The Nath Sampradaaya

Disclaimer: This article is written from bhautika and adhyatmik perspective. A part of this article deals with anthropological evolution of Nath Sampradaaya (in laukika world and its linear timeline) while remaining article will deal with some key adhyatmik concepts of the same. Furthermore, I will be using Indic terminology to denote Indic traditions, concepts. This article is also heavily influenced from an informative marathi article written by Shri. Ambareesh Khare published in Loksatta on 18-12-2015.

अवधूत चिंतन श्री गुरुदेव दत्त… 

Technically, the traditions of Dattatreya and Nathas are different, but they are so inherently intermingled, both in history and their roots in Saamkhya-yoga darshan of aastika philosophies, that one has to look at them together. Recent appointment of Yogi Adityanath, who is a mahant of Gorakshapeeth at Gorakhpur, UP, as chief minister of UP has stirred curiosity about this tradition in minds of people. This blog-post will attempt at giving a brief history and fundamentals of nath traditions and its daarshanik moorings in Saamkhya-yoga.

Post revival of aastika traditions under Guptas, many new “sampradaayas” arose throughout Bharat. Some were already extent but were overshadowed by bauddha sampradaaya’s rapid expansion in Bharat post Ashoka Maurya’s patronage, few others arose anew. Among those traditions, is the sampradaaya of “nine-naths” (nava-natha).

There are various opinions of scholars as to when exactly this sampradaaya originated. What most of them agree is that its origins, like many other sampradaayas is shrouded in mystry. By the time of Gupta dominance, various aastika (the six aastika darshans along with seshvarvaadi traditions like shaiva, vaishNava, saura, gaaNapatya, shaakta) and naastika sampradaayas (bauddha, jaina et al) were thriving in Bharat.

Post Gupta era, the shaiva sampradaaya was broadly existent in two major branches (shaakhaas): Shrikula and Kaalikula. Meanwhile from the mahaayaana branch of bauddha sampradaaya came vajrayaana or tantrayaana sub-branch around same period. Both the above mentioned branches of shaiva-mat gradually assimillated the saadhana-techniques from vaama-maarga (the left handed path). The teertha of Sri-Shailyam (in modern Andhra Pradesh) was the prominent seat of this vaama-maargi saadhana of the shaivamat. In the course of this churning, a new sampradaaya arose here giving rise to vaama-maarga upaasana methods and focussed primarily on “tatvaanubhuti” (adhyatmik realization of swa-tatva) and yoga. This new sampradaaya was known as “Siddha Sampradaaya”.

In this siddha sampradaaya, those who were “deekshit” (initiated) were referred to with the adjective “nath”. The Krishna-Godavari valley (Maharashtra-Karnataka-Andhra) region is the origin of this sampradaaya. While this is the case, this sampradaaya extends far beyond the current boundaries of Republic of Bharat. The “aadi-guru” of this sampradaaya is Shiva Himself, and it is closely related to the sampradaaya of Dattatreya. Many notable members of nath sampradaaya received “deeksha” from Guru Dattatreya Himself. Thus this nath-sampradaaya is known by many names like siddha-mat, nath-mat, avadhoot-mat, avadhoot-sampradaaya (same as that of Dattatreya).

The Nine Naths

Parampara (tradition) of this sampradaaya holds that nine-naths are avataars of nava-naaraayaN Himself. The nine narayanas are – kavi, hari, antarikSha, prabuddha, pippalaayana, aviharetra, drumila, chamasa and karabhaajana. These 9 narayaNas took avataara as 9 nathas in kaliyuga. The names of 9 nathas are as follows – gorakSha, jaalandar, charpaTaashcha, aDabanga, kaaniph, matsyendra, chaurangi, revaaNak, bhatri. However the books of nath sampradaaya also name other naths such as – gahini, naaga, shiva, meena, satya etc. However since the number “nine” became important in this tradition, others although mentioned, the nine took precedence.

