Nath order of Yogis: A primer

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Nath order of Yogis: A primer

Wednesday, 29 March 2017 | Adheer Som

Nath order of Yogis: A primer

The call of the Naths has been heard far and wide across the country since ancient times. That in India, it can still be heard, is evident from the fact that Adityanath Yogi, duly ordained Yogi of the Nath Sampradaya and Mahant of Gorakhpeeth, is the elected Chief Minister of UP

The call of the Naths has been heard far and wide across the greater Indian sub-continent since older than ancient times. That in India, it can still be heard loud and clear, is evident from the fact that Adityanath Yogi, duly ordained Yogi of the Nath Sampradaya and Mahant of Gorakhpeeth, is now also the duly elected Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Origins of the order go back farther than history. The tradition holds Shiva himself to have been their founder, calling him ‘The first of the Naths’ — Adinath. The Aghori Jalandhar (after whom that city is named) and the Siddha Machhandar became his first pupils in the Nath discipline. The former took two disciples in-turn — the Kapalika Krishnapad and the queen of Bengal, Mainamati. Machhandar initiated Gorakh and is second only to him in fame, albeit with a touch of infamy. The tale of his rescue by Gorakh, cross-dressed as a songstress, from under the spell of a matriarchal Government of 1,600-smitten women sorcerers, has been told, sung and written in nearly all Indian languages.

Usually titled ‘Jaag Macchandar Gorakh Aaya!’ after the song Gorakh sings to break the magic, it has also been brilliantly novelised in Hindi by that name in more recent times by Vishhambhar Nath Upadhyaya. Some years back, a copy found me somewhat magically. It was so good that I decided to translate it. I was about half-done, when again rather magically, it was nowhere to be found.

An order like no other: Several of the Nath top order have composed top-notch, still-extant works on it, far too numerous to be listed here. King Bhratihari, of course stands out in the sect as the greatest litterateur of them as such, by virtue of his sublime trilogy of Neeti-Shatak, Shringar Shatak and Vairagya Shatak. Many among the order have also been very fine musicians, the Sarangi, their instrument of choice, invented by their own Gopichand. Not just fine arts, but the finest feelings also find place within the order, the most poignant example of which is the acceptance of the heart-broken Ranjha — yes, of Heer-Ranjha fame, and a Muslim by the way — into the fold by Gorakh himself.

Nath presence and influence has never been limited to Hinduism, nor has its membership ever been limited to Hindus. Some of the original nine (Navnaths) are worshipped as Bodhisattvas in Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism; Some such as Chaurangi (aka Pooran Bhagat,) and Rasalu are venerated by Sikhs and revered as Pirs by Muslims. The census of 1901 quoted by Briggs (1938), counted 43,139 Muslim Yogis and Nath faquirs in India. Not long ago, the most important of Gorakhmaths was not the Gorakhpur one, but the first Century BC Gorakh Tilla, in what is now the Jhelum district of Pakistan. Even “the greatest witch” of sub-altern India, luna (aka Nona) Jogan, was in truth a powerful female Nath of Ismaili faith. Many folk-magical shabar mantras of the order invoke her as one of the magic’s enforcers.

That Nath membership has also never been limited to men is established by the 1891 census figures for Agra and Oudh, which alone account for 6,178 female Nath yoginis (to 6,955 males.) Many of the women members are widows. However, as the Nath vow of celibacy applies only to Mathadharis (Math residents) and not to Gharbaris (householders), there exist several family lineages, ethnic and tribal communities and also sub-castes that identify themselves as being of the order.

The primary mystical technique of the Naths is Hatha Yoga. It is a variant of Patanjali’s original eight-limbed system, but more ‘adamant’ on gaining ‘total control of breath, seed and thought.’ The Nath Yogi is to be relentless in the pursuit of this goal, which in modern lingo amounts to gaining voluntary control of the autonomic nervous system. Once such control is gained, the Yogi can raise his/her dormant kundalini shakti at will and its union with Shiva in the crown of head completes the yog. The kundals (earrings) of the Naths are worn as symbols of this ultimate aim and it is on this account that they are also called ‘kanphatas.’

However, members and techniques from other ‘ugra’ sanatan as well as Sufi sects are also found within the order, and some of the great Hath Yogis have also been great aughads, tantriks and faquirs. Naturally, the adamant, dangerous sadhana of the shaiva-shaktas has been problematic for the genteel, safe n’ slow bhakti-loving vaishnavs from ancient times, all the way to Bose vs Gandhi. Even Tulsidas laments in UttarKaand: Gorakh jagayo jog, bhakti bhagayo log.

The Way of Gorakh: It is remarkable for a historical figure to have had historic socio-political impact across countries and centuries, and yet have history record no agreed-upon date, place or even era of his birth or death. Gorakh has been variously placed in the 15th century, 11th century, ninth century, fifth century, also in fifth century BC and in ‘the 10th century of the Vikrami Samvat’ by Hazari Prasad Dwivedi (1966.)

Vikramditya, by the way — for whom the calendar is named and who is himself much storied — was also an adept of the Nath (and Aghor) order, as were several other ‘greats’, including the saints Tukaram, Jnaneshwar and as per some accounts, even Shirdi’s Sai Baba. 

The tradition holds that like Shiva himself, Gorakh was never born, but always was and always will be. He is said to have resided at Peshawar in the Satyug, at Gorakhpur in Tretayug, and at Dwarka in Dvaparyug. In this ongoing Kalyug he is believed to live at Gorakhmandi in Kathiawar. As per legend, even Hanuman failed to beat him at wrestling, and Gorakh once defeated Kali herself in occult combat, in Calcutta at that, and won from her a promise to stop accepting human sacrifice in her name.

Nanak and Kabir have written of meeting him, as have generations of Hindu kings and Muslim emperors. The Dabistan even speaks of Mohammed having met him. The Mohammed Bodh of Vilasnath is a uniquely Nath invocation of Allah and his Prophet.

It was with the establishment of Gorakhpanth within the larger, diffuse order, that the Naths became formally socio-politicised. The general Nath ethic, as the name indicates, had always been ‘to protect.’ It was Gorakh’s vision, leadership and drive that consolidated them into an era-spanning Indic socio-political force, for the specific purpose of protecting Indic ethos against erosion and hostilities.

It is for this reason that Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, in his treatise, Nath Sampradaya, says of Gorakh, “He was the greatest leader of his times.” His panth has not only survived time but thrived amidst time’s multifarious trials and tribulations across millenia. Much more importantly, in the person of Adityanath Yogi, it finds itself yet again in a position of leadership to bring about tremendous socio-political change that will have the potential to change India itself.

As someone who deeply admires and respects the panth and the sampradaya, I sincerely hope, with all my heart, that this national change happens, that it is for the national good, and that the supremely exalted spirit and edifying spirituality of Guru Gorakhnath be its guiding light. 


(The writer is a logician, researcher and columnist)

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