Before the Rise of Hindutva, Gorakhnath Nurtured Muslim Yogis

Gorakhnath's inclusive legacy of promoting Muslim yogis is fading away, with many giving up their sarangi in the face of societal apathy and opposition.

In eastern Uttar Pradesh, dozens of villages are inhabited by Muslim yogis who, like members of the Nath sect, wear saffron gudri or kantha and wander through villages singing folklore on their sarangi, narrating how Gopichandra and Raja Bharthari became sanyasis under the influence of Gorakhnath. Villagers offer them food and money and passionately listen to while they glorify Gorakhnath in their songs.

Who are these yogis and how are they related to the Nath sect influenced by Gorakhnath? Few people know about their history. The Muslim yogis once used to be a common sight. Not any more.

Prominent Hindi writer Hazari Prasad Dwivedi writes about the sect in his book dealing with the Nath sect. “Many of the followers of Nath sect have opted for a family life. Such communities exist across the country including all weaver communities. They include Muslim yogis too. In Punjab, Yogi households are called Rawal. They beg, perform magical tricks, and read palms to earn their livelihood. In Bengal, several communities go by the name of jugis or jogis. A large section of yogis was spread across Awadh, Kashi, Magadh and Bengal. They had families and worked mostly as weavers and cotton carders. They found no place in the Brahmanical system.”

Dwivedi writes that the yogis of Bengal’s Rangpur district are cloth weavers, dyers and lime producers. Among these Gorakhnath, Dheernath, Chhayanath and Raghunath are significant figures. Their gurus and priests are not Brahmins but their own community members. They have a tradition of wearing hooped earrings through the cartilages of their ears, which are cut open with a dagger at the time of initiation. They observe samadhi for the dead.

Like the Rawals of Punjab, the Dawres of Hyderabad are Nath yogis too who have opted the familial way of life. The Gosawis of Konkan also claim to be related to the sect. Other related communities are spread over Barar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and other parts of south India.

In his book Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis, George Weston Briggs put the number of yogis in India at 214,546 with reference to the 1891 census. In Agra and Awadh province, there were 5,319 Oghars, 28,816 Gorakhnathis and 78,387 Yogis. The data also included a large number of Muslim Yogis. According to a report from Punjab, the number of Muslim yogis was 38,137 that year.

According to the census held in 1921, there were 629,978 Hindu yogis, 31,158 Muslims and 141,132 Hindu Fakirs. The census also gave the number of male and female yogis separately. However, in the census conducted in later years, a separate mention of the community was not made. Briggs has described the community in enormous detail in his book.

There are Muslim yogis even today who call themselves devotees of Gorakhnath and Bharthari, and associate themselves with the Nath sect. They live in villages of Gorakhpur, Kushinagar, Devaria, Sant Kabir Nagar, Azamgarh and Balrampur. But under growing pressure from within as well as outside the community, they are now leaving their traditions. Amidst rising communal violence and sectarianism, the yogis feel uneasy donning saffron. The young generation looks down upon the practice and view it only as a form of begging. On the other hand, the Hindutva brigade looks at them as a threat because these Muslim yogis practice the philosophy and ideals on which they have based their politics of hate.

In 2007, when I started research on Muslim yogis, I met a Sant Kabir Panth follower who informed me about Muslim yogis living in Gorakhpur’s Badgo village. We reached there and met several young men outside the village. When we asked them about the yogis, they expressed their disdain at the fact that the yogis wore saffron clothes despite being Muslims. They wished that the yogis would leave this practice. They were all Hindu men, some of whom were members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini.

In Badgo village, 75 households belong to Muslims with almost 24 belonging to yogis. Bakshish is one of them. When we met him, he was working in a field. This 35-year-old yogi’s father Dilshafi and father-in-law Ali Hasan are yogis too. They taught Bakshish the songs glorifying Bharthari and Gopichand as well as Kabir’s bhajans.

Bakshish does not have any land for farming. He no longer wishes to be a yogi because other members of the community do not like it. He possesses a sarangi which has been with the family for the past two generations but he refused to show it to us. After much enquiry, he informed us that his wife, who has gone to her parents, has locked the sarangi in a room and taken away the key as she does not want him to go out in the streets in her absence singing devotional songs and bhajans.

The village head Mukhtar Ahmed also seems to agree that Bakshish and other yogis should end the tradition of singing bhajans and look for other work. He said that he was issuing them job cards so that they leave their sarangis and pick up tools instead.

Upon much insistence, Bakshish agreed to sing to us a bhajan which was a folktale about Raja Bhartrihari who left his kingdom to become a sanyasi. He began by humming a stanza in praise of Gorkhnath which he called jhaap.

