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Natha History


The Nath order is generally thought to have arisen between the 10th-12th centuries, systematised by the Mahasiddha Goraknath, who is widely credited with the formulation of Hatha Yoga. Nath gurus transmitted these teachings to their students – who were organised into twelve Nath panths. Although some Naths were itinerant, others settled into Monasteries. These monasteries acted to protect pilgrimage routes, and exercised both political and economic power as centres of trade, finance, and military might.

The Nathas came to identify themselves with the Siddhas. As powerful, semi-divine beings (often dwelling atop sacred mountains) capable of interceding in human affairs, they appear in Hindu, Jain & Buddhist sources; in oral tales, court plays, and epics. In the Mahabharata, for example, Siddhas grant the hero Arjuna with magical powers and weapons. From the 7th centuty onwards, the Siddhas were identified, within both Buddhist & Shaivite traditions, as yogis endowed with magical power; intermediaries who transmitted divine teachings. The greatest of these beings became known as the Mahasiddhas, and were organised into groups of both 9 and 84 – a feature later adopted by the Nathas. They were sometimes considered to be immortal yogis whose power surpassed that of the gods, wandering the world covered in ash, wearing large earrings, with unkempt and dreadlocked hair.

Warrior Sadhus

According to David Lorenzen, the Naths were one of the earliest militant ascetic groups of the medieval era. George Weston Briggs also attests that armed Nath bands would sometimes extract payments from villages or landowners by force.

Many Sadhus, prior to the eighteenth century were known to be fierce warriors. The idea of warrior-sadhus itself flies in the face of the popular image of the Indian holy man (or woman) as a pacificistic renouncer of the material world. Yet neither pacificism nor tolerance were givens in Indian religious traditions prior to the eighteenth century. Battles between religious orders could be deadly, and mercenary activities were very lucrative for sadhus. Bands of armed sadhus – one report is of 10,000 sadhus carrying chimtas – large iron pincers with sharpened edges – battling the army of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. By the mid-eighteenth century, some of the Vaishnava and Shaiva akharas (“regiments”) had become much sought-after martial forces by North Indian rulers. One such group, the Dasnamis (Shaiva Nagas) could field 12,000 highly effective troops. William Pinch notes that when these groups were not fighting on behalf of a kingdom to which they were aligned, they often fought against each other – pitched battles between Shaiva and Vaishnava akharas at melas are documented from the mid-seventeenth century onwards. Disputes, Lorenzen says, were frequently over the policing of the fairs, and the collection of pilgrim taxes. More recently, the kumbh mela in 1954 where armed Naga sadhus attacked other pilgrims, leading to a stampede in which at least 500 people died.

Subaltern Sadhus by William Pinch

The British, needless to say, saw martial sadhus as a threat. Although initially the East India Company employed armed sadhu bands as mercenaries, their unwillingness to cede their autonomy to the British authorities made them the target of legislation. Labelled as “vagrants”, an act in 1840 outlawed the “extortion of alms” by “offensive and disgusting exhibitions and practices”, which encompassed public nudity and performance of tantric practices. Suranjan Chatterjee comments that the government could not “countenance recalcitrant sadhus wanfering about the countryside, armed, dangerous, often naked, and claiming to represent an alternate locus of authority.”

By the late Mughal period, some Nath abbots speculated heavily in land acquisition and acted as money-lenders. Other Naths were householders – also considered powerful (though less so than ascetic yogis) and also had a place in local economies – in return for donations, they would use the ash from their sacred fires to heal the sick, give barren women sons, and protect crops. Natha shrines – associated with the power of a Mahasiddha and managed by housholder Naths acting as pujaris (ritual specialists) became sites of intercession by members of the lay community. They were invited to live in villages by local headmen due to their repute for protective magical power. Some Naths also acted as bards, singing the legends of the mahasiddhas, celebrating their power to make and unmake kings and princes, and to destroy whole cities by their magical power. Thus they were respected – but also feared – being known to curse those who were disrespectful as much as they would bestow grace and protection upon those who honoured them. David Gordon White aptly characterises the Naths as “the supernatural power-brokers of medieval India” – as the grace of a Nath Mahasiddha became a powerful marker of legitimacy for rulers.

