Yogic Identities, Part Six


Figure 26: Rāmānandī Tyāgī with "Rām Rām" written on his forehead
Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, February 2013
[ Photo © Cambridge Jones ]

Sep 29, 2014 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial presentation on aesthetic and iconographic identifiers that distinguish various sects of sannyasis and ascetics in ancient India.

"In matters of doctrine, the Saṃnyāsī tradition is most closely associated with the rigorous philosophies of Vedānta. Bhakti (devotion), however, has held an important, if overlooked, place in their teachings, and some medieval North Indian Saṃnyāsī ācāryas were renowned for their devotion to Rām.

The formalization of the Saṃnyāsī order involved the incorporation of a broad variety of different renouncer traditions, whose followers considered themselves part of the ancient tradition of renunciation (saṃnyāsa). In the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the generic name for a renouncer, Saṃnyāsī, became associated with this formalized order. When the Rāmānandīs seceded from it in the course of their adoption of ultra-Vaiṣṇavism, their ascetics differentiated themselves from the Saṃnyāsīs by giving themselves the name Tyāgī, which is an exact Sanskrit synonym of Saṃnyāsī (fig. 26). In a similar fashion, as Nāth corporate identity solidified in the eighteenth century, the name Yogī came to be associated exclusively with the Nāths and was shunned by the Saṃnyāsīs and Rāmānandīs."

At this point in Yogic Identities, author James Mallinson presents an argument which, while historically interesting, falls outside the realm of absolute truth presented by the four sampradayas. He suggests that in the past, the differentiation between Saivites and Vaisnavas was primarily a matter of positioning for resources, and although the philosophical differences are set forth in their sastra, the 'rank and file' yogis were, and still are, quite similar. Of course, this opinion would not be accepted by our Sampradaya Acaryas on the matter. Their measurement of the differences between yogic sects is not based on the behavior of some of the common members, but is strictly based on the siddhanta. It is the perfected embodiment of siddhanta that truly defines different sampradayas and sects. Mallinson's writes:

"The Śaivism of the Daśanāmī Saṃnyāsīs and Vaiṣṇavism of the Rāmānandīs, while ostensibly responsible for a lengthy, and sometimes lethal, antipathy, should be taken with a pinch of salt. Doctrinal differences are highlighted in texts composed by the learned of both traditions but, as noted above, the rank-and-file yogis were (and remain) very similar, and their shared Sant heritage of anti-scholastic nirguṇabhakti is still prevalent today.

The Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava denominations were adopted in the course of the consolidation of the two orders and provided a convenient ideological justification for what was in fact competition over resources rather than a dispute over doctrine. Not only do the ascetics of both orders lead very similar lives, but many features of the two orders fly in the face of their supposed incompatibility.

An important Saṃnyāsī commander of the late eighteenth century, when battles between the two orders were at their fiercest, was called Rāmānand Gosāīṃ. At the 2010 Haridwar Kumbh Melā, I met a Saṃnyāsī called Rāmānand Giri in the Saṃnyāsīs' Jūnā Akhāṛā. Recently, when making inquiries in Himachal Pradesh about historical religious affiliations, my informants were confused by my attempts to categorize local rulers or religious institutions as exclusively Vaiṣṇava or Śaiva. Taruṇ Dās Mahant, a householder Rāmānandī from Kullu, told me that "here the devotees of Rām all worship Śiva and the devotees of Śiva all worship Rām."

The author's focus on the Ramanandi's as representatives of Vaisnavism, in comparison to the Saivites, is of course limited. Were it the Gaudiyas being put forward as Vaisnava examples, then the points Mallinson makes on how blurred the line between them is would change significantly. (See Part 33 and Part 34 of "The Mughal Influence on Vaisnavism") Nonetheless, the broad-brush presentation on similarities between these different yogic groups is somewhat like the suggestion that there is little difference between saying Krishna is a subordinate incarnation of Vishnu, and vice versa. Of course, there is tremendous difference between the two, and only one position is correct -- absolutely so.

Mallinson's closing remarks follow:

Mughal Painting: A Window onto the History of Yoga and Yogis

"There has long been confusion over the identity of the yogis depicted in Mughal and later paintings. This has resulted from a lack of understanding of the complex and constantly changing makeup of yogi sects in the early modern period, and the concomitant absence of terminological rigor in both Indian and foreign descriptions of yogis from the Mughal period to the present day. Yet a close reading of these pictures and other historical sources allows us to identify the sectarian affiliations of the depicted yogis and thereby to cast new light on their history and the nature of the yoga that they practiced. The pictures' naturalism and the associated consistency of their depictions mean that seemingly insignificant details, such as the position of an earring, are of great significance.

Mughal-era and later paintings provide evidence for, and have inspired, many of the new ways of looking at Indian yogis and their history outlined in this essay. Doubtless some of the theories proposed will be rejected or refined in the light of further research—whether textual, ethnographic, or art historical—but the details shown in these beautiful images, which have hitherto been overlooked in histories of yoga and yogis, need to be addressed by historians. They bear testament to the fluidity of India's religious landscape and the transformations undergone by her yogis as they adapted to the changes around them."

While we have presented only excerpts of the paper in this series, the reader will find a complete version of Yogic Identities: Tradition and Transformation by James Mallinson here, including extensive footnotes omitted from our excerpted presentation.

About the Author

James Mallinson, PhD, is a Sanskritist from Oxford University whose work focuses on the history of yoga and yogis. His publications include The Ocean of the Rivers of Story by Somadeva (2007) and The Khecarīvidyā of Ādinātha (2007).


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