Yogic Identities, Part Four


Fig. 16a (top left) Leader of the Saṃnyāsī Troop - Detail from "Mughals Visit an Encampment of "Sadhus"
Fig. 16b (top right), 16c (btm left) & 16d (btm right) - Detail from "Akbar Watches a Battle between
Two Rival Groups of Saṃnyāsīs at Thaneshwar"

Sep 27, 2014 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial presentation on aesthetic and iconographic identifiers that distinguish various sects of sannyasis and ascetics in ancient India.

In his Yogic Identities article, author James Mallinson discusses in detail some of the historical iconographies that help modern day Indologists to determine the identities of ascetics and sannyasins in ancient paintings. Here, we find an interesting discussion on how certain members of the renounced order appear to have come from Vaisnava lineages, while others were impersonalists. Here he refers to the great division between the Saivite camps and the Vaisnavas, who were worshipping either Lord Krsna or Lord Rama:

"This division was at its most violent in the eighteenth century, when battles between the military wings of two yogi orders, the Śaiva Daśanāmī Saṃnyāsīs and Vaiṣṇava Vairāgīs (whose largest suborder is that of the Rāmānandīs), resulted in the deaths of thousands of ascetics. To this day, the sādhu camps at the triennial Kumbh Melā festivals are divided into the army of Śiva and the army of Rām (fig. 15). Mughal-era paintings of ascetics, however, show that the situation was somewhat different in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as we shall see below.

Nowadays the Nāths, like the Saṃnyāsīs, are overtly Śaiva, but the pictorial record indicates that this has not always been the case: Nāths are not shown sporting Śaiva insignia, such as rudrākṣa seeds or tripuṇḍras (horizontal forehead markings made with ash) until the late eighteenth century. The current Nāth janeo configuration, in which a ring and a rudrākṣa seed have been added to the long black thread and siṅgī, appears to be an innovation of the nineteenth century at the earliest. The Nāths' roots in Śaiva Tantric traditions make the absence of Śaiva insignia in Mughal depictions of them surprising; perhaps it is symptomatic of their devotion to a formless absolute, an attitude prevalent in North Indian ascetic orders in late medieval India.

Figure 15: Rāmānandī Nāgā at the Kumbh Mela, Haridwar, April 2010
[ Photo: James Mallinson ]

But it is not only the Nāths who are free from Śaiva insignia in Mughal paintings; to my knowledge, no ascetic of any stripe wears the horizontal tripuṇḍra forehead marking or necklaces of rudrākṣa seeds. The unmistakable Śaiva denomination of today's Daśanāmī Saṃnyāsīs makes the absence of Śaiva insignia in their Mughal depictions particularly surprising."

"…Śiva is often portrayed as the yogi par excellence, with the result that asceticism and yoga have come to be thought of as originally Śaiva, and their non-Śaiva manifestations as adaptations of Śaiva traditions. But in our earliest sources, the association of asceticism and yoga with Śiva is by no means exclusive, and Śaivism did not dominate subsequent teachings on yoga. It is perhaps the association of asceticism with Śiva and the Śaiva affiliation of today's Daśanāmī Saṃnyāsīs that have led scholars to assume that the ascetics in Mughal paintings are Śaivas. Yet, as I have remarked, there are no Śaiva insignia in any Mughal pictures of ascetics. On the contrary, many of the Saṃnyāsīs depicted therein sport on their foreheads the distinctive ūrdhvapuṇḍra V-shaped Vaiṣṇava marking. A large number of the Saṃnyāsīs fighting in figures 2 and 3 [included in our first segment) clearly have these markings (see details in 16b, 16c, 16d), as does the leader of the Saṃnyāsī troop (figs. 1, 16a). Other Mughal paintings of Saṃnyāsīs from the same period also show them wearing ūrdhvapuṇḍras (e.g. figures 18 and 19).

Fig. 18 - Detail from "Saṃnyāsī with Attendant"
c. 1595, Collection of Ludwig Habighorst

Vaiṣṇava features of Daśanāmī Saṃnyāsī identity are in fact legion. To this day, all Daśanāmī ascetics greet one another with the ancient Vaiṣṇava aṣṭākṣara ("eight-syllabled" mantra): oṃ namo nārāyaṇāya. Śaṅkarācārya, who was retroactively claimed to have founded their order, was Vaiṣṇava. Three of their four pīṭhas or sacred centers—Dwarka, Puri, and Badrinath—are Vaiṣṇava places of pilgrimage. Prior to the sixteenth century, the Daśanāmī nominal suffix Purī is found only on the names of Vaiṣṇava ascetics. The tutelary deities of the two biggest akhāṛās (regiments) of the Daśanāmīs today are Dattātreya and Kapila, both of whom are included in early lists of the manifestations of Viṣṇu.

It is the ūrdhvapuṇḍras in these Mughal miniatures, however, and the absence of Śaiva insignia that provide us with the most compelling evidence that at least some of the groups that came to form the Daśanāmī Saṃnyāsī order were originally Vaiṣṇava. It is not clear how, when, or why the Daśanāmīs acquired an overarching Śaiva orientation, but it is likely to have been a result of the formalization of the order, in particular its affiliation with the southern Sringeri monastery and the concomitant attribution of its founding to Śaṅkarācārya, who by the seventeenth century had been rebranded a Śaiva."

Fig. 19 - Detail from " An Ascetic in a Landscape "
c. 1620, The British Library


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