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Armed Yogis – I

“Never have I seen such yogis, brother.
They wander mindless and negligent, proclaiming the way of Mahadeva.
For this they are called great mahants.
To markets and bazaars they peddle their meditation – false siddhas, lovers of maya.
When did Dattatreya attack a fort?
When did Sukadeva join with gunners?
When did Narada fire a musket?
When did Vyasadeva sound a battle cry?
These numbskulls make war. Are they ascetics or archers?
They profess detachment, but greed is their mind’s resolve.
They shame their profession by wearing gold. They collect stallions and mares,
acquire villages, and go about as millionaires.”

For my first post for 2017 I thought I’d explore an issue that I touched on in the introduction to the lecture I gave at Treadwells Bookshop in London – “Yogis Behaving Badly” last November – armed Yogis.

The popular image of Yogis – aside from the occasional guru-scandal – is of unworldly, detached renunciates, pursuing a peaceful spiritual path. We don’t generally think of Indian practitioners of Yoga in terms of military activity – acting as mercenaries, fighting with other ascetic groups, acting as tax-collectors – much less engaging in practices such as poisoning, spying, or kidnapping. The idea that practitioners of yoga have, from time immemorial, followed an unchanging, purely spiritual path, disengaged from worldly or political concerns that emerges in both colonial and contemporary revisionist yoga literature, conceals a more complex and troubled relationship – not only of conlicting conceptions of what constitutes a yogi, but also the relationship between esoteric practice and state power.

For this first post, I’ll try and outline some general features of armed asceticism in India and look at some of the historical and scholarly sources. In part two, I’ll take a closer look at the clashes between the British and armed yogis during the eighteenth century onwards.

There are obvious similarities between the lifestyles of soldiers and religious ascetics – both require self-discipline; a tolerance for long periods of travel and survival in the outdoors; the renunciation of family and sexual ties – and in medieval India, asceticism was no bar to engaging in trade or war, and there is extensive evidence for organised orders of ascetics wielding both political and economic influence as bankers, traders, and soldiers.

Ascetics as spies
One of the earliest texts which make reference to state uses by the state of ascetics is Kauṭilya’s treatise on statecraft, the Arthaśāstra which makes frequent reference, not only to a rulers responsibility to ensure that ascetics and their institutions behave correctly, and the ruler’s role in settling disputes between ascetics, but also to the employment of ascetics as agents of the state – as spies. Among the group of five classes of people who are suited to establish spying networks for a king are apostate renouncers (udāsthita) and fake hermits (tāpasavyañjana):

“One who has given up the life of a wandering ascetic and is endowed with intelligence and money is the apostate renouncer. Equipped with plenty of money and assistants, he should carry on his occupation at a spot assigned for that purpose. From its profits he should provide food, clothing, and lodging for wandering ascetics. He should secretly propose to those ascetics who seek a livelihood: “In this very garb you should work in the interest of the king and present yourself here at the time of meals and payment.” All wandering ascetics should make similar secret proposals to ascetics in their respective orders.” 1

The Arthaśāstra recommends the use of both āśrama-based and itinerant ascetics as spies, and also to bolster the reputation of such ascetic agent provocateurs as being miracle workers in order to aid them in their work of keeping tabs on what was happening within a state and also to sow dissention in rival states – sometimes aided by the use of magic and astrology.

Naked Nagas
Warrior ascetics are usually called nāgās (from the Hindi naṅgā – “naked”) and often appear naked, except for a loincloth, or wear black or orange clothes associated with saṃnyāsīs. Many of them smear their bodies with sacred ash made from burnt cow dung or from their dhūnīs (sacred fire). This ash, known as vibhūti – believed to have magical properties – is one of the most common offerings to devotees. Some nāgās wear their hair short, whilst others wear dreadlocks (jaṭā>). Nāgās are infamous for smoking large quantities of gāñgā or eating bhāñg (the buds of female cannabis plants and prepared cannabis leaves). Some nāgās engage in yoga practices whilst others practice austerities such as keeping an arm raised or remaining standing for years.

Nāgās are organised into Akhāṛās – a term also used to denote traditional wrestling training institutions. 2 Nāgās are sometimes described in popular literature as a seperate sect of ascetics – however, nāgās can be found attached to the main ascetic orders – both saivite and vaisnavas – such as the Daśanāmīs, Rāmānandīs and the Dādūpanthīs. There are also Sikh-affiliated akhāṛās. Although some commentators have attested that the Nāth Sampradāya had, at one time, its own nāgā contingent, scholars such as Matthew Clark (2006) and James Mallinson (2011) have argued that there is no substansive evidence to support this claim.

Despite the antiquity of ascetic orders in India, scholars have argued that the formation of militarised akhāṛās did not occurr until the late sixteenth century. It is from the late sixteenth century that the first accounts of conflicts between Daśanāmī saṃnyāsīs and bairāgīs (and between saṃnyāsīs and Sūfīs) appear. These conflicts seem to have been over the rights to collect taxes from pilgrims at melās.

