By Hammad Khan
UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath
is the spiritual leader of the Nath community of Gorakhpur, a city in north
east of Uttar Pradesh, which represents the ascetic Saiva sectarian movement
(sampradaya) dating back to the 13th century.
Traditionally, however, the Nath Yogi movement has resisted the application of fixed religious
identities of Hindu or Muslim, and the tradition “blurred the borders in a
dialogical process where they combined elements from both traditions,” as noted
by social anthropologist Véronique Bouillier.
fact, the collection of vernacular poetry attributed to Guru Gorakhnath, the
founder of the movement, contains several multi-religious references resisting
modern religious categorisation.
well-known passage, as pointed out by the American scholar Marrewa Karwoski,
Hindu meditates in the temple,
Muslim in the Mosque.
Yogi meditates on the supreme goal,
there is neither temple nor mosque.
Nath sampradaya has a long ecumenical history with Islam. The greatest Sufi
poet of Sindh, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, expressed unconditional love and
admiration for the Nath Yogis in his poetry.
at the Nath Yogi tradition from the Sufi perspective of Shah Abdul Latif’s
poetry puts it in contrasts with the modernist Hindutva rhetoric of Adityanath.
holiest site of the Nath Yogi tradition is located in Hinglaj in Balochistan.
The traditional route of the annual pilgrimage on foot to Balochistan is the
settlement of Mount Ganjo, a hill in District Hyderabad.
said that Shah Abdul Latif had spent around three years in the company of the
wandering ascetics. His travels with the Yogis left a deep impression on him
and the theme of Yogis as perfect practitioners of spiritual life feature
prominently in his Risalo, a large collection of Sindhi lyrical poetry
considered to be the greatest classic of Sindhi literature.
translation of the Risalo was published in English this year by the British
scholar Christopher Shackle and I have used his translations in this article.
Ramakali, Shah Abdul Latif describes the Yogis as manifesting the divine
qualities of light and fire, nuri and nari, which represents the two aspects of
God: His eternal Beauty (jamal) and His Majesty (jalal).
Islamic tradition, God’s greatness is manifested through the interplay of His
Mercy and His Majesty.
the physical attributes of the Yogis, Shah Abdul Latif identifies their
characteristic pierced ears and long earrings, matted braids and loincloths.
practice strict asceticism and deny the physical body all comforts. Constantly
fasting, “they mortify their bodies”.
Abdul Latif even goes as far as to describe them as ugly on the outside, but
“the yogis are priceless within.” Shah Abdul Latif says:
think it is hunger that makes ascetics thin,
is actually the pains of love.
pain and suffering in love, which the German scholar Annemarie Schimmel calls
the ‘mysticism of suffering,’ defines the experiential nature of the spiritual
purification of Yogis.
been alighted on the field of love,” Shah Abdul Latif claims, “the more they
burn, the purer and the happier they become.”
struggle of purification is described metaphorically as burning, where the fire
of love burns away all impurity within.
Arabic saying puts it: al-bala`lil-wala` ka`l-lahab li` dh-dhahab, “Affliction
is for saintliness the same as are flames for the gold”.
Yogi, sickness is a much greater blessing than health. So, Shah Abdul Latif
says: “Mother, the community of yogis is always sick.”
inward orientation of the Yogis necessitates worldly detachment and material
poverty — as part of the larger spiritual and psychological process of subduing
the lower self (nafs al-ammara). Thus, Shah Abdul Latif sings:
nonbeing on your shoulders and do not be like
who are tied to existence, true yogis are not
this, says Latif. How can those who maintain
least connection with the world be called true ascetics?
the self (fa`na) to discover the divine Self within (ba’qa) is the goal of the
spiritual quest, or the Greater Jihad as enumerated in the Islamic tradition.
believe it is only through negating the “I” of selfhood that the true tawhid —
Divine Unity — can be fully realised.
is illusory, says Latif, so the existence of the individual self is a form of
idolatry. True monotheism requires annihilation of the self and the idea of
anything existent independent of God is false. Shah Abdul Latif says:
yogis have destroyed their separate existence,
business is with the universal. The lodge
they stay is nonexistence; I will not survive
paths to the Divine
Nath terminology, creation is explained as the gradual self-revelation of
Shiva’s (Absolute Spirit) inherent shakti (His Unique Power).
scholar Sayyid Athar Rizvi explains the Nath theory of creation as: “The divine
Shakti who in the process of cosmic self-manifestation gradually descends from
the highest transcendent spiritual plane of Absolute Unity and Bliss to the
lowest phenomenal material level of endless diversities and imperfections,
again ascends by means of the self-conscious process of Yoga Jnana (knowledge)
and Bhakti (devotion).”
introspection, exercises, and meditation is directed towards such spiritual
flight and (re)union of the devotee with the Beloved.
Sufi tradition, man is created as a mirror of God’s manifestations, His
Sufi Way (tariqa), in a way, is an experiential exegesis of the attributes of
Allah (asmaʾu llahi lhusna) revealed in the
parallels in the Sufi and Nath theory of creation bring forth a unitive sense
of the purpose of man, which is to self-consciously actualise and perfect the
divine qualities of God through the annihilation of the individual self.
spiritual state is called ba’qa or ontological immortality in the Sufi
tradition, implying the nonexistence of the individual identity and
identification with the universal.
