Despite what newspapers and politicians today may project, there is a vast difference between the veracity of history and propaganda. History employs evidence, facts, and reasoning, while propaganda aims to distort even basic truths.
Yogi Adityanath’s recent comments questioning how any Mughal could be considered a hero in India and comparing Mughal rule to slavery amounts to a distortion of history. The chief minister’s recent public decision to rename the upcoming “Mughal Museum” after Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, militant Hinduism’s most beloved symbol of Hindu nationalism, is little more than the usual anti-Islamic propaganda marketed for his Hindutva followers and dog-whistle political rhetoric allowed in an increasingly intolerant India.
However, while Adityanath, the mahant of Gorakhpur’s Gorakhnath maṭh or temple complex, has been making these inflammatory claims, he is also actively erasing intrinsic parts of own sampradāy’s history. Ironically, his recent comments not only downplay the complexities of India’s multi-religious history but actively attempt to ignore the complexity of his own religious community, the Naths, a diverse community of yogis who for centuries were recipients of patronage from various Mughal rulers.
It is of course not surprising that most people in India today are better acquainted with Yogi Adityanath’s right-wing Hindu politics and incendiary rhetoric than with the history of the Nath sampradāy of which he is a leader.
Adityanath is constantly in the news, on television, and in our Twitter feeds, whereas the history of the Nath yogis is, for the most part, buried in obscure archives. However, if we disinter and examine those archives we can see at once that Yogi Adityanath’s ideologies are not representative of the pre-modern beliefs of the Nath yogis, and in fact, often run directly counter to the teachings of the early-modern sampradāy.
The influence of Islam on Nath yogis
The Nath yogis are a heterogenous community of ascetics that dates back to around 13th century and whose beliefs overlapped with Jain, Tantric, Muslim, and Sikh communities. Centred around the teachings of Guru Gorakhnath, the community interacted with a variety of other religious groups and often incorporated and adapted their teachings to their own system of beliefs. Although the community named and recognised as the Nath sampradāy did not completely coalesce until 16th century, we can recognise elements of their lineage much earlier. The intellectual exchange between these early Nath yogis and other ascetic orders, particularly Muslim holy men, led the community to display an openness to Islamic ideas. Often the ideas of Sufi mystics and Nath yogis overlapped with one another as they continued their dialogue.
By the early 16th century, the beginning of the Mughal rule, the Nath yogis existed as a part of the larger multi-religious society of Indian asceticism that spoke the same cultural language.
Like many other heterodox religious orders at that time, the Nath sampradāy eschewed an emphasis on Hindu or Muslim identity and instead highlighted in their Hindi teachings, attributed to Gorakhnath, the Gorakhbānī, a personal interaction with the divine.
In the case of Nath yogis, the goal was not only to reach god, but through yogic practice, become one with god. The ultimate aim of Nath doctrine was the transcendence of all paradoxes and to become immortal gods on earth. The sampradāy’s teachings on the one unseen god, their interaction with Muslim ascetics, and their acceptance of various Islamic rituals into their repertoire, as well as the belief at large in their yogic siddhis or otherworldly powers allowed them to fit into many different environments, including, at times, Mughal and Islamic realms.
The plurality of the community and inclusiveness of their message, propagating a message that allowed for Hindu and Muslim rituals but aimed at transcendence of all worldly divisions, appealed to many Mughal emperors. Just as importantly, it also garnered the Nath yogis important financial support from these same rulers.
As early as the very first Mughal emperor, Babur himself recounts in his Bāburnāma that he had heard of the yogis at Gorkhatri, one of the most famous Nath centres at the time, and desired to visit the famous pilgrimage site. While the Mughal was unable to access the maṭh during his first visit, he remained eager to return and see the “holy place for yogis and Hindus, who came from faraway places to cut their hair and beards”.
He returned on a second occasion in 1519 and, at that time, was able to visit the Nath yogis of the maṭh.
Although Babur was not particularly enamoured of Gorkhatri when he visited, he does not attribute this to religious differences. Rather the Mughal emperor stated that he was disappointed by the disarray and cramped quarters of the yogis. Unsurprisingly, Babur’s grandson Akbar (who later produced exquisite paintings detailing his grandfather’s visit to Gorkhatri) was far more impressed with the Nath yogis, not only at Gorkhatri, but also at Balnath Tilla and Jakhbar, both Nath centres which he came to patronise.
It is perfectly in keeping with Akbar, whose spiritual eclecticism has become something of a legend itself, that he was known to have patronised this sampradāy of yogis, and we can see from the paintings he commissioned of his grandfather’s visit to Gorkhatri that Akbar had a more generous vision of the maṭh than that found in Babar’s narrative.
These illustrations were painted after Akbar’s own journey to Gorkhatri, and likely depict a perception that was more Akbar’s than Babur’s own. However, it is not just these representations that illustrate Akbar’s attitude towards the Nath centres that he visited; written accounts of those who accompanied him on his trips do so as well.
According to reports from Abul Fazl and the Jesuit priest Antonio Monserrate, the builder of Jogipura and the creator of his own imperial religion, Dīn-i-Ilahi, first visited and enjoyed the company of the Nath yogis at Gorkhatri and Balnath Tilla in Jhelam in 1581. It is clear from both sources that Akbar visited and was deeply engaged with the yogis at these centres. It is later recorded that Akbar gave a madad-i-ma’āsh of gift of land to the Balnath Tilla and, according to colonial gazetteers, the maṭh maintained possession of Akbar’s written note at least until the early 20th century.
