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Book review: Yogi Heroes and Poets: Histories and Legends of the Naths

I first heard about the Nath Sampradaya in 1986, through an initial meeting (and later practicing with) members of AMOOKOS, the West-East tantric magical “order” founded in 1978 at the behest of Shri Gurudev Mahendranath (Dadaji) – a.k.a Anton Miles, a “white sadhu” who had (or so I was told) been initiated into a branch of the Natha Sampradaya in the early 1950s (See here for some further discussion of AMOOKOS and its contested and convoluted history as a “western Natha Siddha Transmission”). Dadaji/Anton Miles certainly deserves more attention. Quite apart from his status as a sadhu, he is known to have fought in the International Brigade against Franco’s fascists in the 1930s, was arrested in Brighton for demonstrating for Unemployment benefit reform (an event which was briefly mentioned in the New York Post), and claimed an association with Gerald Gardner’s Bricket Wood Coven as well as a meeting with Aleister Crowley. The Naths though, were presented as “hardcore” tantric practitioners, as having “founded” hatha yoga, and as being an “outsider” tradition with little contact with mainstream culture, and moreover, that they were “dying out” as India modernised and became less amenable to tantric practices. In those days, there was not much in the way of scholarly work available on the Naths, apart from George Weston Briggs’ 1938 book, Goraknath and the Kanphata Yogis.

Over the last two decades or so, there’s been if not an explosion, then something of a steady dribble of scholarly work on the Naths, with texts such as David Gordon White’s The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (1996), Ann and Daniel Gold’s studies of householder Naths in contemporary Rajasthan, and K.E. Nayar, and J.S. Sandhu’s The socially involved renunciate: Guru Nanak’s Discourse to the Nāth yogis (2007). Out of this scholarly work has emerged a more complex and nuanced image of the Naths, for example that although the Naths were influenced by more recognisably “tantric” traditions, they are not necessarily tantric in orientation; that whilst Naths are seemingly Saivite in orientation, some Nath panths display a fusion of Saivite and Vaishnava doctriine, whilst others display an orientation towards the notion of god as formless (nirguna). We know too, know, more about how the Naths occasionally enjoyed royal patronage (see Aspects of Natha History for some related discussion).

Yogi Heroes and Poets
Yogi Heroes and Poets edited by David Lorenzen and Adrian Muñoz (State University of New York, 2011, 228pp, H/bk) comprises of nine essays examining different aspects of Nath tradition, practices, and history including their relationships with other movements and discussion of some of their religious ideas. The essays are categorised into two sections – the first – “Yogis in History” brings together essays by Purushottam Agrawal, David N Lorenzen, Daniel Gold and Ishita Banerjee-Dube whilst the second – “Theology and Folklore” comprises of contributions by David Gordon White, Ann Grodzins Gold, Adrian Muñoz, Lubomir Ondracka and Csaba Kiss.

The first essay, by Purushottam Agrawal, examines the way in which various early twentieth-century Indian literary critics looked at the vernacular poetry attributed to the Naths – in particular, Gorakh. Naths were credited for their use of Hindi, and to various degrees, for “building bridges” between the Hindu and Muslim communities, yet at the same time they were sometimes judged to have subverted householder norms and values. These literary historiographies explored the relationship between Naths, nirguni bhakti and Kabir, and also saw them as playing a key role in the metamorphosis of Buddhist practices into everyday lived religosity.

David Lorenzen’s chapter focuses on notions related to religious identity as found in the poems of Gorakh and compares them with similar – although contrasting ideas – found in the poetry of Kabir and Sikh Gurus. He argues that in pre-colonial India, complexities of pluralistic religious affiliation notwithstanding, people did have a fairly clear sense of their own religious identities and boundaries, pointing out that both Gorakh and Kabir “sought to construct a religious identity that allowed them to straddle both religious traditions – to somehow be both Hindu and Muslim and neither, all at the same time.” Lorenzen demonstrates that several of the verses in Gorakh’s Gorakh-bani show a clear rejection of both Hindu and Muslim ritual practices, and the affirmation of a seperate and superior yoga tradition. Similarly, he discusses how, in Kabir’s songs and verses, there is a clear distinction made between Hindus, Muslims, yogis, and to some extent – Shaktas. He characterises Kabir as a “radical pluralist” due to his claim that one can recognise the presence of the divine in one’s own heart – without ritual, discipline, or theology.

Daniel Gold’s short essay Different Drums in Gwalior examines two Nath heritages in a contemporary urban setting – the Dholi Buwa lineage and the Raja Bhakshar. The Dholi Buwa claim a dual identity – of being both Naths and Vaishnavas, and Gold relates how the lineage made the transition from its founder – a celibate yogi – to a family of householder Naths, and that some devotees believe that the founder, Mahipati Nath, was reborn into the householder family. The Raja Bakshar incorporates both Hindu and Muslim devotees, and has incorporated Sufi elements into its ritual practice (such as intensive drumming). Gold points out that the Naths’ former “tough ascetic style” and their reputation for occult powers is not generally attractive to “spiritually-minded urbanites” and that the popularity of these two Nath institutions rests in their having found “unfulfilled niches toward opposite extremes of the urban socioreligious world, but in neither case exceeding the comfort zone of most urban Hindus.”

