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Monastic Wanderers: Nath Yogi Ascetics in Modern South Asia.

Monastic Wanderers: Nath Yogi Ascetics in Modern South Asia. By VERONIQUE BOUILLIER. New Delhi: MANOHAR, 2017; London: ROUTLEDGE, 2018. Pp. 351. Rs. 1395, [pounds sterling]105.00; eBook [pounds sterling]35.99

For the past eighty years, the sole comprehensive overview of the religious order variously known as the Nath Yogis, the Nath Siddhas, the Kanphata Yogis, or simply the Naths or the Yogis has been George Weston Briggs's Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis (original ed. 1938). A trove of data on the Naths, Briggs's monograph was a work of colonial ethnography, written in the style of the imperial gazetteers or the "Tribes and Castes of India" series, and containing chapters with titles like "Religion and Superstition." For the past thirty years, Veronique Bouillier has been quietly assembling a body of scholarship that has reprised, updated, and in many respects supplanted Briggs's pioneering work. Trained in the tradition of historical anthropology in which the French so excel, Bouillier's earliest focus was on the centuries-long relationships the Naths have maintained with royal power in Nepal. A series of seminal articles and chapters on their relationships to the royal houses of Gorkha and Dang culminated in a 1997 monograph, Ascites et rois: Un monastere des Kanphata Yogis au Nepal (Paris: CNRS Editions). Following this, Bouillier shifted her focus to India, where a decade of fieldwork and archival research in Rajasthan, Karnataka, Haryana, the Punjab, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh issued in hindrance et vie monastique: Les ascites Nath Yogis en Inde contemporaine (Paris: Editions de la FMSH, 2008). Hers has been a participatory anthropology: she has taken part in Nath processions and interacted closely with the Naths in their monastic and householder settings, with the upadesi initiation she received in Nepal giving her inside knowledge of a tantric rite directed to the goddess Yogmaya-Balasundari (pp. 44-45). Because very few of her writings to date have appeared in English, Bouillier's scholarship has been poorly known in the Anglophone world. The present work, a mature reflection on a tradition whose transformations she has observed and documented firsthand for over three decades, is a welcome remedy to that situation.

The book is well structured and its arguments clearly presented, albeit in a somewhat idiomatic form of English expression. Working from Dumont's concept of "monastic community" as "an essential mediating term between the solitary ascetic individual and society" (p. 81), Bouillier suggests that "the Nath Yogis offer a perfect example of this double movement, this fundamental relationship between a tradition that emphasizes a personal approach to asceticism and spiritual quest, and a collective organization anchored to the monasteries which allows the sect to survive and adapt to the multiple social-historical changes they face" (p. 83). This tension plays itself out on a number of levels. Renouncers with no individual possessions, Naths have often found themselves in the roles of landlords and feudal rulers (p. 203); and whereas celibacy is a requirement for being a Yogi, communities of married house-holders (grhastha), many claiming a Yogi identity "and even using Yogi or the vernacular form Jogi as a caste name" (p. 299), are found across north India and Nepal.

An overview of Nath identity, part one surveys the terminology by which the order defines itself, the mytho-history of its founding gurus, its textual corpus, hatha yoga legacy, worship traditions, and formal organization. While their founding guru Gorakhnath is universally worshiped in Nath monasteries, both anthropomorphically and in the abstract form of the mysterious amrtapdtra or patradevata (pp. 30-31, 132-33), the ubiquitous presence of Bhairava and various forms of the goddess, as well as the mythology of Gorakhnath's lascivious guru Matsyendranath, all attest to the order's tantric roots. After surveying Nath ritual, including the distinctive--but perhaps not particularly ancient (p. 43)--initiation rite of ear splitting, Bouillier turns to matters of organization. Traditionally divided into twelve orders (panths), the Nath organization (sampradaya) has, since 1906, been supervised by the Yogi Mahasabha ("Great Yogi Assembly"), which "has been constantly increasing [in power], up to the present day when it successfully manages the entire sect" (p. 58). Boullier's insightful overview of the Mahasabha's statutes, nomenclature, and organizational structure is followed by an important observation on those Nath establishments that the Mahasabha does not control. These are the niji maths ("personal monasteries"), which, identified with their charismatic founders and supported by local or regional patrons, are for the most part self-managed (pp. 65-66). However, visitors to these monasteries will often find them empty (p. 123), for, as the book's title indicates, monasteries and the monastic life are but one aspect of Nath self-identity, an aspect generally subordinated to the venerable tradition of wandering asceticism. In the case of the Naths, the jamdt, a "constituted group of itinerant ascetics," is organized and formal, consisting of a core of about a hundred Yogis who continuously travel together under the direction of two leaders (mahants) (pp. 73-78). Bouillier's detailed account of jamdt organization, itineraries, and traditions is most revealing, reflecting a marriage of the old (the portable dhunl fireplace, industrial consumption of cannabis, the wild playing of drums, horns, and whistles) and the new (walking has been replaced by travel in jeeps, trucks, and land cruisers) (pp. 74-76).

