The Nath Tradition and Dharmic Nationalism
The Nath Sampradaya (tradition) has historical references only since the 12th century CE with Gorakshanath/Gorakhnath or may be from 9th C. with Matsyendranath yogi. The Naths started calling themselves by that name only after the British rule started in India.
However, the Nath tradition, by virtue of being one of the Shaivite traditions, and the syncretic influence of Buddhism and Jainism, is but a newer name (new, as in the medieval era) for the ancient Sidda tradition. The codification and practice of Hatha Yoga is attributed to this tradition. They consider Shiva as the Adi Nath (the first guru). If you are connecting this with Jaggi Vasudev’s Adi Yogi statue, and Hatha Yoga courses, you are making the right connection.
The Siddas/Naths have spread throughout the country since ancient times, but due to the bewildering variety of languages, cultures and socio-economic conditions, the names morphed, the rituals differ ever so slightly, and over the past 200-300 years, we have lost the ability to see the big picture and almost become islands of local cultures. The truth lies just below the surface, if we make an attempt.
Experts differ whether there were 9 Nath gurus or 12, but popular consensus is for nine. Nava Natha Charitra or History of the Nine Nath gurus is quite a popular book. The original author of the book is unknown, but one can find this book in many Indian language versions. The legend is that Dattatreya or Datta Guru began this tradition. Gorakshanath/Gorakhnath is deemed the second Nath guru in the sampradaya.
The Nath tradition counts among its adherents thousands of holy men and women across the country. Adi Sankara’s advaita (non-duality) philosophy, and the Buddhist and Jain principles, all seemed to have been influenced by, and in turn impacted this tradition. Bhartruhari, Abhinava Gupta, Nagarjuna, Parsvanath, and many others have had fruitful interactions with the Nath sampradaya and in some cases, we have evidence that they belong to this tradition.
According to popular accounts of Sikhism, Guru Nanak interacted with the Gorakhnathis during his first and third Udaasis (travels on foot through the country), and won over the Yogis with his wisdom and divinity, resulting in the change of a monastery of the women yogis from Gorakhmata to Nanakmata. Gorakshanath is mentioned in some of Guru Nanak’s shabads. Kabir actually lived at the monastery of Gorakshanath composing his dohe. Though legends again talk about Kabir having met Gorakshanath, the timelines don’t match.
It is however clear that a saint named Gorakhnath lived in the 11th/12th CE, and traveled through the length and breadth of the country, meeting and influencing many holy men and women, authoring books, and spreading Hatha Yoga and Siddha Yoga. This is in line with the spiritual tradition of India where holy men walk through the country and help reinforce the spiritual and cultural connections, among people speaking various languages, and worshiping a multiplicity of deities. For want of a better term, I prefer to call this Dharmic Nationalism. That is, knitting the nation together on the basis of Dharma.
In recent times, the Sai Baba of Shirdi, who is called ‘Sai Nath Maharaj’ by devotees, is someone with roots in the Avadhoot pantheon of the Nath sampradaya. Gorakshanath classified the followers of the Nath tradition as Nath yogis, Avadhoots, Siddas, and Grihastu (householder) Naths.
Needless to say, the majority of the Nath followers happen to be normal householders leading a very regular life, but being conscious about their ties to the Nath tradition. This in a way is similar to the large number of South Indians who go about their daily life, and even follow the religious rituals handed down from ages, but have a distinct connection with a Math – could be a Sringeri Math for Shaivites or an Ahobila Math for Vaishnavites or the Raghavendra Math popular in Karnataka.
With Gorakhnath being a sort of headquarters for the Nath sampradaya, it is worth noting the caste less character of this Math. From the beginning, the Gorakshapeeth had a non-brahmin as the head or the Mahant. A good number of Rajput born Mahants have been the leaders of this Math through the centuries, especially since the time of the Mughal rulers.
Historical records show that Aurangzeb found the Nath yogis and their followers as much a headache as the Maratha guerrilla fighters led by Shivaji. The original Gorakhnath temple has been converted into a mosque by Allauddin Khilji during the late 13th century. The Nath Yogis re-built the temple at an adjacent place, which again was converted into a mosque by Aurangzeb. The third shrine built around 1710 CE exists in the same place.