Matsyendranatha (machchindranath) and gorakShanath (gorakhnath) – this duo of guru-shishya are the most well-known figures from this sampradaaya. Various fascinating stories of matsyendranath are quite popular as well as informative (eg. his birth, his parakaaya-pravesh, his rescue by gorakShanath etc). These stories are very deeply percolated in local traditions of Maharashtra.

The nath-sampradaaya also talks about 84 siddhas. Scholars believe that this concept is imported from vajrayaana sub-branch of bauddha-mat. Various “indologists” theorize that during the decline of bauddhamat in Bharat, many bauddhas got assimilated in this growing tradition and brought along with them some of their concepts. The texts are not unanimous about names of these 84 siddhas. However, one can safely deduce that many saadhakas attained the “siddha-pad” upon becoming part of this sampradaaya. These siddhas then gave upadesha (teaching) to their disciples and to society in general, thereby leading to origin of guru-shishya paramparaa within this sampradaaya. Some guru-shishya paramparas are primarily focussed on mantra-gnaana. Few others (especially those which continued to be closely associated/linked with Dattatreya upaasana) are tatvagnaana-pradhaana with emphasis on ashTaanga yoga and dhyaana. In Maharashtra, due to advent of vaarkari sampradaya, many in nath-sampradaaya incorporated bhakti in this tradition as well with methods such as naama-sankeertana etc for achieving moksha.

Siddhaanta, Aachaara and other important concepts

The importance of aadi-guru Shiva is central in upaasana methods of this sampradaaya. This is strikingly similar to Kaashmiri shaivamat principals. It has also incorporated various concepts and ideas from saamkhya-yoga. The most important book which informs us about the saadhana methods within this parampara is “siddha-siddhaanta paddhati” composed by gorakShanath Himself. This treatise begins with vandana of shiva-shakti pair (purusha-prakruti pair).

आदिनाथ नमस्कृत्य शक्तियुक्तं जगद्गुरुं 
वक्ष्येगोरक्षनाथोऽहं सिद्धसिद्धान्तपद्धतिं 

(I bow down to pair of shiva-shakti which is the aadiguru. I gorakShanath proceed with elucidated siddha-siddhaanta paddhati)

In this siddhaanta, shakti is not independent, nor is shiva. As per chandra-chandrika nyaaya (chandra and chandrikaa are separate but inseparable in night sky) of saamkhya, the eekaara of shiva is shakti. Without shakti, shiva is shava (corpse). It is due to this pair of purusha-prakruti that creation-sustenance-destruction (Utpatti-sthiti-vilaya) of this sriShTi is manifested. When shakti is in “vyakta-svaroopa” (overtly manifested), shiva can perform the creation-sustenance-destruction jobs in this sriShTi. When She (shakti) is in “avyakta-svaroopa” (covertly manifested), there is no apparent distinction between two, but also there is no “karma” that is performed. They exist in “advaya” form (separate but inseparable/indistinguishable).

In continuation of this line, the siddhanta states that what is there in pinDa is also there in brahmaanDa. The concepts of yoga are continually explained further. The serpentine shakti known as “kunDalini” is dormant in moolaadhaara chakra (near sacrum) of a human-being with 3½ twists. Her “milana” with shiva present in sahastrasaara chakra (near shikhaa on head) is the goal of a yogi. That requires saadhana and guru-krupaa. There are 72,000 naaDis in human body. The three important ones linked with vertebral column and respiration are – iDaa, pingalaa and suShumNaa. When (kunDalini) shakti awakens, she is channelized upwards through suShumNaa naaDi towards the sahastrasaara chakra.

Due to sanchita karma of earlier births, the sharira (body) is malina (unclean) and the naaDis are clogged, thus unfit for the sanchaara (movement) of shakti. Through the six procedures described in haThayoga, namely – basti, dhauti, neti, traaTaka, nauli and kapaalabhaati – saadhaka can gradually cleanse these naaDis, thus making them firm for movement of shakti. As kunDalini moves upwards traversing one chakra at a time, she gives various “siddhis” to the saadhaka. Finally after she traverses aajna chakra in forehead and reaches sahastrasaara (the seat of shiva), the person attains nirbeeja samaadhi and all the karma (sanchita and prarabdha) is exhausted, thereby attaining the kaivalyapada and escaping the cycle of birth-death-rebirth.

