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The tradition of warrior ascetics is widely known across cultures. The Hindu warrior ascetic tradition is the oldest in the world. The Knights Templars of Medieval Europe, the Sohei  Buddhist monks of Japan, and the Nath-Naga sadhus of India are perfect examples of that tradition. Yogi Adityanath is among the most prominent present-day Hindu warrior ascetic tradition members.

Most Western and Marxist scholars consider the warrior ascetic tradition, including those within the Indic tradition, an outcome of a religious and political conflict within the paradigm of a decentralized feudal structure, (David N Lorenzen, Warrior Ascetics in Indian History, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Jan-March 1978). However, the Indian warrior ascetic tradition (prampara) is rooted in Dharma and is much older than medieval European feudalism.

Dharma Must Always Be Protected

Dharma is the core of Hindu tradition. It is the universal principle that upholds the cosmological balance. It is benevolent and propounded to secure all living beings’ good. According to the Mahabharata, what comes from the love for all beings, is dharma. This love is the criterion to judge dharma from aDharma.

Every time there is a threat to Dharma, Hindus rise to defend it. In the Bhagavad Gita (4.7), Bhagawan Krishna declares:

Yada yada hi dharmasya glanirbhavati bharata

Abhythanamadharmasya tadatmanam srijamyaham || 

(Whenever there is decay in Dharma, O Bharata,

And there is an exaltation of aDharma, then I Myself come forth.) 

The Prithvi Sukta (14.1 and 14.2) of the Atharvaveda (roughly twelfth century BCE) offers an exciting insight into the inner workings of the Hindu Dharma. The mantra calls upon Mother Earth to subdue those threatening us with “his mind and weapons.” 

The man who hates us, Earth, who fights against us, who threatens us with a thought or deadly weapon, make him our thrall as thou hast done aforetime.  || 14

Resistance against aDharma falls into two categories – intellectual and martial. Rishis and Acharyas, such as Yaska, Shankaracharya, Swami Vivekananda, etc., fall into the first category. The followers of many warrior ascetic traditions, such as Nath, Dashnamis, Khalsa, etc., belong to the latter. 

The Ajivikas and the Nathpanthis

India’s earliest reference to warrior ascetics is in the sixth century BCE. Buddhists and Jaina texts mention theological debates between leaders of rival groups, occasionally leading to the exchange of blows, especially with the Ajivikas (Lorenzen). 

Belonging to one of the Nastika heterodox Hindu Dharshana (philosophy) schools, Ajivikas had a significant rivalry with Jainism and Buddhism. Mauryan king Ashoka (304-232 BCE) had 18,000 Ajivikas executed. The King, a convert to Buddhism, was enraged about a picture depicting Bhagwan Buddha in a bad light (John S. Strong, The Legends of King Aśoka: A Study and Translation of the Aśokāvadāna). As early as the 6th century BCE, linguist Panini also mentions ascetics with an iron lance.

Most Hindu warrior ascetic sampradayas (orders) became prominent during the Islamic invasion of India. They are not part of any existing institutions. The Nath sampradaya traces its origin to the legendary Guru Gorakhnath (protector of cows). Scholars place Guru Gorakhnath in 11/12th century CE. He is considered one of the two notable disciples of Guru Matsyendranath. He is thought to have authored many books, including the Goraksha Samhita, Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati, etc. 

Nath Jogis actively countered the Sufis, who quietly “worked to proselytize and win converts to Islam” (Hussain Haqqani, Muslim Rage is About Politics, Not Religion, Hudson Institute). They set up their establishments parallel to Sufi deras. They were identified by their kambmbal (blanket), kundal (a kind of earring), kamandal (stoup), and kada (a bangle of a sort) – similar to that of Sikh Khalsa warriors.

The Dashnamis

The great Shankaracharya (?788-820 CE) established the Dashnami order. Dashnamis were a group of Sanyasis belonging to ten different orders – Giri, Puri, Bharati, Aranya, Parbat, Ban, Saraswati, Tirtha, Ashrama, and Sagar. These Dashnamis belonged to one of the two groups – Gossains and Nagas. While the Gossains could lead a household, the Nagas remained celibates. They wore no clothes of any kind (Ananda Bhattacharya, Dasanami Sanyasis as Ascetics, Baniyas, and Soldier, Annals of Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol 93). 

The Dashnamis are fierce fighters. When the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s army attacked the Vishwanath temple of Banaras in 1669 CE, his troops had to face the wrath of the Dashnami Nagas. The sadhus “won the victory in a fight with the Sultan (? Aurangzib) and gained great glory,” writes Jadunath Sarkar (A History of the Dasnami Naga Sannyasis, 1958). “From sunrise to sunset,” Sarkar continues, “the battle raged, and the Dasnamis proved themselves heroes; they preserved the honour of Vishwanath’s seat.”

The Sikh Khalsa was another warrior ascetic group during the Islamic period. Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th and the last Guru of the Sikhs founded the Khalsa (1699 CE). The Khalsa Sikhs fought valiantly against the Mughals, most prominently against Aurangzeb. Even after the death of Guru Gobind Singh, the Khalsa continued its fight under the former Vaishnava bairagi, Banda. 

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay memorialized the Sanyasi Rebellion against British rule in his famous Bangla novel Anandmath. The anti-cow slaughter movement of 1966 was led by the Sadhus, where over 200,000 Hindu priests and ascetics gathered in Delhi in support of framing anti-cow slaughter laws. In the 1990s, the Sadhus played a vital role in the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi movement to construct a grand temple in Ayodhya, the birthplace of Bhagwan Ram. The temple is expected to be opened to devotees in December 2023.

The Tradition Continues

The age-old Hindu warrior ascetic tradition continues even today. Some of these groups (Akharas) participate in ceremonial fights to showcase their skill and to win the right to the first bath in the holy river Ganga during the Kumbh festival. Many Khalsa Sikhs still carry their Kripan knife. 

Yogi Adityanath, the current Chief Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) in India, is the head of the Gorakhnath order, headquartered in the eastern UP town of Gorakhpur. Born Ajay Singh Bisht in 1972, Yogi Adityanath is an ordained monk of the order. He became a Yogi in 1994 by renouncing the materialistic world, including family relations. When Yogi’s father passed away in 2020, he did not even attend his funeral. In his “war” against crime and corruption in Uttar Pradesh, a bulldozer has emerged as Yogi’s symbolic weapon.

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Avatans Kumar

Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. A JNU, New Delhi, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus, Avatans holds graduate degrees in Linguistics. Avatans is a recipient...