By Hammad Khan
28 september 2018
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.
In fact, the collection of vernacular poetry attributed to Guru Gorakhnath, the founder of the movement, contains several multi-religious references resisting modern religious categorisation.
A well-known passage, as pointed out by the American scholar Marrewa Karwoski, states:
The Hindu meditates in the temple,
the Muslim in the Mosque.
The Yogi meditates on the supreme goal,
where there is neither temple nor mosque.
The 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.
Looking 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.
Yogis and Sufism
The 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.
It is 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.
A 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.
In Sur 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).
In the Islamic tradition, God’s greatness is manifested through the interplay of His Mercy and His Majesty.
Describing the physical attributes of the Yogis, Shah Abdul Latif identifies their characteristic pierced ears and long earrings, matted braids and loincloths.
They practice strict asceticism and deny the physical body all comforts. Constantly fasting, “they mortify their bodies”.
Shah 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:
People think it is hunger that makes ascetics thin,
But it is actually the pains of love.
The 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.
“Having been alighted on the field of love,” Shah Abdul Latif claims, “the more they burn, the purer and the happier they become.”
Inner struggle of purification is described metaphorically as burning, where the fire of love burns away all impurity within.
As the 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”.
For a Yogi, sickness is a much greater blessing than health. So, Shah Abdul Latif says: “Mother, the community of yogis is always sick.”
The 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:
Take nonbeing on your shoulders and do not be like
those who are tied to existence, true yogis are not
like this, says Latif. How can those who maintain
the least connection with the world be called true ascetics?
Dissolving 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.
Yogis believe it is only through negating the “I” of selfhood that the true tawhid — Divine Unity — can be fully realised.
Duality 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:
The yogis have destroyed their separate existence,
their business is with the universal. The lodge
where they stay is nonexistence; I will not survive
Converging paths to the Divine
In Nath terminology, creation is explained as the gradual self-revelation of Shiva’s (Absolute Spirit) inherent shakti (His Unique Power).
Indian 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).”
Yogic introspection, exercises, and meditation is directed towards such spiritual flight and (re)union of the devotee with the Beloved.
In the Sufi tradition, man is created as a mirror of God’s manifestations, His tajalliyat.
The Sufi Way (tariqa), in a way, is an experiential exegesis of the attributes of Allah (asmaʾu llahi lhusna) revealed in the Holy Quran.
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.
This 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.
So in Khahori (Yogi Foragers), Shah Abdul Latif sings:
With silent prayer, the Khahoris have searched and
found the divine. With these syllables the lovers
have passed the stage of infinity. United with the
divine, they have become divine, baked by their
master. To them everything appears divine.
They are true lovers who, Schimmel notes, “have touched lahut, the dwelling place of divinity, and have become lahuti themselves.”
According to a famous Islamic tradition, the dwelling place of God is the heart of the believer.
East in Shah Abdul Latif’s poetry symbolises the eternal home of the soul from the World of Exile (i.e. material world).
It is suggested in the very name of one of the chapters on Yogis, Sur Purab, meaning ‘East’.
Travelling 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.
Leaving the ego at the threshold of the spiritual east is the only way to find the divine abode.
The reference of Mount Sinai is interesting in the context of Yogi practices.
Mount 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.
In popular iconography, Shah Abdul Latif is commonly depicted in this yogic posture.
Shah Abdul Latif says:
For what purpose do the yogis follow this path?
Their hearts are not set on hell, nor do they
desire paradise. They have nothing to do with
unbelievers, and they do not have Islam in their
minds. They stand there saying: “Make the
beloved your own.”
Transcending the outward
The spiritual path of the Yogis transcends religious norms and outward forms of worship.
Irreducible to religious categories, these ascetics are devotees of maddhab-i ishq (Path of Love), which is concerned with the intuitive experience of love.
In the 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 Beloved.
Freed 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. Abandoning
all other support, the masters are united with Gorakhnath.
Shah 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.
Generally, 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.
Shah Abdul Latif’s representation of jogis as ‘Muslims’ refers to this universal, nonsectarian submission that lies at the root of all authentic religious traditions.
Indian Sufi tradition has established precedents of identifying truths about tawhid (Divine Unity) with Indian religions, in particular, with the Nath Yogi tradition.
Shaikh 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 Gorakhnath.
The 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:
Their knees are a mihrab, and their bodies are
a mosque. Their hearts point the direction
to Mecca, their bodies circumbulate the
Kaaba. Proclaiming the divine reality they have
renounced the body. The guide is contained in
their hearts, how can they be held accountable for
Having 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.”
They have realised that the object of worship dwells in their hearts and they have turned the heart into the Kaaba, the House of God.
Jogis, the pilgrims of Hinglaj, are accepted and admired in Shah Abdul Latif’s Risalo as true pilgrims striving towards the eternal Light.
For Shah Abdul Latif, jogis become the exemplars of true Muslims and mu’mins, of true believers.
A syncretic South Asian tradition
The religious inclusivity of Shah Abdul Latif’s poetry is reflective of the Indo-Persian Sufi tradition.
It is 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.
Rooted 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.”
Defying 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.
The 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.
Prior to the 20th century, Karwoski notes that the political influence of the Nath Yogi community was based on the principles of religious ecumenism and inclusivity.
Religious 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.
The concluding vai of Sur Purab sums up beautifully the love of Shah Abdul Latif for the jogis:
Lord, may my connection with the yogis not be
The yogis told me to travel to Hinglaj.
The ascetics took me to the land of the east.
That is the goal of my pilgrimage, and my resting
place; that is my journey.
The masters have shown me my place of pilgrimage
and my resting place.