One could imagine the havoc caused by the armies of the Islamic invaders, and later the Mughal rulers on the socio-religious life across the country, especially in the heartland of UP. The Nath yogis survived because of their bases being scattered through the country, including in Nepal, Bengal, Assam, and down South near Mangalore, in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. They played a key role in ensuring the unwavering faith of the normal citizens towards dharma, in spite of the atrocities committed by the invading armies. They also used their influence with the native kings (irrespective of whether these kings accepted the Mughal rule or fought against it) to guide the politics so that a complete dismantling of the native ecosystems of knowledge does not happen, as in the case of Nalanda and Takshasila during the earlier invasions. A political dimension has always been a part and parcel of what it meant to be a Nath Yogi. More so when the Yogi is made responsible for a seat of learning and devotion.
Gorakhnath Math and India’s Freedom Struggle
Focusing a bit now on the Gorakhpur area so that we can put in context the politics of the Gorakhpur Math - In ancient times, it was part of Kosal, one of the 16 maha jana padas during the puranic era predating the Mauryan times, with Ayodhya, Saketa, Benares(Kashi) and Sravasti as the main cities. It was ruled by kings of the Surya Vamsa drawing lineage from the Sun god, with the most important among them being the emperors Harischandra, Dilipa, and of course Lord Rama. It was ruled by King Prasenajit during the time of Gautama Buddha. According to Buddhist history, Buddha did his renunciation near the Rapti river (Gorakhpur is on the banks of this river), and with Prasenajit becoming his follower later, he spent several years in Sravasti.
Let me put this in perspective – the Nav Naths are also known as Nav Narayans. The Naths have a mix of Shaivite and Buddhist philosophy and yogic practices. They established the Gorkahnath Math as the headquarters, and consider it their duty to help preserve the unity of Bharatavarsha in personal spiritual (Shiva-Hatha Yoga) and material (Ram Rajya) aspects. The importance of Ayodhya in their scheme of things can’t be stressed enough. They defined their mission to be part of the socio-political happenings of the country, and also be the drivers or catalysts at moments of need.
The Gorakhnathis classify themselves into Astra dhaari (warriors) and Saastra dhaari (scholars involved in civic administration, and jurisprudence). The Gorkhas of Nepal got their name from Gorakhnath. The Gorkha warriors, the Rajput and Jat warriors, the Maratha guerrilla fighters – all derive the inspiration from the Nath tradition. The various Maths dotting the country (both Shaivite and Vaishnavite), the spiritual Avadhoots, the social reformers, and the Vedic scholars and scientists over the ages have been influenced by the yogis and siddas, and continue to be influenced in both overt and subtle ways. This then is the purpose of the sampradaya – to facilitate personal enlightenment and fulfillment through karma, and help the perpetuation of the sanatana dharma – the essence of dharmic nationalism.
Authentic historical timelines of the Mahants of Gorakhnath Peeth are not available for the period before the early part of the 18th century. Mahant Varada Nath and after him Yogi Parameshwar Nath, and Yogi Buddha Nath are considered the major Mahants who rebuilt the temple complex, between 1708-1723 CE. Subsequent Mahants continued to consolidate the influence and activities of the Peeth, through both religio-spiritual guidance, and involvement in the secular administrative aspects of the surrounding areas. The successors came from different castes (not Brahmins), but more Rajputs than others. Young men taken from families and subjected to rigorous training in Vedic and scientific education, and the Math administration aspects – and the chosen one among them would take the place of Mahant-in-waiting or the Uttaraadhikari. The veneration of the Mahants by lower castes and Muslims of Awadh continued to give them a stronghold on the political matters of the Awadh kingdom and surrounding areas as well.
It should be possible to discover the political activities of the Mahants post-Aurangzeb period, but would require a study of the documents and correspondence at the Math itself. It is likely that the then Mahant played a role in Gorakhpur division being ceded to the British under the Subsidiary Alliance System, after the Battle of Buxar. By 1801, the ceded territories were organized into districts, Gorakhpur being the first such district. For the purposes of this article, let us focus on the activities of Mahant Digvijay Nath.
Digvijay Nath was born as Nanhu Singh, in 1894, in a Rajput Thakur family in Rajasthan. Orphaned at an young age, he was handed over to one of the itinerant Nath yogis called Phul Nath, who in turn brought him to Gorakhpur to the Math. Nanhu did his graduation from St. Andrews College, Gorakhpur, and was known for his interest in lawn tennis and field hockey.