In part two, on the order's "collective" (pancdyatl) monasteries, we find ourselves on Bouillier's "home turf," at Kadri in the coastal town of Mangalore (Karnataka) and Caughera in the Dang Valley of Nepal. In these, the richest and most compelling chapters in the monograph, she draws upon local mahatmya literature, regional and trans-national purdna-itihdsa, iconographical and epigraphical data, land grant documents, traveler's accounts, and colonial and post-colonial ethnography to present an extensive overview of the history of the Kadri monastery and the adjoining Manjunath temple, which passed through Buddhist and Saiva (including Nath) hands, before falling under the control of its present Vaisnava Madhava Brahman custodians.

A recurring theme throughout the book, the deep historical links between the Naths and royal power is reflected in the order's relationship to the goddess as the divine embodiment of royal sovereignty; the symbolic importance of the gaddi, the Nath mahants (1) cushion cum throne; the hagiographies of its founders as renouncer princes and royal power-brokers; and, most significantly, the order's rituals of "royal consecration." This is highlighted at Kadri, which, in spite of its geographical isolation from the Naths' north Indian and Nepalese power bases, retains an outsized importance for the order, which, as Bouillier surmises, is grounded in a not so distant past history, when Kadri was "ruled" by a yogi-raja. The glories of that past, recaptured once every twelve years at the time of the Nasik kumbh meld in "the pilgrimage and coronation of the raja ... enact a symbolic process of the territorial reconquest of their lost supremacy" (p. 116). A mobile gathering (jhundl) of over two thousand Yogis subject to a rigorous itinerary and massive logistical challenges, and punctuated by remarkably democratic election of the new Kadri raja and an elaborate installation and coronation ceremony, this six-month-long pilgrimage encapsulates the Nath Mahasabha's strategy for the modernization of tradition. In a most intriguing albeit questionable aside, Bouillier likens this ritual process to what Jan Heesterman termed the "pre-classical" situation of Vedic royal consecration, which was broken into two parts by a "symbolic war expedition" (pp. 140, 162).

In counterpoint to the Kadri monastery's elevation of its mahant to royal status, Nepal's Caughera monastery exemplifies another leitmotif of Nath mytho-history. the elevation by a Nath Yogi of an untested prince to the royal throne, and the subsequent royal land grants that founded and have since maintained the math. Bouillier's detailed account of the monastery's history, organization, and daily ritual program is colored throughout by its legendary founder's dual identity. Ratannath, also identified as Ratan Pir, Hajjl Ratan--and, most recently, as Kanipa--is a figure who embodies the Naths' intertwined identities as Siddhas and Sufis, Hindus and Muslims. Here, as Bouillier notes, the Sufi title of pir, attributed to the monastic heads of every pahcayati monastery, is considered by the Caughera Yogis to be specific to their place (p. 192). Nath ties to Sufi Islam are also evidenced in the dargahstyle appearance of the samadhi mandir of Amritnath, the Fatehpur monastery's founding guru (pp. 252-53), and the celebration of the death anniversaries (comparable to the Muslim 'urs) of a number of monastic founders.

The book's part three, devoted to personal monasteries (niji maths), is the least compelling portion of the book, comprising an overview of what Bouillier typologizes as "charismatic" (Fatehpur) and "political" (Gorakhpur) monasteries, with the Asthal Bohar monastery standing as a synthesis of the two types. The great bulk of these chapters being devoted to the foundation, history, and current patronage and management styles of Fatehpur and Asthal Bohar, the reader is left to wonder why the Gorakhpur monastery--whose current mahant, Yogi Adityanath, is also the highly controversial right-wing Chief Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh--receives such scant attention. A more serious shortcoming of this otherwise wonderfully rich and insightful book lies in Boullier's seemingly interchangeable references to the Naths as a "religious order" and a "sect." This reader would have appreciated more clarity on her understanding and usage of these terms.

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Author:White, David Gordon
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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