Monastic Naths

Caughera is a Nath Monastery located in southwest Nepal. In the 1990s it was home to aproximately 30 yogis, with visiting pilgrims.

Here is one version of the legend which relates how Caughera Monastery was founded. It all began with a king who went hunting in the woods. Whilst pursuing a deer he was hunting, the king encountered an ascetic. An arrow which the king had shot was before the ascetic. The king apologised for disturbing the ascetic, and the Siddha forgave him, and offered the king a boon. Showing the king a vision of all the land to the east and the west, the ascetic offered the king its sovereignty. The king felt he could not rule such a large territory, so the Siddha showed him a much smaller territory. Again the king refused, and eventually agreed to reign over the Dang Valley. The Siddha, Ratannath, gave the king his arrow back and told him that as long as he kept the arrow, he would be able to rule well. The king then initiated the worship of Ratannath. Ever since, the king’s lineage has worshipped Ratannath for six months. Then the arrow is passed to the yogis for six months. They worship the arrow and the king must grant them half of the income he gets from his territory.

The relationship between kingship and Ratannath expressed through legends can be found in three areas: Dang, Chilli, and Phalabang. In all three regions, Ratannath temples are built fairly close to the sites of royal palaces. The movements of the kings from summer to winter palaces were accompanied by processionals of yogis carrying the deities’ emblems from one temple to another.

Caughera was founded following a land grant in perpetuity (guthi) by the king – consisting of seven villages. The revenue of the lands (both income from agriculture and taxes) was intended for the maintenance of the monastery, feeding visiting pilgrims and the performance of rituals there. The Yogis dwelling there are considered to be pujaris. As the legend explains, the yogis receive a share in the revenue of the kingdom because they, like the king, act for the welfare of the kingdom. The correct performance of puja is necessary for the well-being of the king. However, the king is entitled to view the monastery’s accounts and to ensure that the revenue collected is applied properly. Also, the yogi who manages the administration of the monastery – the manbhu is appointed by the king (or senior minister).

Naths at Court

In the early years of the nineteenth century, the Naths were one of many groupings of ascetics in the state of Marwar (Jodhpur Region). Since the mid-eighteenth century, the maharajas of Jodhpur had been for the most part devotees of Krishna, and had a close relationship with a Brahmin community – the Pushtimarg sampradaya, who provided the spiritual legitimacy of the rulers. This was soon to change however, with the accession to the throne of Man Singh. In 1803, the young prince Man Singh was, following a struggle for succession after the death of his grandfather Maharaj Bijay Singh, under seige at the fortress of Jalore from the armies of Bhim Singh, who had eliminated all rival claimants to the throne of Jodhpur. By October of that year, Man Singh had agreed to surrender, but as he prepared to do so, his spiritual perceptor, the Guru Dev Nath, came to him with a message from the Mahasiddha Jallandharnath (the temple complex at the fort was the most important Nath sacred site in the region). Jallandharnath decreed that if Man Singh could hold out until Diwali, then not only would he win out at Jalore, but that he would gain the throne of Marwar. A few days later, Bhim Singh unexpectedly died, and his principal general declared his allegiance to Man Singh. Man Singh was duly crowned Maharaja in January, 1804. He fervently believed that he owed his success to the grace of Jallandharnath, and quickly began to shower favours on his Nath Guru and the Nath community in Marwar. Over the next 40 years, Man Singh dedicated a great deal of energy (and money) in patronising the Naths; contructing temples, collecting & commissioning literary works and himself writing devotional songs and poems; commissioning over a 1,000 paintings depicting various aspects of Nath life.