We were informed that in a neighbouring village, there is a yogi Hameed who sings really well. When we reached Hameed’s house, his wife received us. We were told that Hameed passed away some four years ago. Throughout his life he sang bhajans of Gopichand and Bharthari. He owned a very old sarangi. When he fell ill, he asked his wife what should be done with the sarangi because the young generation would not take the tradition forward. He handed it to his patidar with the hope that he would continue the tradition. Hameed’s son is a hawker who sells utensils.

Two jogis walking down the street in Gorakhpur. Credit: Manoj Singh

Two yogis walking down the street in Gorakhpur. Credit: Manoj Singh

On our way back, we met Kalu Jogi, a resident of Badgo village. He was singing the folktale of the influence of Bengal’s Raja Gopichand on Gorakhpur. When we told him we were covering a story on the yogi tradition, he reluctantly agreed to sing for us. He was miffed when we asked him to take on his yogi garb. He put down his sarangi and asked, “Why do you want me to do it? What if something happens?”

“What could happen?”

“You will not understand,” he replied.

After much persuasion, he put on his gudri and tied a saffron saffa round his head. As he began playing the sarangi, his wife came and stopped him but he told her not to worry, tightened some strings and began to sing.

Arre Ram ke Maai banwa bhejwalu

Bharat ke dehlu rajgaddi

Bataw Maai Ram kahiya le aiyyan

Arre Patjhar bagiya mein phulwo na phulela

Bhanwron ne khilela

Bataw Maai Ram kahiya le aiyyan

 (Hey Mother! You exiled Ram to the forest and gave the throne to Bharat. It makes me sad. When will Ram return? Without him, nothing pleases me. Flowers have not blossomed in the garden, nor bees buzz over them. Tell me Mother, when will Ram return?)

This is a bhajan about Ram’s exile. In addition to Gopichand-Bharthari folklore, the yogis have started singing bhajans too on request from listeners. Some of them also sing about Shankar-Parvati’s wedding and the Rama Katha. But the focus always remains Gorakhnath, Gopichand and Bharthari.

Another yogi Qasim says, “These are bad times. We are Muslims but we keep the Ramayana in our homes along side the Quran. We narrate the tales of Baba Gorakhnath and his disciples Gopichand and Bharthari. Earlier, we were only jogis. Nobody asked us whether we were Hindus or Muslims. But nowadays, there is a lot of fear. Wherever we go, we are asked about our religion.”

“We are afraid that something might go wrong or somebody might ask us why we are wearing saffron or singing praises of Gorakhnath on a sarangi? Today, I have picked up the sarangi after 12 years.”

Kehu na chinhi Gopichand

Kehu na chinhi

Maai na chinhi

Bahina na chinhi

Jogi ka suratiya naahin virna

Bahinya nahin chinhele

(Gopichand has become a yogi. In a yogi’s garb, he has returned home to seek alms. Neither his mother, nor his sister recognise him.)

Kalu Jogi told us about other villages in Gorakhpur – Bhiti, Maheshpur, Semra and Chekri – where Muslim yogis are carrying forward the Nath tradition.

In 2008, we visited the Jagat Manjha village in Rudrapur area of Deoria district to meet Muslim yogis. Fifteen yogi families live here. We met Salauddin whose father Shafi is also a yogi. Shafi was not at home. We asked Salauddin if we could listen to him sing but he got irritated. He told us that he did not approve of it. “It is not respectable, so I have sent father away to work,” he said.

Another Muslim yogi in the village Qasim alias Dr.Durga said he has set up an orchestra and plays music at weddings. He said, “We do not have land for cultivation. How else would we earn a livelihood?” When we ask Qasim to sing to us, he asks a boy to bring his sarangi but then drops the idea.

It is believed that the sarangi Muslim yogis play was invented by Gopichand. Gopichand was the son of Bengal’s Raja Manikchandra who was related to the Pallavas.

In his book, Dr. Mohan Singh has written a section titled ‘Udaas Gopichand Gatha, Gorakhpad’ in the form of a dialogue between Gopichand and his mother based on several manuscripts in Panjab University library. Most of the Muslim yogis narrate it in their songs. In some lores, Gopichand has been portrayed as the king of Bengal. His mother Mayanwati took initiation from Gorakhnath and inspired her son to become a yogi after he ascended the throne.

The Bharthari Charitra, which the Muslim yogis sing, was first published by Dudhnath Press, Howra. The book describes Bharthari as the grandson of Ujjain’s Raja Indrasen and son of Raja Chandrasen.