In the final chapter in the first section, Ishita Banerjee-Dube examines the influence of Nath ideas and practices on Mahima Dharma, a radical religious movement formed in nineteenth century Orrisa, whose founder, Mahima Swami, advocated devotion to an all-pervasive, formless Absolute – rejecting ritual practice, caste norms, and the authority of Brahmins. Prior to establishing his own Dharma, Mahima Swami incorporated elements of both Saivite and Vaishnava practice into his own sadhana. Banerjee-Dube finds three elements of Nath practice in Mahima Swami – the keeping of a dhuni (a sacred fire particularly associated with the Naths); Mahima Swami’s status as an avadhuta, and the conception of the Absolute as a god “beyond form and attributes”. Banerjee-Dube then turns her attention to Bhima Bhoi – a disciple of the Swami whom Banerjee-Dube terms a “poet-philosopher”. Again, she identifies tantric and Nath themes in the songs, stories, and texts produced by Bhima Bhoi: “his works represent a rich assortment of elements from Vaishnavaism, Buddhism, tantra, mysticism, and bhakti.” According to Banerjee-Dube, the presence of tantric themes in Bhima Bhoi’s writings generated tensions amongst devotees of Mahima Dharma, with one group of ascetics attempting to “suppress the tantric elements in Bhima Bhoi’s poetry and marginalize him as a householder devotee…”.

Part Two of Yogi Heroes and Poets opens with David Gordon White’s examination of the Siddha-siddhanta-paddhati – a work attributed to Goraknath which is chiefly concerned with Nath philosophy and esoteric anatomy. White provides a translation and examination of the third chapter of this text, which provides a “complete and detailed identification of the human body (pinda) with the universe of the ‘Puranic’ cosmic egg (brahmanda). White stresses that this identification cannot really be understood as a microcosmic replication of a macrocosmic universe (see Tantra keywords: embodied for some related discussion). White relates the presentation of the yogi’s body as expounded in the Siddha-siddhanta-paddhati with the notions of the body found in tantric sources such as the works of Abhinavagupta and the vernacular poetry of Gorakh – and the equivalence of the physical universe with the cosmic man of Purusa found in Vedic sources and the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita.

Ann Gold’s essay presents two contemporary Nath stories which feature the motif of the necessity of giving alms to wandering Nath Yogis. In her discussion of these two performed pieces – “The Potter’s Tale” and “The Dairymaid’s Tale” – Gold examines how these two narratives indicate that whilst giving alms to yogins is meritorious then refusing to do so, or setting limits on one’s giving can be dangerous. The appropriate response is to surrender that which is most precious or valued without any expectation of gain in return – that the request for alms is not simply a “matter of the stomach” but a transmission of esoteric understanding or awakening. Gold notes that this kind of Nath peformance is declining (at least in rural Rajasthan where she does her ethnographic fieldwork) partly due to the fact that most Naths in the region have other sources of income (such as owning agricultural land) and partly because of a change of attitude in their audience which now gives less value to their performances.

Chapters seven and eight both focus on the well-known Nath story of Matsyendranath in the “land of women” and his “rescue” by Goraknath. There are a number of versions of this legend, but the key points are that Matsyendranath, after arriving in the Kingdom of Women, becomes the lover of Queen Mainakini, and takes his pleasure amongst the host of 16 hundred courtesans. The queen orders that no man – and in particular, no yogi, is to be admitted into the kingdom so that Matsyendra can perform his Kaula practices uninterrupted. After twelve years, Gorakhnath decides to act to save his guru. Arriving at the Kadali forest, bordering the Kingdom of Women, he meets a troupe of female musicians, and Goraknath joins them, taking the form of a female drummer. But standing guard over the kingdom is the god Hanuman, from whom the Queen, through her devotion, has obtained the boon that Hanuman will prevent any man from entering. Gorakh defeats Hanuman using the power of his weapon-mantras, then successfully argues his case for entering the kingdom and recovering Matsyendranath with both Hanuman and Rama. In the court, the female musicians (including Gorakh) perform before the queen, Matsyendra, and the courtesans. Gorakh makes his drum emit sounds only Matsyendra can hear -enjoining him to wake up, to remember the Nath sadhana, and to forget the seductions of women, as they are obstacles to yoga. Matsendrana recognises his disciple and remembers his former condition. But he stays on in the palace until Mainakini gives birth to a son, named Minanatha. One day, Matsyendra asks Gorakh to take the boy to the river, to bathe him. Gorakhnath slays the child, and hangs his flayed skin on a roof. Matsyendra and Mainakini, after hearing Gorakh’s matter-of-fact admission of this act, become angry and curse him. Gorakh then agrees to restore the child to life, sprinkling ash and scattering it across the flayed skin. One hundred and eight Minanaths spring up, and Gorakh asks the queen to choose her real son from amongst them – which she cannot do, whereupon Gorakh says, “if you cannot recognise your own son, how can you call him yours?”. Mainakini concedes the point to Gorakh, who produces the real child. He and Matsyendra then leave the Kingdom of Women and go on pilgrimage.