Prior to this period there is some evidence of martial prowess amongst Śaiva ascetics.
According to Ronald M. Davidson (2002, p80) there is evidence dating back to the eighth century that Pāśupata ascetics were armed by trading guilds. David Lorenzen (1978, p65) finds some early evidence for militarisation of ascetics in Mādhavācārya’s account of the legendary encounter between Śaṅkarācārya and the Kāpālikas. When Śaṅkara’s protector, King Sudhanvan, had offended the Kāpālika leader, Krakaca, the latter “sent forth innumerable hosts of enraged Kapālins, whose terrifying shouts thundered like the clouds of the great deluge as they attacked with their weapons held aloft”. 3This account also includes mention of magical combat – a topic I will return to another time – between Śaṅkara and the Kapālins.

Alexis Sanderson (2009) notes that the prescriptive literature on the building of maṭhas (monasteries) says that they should contain armouries for storing weapons of war. He also mentions two Śaiva ascetics whose martial ardour is recorded in inscriptions: the late tenth-century Dharmaśiva, abbot of the Araṇipadra monastery at who, when the the region was invaded and the king had been killed, himself defeated the invaders through his skill as an archer; and the twelfth-century Kīrtiśiva, who acted as a military leader, expanding his monarch’s territories.

Owners of property
Ascetic prescriptive literature tends to preclude the idea that ascetics can own property or amass personal wealth, yet again there is considerable evidence that this was the case. See Sanderson (2009) for an in-depth review of inscriptional evidence attesting to the largesse of kings to saiva and buddhist institutions; for example – a Śaiva Rājaguru, Purandara, founding two maṭhas using the dakṣiṇā he had been granted from King Avantivarman in return for performing the king’s initiation. The inscription detailing this event records the revenue as “the most valuable portion of his kingdom”. Sanderson comments: “The wealth accumulated by these Gurus enabled them to behave like royal patrons themselves, not only founding new monasteries but also bestowing land-grants on Brahmins, rewarding poets, founding new temples and settlements…” (p268). It was through such royal patronage that the Śaiva religion was able to spread itself throughout the subcontinent quite rapidly.

Sectarian rivalries
A well-known account of armed yogis clashing in battle is in 1567 -as witnessed by the Emperor Akbar near Thaneswar. Accounts of the event are given in two Persian texts – Nizam-ud-din Ahmad’s Tabaqat-i-Akbari and Abu-‘l Fazl’sAkbar-nama. Nizam-ud-din Ahmad names the two opposing groups as Jogis and Sannyasins, whilst Abu-‘l Fazl names them as Gurs and Puris, which David Lorenzen has identified as Giris and Puris – two of the orders of the Daśanāmī. In Nizam-ud-din Ahmad’s account of the event, Akbar took pity on the losing side, and ordered some of his troops to disguise themselves – smearing themselves with ash – and give support to the Sannyasis, who subsequently won the battle. A depiction of this event was later illustrated by the artist Basawan in Abu-‘l Fazl’sAkbar-nama – the “official” chronicle of Akbar’s reign – a detail of which can be seen below (see this page in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s online collection).

detail from "Akbar Watches a Battle between Two Rival Groups of Saṃnyāsīs at Thaneshwar"

Such clashes between rival ascetic groups seem to have been quite common. Véronique Bouillier (2003) cites a Rāmānandī legend that two Giri Nagas swore an oath that they would not uphold ahimsa, but rather, to kill at least two Rāmānandīs a day. I will look in more detail at some of these conflicts – as well as how the armed yogis fared under the Raj, in the next post.

Véronique Bouillier The Violence of the Non-Violent, or Ascetics in Combat in,
Denis Vidal, Gilles Tarabout, Eric Meyer (eds) Violence/Non-Violence: Some Hindu Perspectives (Manohar, 2003)
Matthew Clark, The Daśanāmī-Saṃnyāsīs: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (Brill, 2006)
Ronald M Davidson Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement (Columbia University Press, 2002)
Timothy S. Dobe Hindu Christian Faqir: Modern Monks, Global Christianity, and Indian Sainthood (Oxford University Press, 2015)
J.N. Farquhar, The Fighting Ascetics of India (The John Rylands Library, 1925)
Sondra L. Hausner, Wandering with Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas (Indiana University Press, 2007)
David Lorenzen, Warrior Ascetics in Indian History (Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.98, No.1 (Jan-Mar., 1978), pp61-75)
David Lorenzen, Adrian Muñoz (eds) Yogi Heroes and Poets: Histories and Legends of the Nāths (State University of New York, 2011)
James Mallinson Nāth Saṃpradāya – entry in Vol. 3 of the Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism (see author’s page on
Patrick Olivelle, Ascetics and Brahmins: Studies in Ideologies and Institutions (Anthem Press, 2011)
William R. Pinch Peasants and Monks in British India (University of California Press, 1996)
Alexis Sanderson The Śaiva Age: An Explanation of the Rise and Dominance of Śaivism during the Early Medieval Period in, S. Einoo (ed) Genesis and Development of Tantrism (Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo, 2009)
David Gordon White Sinister Yogis (University of Chicago Press, 2009)


  1. Arthaśāstra 1.11.4-8, quoted from Olivelle, 2011, p299.
  2. see Joseph Alter’s The Wrestler’s Body: Identity and Ideology in North India (Oxford University Press, 1992) for an account of Indian wrestling
  3. Lorenzen does note however, that Mādhavācārya’s account, although it borrows verses from earlier works, cannot be dated earlier than between 1630-1800.