Hinduism Nātha Sampradāya
by
Adrián Muñoz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0210

Introduction

The religious order of yogis commonly associated with the legendary figure of Yogī Gorakhnāth (Gorakṣanātha in Sanskrit) is known as the Nātha Sampradāya, or Nāth Panth, meaning the “lineage,” “sect,” or “order” of the Nāths. The Sanskrit nātha means “lord,” “protector,” or “master,” and does not always refer to a member of the Nātha Sampradāya. Because this religious group is widely present in vernacular contexts, I will use the Hindi form nāth, instead of the Sanskrit nātha, except when dealing with Sanskrit titles or contexts. The origins of the order have been dubiously thought to go back as far as the 12th or 13th century, when Gorakhnāth is believed to have founded the Sampradāya, a matter of academic debate. Traditionally, it is believed that he has been born in each of the four different cosmic ages, or yugas. Nowadays, the Nāth Yogis can be easily distinguished from other ascetic groups by the visible earrings they wear in the cartilage of both ears, for which reason they are sometimes also known as “Kānphaṭa” yogis, an appellation that is sometimes seen as derogatory, since they prefer the term “Darśanī.” Some specialists identify two broad bodies of Nāths: an ascetic order and a householder order. The ascetic group is a renouncer troupe and can in turn be divided into wandering yogis (ramtā) or yogis residing in a monastery (maṭhdhārī). Although strongly based in some places in North India, they have been historically present in many other parts of South Asia as well, especially (but not limited to) Kathmandu, the Greater Punjab, parts of Afghanistan, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Karnataka. Formally, the followers of the Nātha Sampradāya worship the Hindu god Śiva, the primeval and divine yogi, so that through the practice of yoga they seek to acquire immunity to bodily decay, immortality, perfection, and extraordinary powers. Sometimes, the worship is directed specifically to Bhairava, a terrifying form of Śiva usually linked to tantric practices. Therefore, they availed themselves of various kinds of magic, alchemy, and yoga. Throughout premodern India, the Nātha Sampradāya was known to practice hatha yoga, was often considered to be the founder of this practice, and was also conversant with other religious groups, such as Sufis, Buddhists, Vaiṣṇavas, and Sikhs. There is a large amount of textual production ascribed to Nāth figures (Matsyendra, Gorakh, Cauraṅgi, Bhartharī, Carpaṭa, for example). Interestingly, these texts were composed in both Sanskrit and vernacular languages (such as braj bhāṣā, avadhī, or khaṛī bolī), a somewhat uncommon phenomenon in South Asian religious traditions. This also accounts for the yogis’ immense geographic, social, and cultural intercourse with different groups, as well as their varied and complex identities.

General Overviews

There are few substantial overviews on the Nātha Sampradāya, but some works have proved to be important. Relevant information can sometimes be found in specialized works on yoga, on tantra, on bhakti movements, and on South Asian Sufism. Bouillier 2013 reviews the most fundamental studies on Nāth-related topics. Bouillier 2018 collects some previously published material but offers more than just an anthology of previous work and competently functions as a valuable, critical overview. The somewhat outdated work Briggs 2001, published originally in the 1930s, is probably the first general overview, arguably inaugurating the field of Nāth studies. Already a classic, this volume is largely composed of ethnographic material, but also tried to incorporate insight from some original sources, often in an unsystematic and uncritical manner. Another classic, only published in Hindi, is Dvivedī 1996. Shorter than Briggs, it offers important insights into lineage formation, schools, and praxis. While trying to uncover questions of alchemical practices, White 2004 deals at length with important topics of symbolism, lineage, and history of the Nāths. Mallinson 2011 offers a brief critical synopsis of the Nātha Sampradāya, an analysis based on a text-critical approach. Banerjea 1988 is a partisan outlook of the creeds of Gorakh-oriented Nāths. A number of texts that discuss issues of Nāth history, literature, theology, practice, and hagiography have been collected in Lorenzen and Muñoz 2011. Djurdjevic 2008 construes the Nātha tradition through a comparative lens, exploring the resemblances between the yogis’ and Western forms of esotericism. Written in French, Bouy 1994 is mandatory reading for those interested in yoga literature in Sanskrit and the wide influence of the Nāths. There also are a number of books in South Asian languages not included here because they tend to repeat basic information.