Khahori (Yogi Foragers), Shah Abdul Latif sings:
silent prayer, the Khahoris have searched and
the divine. With these syllables the lovers
passed the stage of infinity. United with the
they have become divine, baked by their
To them everything appears divine.
are true lovers who, Schimmel notes, “have touched lahut, the dwelling place of
divinity, and have become lahuti themselves.”
to a famous Islamic tradition, the dwelling place of God is the heart of the
in Shah Abdul Latif’s poetry symbolises the eternal home of the soul from the
World of Exile (i.e. material world).
suggested in the very name of one of the chapters on Yogis, Sur Purab, meaning
eastward, the ascetics find God in their hearts and become lahuti. In Sur
Ramakali, Shah Abdul Latif says:
The knees of the sannyasis are
like Mount Sinai.
The renouncers do not take
their ego with them
to the east, the yogis are
draped in the cloak of
mysteries. They are covered
from top to toe in
closeness to the divine.
the ego at the threshold of the spiritual east is the only way to find the
reference of Mount Sinai is interesting in the context of Yogi practices.
Sinai is where God revealed himself to Moses; contextually, it implies that
Yogis have a vision of the divine presence in their yogic posture of sitting with
their heads supported by their knees.
popular iconography, Shah Abdul Latif is commonly depicted in this yogic
Abdul Latif says:
what purpose do the yogis follow this path?
hearts are not set on hell, nor do they
paradise. They have nothing to do with
and they do not have Islam in their
They stand there saying: “Make the
spiritual path of the Yogis transcends religious norms and outward forms of worship.
to religious categories, these ascetics are devotees of maddhab-i ishq (Path of
Love), which is concerned with the intuitive experience of love.
Sufi tradition, Rabi`a al-Adawiyya (d. 801) was the first to express this ideal
of seeking neither paradise nor fearing hell, but contemplating only the divine
from self, Yogis are beyond faith and infidelity. So, in Sur Ramakali, Shah
Abdul Latif says:
Those who wear the loincloth
around them do not
perform ablutions. They have
heard the call
to prayer that preceded Islam.
all other support, the masters
are united with Gorakhnath.
Abdul Latif identifies Yogis as ‘true Muslims’ who completely submit to God. He
follows the Quranic tradition of categorising pre-Islamic prophets, such as
Noah and Abraham, as ‘Muslims’ — those who truly submit to God.
Islam refers to the reified religion revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by
God, but the original Quranic usage of islam (submission) refers to the
submission of man to God, which is quintessential of true faith.
Abdul Latif’s representation of jogis as ‘Muslims’ refers to this universal,
nonsectarian submission that lies at the root of all authentic religious
Sufi tradition has established precedents of identifying truths about tawhid
(Divine Unity) with Indian religions, in particular, with the Nath Yogi
Abdul-Quddus Gangohi, a Chishti Sufi belonging to Radauli in Uttar Pradesh in
the 16th century, wrote Rushd Nama which brings forth parallels in the Sufi
conception of wahdat al-wujud (Unity of Being) and the philosophy of
conventional religious journey from here to Hereafter is not what the Yogi is
after, but the struggle is towards awareness of the divine presence and union
with the Beloved here and now. Shah Abdul Latif says:
knees are a mihrab, and their bodies are
mosque. Their hearts point the direction
Mecca, their bodies circumbulate the
Proclaiming the divine reality they have
the body. The guide is contained in
hearts, how can they be held accountable for
sanctified their bodies, the jogis turn their heads towards the mihrab
(prayer-niche) in contemplation of the Divine Beauty and have found the friend
in the heart which “is the only true prayer-niche.”
have realised that the object of worship dwells in their hearts and they have
turned the heart into the Kaaba, the House of God.
the pilgrims of Hinglaj, are accepted and admired in Shah Abdul Latif’s Risalo
as true pilgrims striving towards the eternal Light.
Shah Abdul Latif, jogis become the exemplars of true Muslims and mu’mins, of
syncretic South Asian tradition
religious inclusivity of Shah Abdul Latif’s poetry is reflective of the
Indo-Persian Sufi tradition.
therefore no surprise that the three books Shah Abdul Latif carried with him
for poetic inspiration were the Quran, Jalaluddin Rumi’s Masnavi and the Sindhi
verses of his grandfather, Shah Karim.
in the Sufi tradition, Shah Abdul Latif’s portrayal of the Nath Yogis
represents an ideal of the Greater Jihad against the individual self, which the
Prophet of Islam called the “man’s greatest enemy.”
the formal other-ness of the Yogis, Shah Abdul Latif collapses the illusion of
such duality through seeing the love of the Beloved reflected in the Nath Yogis.
Hindutva rhetoric of Adityanath undermines the traditional tenets of the Nath
Yogi tradition. The turn towards religious exclusivism is decidedly
anti-traditional in espousing modern religious identities.
to the 20th century, Karwoski notes that the political influence of the Nath
Yogi community was based on the principles of religious ecumenism and
exclusivism in the Nath Yogi tradition is a modern construct, which contrasts
the non-sectarian love as embodied by the jogis of Shah Abdul Latif’s Risalo.
concluding vai of Sur Purab sums up beautifully the love of Shah Abdul Latif
for the jogis:
may my connection with the yogis not be
yogis told me to travel to Hinglaj.
ascetics took me to the land of the east.
is the goal of my pilgrimage, and my resting
that is my journey.
masters have shown me my place of pilgrimage
my resting place.