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Itinérance et vie monastique

Véronique Bouillier

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Itinerant and Monastic Life. The Nāth Yogīs Ascetics in Modern India

1This book is about the Indian Śaivite sect of the Nāth Yogīs. My argument is that, even if ascetics are most often known as solitary and roaming, the permanence of the ascetic sects is due to their monastic institutions. I will then look at the Nāth Yogīs’ history and present situation through a study of their monasteries and their pattern of organisation. According to my findings, these monasteries are of two categories: on one side, the collective or pañcāyatī monasteries which tend to be conservative and the guardian of the Nāth tradition, on the other side, the personal or nijī maṭhs which are more open to innovations and change. I will demonstrate this through some examples. The book is divided in three parts and thirteen chapters. The first part is a general introduction to the Śaiva religious movement of the Nāths and its organisational pattern. The second part is devoted to the pañcāyatī monastic organisation and the third to the nijī one.

2In Part one, in the first chapter, I try briefly to define the main characteristics of the Yogīs, looking at their various self-designations, before stressing their importance in the cultural history of pre-modern India. The second chapter introduces us to the modern organisation of the sect, through the statutes of a new type of association, the Yogī Mahāsabhā. The different articles of the statutes show how the traditional authority network and the modern bureaucratic requirements combine to give the sect a new set of rules and regulations, the purpose of which is to unify and control. First, it is necessary to define who is a Yogī, thus I describe the different initiation ceremonies that give gradually access to full membership into the sect, till the last and most private one which is related to the funeral rituals. I then compare the new statutes, promulgated by the Mahāsabhā, to the traditional organisation: its main feature is the division of the sect in twelve sub-sects called panth. We see the part played by these panths on some exceptional occasions: among the group of itinerant Yogīs, in relation to the cult of the mysterious divine vessel (pātradevatā) which symbolises the sect identity, or in the dalicā or collective assembly. They also interfere with the main distinction, subsequently explored, between the communal or pañcāyatī monasteries and the personal or nijī monasteries.

3The second part, from chapter 3 to 6, is devoted to a pañcāyatī maṭh, the monastery of Kadri (Mangalore, Karnataka). There, every twelve years, the spectacular investiture of the head of the monastery brings into play all the elements of the Nāth identity, all the components of the sect in a kind of mass unitarian performance.

4Chapter 3 deals with the preliminary part of the ceremony, i.e. the selection of the head-to-be, who receives the title of rājā (king). The elective procedure is done in the Nāth monastery of Tryambakeshvar, just prior to the beginning of the Nasik Kumbh Melā, which all the Yogīs have to attend. The election of the rājā and other dignitaries is followed by a common worship of the pātradevatā. Some of the Yogīs take a vow to escort their new rājā to his abode in Karnataka and go walking in a long procession during six months, stopping on the way in temples or monasteries, till the arrival in Mangalore on time for Śivarātrī festival.

5Chapter 4 focuses on Mangalore and on the reasons why this place is important for the Yogīs. Myths and history provide some clues. First we will look at the myth of Paraśurām, Viṣṇu’s avatar: a myth common to the whole of the south-western coast but revisited by the Nāth Yogīs in connection with the sacred figure of Mañjunāth. After summarizing the local māhātmya, I deal with the history of the Mañjunāth temple and its 10th century statues: generally assumed to be Buddhist, they are nevertheless claimed by the Śaivas, a shift facilitated by the encompassing nature of the deity Lokesvara. The legend of Maṅgalādevī, with its connection made on one side with Paraśurām and on the other side with Matsyendranāth, gives another clue for understanding the religious history of the place and the successive influences of the Buddhists, the Kālāmukhas, the Nāths, and later on the Mādhvas.

6Chapter 5 presents the Kadri monastery. Starting with an account by Pietro Della Valle in the 17th century, I describe the contemporary situation of the Mañjunāth temple and of the Kadri maṭh, its buildings and inhabitants. I give a short biography of the last rājās and mention the importance of the Yogī householders (or Yogīs by caste), the local Jogis, in the administration and maintenance of the maṭh. A look at the main festivals helps to clarify the relationships between the monastery and the Mañjunāth temple, now attended by the Mādhvas.

