Monastic Wanderers: Nāth Yogī Ascetics in modern South Asia
Author: Véronique Bouillier
The Western academic study of the Nāth sampradayas is really in its infancy, but in the last couple of years a few people have had a fair crack at making sense of the impenetrable mysteries of this rather heterodox cult.
One is David Gordon White with his rather sensationally titled Kiss of the Yogini and Sinister Yogis. Phil Hine, at enfolding.org has many interesting things to say about the origins and nature of the traditions.
Now Véronique Bouillier – through Manohar Publications – has had published her Nāth Yogī Ascetics in modern South Asia, which we’d say is really a tour de force. I guess we have to blame the copy editor for forgetting to translate French sometimes in the book, and also for the sometimes very confusing use of different calendars so that you don’t know which one is being used. This is definitely the best book I’ve read by a Westerner on this tradition since Briggs’ Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis was published in the 1920s.
There is now an English translation of a seminal text attributed to Gorakshanath, the Siddhasiddantapaddhati – this book, in five chapters – gives the central inner precepts of the Nath tradition.
Bouillier – a French anthropologist – covers a number of the different manifestations of the different subsects of the sampradayas today, and her work is very revealing as she’s travelled through greater India – so including Nepal – to reach her conclusions. Did you know there’s a Gorakhnath temple in Sri Lanka in the vicinity of Kandy? I do, and there is.
The author comes to the conclusion that the different traditions in India and Nepal have somewhat diluted their core message and indeed the different monasteries she visited do have some variations that are adopted for modern life. While in the past the cult had kings as their patrons, to a greater or lesser extent the merchant classes have taken over that role.
She is particularly interesting in the details she gives about separate ashrams, really maths, that she has visited recently. She explores, in particular, the story of Ratnanath (pictured) and the weird goings on in Mangalore. A friend of mine recently gave me a copy of his book, Isis: Goddess of Egypt & India, which makes interesting reading.
She has a deal of interesting information about the monastery based in Fatehpur in the Sekhavati district of Rajasthan, which allies itself to the division allied to the Mannath panth. I’ve been to this monastery and to surrounding Mannath monasteries twice – on the latter occasion for a big festival for the 150th birthday of Amritnath, the saint responsible for the inauguration of the monastery. I also met Véronique Bouillier when I was there in 2002. The surrounding monasteries are also most interesting, one of them containing the samadhi (tomb) of the founder of the Mannath panth. Pictured above is the current mahant (abbot) of the Fatehpur ashram.
Bouillier makes the point that Matsyendranath (pictured), the supposed founder of the sampradaya, isn’t held in very high esteem amongst modern day naths. Matsyendranath is the supposed author of the Kaula Jnana Nirnaya – a work of the Yogini Kaula school, and Bouillier’s book sometimes hints at the tantrik bases of the modern sampradayas.
If you’re seriously interested in this tradition, I thoroughly recommend this book.
The book costs Rs 1,395. I tried to order it from Manohar’s site which only apparently works with US dollars and Indian rupees, but my kind friends in Seattle bought me a copy and posted it to me in Oxford. Hence the review.