While all these things are happening, constant supervision of a guru is essential, since the siddhis attained in the course of this journey can be distractive at best or detrimental at worst for the saadhaka. Hence guru is immensely important in this sampradaaya.

The guru in this sampradaaya makes his disciple wear a “karNamudra” (a special earring – visibly observed on Yogi Adityanath’s ears) and pierces/tears his ear. It is essential for a nathyogi to apply vibhuti over his body. They are expected to beg for alms by saying the famous words “alakh niranjan”. While this is the case, it is repeatedly stated in the compositions of this sampradaaya that external dress is of secondary importance. The aacharaNa (conduct) of a yogi is the most important factor.

As stated earlier, Shiva and Dattatreya are the two main upaasya devataas of this sampradaaya. However, all those who joined in this tradition brought their own ishTa devataas along with them. So we find mantras invoking various other devatas (such as durgaa, bhairava, narasimha, raam, hanumaana) along with vetaal like devatas of lower class in works of nathyogis. Along with these, there are also mentions of few muslim peers and faqirs in some of the verses.

The places were nath-sampradaaya people settled or the nathyogis established their maThas, they are the teerthakshetras of this tradition. Many places like tryambakeshwara, dvaarika, puShkar, raameshvara, hingaLajaa, girnaar, gorakhpur, paiThaN are few of the many sacred places for people belonging to this sampradaaya. Around 12 sub-branches of this sampradaaya exist as of today; it is believed that some were initiated by matsyendranath, others by gorakShanath.

Important siddha-puruShas from this tradition

Nath-panth has produced many siddha puruShas. As per the tradition, matsyendranath is the first pravartaka (perceptor) of this paramparaa. As per the story, he heard the shiva-paarvati conversation while he was in the abdomen of a fish. Listening to this divine conversation initiated his journey towards kaivalya. He belonged to kaula-maarga which is an important branch of shaakta-mat. He has also authored a treatise on this path named as “kaula-nirNaya”. He has presented the path of “sahaja-yoga” based on naama-smaraNa and dhyaana for those people whom the haThayoga is inaccessible or difficult to tread.

Another such famous nath was “chauranginath”. He was born a prince of Vidarbha, but became disciple of gorakShanath and matsyendranath. He is also mentioned in few Tibetan traditions (thereby underlining the vajrayaana link with nath-sampradaaya). charpaTinath was initiated by guru dattatreya Himself. The most famous siddha from this tradition is of course, gorakShanath. He roamed width and breadth of the country and ensured that the sampradaaya reaches all over the geographical expanse of Bharat.

Navanathas and Maharashtra

This tradition has very close relation with Maharashtra (the MH-KN-AP region of krishNa-godaavari river basin). The samaadhi of kaNeri (disciple of naagaarjuna) is near Nevasa. The shaiva kaapaalikas from this siddha-tradition within the sampradaaya included aanandabhairava, manthaanabhairava, kaakachanDi, suraananda were from this region. revaNasiddha and allamaprabhu from veerashaiva sampradaaya too were closely associated with nath-sampradaay. But the most important person from this sampradaaya was Jnaaneshwara himself and his elder brother and sadguru Nivruttinath. Gahininath was guru of nivruttinath who in turn initiated his younger brother into this tradition. Jnaaneshvara has beautifully linked the saamkhya and haThayoga based nath-parampara with bhaagvat-bhakti paramparaa and popularised the techniques of sahajayoga among masses. In recent times, swaami swaroopananda of Paavas was a siddha belonging to this tradition.

-By @Kal_Chiron

(This article first appeared at and is being reproduced with the consent of the author @Kal_Chiron)

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