Any investigation of the history of the Natha sampradayas must, sooner or later, hit what appears to be an insuperable difficulty – the relationship between Gorakhnath and his guru Matsyendranath.
In various legends and stories collected by a number of academics and others investigating the field, including Kalyani Mallik, P.C. Bagchi, Shashibhusan Dasgupta, George Weston Briggs, and J.K. Locke, it appears that Matsyendranath got himself into a bit of bother with a grand total of 1600 queens of Kadali, and subsequently had to be rescued by his disciple Gorakhnath, also known as Gorakshanath.
“Once while Shiva was delivering the secret knowledge to his consort on a platform in the midst of the sea, Mina in the form of a fish overheard it from underneath the platform. Shiva on discovering it cursed him that he would forget the knowledge. Subsequently, when Shiva put his disciples to test through his consort he found out that all except Goraksha was unchaste in mind. At Devi’s bidding, therefore, Minanatha went to the country of women called Kadali and there fell into the snares of women.
“He forgot all about his previous career and began to pass his days in amusement with the 1600 women of the country. He was later on rescued from there from the snares of women by his disciple Gorakshanath who entered the palace of women as a dancer and in the form of a bee unnoticed by others and reminded Mina of his previous career.” (Kaulajnananirnaya of the School of Matsyendranath, Bagchi’s introduction).
After rescuing his guru from the wicked wiles of the sirens of Kadali, Gorakhnath went on to found the Kanphata schools of Natha yoga, a pan-Indian movement which had a great impact on the whole sub-continent, and which influenced other movements including the Sants and the Sikhs.
The difficulty in discovering the relationship between the guru and his disciple is compounded partly because Matsyendranath is associated not only with the decidely tantrik Yogini Kaula school of the Naths, but because he is also linked in Nepal with the Buddhist Vajrayana tradition, and even almost completely identified with Avalokiteshvara.
On the other hand, sadhus of the Gorakhnath sampradayas appear to disavow allegedly tantrik practices, ideally leading a celibate life. While Matsyendranath is universally hailed as Gorakhnath’s guru in the present day panths of the Kanphat (split-ear) yogis, in some respects this appears to be an afterthought. Although not quite lip-service, Matsyendranath appears to be there to establish the parampara or lineage of Gorakhnath.
The whole subject of tantrik practice, at least in modern-day India, has a very bad name. On the face of it, that appears to be linked not so much with the aspects of sexuality associated with the tantrik tradition, but because it is inextricably linked to magic of every hue, up to and including black magic.
In newspapers and on streets in India, so-called tantriks ply their trade. Problems, whether business enmities, relationships, lack of children or other life difficulties, can be solved by going to a tantrik, the adverts claim. These modern-day tantriks do not often ally themselves to the type of texts which can be found on these Web pages.
Given this, there is also an undercurrent in modern Indian society which also exhibits a repressive attitude to sexuality. This phenomenon may well be due to the adverse influence of the successive invasions of the Mughals and then of the British. Both these sets of invaders appear to have had problems with a culture which not only celebrated sexuality, but incorporated it into its way of life in the shape of alluring statuary of siren-like goddesses and full-blooded gods.
But, like it or not, the Nath sampradayas, even those associated with Gorakhnath, were associated with tantra, although that connection is often denied by modern followers of the cult. The Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati, for example, one of the core texts of the Naths, quotes from a number of tantrik texts, including the Lalita Svacchanda, the Pratyabhijnya and the Vamakeshvara Tantra. (Fourth Upadesha, vv 10 et seq). These texts, however, are often ascribed to Kashmir Shaivism, and in this connection it is interesting to note that the descriptions of the spiritual body contained in the Paddhati are closely mirrored in the Netra Tantra. Which came first?
The connection with what appears to be Kashmir Shaivism is further underlined in Abhinavagupta’s Tantraloka, a voluminous text which still, unfortunately, awaits a full English translation.
Here, Abhinavagupta hails Matsyendranath (Matsyodara) as his guru, although it ought to be noted that matsyodara is also a technical term in this particular school. As Abhinavagupta’s time can be reliably dated, this has led some scholars to believe they can date Matsyendranath, and from that to date Gorakhnath.
Present-day adherents of the Gorakhnath sampradayas, however, reject such dates. As no samadhi (tomb) of the saint exists in India, many appear to believe that he is immortal. Further, there is a belief that he existed something like 2,500 years ago, and not only met with Mohammad but with other great spiritual leaders of the past. (Source: conversation with a sevak at the Amritnath ashram, Fatehpur, India in November 2000).
One of the problems with examining any Sanskrit texts is that history, in the sense that Western academics tend to define it, does not really cut any ice. If a text is attributed to a sage, a saint or to Shiva and Shakti themselves, its date is, to followers, an irrelevancy. The texts are considered in some respects eternal, and dating them makes no difference to their message, devotees believe.
P.C. Bagchi collected together texts related to Matsyendranath in his work Kaulajnananirnaya and… ascribed to Matsyendranath, also sometimes called Minanath, Macchendernath, or Matsyodara.
The main text, written in what appears to be an archaic form of non-grammatical Sanskrit, appears, according to the colophon to relate to a school Matsyendranath either founded, or belonged to, called the Yogini Kaula school. The themes in this work are interesting, particularly when compared with what are obviously later tantrik texts.
Here we find a preoccupation with sacred sites, with mantra, with the colour red, and with various yogic exercises which stave off death, disease and the symptoms of ageing. There is also content specifically related to sexuality – a theme only glancingly referred to in the texts ascribed to his disciple Gorakhnath, who is not referred to in the whole body of the text.
According to Bagchi, there are references to Matsyendranath not only in the Tantraloka, but also in the Mangalashtaka of Kalidasa, in the Savara Tantra, in the Shaktiratnakara Tantra and in the very much better known Hathayogapradipika. He is also mentioned in the Kaulavalitantra. In the lists of gurus of the Kali tradition, both Matsyendra and his disciple Goraksha are mentioned as belonging to the order of gurus of the line.
The connection between Matsyendranath and the Kaula tantrik tradition is underlined in the Kaulajnananirnaya by its constant references to Kamarupa, the most important of the 51 pithas where the body of the goddess fell when it was sliced to pieces by Vishnu because it relates to the genitals of the Devi.