The period of 1918 on wards saw the emergence of Mohandas Gandhi as the first true mass leader of India. Gandhi’s usage of Hindu religious symbols and issues such as cow protection, removal of untouchability, and swadeshi ideology attracted millions of youth to the Congress party. Young Nanhu Singh/Digvijay Nath was no exception. He was actively associated with the Math duties and was considered as someone with the potential to become a Mahant in future. Yet, that didn’t stop him from taking a full plunge into the freedom struggle with Gandhi as the leader. I suspect he had the blessings of Mahant Brahma Nath in that direction as well.
|Gandhi (here posing with Pandit Malviya and a cow) used Hindu religious symbols, and showed solidarity with All India Hindu Mahasabha by attending the founding ceremony along with Swami Shraddanand.|
And then an incident happened which changed the history of the freedom struggle, and that of the Indian National Congress as well. We know it from our history books as the Chauri Chaura incident. Gandhi’s call for a non-violent non-cooperation movement was a grand success. Digvijay Nath (not yet the Mahant) was the leader of the mob that attacked the police station in Chauri Chaura. Over 23 policemen were killed, and the station was burnt to tinders. Gandhi went on a fast, and the Congress called off the non-cooperation movement.
The British government, emboldened by Gandhi and the Congress’ support, cracked down heavily on the protesters. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, and over 170 people were convicted, and given death sentence. Yes, you are reading it right. Over 170 people were given death sentence. We don't read about it in our History text books though !
|A picture of the mob during the Chauri Chaura incident|
Digvijay escaped the conviction, but was prompt in starting the protests against the verdict. Meanwhile, the revolutionaries across Punjab, United Provinces, and Maharashtra started forming their own groups. Gorakhnath Math became a safe place for these revolutionaries, and the extensive network of the Nath yogis helped them hide from the police through the country.
Gandhi meanwhile started looking to build a constituency on all sides of the political spectrum. Savarkar was in the cellular jail at Andamans. Some of the revolutionaries became monks, and many were in hiding. Only M.N.Roy came out openly in defiance against the British, calling the Chauri Chaura verdicts a ‘legalised murder’ and galvanised the workers to join hands with the protesters. Eventually, the protests forced a retrial but still, 23 people were hanged to death, while the rest were sentenced to life imprisonment. The next Congress session at Gaya resulted in Ram Prasad Bismil and other revolutionaries rebelling against Gandhi. Congress got divided into the Naram (moderates) and Garam (extremists), with the rich men’s lobby led by Motilal Nehru facilitating the formation of the Swaraj party.
Digvijay Nath continued in Congress on the Garam side, but his focus and friendships became a cross between the revolutionaries who espoused socialism (not the European variant, at least initially) steeped in swadeshi ethos, and the strident Hindutva ideology with its emphasis on cow protection, and the fight against untouchability. The close association with the revolutionary socialists (Bismil, Sachindranath Sanyal, Chandrasekhar Azad, Rasbehari Bose etc.) and the Swadeshi socialists (Ram Manohar Lohia), and the Arya Samajis (Swami Dayanand Saraswati, and Lala Lajpat Rai), gave the Yogi a complete exposure to the various strands that arose from the Congress.
Gandhi who gave a lifeline to the jihadist Muslim leaders (that were side lined by Jinnah till then) through the Khilafat movement, kept pushing the Congress this way and the other – the direction often dictated by benefit to the Congress organization and its constitutional approach.
The Purna Swaraj resolution was too early for Gandhi in the mid-1920s, because the organization he wanted to lead was still a divided lot, with more youth on the side of the Garam faction. The resolution was finally adopted in 1929, at the Lahore congress. But by then, the revolutionary movement was ebbing down, and several Hindutva leaders softened their stance in deference to Gandhi, or left the Congress completely. The Hindu Maha Sabha led by Savarkar, and the RSS founded by Hedgewar offered one direction, and the Communists offered the other option to the youth disillusioned by the Congress’ political approach.
By the 1930s, Digvijay Nath became the Mahant of the Goraknath Math, and the revolutionaries were picked off by the British one by one, sometimes captured and convicted to death, or as in the case of Chandrashekhar Azad, ambushed and eliminated. And by 1935-37, Gandhi acquired complete control over the Congress party, and ensured that the British would deal with him, and him only. And the Congress under Gandhi was seen by the British as representing Hindu India.
Yogi Digvijay Nath joined hands with others of similar thinking. With Savarkar back from Andamans but confined to Ratnagiri, Digvijay joined the Hindu Maha Sabha and became its head in United Provinces. He continued to be active in politics, but the Gorakhnath Math affairs started occupying his time more.
