Yogic Identities, Part Three


Figure 9: "A Party of Kanphat Yogis Resting around a Fire"
Mughal, c. 1630
The British Library Board

Sep 26, 2014 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial presentation on aesthetic and iconographic identifiers that distinguish various sects of sannyasis and ascetics in ancient India.

"There are fewer Mughal pictures of Saṃnyāsīs than of Nāths. The north Indian ascetic Nāth traditions encountered by the Mughals were closely linked to the Sant tradition of holy men and, like them, believed in a formless, unconditioned god. This theological openness—which manifested in, among other things, a disdain for the purity laws adhered to by more orthodox Hindu ascetics—allowed them to mix freely with those such as the Muslim Mughals, who more caste-bound Hindu traditions would consider mlecchas (barbarians). Furthermore the Nāths were not militarized, unlike the Saṃnyāsīs, whose belligerence would have proved an impediment to interaction with the Mughals. The Nāths' greater influence on the Mughal court is further borne out by the preponderance of their doctrines in Persian yoga texts produced during the Mughal period."

Mallinson points out that in battle scenes like the paintings under discussion of the Thaneswar war of ascetics and sannyasins, various icons help to distinguish the ancient Nath ascetics and sannyasins from one another. For example, in the Mughal miniatures shown in our previous segment we see the earrings worn by ascetics on both sides of the saffron war. The earrings are often painted black and are therefore quite visible identifiers in the paintings, as we saw in Figure 7 of the Yogis at Gurkhattri.

While paraphernalia and ornaments like horns, fillets and necklaces often serve as quick identifiers of medieval ascetics, in the case of earrings they do not always distinguish between the two. In fact, many of the sannyasis in the paintings under discussion are also wearing earrings, although this sort of ornamentation is more common amongst the Naths than the more conservatively austere sannyasins. Mallinson writes:

"Once members of the Nāth saṃpradāya have been identified, it is possible to note other attributes that Nāths do not share with the Saṃnyāsīs depicted in contemporaneous illustrations. These include the wearing of cloaks and hats, the accompaniment of dogs, and the use of small shovels for moving ash. The Saṃnyāsīs, meanwhile, in keeping with the renunciation implied by their name, do relatively little to embellish their archetypal ascetic attributes and are thus best distinguished by the absence of the specifically Nāth features noted above. Indeed, in some cases, their renunciation is such that they are naked, which the Nāths never are."

Mallinson offers further historical commentary on the ornamentation of ascetics:

"The criteria used above to identify the Nāths and Saṃnyāsīs in early Mughal paintings have been taken exclusively from sources contemporaneous with or older than the paintings themselves. This is because using modern ethnographic data to interpret these images has its pitfalls. By now the reader acquainted with the Nāths may have wondered why little mention has been made of earrings. Today, Nāths are renowned for wearing hooped earrings through the cartilages of their ears, which are cut open with a dagger at the time of initiation.

For this reason, they are sometimes referred to as kānphaṭā (split-eared), a pejorative term that they themselves eschew. Very few other ascetics today wear earrings of any sort and, to my knowledge, none wears them kānphaṭā-style. The current exclusive association of Nāths wearing hooped earrings has led many scholars to take textual mentions or artistic depictions of such insignia as indications that the wearers are Nāths, but this is not always the case. In India, earrings have long been emblematic of both divinity and rank. Thus many representations of the Buddha show him with earlobes that are distended and pierced but empty, signifying his renunciation: he had abandoned the heavy jeweled earrings he wore as a royal prince. In contrast, Mahāyāna bodhisattvas and Tantric adepts (siddhas) were conceived of as sovereigns of their realms and are often described and depicted as wearing earrings (and other regal accoutrements). These Hindu and Buddhist siddhas may have been the first ascetics to wear earrings; a related type of ascetic, the Kāpālika (Skull bearer), is often said to wear them.

In medieval vernacular texts contemporaneous with early Mughal paintings, earrings are almost always included (usually as mudrā) in lists of yogi insignia. Often they are associated with yogis who follow Gorakṣa. If we look at the ears in figures 1–3 and 7–9, however, we see two surprising features. First, almost all, whether they belong to Nāths or Saṃnyāsīs, sport earrings. Second, no earring goes through cartilage. Depictions of Saṃnyāsīs up to the eighteenth century often show them wearing earrings, and it is not until the late eighteenth or even early nineteenth century that we come across the first depictions of Nāths wearing earrings kānphaṭā-style. A fine example is a painting of two ascetics that illustrates a manuscript of the Tashrīḥ al-aḳvām, an account of various Indian sects, castes, and tribes commissioned by Colonel James Skinner and completed in 1825 (fig. 11). The ascetic on the left is identified in an expanded version of the picture from the same period as an Aughaṛ, i.e., a Nāth who is yet to take full initiation; the one on the right, who wears a siṅgī around his neck and kānphaṭā earrings, is a full initiate by the name of Śambhu Nāth.

Travelers from the sixteenth century onward commented on the wearing of earrings by yogis, but there are no outsider reports of them being worn kānphaṭā-style until circa 1800. The seventeenth-century poet Sundardās, whose earliest manuscript is dated 1684, contrasts earring-wearing jogīs with jaṭā-growing Saṃnyāsīs (pad 135) and elsewhere derides splitting the ears (kān pharāi) as a means of attaining yoga (sākhī 16.23). Since no paintings of yogis from the Mughal heyday (up to 1640) show split-eared yogis, it thus seems likely that the practice developed in the second half of the seventeenth century. The use of the pejorative name kānphaṭā, however, is not found until the second half of the eighteenth century, suggesting that the practice did not become widespread until then. The Nāths' adoption of this extreme kānphaṭā style led to earrings in general being closely associated with the Nāth order, with the result that other ascetic orders eschewed the practice."


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