Has UP chief minister Adityanath’s Gorakhpur forgotten its Nath panth roots?
The story of the real Nath panth legacyindia Updated: Mar 26, 2017 14:48 IST
By all accounts, Gorakhnath was a nice guy. The prime mover of the Nath panth, a non-Brahmanical sect that grew into prominence by the end of the 10th century in and around what is now eastern Uttar Pradesh, he was democratic, anti caste, and open towards other faiths. Many say the panth was primarily a low-caste assertion. Gorakhnath was also a great poet. Academics in Gorakhpur, who teach his poetry in Hindi, say his life was given to prayer. His teachings rarely mentioned Ram. And he shunned the idea of power. Then why does the Gorakhnath Temple, whose Mahant, Yogi Adityanath, is now the state’s chief minister, turn him into a power player? Why does the temple appear so pro-upper caste today?
The answer lies in the imagination that was at work in building its great hall, the Digvijaynath Smriti Bhawan. Here 79 life-size statues of holy Hindu men sit cross-legged with Nath panthis such as Gorakhnath and other spiritual leaders such as Buddha, Kabir or Sant Ravidas – all of whose careers were defined by their assertion against the Brahmanical order. Sita, Mirabai, Anasuya (the wife of a sage), have their own women’s corner.
“It is appropriation,” says professor Chittaranjan Mishra of Gorakhpur University. The hall itself, he says, “reeks of dominance. Gorakhnath was against the system of avatars. This was not his tradition.” The hall was built in the ’80s in Gorakhpur by the late Mahant Avaidyanath, the new CM’s guru, to honour his own guru, Digvijaynath. This is perhaps the only temple in India whose priests are not by default Brahmins. The last three Mahants have been Thakurs.
Digvijaynath, who old-timers say topped Adityanath in spectacle politics, launched his political career in the ’20s without giving up his religious seat. Writer Akshaya Mukul, while talking about the Gorakhpur of the ’20s, says the Hindu majoritarian project was bankrolled by the city’s business class, the Banias. In his book, Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India (on the city’s religious publishing house), the writer says there was “a close alliance” between the Mahants of Gorakhnath Temple and the Bania-run Gita Press management. A big target group for the religious books were lower castes.
Men of mystery
Digvijaynath’s talk of temple entry [for all castes], say experts, was about Hindu consolidation without Ambedkar’s politics. His intervention in cow-saving committees was a huge rallying point for upper castes. From Digvijaynath to Aditynath, the cow has been an important political symbol to project a ‘crisis’ of Hindu identity to be chanelled eventually into cynical politics.
Dwarka Tiwari, chief manager of the Gorakhnath Temple, bristles with disapproval at the suggestion. “Don’t see caste and religion everywhere,” he says. Has the Gorakhnath Temple ever had a Brahmin Mahant? “Baba Brahmanath,” he answers. “The Nath panth has never been anti-Brahmin,” he says without batting an eyelid. Has it ever had a lower caste head priest?
Token examples, of course, prove and settle nothing. “Whoever captures a temple be it a Thakur, a Bania, or even a lower caste, will perpetuate its rituals,” says Akshaya Mukul. A structure built under the shadow of a temple will invariably establish a Brahmanical order. “The silence on the caste identities of the other Mahants at the Gorakhnath temple prior to Digvijaynath also shows how the leadership of the math has been managed. ‘After becoming sadhus, sadhus lose caste,’ is their common refrain,” says local scribe Manoj Singh. “They will never reveal the caste. If they tell you that, the game is over. Since the time of Digvijaynath, it has been an upper-caste hijack of the temple.”
Digvijaynath became the unchallenged leader of the math with Brahmanath’s blessings. He joined the Hindu Mahasabha when Savarkar was its president. By the time he was proclaiming that the voting rights of Muslims be snatched in post-Independence India until they “proved their loyalty” (The Statesman, June 13, 1950), the Nath panth was being readied for its 20th century version. This was cruel; Gorakhnath is revered by Hindus and Muslims alike even to this day.
Adityanath is built in Digvijaynath’s mould, say locals. Avaidyanath concentrated on expanding the math’s reach. “Adityanath is a Nath panthi only in a formal sense, in that he is a kan-phat yogi (whose ears are split and lobes lengthened) in the Nath tradition,” says K Yadav, a clerk who refused to give his first name. Is Gorakhpur forgetting what the Nath panth originally stood for?
Gorakhnath, as projected by his own temple, seems to be a man of magic, defying age, time and space. According to the guided tour by a resident sadhu, Shantinath, he is said to have taken Heer’s Ranjha under his wings in the 18th century, chatted with Kabir in the 15th, and gifted swords to various kings of Rajasthan and Nepal. Would he have sat in a gathering that had Tulsidas, the high priest of Brahmanism and Sant Ravidas, the champion of lower castes, as he is made to, in the math’s hall?
The stress on Gorakhnath’s mythic status rather than his historical role is perhaps meant to suit a present-day politics in which power in the short term has been achieved by holding out the carrot of lower-caste inclusion. But what of rights? The UP election has been won. The 2019 election is a work in progress . Adityanath has echoed Narendra Modi’s slogan of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas. But the highest caste representation in his 47-member cabinet is of upper castes - 22.
Will the UP election win make Ayodhya temple a key focus for Adityanath? The Ramjanmabhoomi movement, some locals say, goes against the very grain of the Nath panth. Even after its Brahminisation, it is still a Shaivite sect. Whether an incarnation of Vishnu has a temple should not be their concern. The reason it is, is simple: continuity. Digvijaynath was one of the initiators of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement in 1949. The Babri Masjid was demolished in the time of Avaidyanath. So, will the temple finally be built in the time of Adityanath?
At the Gorakhnath math, a few days before the new chief minister comes visiting, this is a no-brainer. The temple should be built – Nath panth or no Nath panth. But, also, the court should decide, say locals.
As we wrap up our tour of the temple, Yogi Shantinath responds provocatively to many of the questions. Quite a few of them he answers by saying “Your Pakistan…” as a small crowd mills around us. Here’s another example. As we pass the figure of the temple’s conception of ‘Bharat Mata,’ he says with an air of triumphalism: “This is my Bharat Mata. And yours?”
Team Adityanath is yet to figure the language and manner of people who are close to an elected government. The first sign of a mature political community that has arrived, is, that they behave like one.