Shortly after his ascension, Man Singh brought Dev Nath from Jalore fort to Jodhpur, building a grand temple and walled town dedicated to Jallandharnath (Mahamandir) and ordered that a Nath temple be established in each of Marwar’s districts. Dev Singh was not only the maharaja’s spiritual guru, but also his political advisor – Man Singh having declared that if Dev Nath’s ‘message’ from Jallandharnath came to pass, he would share his kingdom with Dev Nath. Man Singh also bestowed land grants on Dev Nath and his 4 brothers, allowing them to become lords over the territories awarded them and to collect revenue from them. Naths gradually displaced the hereditory nobility’s power at court, and took up administrative positions throughout the state, so that they came to control one-tenth of the kingdom’s annual revenue. The wealth directed at the Naths was controlled by Dev Naths’ family and a group which Debra Diamond characterises as the “Nath Elite”. The Naths had their own courts and military assets. They effectively became “state-sponsored holy men” and the mixed fear and respect which was accorded them due to their reputation for magical ability was now further reinforced by state power and wealth. Natha doctrine also became the religion of the maharaja’s court, and Man Singh insisted that all members of the nobility attending court should publically show devotion to his Gurus (there were three others after Dev Nath).

The rise in influence of the Naths throughout Marwar during the reign of Man Singh did not pass uncontested. Members of the nobility, displaced from their hereditory roles by the Nath elite, protested, and in 1815 Dev Nath was assasinated. A group of nobles also requested that the British intervene. There was also popular protest against the taxes levied in favour of the Naths and Nath abuses of women. Man Singh also alienated the Pushtimarg Brahmins transferring some of their land grants to the Naths.

The British interventation

Man Singh’s devotion to the Nath doctrine is recounted in British documents of the period. Diplomatic interchange between British Colonial Officers and Man Singh had been established in 1835 – and Man Singh had agreed to pay Rs 1,50,000 for the maintenance of the Jodhpur legion. But the British government were concerned by the influence of the Naths on the Maharaja and “his life of increasing indolence” (Rajputana Agency, 1832-1858 By Vijay Kumar Vashishtha p124). By 1838, the payment to the British had fallen into arrears, and both the State and the Maharaja personally were in debt. The territory held by the Naths was not taxed, and the lax government meant that the country was less safe to travellers. British efforts to seek a diplomatic resolution failed, and in 1839 the British withdrew their protection from Jodhpur, then sent in the troops. Jalore was occupied, Man Singh agreed to exclude the Naths from the administration of the State; to pay all accumulated debts and the cost of the expedition, and to restore possessions and rights to local chiefs who had lost property to the Naths. The troops were withdrawn in 1840, and Jodhpur was to be governed by a Council of Regency with one Captain Ludlow as the Jodhpur Political Agent. The Naths however, still exerted a “baleful” influence, and in 1842, it was discovered that they were still diverting state funds for their benefit, to the extent that “a large number of State jewels had to be pawned werewith to gratify them”. Man Singh’s reluctance to distance himself from the Naths led to the British deployment of the Jodhpur Legion to expell them from the State. In 1842 the Maharaja made a written agreement that the Naths could not return to Jodhpur without the permission of the British Government. Naths who attempted to interfere in the administration of the State were to be arrested and only a limited number – those required for performing puja at temples were to remain. The Maharaja however, took no interest in the affairs of the State except to “misapply its resources” in favour of the Naths. Ludlow, after some weeks of fruitless negotiation with Man Singh, deployed troops to seize the leaders of the Nath fraternity. Man Singh, unable to oppose the British, left his palace, bare-headed and barefoot, covered with ash, and took up an ascetic life with the Naths. The British began to look into an earlier proposal for deposing the Maharaja, but before this got very far, Man Singh died. The Naths who were being held in prison were released as it was felt that they would no longer be able to influence affairs of State in Jodhpur.

