in yoga, the reality of reincarnation is continually affirmed in the hermetic teachings. “Do you understand now how many bodies, how many personalities, and how many planetary cycles we must pass through in order to reach the One?”
The authors were also well aware of the laws of karma. “Men and women have free will, and are able to make mistakes. Adrasteia, the rule of justice, corrects those who err. Humanity is subject to destiny due to the forces at work at the time of their birth, and to fate due to their actions in this life.” In India, destiny is calledprarabdha karma, the karma we’ve amassed as a result of our actions in previous lives. Fate is called kriyamana karma, the consequences of our behavior here and now.
Did the Graeco-Egyptian tradition recognize higher states of consciousness similar to those the yogis describe? Apparently so. “The Key” tells us, “Most of us aren’t pure enough to see unchanging, inexpressible divine perfection, the one true beauty, with our inner eye. Only in the moment when you no longer speak or even think can it be known. The senses and mind must be absolutely still. When you’re immersed in that experience you can’t see or hear anything else or even move your body. You sit completely still, your body and mind both unmoving. When that living stillness permeates you, your consciousness is drawn upward, and you’re absorbed into divine awareness.” This is as fine a description ofnirvikalpa samadhi (a state of one-pointed absorption in pure awareness) as you’ll find in any yoga text.
Like the yogis, the hermetists emphasized the importance of finding a Self-realized teacher who could transmit the force of his or her realization directly to a properly prepared disciple.
Like the yogis, the hermetists emphasized the importance of finding a Self-realized teacher who could transmit the force of his or her realization directly to a properly prepared disciple. The master Hermes describes his own experience of realizing the Self. “Through the grace of God I experience the Supreme Reality. I exist far beyond my body in a state of pure awareness. I have been reborn in the immortal form of consciousness itself.” The ultimate guru, according to the yogic tradition, is the Supreme Consciousness itself. Hermes agrees. “Divine Consciousness reveals its grandeur to the soul it leads. Like a good physician who takes a knife and cauterizer to a sick patient, the Inner Spirit inflicts pain on a soul in order to pull it away from its preoccupation with passing pleasures, and guide it to a higher reality.”
A human being experiencing this level of awareness may seem crazy to most people. “Those who exist in the state of God-realization may appear mad, and are ridiculed by the ignorant. They may be hated and despised, even murdered, by those who simply can’t understand higher states,” says Hermes. In India, the tradition of avadhuts, or crazy-seeming sages, is ancient, but there these extraordinary men and women are honored, not scorned.
The Corpus Hermeticum addresses such basic questions as why the universe was created, why human beings were placed here, and how we can return to our spiritual home, all in terms remarkably similar to yoga. Indeed, in the first century c.e., when Apollonius of Tyana visited Egypt after having traveled to India, he concluded that many centuries earlier, adepts from India must have traveled to North Africa to teach the Egyptians. Perhaps they did—or perhaps the similarities between the two traditions are simply evidence that those who inquire deeply into the nature of reality ultimately come up with the same answers.