Aspects of Natha doctrines
The primal preceptor of the Naths is often believed to by Siva himself – designated with the title Adi Nath (“Original Master”). Adi Nath’s immediate human disciple is Matsyendranath, and his most prominent disciple is the Mahaguru Goraknath.
The Nathas considered themselves to be a spiritual elite – they were adepts possessing magical powers, whose founder was Siva and whose greatest teachers were worshipped as gods. They had access to extraordinary knowledge through the lineage of teachers and their esoteric practices – which, as numerous Natha texts make clear, were not meant for non-initiates. Members of an esoteric community, they considered themselves to be more powerful than priests or kings, and several paintings comissioned by Man Singh depict the Nath masters supplanting the gods in their spiritual hierarchy. The central focus of Nath aspiration was power – the acquisition of magical abilities or bodily immortality.
The Nathas were one of the earliest medieval ascetic groups in India to use vernacular languages such as Hindi or Bengali – as opposed to Sanskrit (and its associated culture) – to express their ideas and teachings. Nath poetry often references metaphors and motifs which concern the occupations and lives of the common people – artisans or peasants. Although there are a number of Sanskri Nath texts (some of which are attributed to Goraknath) the popular image of Nath Siddhas is derived primarily from their legends, poetry and songs. The poems were primarily written to be sung (often accompanied by a variety of musical instruments), and, whilst they often contained coded esoteric messages, they became popular due to their lycricism, simple diction, and expression of religious themes.
Goraknath is known to have brought together disciples from Buddhism, Hinduism and Muslims. One disciple, Baba Ratan Haji converted a number of Muslims to Yoga practice, and Guga Pir is another notable Muslim disciple of Goraknath. The Muslim Emperor Akbar was also a practitioner of yoga, and Goraknath is the patron deity of the Gorkhas of eastern Nepal. The sixteenth century Tibetan historian Taranath made both Matsyendranath and Goraknath Buddhist teachers, whilst some Saivites revered Goraknath as as an incarnation of Siva.
There was both interchange and tension between Sikhs and Nathas – see for example Guru Nanak’s Siddh Gost which in part, takes the form of a discourse between the Sikh Guru and Natha ascetics. Although Guru Nanak’s teachings draw on Natha doctrines, he rejects the worship of deities and external practices.
NB: For an intriguing look at how 12th century siddhas combined Buddhist & Natha doctrines, see:Buddhaguptanatha and the Late Survival of the Siddha Tradition in India
Sufis and Nathas
Although there was, prior to the 8th century, some trade contact between India and Arabia, Islamic institutions did not begin to spread widely throughout India until Muhammad bin Qasim’s occupation of Sind and succesive invasions. By the 12th century, Delhi was the seat of the Ghor dynasty, establishing a new court language, new legal systems and new beliefs. Northern India saw much cultural intermingling and in particular, the spread of Sufi ideas. Sufis found much common ground in Tantra & yoga practices, and Indian Sufism developed from its Middle East roots through a process of cultural hybridity. Sufis were not concerned with conversion or the popularisation of the conventions of Islam. but had a more egalitarian emphasis on love for the divine and the commonality of all peoples. Wandering dervishes such as the Qalandari took up Natha practices and Sufi terminology began to intermingle with tantric terms. The Qalandaris had much in common with the Nathas; having a reputation for resisting the authority of the sharia, and were critical of more orthodox Sufi lineages and also were known for their flaunting of social conventions.
Examples of the convergence of Natha and Sufi ideas can be found in the Rusnama of the Sufi poet Abdu’l-Quddus Gangohi (1456-1537):
This mind is Shakti, this mind is Shiva,
This mind is the jiva of the three worlds
He who takes this mind and “stills” it
Can speak about the three worlds.
A similar passage can be found in the Gorakhbani – highlighting the affinities between Sufis and Nathas. Also from that text:
Well here I am
By birth a Hindu,
By vocation a Yogi
By inclination a Muslim mystic.
Isn’t it time that difference forgotten
Priests to follow
A path that Gods themselves have embraced.
Sufis also popularised the mathnavi – a Persian court romantic genre in which themes of love and the lover-beloved become symbolic of the mystic’s absorption in the divine, and the longing of the lover becomes synonomous with the longing soul for union with the absolute. This genre flowered during the sixteenth century, along with the Bhakta poetry of the Vaishnavas.
Another example of the fusion of Sufi And Natha ideas can be found in the works of the 17th century Prince Muhammad Dara Shukuh, such as the Risalah-i haqq numa in which the Prince records exercises such as:
“(the devotee) must first go alone to empty places and (he must) conjure up the face of the faqir of whom he has a good opinion or the face of a person to whom he is connected by a relationship of love. And the way to imagine this is to close the eyes, turn towards the heart, and see with the eyes of the heart.”
“Oh friend, when you hold your breath in this exercise a voice will appear from within you … some of the time this voice is like the sound of the boiling of a kettle and some of the time like the sound which comes from a bee hive.”
Dara also proclaimed that the Prophet practiced such exercises and that the Islamic revelation of the Qur’an was a direct result of experiences deriving from these practices.