Naths as a caste group

Daniel Gold has studied householder Naths in contemporary Rajasthan who form a caste group, and their relationships with ascetic lineages: “the relationship between ascetic Nath yogis and the Nath caste is complex – ostensibly distant but often mutually supportive …”. Gold explains that members of the Nath caste in Rajasthan regularly recount tales of their descent from Nath sadhus – representing not only a historical reality, but also the householder’s view of their continued relationship with the sadhus. He takes a look at the village of Dhamnia in east-central Rajasthan, which has a large Nath population – resulting from the village’s origin as a settlement around a Nath yogi’s shrine. A plaque dating from the 14th century indicates that land was given for the shrine by Maharana Raimal Singh to Sarvan Nath. Sarvan Nath, so it is said, attracted some lay followers from herding, agricultural castes and martial Rajputs, who settled near the shrine. Sarvan Nath initiated a lineage of sadhus who became active in the region. His most famous disciple was Megh Nath, who went on to found his own shrine and went to live in the village of Kheriya. Megh Nath’s own disciple, Shital Nath, became known for his earthly prosperity – owning 350 cows, and gold coins were reputed to emerge from his firepit. Shital Nath also acquired a wife, and they had three sons together – from which sprung Dhamnia’s Naths. However, Shital Nath’s prosperity and family led to his downfall – his cows were stolen and, wounded by an arrow, he decided to make his final samadhi and offered his shrine to his sons. The sons however, did not respond appropriately, and Shital Nath cursed them, saying that their descendents would have no more than twenty-one cows each.

Gold explains that this story of the “origin” of Dhamnia’s Naths can be seen as a fall – “an unfortunate interaction of magical power with the worldly passions of family and politics.” Yet, he says, the image of Shital Nath – the prosperous married householder-magician, remains an ideal in the Nath imagination – and notes that Householder Naths, particularly in the earlier generations of a lineage, have frequently been viewed as powerful yogis. It was the worldly influence of the Naths, he says, which encouraged young men of other castes to take initiation as Nath sadhus – and it is likely that some of these men married, having children who were born as Naths.

Gold notes that householder Naths in Rajasthan follow the sadhu practice of burying their dead as opposed to burning them in the usual Hindu custom. In addition, he says, some householder Naths wear the large earrings, through holes cut through their cartilages – the characteristic mark of Nath yogis – thereby making a statement about their status as yogis in the community (not all sadhus undergo this practice). Householders also wear orange tunics and turbans (orange being the traditional colour associated with sadhus) and sometimes a necklace of rudraksa beads. Gold suggests that whilst “the householder Nath might not perfectly fit the yogi’s ideal, he could still be seen as a real yogi” – noting that the lineage history at Dhamnia can be seen as a series of recognised yogis with various degrees of imperfection.

Householders and sadhus

Nath sadhus are depicted as attempting to attain mastery of their bodies and the world – ideally through yogic askesis – although Gold says that many today do not seem to engage in rigorous meditative practice. Some sadhus he says, when asked, “say that their practice is silence, or watching, or sitting.” and that they are generally reticent about the use of mantras, magical practice, or meditative practices. They tend to stress, he says, that they are free from worldly entanglements. In contrast, householder Naths, whilst they may attend shrines in their own or neighbouring villages, have families to support, and for the most part farm land. They supplement this income not only through acting as shrine pujaris, but also sometimes reciting epics, presiding over funerary practices, and offering magical cures for common ailments and agricultural disasters such as a plague of locusts.

The transmission of knowledge is also handled differently by householders – rather than the transmission from guru to disciple as it is in the legends of Nath yogis, it is understood as an assimilation of the community’s traditions. Whilst householder Naths have the right to that knowledge – it has to be learned. It can be received from one’s father, or from someone else. In order to learn the epic songs, an apprenticeship with a trained singer is required. Naths go to different elders – treating them as temporary gurus, in order to learn mantras. The emphasis, says Gold, is not on strong bonds between guru and disciple, but learning the lore of the community. Householders like to identify with the sadhus – viewing them as exemplars of Nath tradition, but the sadhus tend to distance themselves from householders, seeing them as not real yogis. Nevertheless, Gold says, sadhus may act on behalf of householders; though householders may sometimes scorn the sadhus and point to the virtue of their own ways.