  • Banerjea, A. K. Philosophy of Gorakhnāth. With Goraksha-Vacana-Sangraha. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    First published in 1962, this work aimed to provide understanding of the theoretical tenets of the Sampradāya. Most of its content derives from the Siddhasiddhāntapaddhati and other texts not directly related to Gorakh and hatha yoga. It questionably presents Gorakh as a philosopher.

  • Bouillier, Véronique. “A Survey of Current Researches on India’s Nāth Yogīs.” Religion Compass 7.5 (2013): 157–168.

    DOI: 10.1111/rec3.12041E-mail Citation »

    An elegant summary of the state of Nāth studies, it offers a comprehensive bibliography. The survey particularly pays attention to discussions on yogic traditions, legends, and anthropological approaches.

  • Bouillier, Véronique. Monastic Wanderers: Nāth Yogī Ascetics in Modern South Asia. London and New York: Routledge, 2018.

    E-mail Citation »

    An excellent volume that comprehensively discusses key questions of Nāth practice, organization, and identity, especially in the modern period and contemporary South Asia.

  • Bouy, Christian. Les Nātha-yogin et les Upaniṣads: Étude d’histoire de la littérature hindoue. Paris: Éditions de Boccard, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    In French. One of the main arguments is that most texts now known as Yoga Upanishads are Southern elaborations of Northern hatha yogic sources, although they do not all deal with only this form of yoga. It also evinces the influence of hatha yoga on Advaita Vedantic circles, or even its adoption by Advaitin philosophers.

  • Briggs, George Weston. Gorakhnāth and the Kānphaṭa Yogīs. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    Intended as a massive ethnography on the order of Gorakhnāth back in 1938, most of the scholarly work in the following years either follows or diverges from Briggs’s focus. It offers interesting data on the main geographical concentration of the Nāths; it also includes what is probably the first English rendition of a Nāth Sanskrit text.

  • Djurdjevic, Gordan. Masters of Magical Powers: The Nath Yogis in the Light of Esoteric Notions. Berlin: VDM Verlag Dr Muller, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    Extracted from the author’s 2005 doctoral dissertation, it responds to a new academic interest in studies on magic, occultism, and esotericism.

  • Dvivedī, Hazārīprasād. Nāth-Sampradāy. Ilāhābād, India: Lok Bhāratī Prakāśan, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    First published in the 1950s, this title offers very valuable information on the general outlook of the Nātha Sampradāya, although drawing heavily from Briggs 2001 (cited under General Overviews). It is less accessible, since it has been published and reissued only in Hindi.

  • Lorenzen, David N., and Adrián Muñoz, eds. Yogi Heroes and Poets: Histories and Legends of the Nāths. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the very few collective and wide-ranging scholarly volumes on the Nāths to date, it includes chapters by a number of scholars on both historical and doctrinal topics. Because of its broad and multidisciplinary range, it covers issues of identity, practice, tradition, folklore, and textuality.

  • Mallinson, James. “Nātha Sampradāya.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 3. Edited by Knut Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, et al., 407–428. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    A knowledgeable inclusive overview of the Nāth order. It especially questions the long-taken-for-granted establishment of the order back in premodern India and instead argues for the organization of the order in the 17th or 18th century. The article gives interesting factual information about distinctive Nāth marks of identity, Nāth-related compositions, and particular places of Nāth activity.

  • White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Already a classic, it was first published in 1996 by the University of Chicago Press. Advocates for close ties between Nāth Yogis and alchemists in medieval and premodern India. The practice and imagery of hatha yoga would have fostered and motivated such contact, especially when it comes to visualizations of energies inside both the macro- and microcosm, and the transformation of base matter into pure, imperishable substances.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down