Raja Bharthari was married to Sinhalese princess Samdei. After meeting Gorakhnath, Bharthari became a yogi. The folklore contains dialogue between Bhartari and Samdei. In one of the songs, Samdei remonstrates Bharthari for having forsaken the bond of marriage by becoming a yogi.

A 72-year-old yogi Sardar Shah from Kushinagar’s Hata village tells us, “The Jogis have two books detailing the life history of Bharthari – Bharthari Charitra and Bharthari Hari. According to the latter book, the wife of Bharthari is Pingla. Shah considers it the original. Shah tells us that most of the Muslim yogis set out individually or in groups of four or five and wander in states of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. He himself travelled long and far when he was younger.

In West Bengal, Muslim yogis are treated with great respect for their relation to Gorakhnath. People offer large sums in alms. But Shah is upset about the government’s apathy. “Those who sing cheap songs are turned into heroes, but nobody cares about real artists like us,” he says sarcastically.

Sardar Shah’s son and grandson are not involved in this spiritual practice. His son drives a taxi and has no interest in Gopichand-Bharthari folklore or sarangi playing. He even tells his father to stop doing it. But Shah is adamant on following the tradition for as long as he lives.

Earlier, Muslim yogis used to visit the Gorakhnath temple and organised bhandare but now their connection with the temples has severed. When Digvijaynath became the mahant in 1935, the Gorakhnath temple became a centre of Hindutva politics, a tradition carried forward by Mahant Avaidyanath and Adityanath. It was but natural for Muslim yogis to grow distant from the Nath community in such circumstances.

Gorakhnath and the Nath sect

The Nath sect is believed to have been founded by Lord Shiva. Matsyendranath was the disciple of Shiva and in turn passed knowledge to his disciple Gorakhnath.

The sect with twelve branches promoted by Gorakhnath later came to be known as the Nath sect. The followers of this sect suffix Nath to their names. They are called kanphata because of the tradition of cutting ears, and gorakhnathi because they are devotees of Gorakhnath.

Hazari Prasad Dwivedi writes, “There is very little historicity left in the description of Gorakhnath. The folklore merely propagates the teachings of the sect and no other information”.

He further writes that during the time of Gorakhnath there were several upheavals in society. The arrival of Muslims had started. The Buddhist practices were inclining towards magic and witchcraft. Although the primacy of Brahmin religion had established, there was a large community of Buddhists and Shaivas who did not accept it. Gorakhnath organised all such groups and led on the path of yoga. Several Muslims joined him too.

Gorakhnath revolted against the distortions in Brahminism and Buddhism in terms of polytheism and extremism. He laid the foundation of Hindu-Muslim unity and opposed caste discrimination and other evils. As a result members of untouchable castes isolated by the Sanatan dharma joined the Nath sect in large numbers. Many of the followers were opposed to the varna system.

Dr. Pitambar Dutt Barthwal discovered 40 books written by Gorakhnath. While most of them are in Sanskrit, some are in Hindi. Barthwal has compiled the sayings of Gorkhanath in Gorakhbani. Gorkhnath’s Sanskrit works speak of sadhna or meditation. While his sayings and poetry give an interpretation of his philosophy and religious belief. According to Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Gorakhnath’s Hindi works are in the form of a dialogue between Gorakhnath and his guru Matsyendranath.

Gorakhnath cast a strong influence on Sant Kabir, Dadu Dayal, Mulla Daud and Malik Mohammed Jaisi. Osho delivered several discourses on Gorakhvani, which is available as books and audio recordings.

Osho recounts that once prominent Hindi poet Sumitranandan Pant asked him to pick 12 major religious figures of India. Osho named Krishna, Patanjali, Buddha, Mahavir, Nagarjun, Shankar, Gorakh, Kabir, Nanak, Mira and Ram Krishna. Pant then asked him to cut down the list to seven, five and then four. Osho picked the names of Krishna, Patanjali, Buddha and Gorakhnath. When Pant asked him to further shorten the list and pick only three, Osho refused. Why could he not leave out Gorakh, Pant asked. “I cannot leave him,” Osho replied, “because Gorakh opened a new avenue in the country and gave birth to a new religion. Without him, there would be no Kabir or Nanak. There would neither be Dadu, nor Wajid, Farid or Meera. The entire Sufi tradition of India is indebted to Gorakh. Nobody equals him in his teachings that lead to the discovery of the inner soul.”

Translated from the Hindi by Naushin Rehman.

Manoj Singh is one of the organisers of the Gorakhpur Film Festival.