Gold recounts a story wherein a Nath sadhu acted on behalf of householder Naths in order to protect Nath honour. Sukha Nath and Maingi Nath were householder Naths from the village of Junia, who in their old age had taken up sadhu ways. The two visited a neighbouring village to attend a yajna – a Vedic-style sacrifice, but were treated gruffly by the presiding Vaishnava sadhu, so they left. On the way back to their village, they encountered the sadhu Didar Nath – “carrying the yogi’s trident, two human skulls, a goat’s head, and a drum.” When the two householders related what had occurred Didar Nath cursed and told them to return to the yajna with him. When they got to the sacrifice he started his own fire, and began toasting the goat’s head on it. All the Brahmin sadhus complained that he had ruined the sacrifice, and the leaders beged him to take whatever offering he wanted and leave. Snakes started appearing out of the ground, and Didar Nath was offered 7,000 rupees to go away. He took the money, and used it to get a watering place for travelers built at the spot. Gold notes that the magical aggressiveness, vulgarity and touchiness displayed by Didar Nath is reminiscient of many of the legendary stories told about Nath yogis in the region – but that what makes this story notable is that his response is an affront to a wider community of Naths – including those with a mixed householder-sadhu identity.

Changes in status

Gold also discusses how changes have occurred due to the process of Sanskritisation – the term used to describe the adoption by local traditions of “high cultural norms” found in Sanskrit texts. He points out that although Sanskritisation appears to homogenise – linking local traditions to a more ‘standardised’ Hindu cultural sphere, it has actually proved divisive for Naths, as different Sanskritic ideals for householders and sadhus increase the distance between the two faces of the community. This model, he says, diverges from the norms of Rajasthan, which had previously provided elite models which supported the life of a married sadhu. He notes that in the premodern period, Naths generally achieved positions of power and wealth through active association with royalty – and in adopting the ways of the elite – Naths adopted “princely ideals.” These did not emphasise the virtues of restraint and self-discipline as prescribed for sages in Sanskrit texts, but emphasised the accumulation and distribution of wealth; sexual activity and implusive action, particularly in the pursuit of honour. For example, Laxmi Nath of Jodhpur, in 1841, took punitive action against a widow of his clan who, in defiance of princely norms, took another husband. The image cultivated by Naths was not neither that of the brahminical sage, nor of the respectable householder, but that of the warrior-sadhu. This image has lost much of its practical value following British rule and independence. Nath sadhus nowadays, tend to appear like many other Shaiva ascetics. Gold says that few Naths nowadays can derive a living from their religious work, and most live like other landed peasants. Housholder Naths increasingly conform to general Hindu householder norms. Even the practice of burying the dead is on the wane, with Naths from Uttar Pradesh reporting that the dead are cremated there – the suggestion being that there are large numbers of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh who are regularly buried and include groups known as Jogis.

Mahendra Nath of Delhi. leader of the national Nath caste association, advocates closer conformity to Hindu householder norms, and recommends that householders demarcate themselves from their sadhu counterparts. He also seeks governmental recognition of the Naths as a “backward class” of “religious mendicants” entitling them to preferential treatment in government employment. In Rajasthan, several popular Nath religious leaders have emerged, exhorting their audiences to take pride in their heritage – but they are likely, says Gold, to do this in a moral tone and Sanskritic language more in keeping with Gita Press tracts (a large publisher of Hindu religious books based at Gorakhpur, the site of the large Nath monastery) than the more rural traditions found amongst some Nath sadhus. Householder Naths, says Gold, are producing their own religious leadership which promotes a distinctive style of middle-class Hindu piety. Although oral lore is still preserved, printed texts of various kinds are increasingly playing a role in preserving Nath identity: “Printed materials can … help upwardly aspiring, literate Naths assimilate both the wider Indian and regional rural aspects of their tradition.”

Gold concludes that maintaining a distinct Nath identity within the diversity of Hindu communities entails preserving images of magical power. Nath sadhus are therefore, often “tougher” than other Shaiva counterparts, and householders continue to do popular magic. Moreover, Gold says, “the same individuals most revered as popular preachers amongst householders are also said to be deeply involved in esoteric practices rumoured to border the scandalous. .. Even while becoming established within conventional society, householders tell raucous stories; and sadhus present fierce visages that continue to startle their compatriots.”