Yogic Identities, Part Five


Figure 24: Detail from "Akbar Watches a Battle between Two Rival Groups of Saṃnyāsīs at Thaneshwar"
Mughal, c. 1590–95, Victoria and Albert Museum

Sep 28, 2014 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial presentation on aesthetic and iconographic identifiers that distinguish various sects of sannyasis and ascetics in ancient India.

In Yogic Identities, author James Mallinson offers an interesting historical commentary on how various camps of ascetics in medieval India not only differentiated themselves, but also amalgamated into new groups under philosophical leadership.

"During the seventeenth century, the three main ascetic orders of North India—the Daśanāmīs, Rāmānandīs, and Nāths—forged links with southern institutions as they staked claims to dominion over all of India. The Daśanāmīs joined forces with the Sringeri maṭha, whose teachings, a blend of Advaita and the sanitized form of Śaivism known as Śrīvidyā, they adopted. As part of this process, both the Sringeri maṭha and the Daśanāmīs claimed Śaṅkarācārya as their founding guru. Together with Śaivism, the Daśanāmīs would have taken northward the antipathy between Śaivas and Vaiṣṇavas that had afflicted South India for at least five hundred years. It persisted in debates between different Brahmin and Saṃnyāsī factions, some of which were connected with the Sringeri maṭha, in Vijayanagar until its downfall in 1565 and, latterly, in Varanasi.

The rapid hardening of the Daśanāmīs' Śaiva orientation over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to have been in reaction to the formation of their archrivals, the Rāmānandīs, ascetic worshipers of Viṣṇu's Rām incarnation. Today, Rāmānandīs wear Vaiṣṇava ūrdhvapuṇḍra forehead markings like those depicted in the early Mughal portrayals of Saṃnyāsīs (fig. 17).

Fig. 17 Rāmānandī Tyāgī applying twelve ūrdhvapuṇḍras at the Kumbh Mela, Haridwar, April 2010
[ Photo: James Mallinson ]

Indeed, one might contend that figure 1—whose subjects, unlike those in figures 2 and 3, are not identified in contemporaneous sources as Daśanāmī Saṃnyāsīs—portrays Rāmānandīs (or rather their forerunners, since the order was yet to be formalized or refer to itself as Rāmānandī).90 But three features of the ascetics in figure 1 set them apart from today's Rāmānandīs.

First, there is the ancient ūrdhvabāhu penance of permanently holding one or two arms in the air undertaken by the ascetic in the bottom left of the picture. Today this is the preserve of Daśanāmīs.

Rāmānandīs will not practice it because it is likely to permanently disfigure the body, rendering it unsuitable for the orthodox Vedic ritual acts that they, unlike the Saṃnyāsīs, perform. Rāmānandīs prefer austerities such as dhūni-tap, sitting in the summer sun surrounded by smoldering cow-dung fires, or khaṛeśvarī, standing up for years on end.

Second, two of the ascetics, including the figure who has undertaken the ūrdhvabāhu penance, are naked. Rāmānandīs today are scornful of the Daśanāmīs' nakedness, saying that it offends Lord Rām. Third, the remaining ascetics wear ochre-colored cloth, unlike the Rāmānandīs, who wear white cloth, saying that the Daśanāmīs' ochre robes are the color of the menstrual fluid of Pārvatī, Śiva's consort. ….

Today, the Rāmānandīs are the largest ascetic order in India, and ascetics who worship Rāma have been part of the North Indian religious landscape since at least the twelfth century. But our Mughal miniatures have shown us only Daśanāmī Saṃnyāsīs and Nāths. Where were the ascetic worshippers of Rāma hiding? A close inspection of Akbar Watches a Battle between Two Rival Groups of Saṃnyāsīs at Thaneshwar and a folio from Jahangir's 1618 Gulshan Album tells us that they are right before our eyes: the forerunners of the Rāmānandīs were Saṃnyāsīs.

Some of the yogi warriors in the Akbarnāma depiction of the battle at Thaneshwar have, in addition to Vaiṣṇava insignia, words written on their bodies. Only one word—ramā—is discernible, on the chest of a Saṃnyāsī in the bottom right (figs. 2, 24). And we can see similar markings on the body of a Vaiṣṇava in a beautiful collage of paintings from the Gulshan Album, which depicts a Nāth yogi encountering a Vaiṣṇava ascetic very similar to the Thaneshwar Saṃnyāsīs (fig. 25). The words are not clearly written—one wonders how good the Devanāgarī orthography of the Mughal court painters was—but rāma is the most likely reading."

Figure 25: Folio from the Gulshan Album
17th Century Mughal


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