Makar Sankranthi is the biggest festival at the Gorakhnath Math.The Mahant gives a pravachan as part of the festivities. The days following Sankranthi are typically full of sant sammelans, and Hindu Maha Sabha conferences. And so, in 1948 January, just after Sankranthi, Mahant Digvijay Nath addressed a large gathering of Hindu Mahasabha activists in Gorakhpur, and gave a general call to the audience to get rid of Gandhi. It was a statement made with a lot of conviction, after a bitter struggle of over 25 years, where he has seen the death of hundreds of his revolutionary socialist friends, and ordinary citizens- to what was, according to his mind, the machinations of the cabal around Gandhi, with the Mahatma himself changing completely from a Hindutvavadi (Gandhi was present at the founding of Hindu Maha Sabha in 1915, along with Swami Shraddananda) to that of someone who wouldn’t hesitate to use his enormous leverage to the detriment of Hindus. The vision of Akhand Bharat lay in tatters with the partition of the country.
The Yogi may or may not have known about the conspiracy to kill Gandhi. But he did make the statement asking for Gandhi to be eliminated, and he was promptly picked up by the police after the assassination. Digvijay Nath spent 9 months in prison, and was released as there was no evidence whatsoever to link him to the plot. But there is no doubt that his moral support and the vast network of Nath adherents may have helped the plot succeed. He was after all, the President of the Hindu Maha Sabha for United Provinces.
Digvijay Nath resumed his Mahant duties after getting released from prison, but also made plans to revive the Hindu Maha Sabha in secret. Following Gandhi’s assassination, all Hindutva outfits in the country were either banned or held in suspicion or revulsion by the authorities and the public. The Mahant needed a symbolic initiative to revive the larger mission of the Nath panthis. He remembered the long pending issue of Ram Janma Bhoomi in Ayodhya. And so, in 1949, he marched with his supporters to Ayodhya, broke open the locks, installed the Ram Lala idols, and began regular prayers there.
In doing this symbolic act, the Mahant was laying the foundation not just for the revival of the mission handed over by his predecessors at the Math. In a sense, he was beginning the long journey back for public acceptance of the Hindutva faction of the Congress. The Hindutvavadis would never capture the party back from Nehru and team, though they had their silent supporters still in a large number within the Congress party. The socialist forces joined the Communist parties or followed the Lohia path. It was not till the Jan Sangh was started in the early 1950s that a genuine political party representing the Hindutvavadis would take shape. Yogi Digvijay Nath, however, stuck to the Hindu Maha Sabha, got elected as the Gorakhpur MP in 1967, and at the time of his death in 1969, may have had the satisfaction of seeing the Jan Sangh grow in stature to win 35 Lok Sabha seats.
Yogi Digvijay Nath was succeeded by Mahant Avaidyanath who played an active role in the Ram Janma Bhoomi movement during the Rajiv Gandhi time, culminating in the Shilanyas ritual at the shrine. It was during his time that the Gorakhnath Peeth finally gave up the support to the Hindu Maha Sabha and embraced the BJP completely. He also allowed the VHP to take over the Ram Janma Bhoomi movement. For the record, Yogi Avaidyanath won the Gorakhpur LS seat four times, as an independent, as a Hindu Maha Sabha candidate and then twice as the BJP candidate. His successor Yogi Adityanath has been elected from Gorakhpur LS seat five times in succession, and has now become the CM of Uttar Pradesh, with an avowed commitment to ‘mandir wahin banaayenge’ (We shall build the temple there (at the disputed location).
|Ajay Bisht becomes Yogi Adityanath|
Much has been written about Yogi Adityanath already. But the Yogi has behind him, at least 300+ years of tradition and commitment to the mission of the Nath Yogis, and to the specific mission of the Gorakhnath Math – which is to rebuild their beloved Ram Lala temple at Ayodhya, and keep consolidating the foundations of dharmic nationalism, and the vision of a caste less Hindu society.
In the next article in this series, we will revisit the freedom movement and understand the evolution of Congress from a Hindutva dominated party to that of a Nehruvian secularist one, and how even during the heights of the Nehruvian secularism, the Hindutvavadi origins of Congress continued to fight what looked like a losing battle with the secularist-communist alliance, till the time the BJP emerged with the Ram Janma Bhoomi movement.