Nath yogis and the patronage of Mughal rulers
Akbar’s patronage, however, did not end with the Nath yogis at Balnath; throughout his reign, he also continued to patronise other Nath centres. In addition to the many ascetics and holy men who gathered in Jogipura and with whom Akbar interacted and supported, the Nath monastery at Jakhbar (near Jhelum) also received significant patronage.
While Mughal documentation of land grants and patronage can often be incredibly difficult to trace today, the landmark discovery by B.N. Goswamy and J.S. Grewal attests to four generations of Mughal patronage of the Nath yogis at Jakhbar, beginning with Akbar and lasting through to the rule of Aurangzeb. According to these documents, this patronage was first bestowed in 1571, when Akbar visited the Jakhbar maṭh. In his letter, he grants the mahant of the temple, Yogi Udant Nath, a madad-i-ma’āsh of two hundred bigahs land in the village of Bhoa. When the land grant was lost due to a natural disaster that affected Panjab, the next Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, issued a new farmān to the yogis. The emperor Shah Jahan also continued this conferment providing the Nath sampradāy the same amount of land in 1642. And, perhaps most out of keeping with what many have been brought to believe about Emperor Aurangzeb, he too patronised the Nath yogis at Jakhbar for much of his life.
While documentation indicates that Aurangzeb shifted his religious policies over the years, at least in the beginning of his reign, he was more liberal than many colonial and modern histories would have us believe. Part of his early stance on institutions that were not strictly Muslim involved his continued patronage of the Nath yogis at Jakhbar, and more astonishingly, his reverence toward Anand Nath, the mahant of yogis.
Following in the footsteps of his imperial predecessors, in 1661, Aurangzeb contacted Anand Nath for transactional – if not completely religious – purposes. According to a now-oft cited letter, reproduced and discussed in Goswamy and Grewal’s The Mughals and Jogis of Jakhbar, Aurangzeb not only offered payment to the yogis for quicksilver or mercury, but also ensured that during his reign that he would continue to give protection to the maṭh. The missive states:
The possessor of the Sublime Station, Shive Mūrat, Guru Anand Nath Jīo!
May Your Reverence remain in peace and happiness ever under the protection of Sri Shiv (?) Jio!
In strict confidence:
The letter sent by Your Reverence has been received along with [sic] two tolahs of quicksilver. However, it is not so good as Your Reverence had given us to understand. It is desired (by us) that Your Reverence should carefully treat some more quicksilver and have that sent, without unnecessary delay. A piece of cloth for the cloak and a sum of twentyfive [sic] rupees which have been sent as an offering will reach (Your Reverence). Also, a few words have been written to the valiant Fateh Chand to the effect that he should always afford protection. Your reverence may write to us whenever there is any service which can be rendered by us.
Two additional letters bearing the seal of Aurangzeb have been preserved at the Jakhbar maṭh. The second document, dated 1682–– and thus after Aurangzeb had re-imposed a jizya or tax on non-Muslim subjects––states that the maṭh, in accordance with the previous farmān issued by Jahangir, would be have its madad-i-ma’āsh reinstated and the Nath yogis at the temple would be given an annual revenue of one hundred and six rupees “on a fixed basis”.
Gorakhpur Math and the Muslim rulers
Even more remarkable is the relationship that Yogi Adityanath’s own maṭh in Gorakhpur professes to have had with different Muslim rulers. Historically, the Goraknath maṭh had very little interaction with Mughal rulers until the 18th century. Even the Nawabs of Awadh regarded its location as the backwaters of the Mughal empire. This documented lack of Mughal concern over Gorakhpur, however, has not deterred the Gorakhnath maṭh’s modern literature from glorifying the temple’s antiquity and asserting that its spiritual fame attracted the attention of many Muslim enemies who repeatedly destroyed its structure.
Despite such misrepresentations, even in-house historian and devotee of the Nath sampradāy, Akshaya Kumar Banerjea, writes about the plausibility of this legend being false. Banerjea states, “It is quite probable that it [the Gorakhnath maṭh] had been of the nature of an old Tapoban or hermitage of all renouncing Yog
is, and there might not have been any older stone structure or brick structure here in the olden time.” Yet, although not historically documented, several sources suggest that the Nath yogis at Gorakhpur garnered significant financial attention from wealthy elites associated with the Mughal empire by the end of 18th century.
According to the work of Shashank Chaturvedi, David Gellner and Sanjay Kumar Pandey, it is widely believed within Gorakhpur that the Gorakhnath temple in the district was built on land provided to the yogis by an Awadhi Nawab named Asaf-ud-Daula, a Muslim ruler who was, at least, nominally affiliated with the Mughals. As we have seen, a gift of this type was certainly not unusual during this era.
Strikingly, the official temple literature published by Mahant Digvijaynath and the Gorakhnath maṭh appears to confirm this story as fact. Banerjea writes that an unnamed Nawab from Awadh gave the yogis at Gorakhpur an abundance of land and wealth to build the temple and on which the temple is now situated.
These books continue to be sold at Yogi Adityanath’s own maṭh in Gorakhpur thus attesting to the chief minister’s distortion of history for his own political gain.
With these publications themselves asserting that the modern Nath temple was constructed, at least in part, on a bedrock of respect and generosity from a Muslim ruler affiliated with the Mughal rule, the question asked by Yogi needs to be reversed.
The issue is not how a Mughal can be considered a hero in India, but more accurately – with such extensive patronage as this –how can he not?
And more, to what extent will Yogi Adityanath go in order to reconstruct history to advance a Hindutva agenda for denigrating and destroying the country’s Muslim citizens?
Christine Marrewa-Karwoski is a former Fulbright Fellow and has a doctorate from the Columbia University in the City of New York. She specialises in Hindi literature and religious politics in North India.