7Chapter 6 is devoted to the main event for the monastery: the consecration of the rājā every twelve years (the last time in 2004). A few days before, the jhuṇḍī or the procession of the Yogīs arrives after its long journey and is welcomed by the town authorities and then by the previous rājā. Before leaving his charge, the rājā has to account for his management; this time (in 2004), he was submitted to a quasi-trial which reveals clearly the power relationships inside the sect and the part played by the Mahāsabhā. The next day is devoted to the consecration of the new rājā: after describing the successive rituals – vedic fire offering, lustration (abhiṣek), intronisation and coronation – I compare these elements with other consecration ceremonies: of head ascetics, of kings and of ācāryas, to conclude by stressing the original combination of the Kadri rituals.

8In the third part of the book (chapter 7 to 13), I present a very different type of monastery: the personal or nijī maṭh as represented by two monastic institutions: one recently founded in Shekhavati (Rajasthan) by a charismatic ascetic and the other one in Haryana: Asthal Bohar.

9Chapter 7 exposes the general problematic focused on the processes of legitimation and succession: how to assure the duration of a very small establishment such as the one founded by Amritnāth around 1915. I study the role of the hagiography written by one of Amritnāth’s disciple, which stresses the personal charisma of the guru, then the necessary grounding in the Nāth tradition through a prestigious affiliation. The durability of the foundation is afterwards ensured by the succession of the mahants: central to the monastery is the dialectical relationship between the throne and the mahants’ tombs.

10Chapter 8 gives a more detailed account of Amritnāth’s hagiography, focusing on his relationship with his devotees and the many miracles he performed. I look at the hagiography’s background, in connection with the broader milieu of nirguṇ bhakti. Then I focus on the territorial dimension of the monastery, its being situated in the Fatehpur town and in Shekhavati. Chapter 9 is devoted to the description of the Amrit Ashram, its buildings, inhabitants and daily routine, and especially the mahant’s activities. Chapter 10 concerns the network around the Ashram: first the network of the other monasteries of the same Mannāthī panth. Some of them are older than Fatehpur, but the majority are branch maṭhs founded later on by successive disciples; however all the surrounding monasteries are connected to the Fatehpur Ashram and mirror its particularities. I make a survey of some of the most important ones in order to stress the importance of the impulse given to this extension of the Nāth tradition by the Fatehpur Ashram. Chapter 11 is devoted to the network of the lay devotees: in view of the ascetic Nāth tradition, their influence is a new phenomenon. Responsible for the monastery’ growth and wealth, these lay devotees belong to rich Marwari families now scattered all over India. They come back occasionally to the monastery which they consider a kind of “family ashram”. And the message of Amritnāth and his successors is particularly suitable for active and modern devotees: based on the ideology of sevā, service, and on a simplified teaching, it concentrates on three lines: frugal food habits, simple or natural (sahaj) yoga and practise of devotional singing.

11This adaptation of the Nāth tradition to a new patronage was particularly conspicuous during the festival organised to commemorate the 150th birthday of Amritnāth. Chapter 12 describes the numerous rituals and performances which took place and were superimposed during the fifteen days of the Amrit mahotsav. Including a huge “vedic” fire sacrifice with 108 celebrating brahmins and eleven fire pits, an Atirudra celebration, a tenth days Durgā pūjā and daily performances of the Rāmlīlā and the Rāslīlā by Mathura theater troups, the festival was done according to the needs and values of the lay devotees. But its justification and raison d’être reside in the Nāth tradition: the presence of a large number of ascetics, in particular of the itinerant Yogīs, gives the festival its true meaning and its value.

12Chapter 13 presents the synthesis offered by another personal maṭh: the Asthal Bohar monastery offers a compromise between different tendencies, in juxtaposing two gaddī, two thrones. Part of the place is dependant of the “small throne” or “small fire” (choṭī dhūnī) related to the itinerant and wilder ascetics, and the other is known as the “great throne” or “great fire” (baṛi dhūnī). The head of the monastery whose function is inherited from guru to disciple in the same line since the founder of the maṭh, Mastnāth (18th century), rules from the baṛī gaddī but supervises the two places. Very much involved in the modernisation of the maṭh, the actual mahant founded many health and educational institutions, then took to politics; as one of the leaders of the Yogī Mahāsabhā, he is able to lead the community of the Nāth Yogīs into new directions. Therefore, contrary to what I feared in my previous book (Ascètes et Rois. Un monastère de Kanphata Yogīs au Népal, Paris, 1997), the Nāth tradition in its different aspects is still very much alive and able to cope with the changes in religious behaviour.

© Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2004

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