Adrian Muñoz’s essay “Matsyendra’s Golden Legend: Yogi Tales and Nath Ideology” identifies three types of Nath literature – Sanskrit texts on hatha-yoga, vernacular poetry, and hagiographic narratives. He argues that Matsyendranath’s sojourn in the Kingdom of Women, and his subsequent release by Goraknath can be read as indicating an ideological dispute between the Kaula tantric tradition associated with Matsyendranath, and later Nath attempts to eliminate sexual rites from their practices, and finds support in various verses from the Gorakh-bani which stress that giving in to sensuality leads to bodily degeneration, death, and prevents union with the Absolute. In other words, the “Golden Legend” is a story of how not to behave if one is a Nath yogi – with a subtext that sexual indulgence will lead yogis to being bound by the ties of family and household . Muñoz mentions that most of the Nath yogis he has encountered in India and Nepal claimed a distinct seperation – and even opposition to tantrics, and that texts attributed to Matsyendranath such as the Kaula-jnana-niryana were not part of the Nath panth.

Chapter Eight – Lubomir Ondracka’s “What Should Minanath Do to Save His Life?” also discusses Gorakhnath’s efforts to rescue Matsyendranath from the sensual temptations of the Kingdom of Women, but takes as his starting point a Bengali version of the legend. In this Bengali narrative, Minanath (Matsyendranath) after recognising Gorakhnath protests that (a) he is too weak and old to return to a yogic way of life and (b) that in any case, he was only emulating Siva . In reply, Gorakhnath sings of the difference between Siva and Minanath, and instructs him in the yogic technique of the “four moons” and it is the nature of these “four moons” which Ondracka is concerned with, and discusses the possible interpretations of this obscure practice – possibilities which include hatha-yoga transformations of Kaula rituals, Sahajiya or even Sufi practices.

The final essay, by Csaba Kiss examines an intersection between Nathism and tantra. In examining a text known as the Matsyendra-samhita which features tantric practices such as worship of yoginis, rules for sexual practices, and meditations involving skulls. Kiss explores the possible links between tantra practice – and in particular, a shakta-oriented practice, and the Naths. Kiss maps out the possible connections between the Matsyendra-samhita and other Kaula texts and argues that the Matsyendra-samhita emerges from the broader tantric tradition known as Sambhava related to the goddess Kubjika; and that this particular work can be seen as a link between early Saiva tantric traditions (5th-10th century) and the later hatha-yoga traditions (fifteenth century). Kiss provides a useful examination of bhava – the process by which a yogin visualises an object (often a deity) and strives to identify with it. Bhava as Kiss points out, is more than visualisation – it involves the generation of empathic feelings – including passionate devotion in attaining the desired union.

One of the first things that struck me, on reading Yogi Heroes and Poets was that it produces a very different impression of the Naths than many of the claims about the historical Naths that I encountered through the European AMOOKOS community – primarily, that the Naths cannot simply be characterised as “tantrics” nor were they only Saivite in orientation. Although the claim that Hatha-Yoga emerged out of Nath practices is not directly addressed in this book, I refer the interested reader to Dr. James Mallinson’s 2009 lecture at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies “Siddhas, Munis and Yogins but no Naths: The Early History of Hathayoga” (download as mp3 audio file) which argues that no single group can be credited with the foundation of hatha-yoga, and that none of the foundational yoga texts were written by Naths. Dr Mallinson has also recently produced (2011) an important in-depth overview of the Natha Sampradaya (available as a pdf from Dr. Mallinson’s website which argues, contrary to popular and other scholarly opinion, that the Naths did not emerge as a formalised “order” (sampradaya) until the early seventeenth century.

Although there is much of interest in Yogi Heroes and Poets I admit that overall, I found it a difficult book to get to grips with. I found that the wide range of approaches to the Naths covered in this book – literary historiography, contemporary ethnology and textual analysis – and their related specialist disciplinary methodologies – left me struggling occasionally. Some of the essays came across to me as snapshots of scholarly work which is very much “in progress” and although this anthology does much to highlight the plurality of Nath influences and areas for further investigation, I found it to be more of a taste of “things to come”. It’s certainly a strong starting-point though, as the editors themselves point out, there is much more work to be done here.

If you have a strong interest in reading the most current directions in academic work on the Nathas, you might find Yogi Heroes and Poets of interest – but it might be worth waiting to see if the book comes out in paperback first (or in a digital edition). Hopefully Gordan Djurdjevic and Shukdev Singh’s Sayings of Gorakhnāth: Selected Translations from the Gorakh Bānī – forthcoming from Oxford University Press – will shed more light on the subject.

One comment

  1. Phil Hine
    Posted October 29th 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Yogi Heroes and Poets is now out in paperback.