The Gorakhpur Math and its Mahants in Indian Politics

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The upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh have once again shone the spotlight, not just on Yogi Adityanath as he seeks re-election as Chief Minister, but also on the Gorakhnath Math in Gorakhpur, of which he is the ‘Mahant’ or religious head. Few people realize that the Mahants of the Gorakhnath Math have been influencing the politics of the Indo-Gangetic plains for almost a century and were even actively involved in the Non-Cooperation Movement in the 1920s, in the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi movement since the early 1950s till the 1990s, and the Anti-Cow Slaughter movement in the 1960s. The meteoric political rise and influence of the current Mahant, Yogi Adityanath, is just the continuation of a historic process.

Gorakhpur is located at the foothills of the Himalayas in a region known as ‘Terai’. It was covered in thick forests through much of its history. Its remote location and sparse population meant that it comprised mostly small villages ruled by local chieftains. But its real centre of power lay in the ‘math’ or ‘monastic establishment’ of the ‘Nath Panth’ or the Kanphata Panth, said to have been founded by Gorakshanath in the early 11th century CE, after whom the temple, as well as Gorakhpur, are named.

The nine Nath Gurus | Wikimedia Commons

The Gorakhnath temple is one of the important centres of the Nathpanthis (as followers of the Nath Panth are known) who enjoy a considerable following in large parts of the country including Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Odisha and Bengal and Uttarakhand besides Uttar Pradesh and Nepal. Though the earliest reference to the Naths as an organised order goes back to the 17th century CE, its first historical gurus, Matsyendranath and Gorakshanath, lived between the 9th and 12th centuries CE. It was Gorakshanath who founded the Nath order. This is one of the four major Hindu ascetic orders in North India, the others being the Ramanandi, Dasanami and Udasi orders.

17th century painting showing Nath yoginis | Sarah Welch Wikimedia Commons -CC BY-SA 4.0

The Nathpanthis were the founders of the practice of ‘Hatha Yog’, which is said to enable yogis to acquire magical powers or siddhis like levitation or moving solid objects by psychic power through control of the body and its senses, so much so that even Maharajas would seek yogic assistance from them to expand their power and kingdoms.

Mural depicting a Nath yogi in Mayurasana at the Mahamandir temple, Jodhpur, India, c. 1810 | Wikimedia Commons

Prithvi Narayan Shah, an 18th century king of Nepal, for instance, availed their assistance too, to extend his Gorkha kingdom to the west, reaching as far as Garhwal. But their acquaintance with power remained limited to helping kings, rather than the actual exercise of political power. This centuries-old tradition would dramatically change in the 1920s.

Mahant Digvijai Nath

The man responsible for a dramatic twist in the affairs of the Gorakhnath Math of the Nathpanthis was Digvijai Nath (1894-1969). He was born as Nanhu Singh in 1894, in Udaipur, lost both his parents by the age of eight, and his uncle handed him over to a Nath ascetic who took him to Gorakhpur, where he grew up at the math. Digvijai Nath was a sadhu but his natural flair made him more suited to a social life rather than one of renunciation. He had studied at St Andrew’s College in Gorakhpur, was well built and preferred the outdoor life. He excelled in sports such as tennis, hockey and horse riding. To top it all, he was drawn to politics.

In 1920, he joined the Congress as an activist and took part in Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement against the British Raj, in 1922. He was even arrested for taking part in the ‘Chauri Chaura Incident’, in which a police station at Chauri Chaura (16 km from Gorakhpur) was set on fire by an angry mob, killing 23 policemen, following which Mahatma Gandhi called off his Non-Cooperation Movement.

When his preceptor, Brahma Nath, the Mahant of the Goraknath Math died in 1936, he was succeeded by Digvijai Nath. His position as the head of the Gorakhnath Math and his political acumen got him into the Hindu Mahasabha in 1939 around the time when V D Savarkar took over as its president. He quickly rose in the ranks of the party in UP (then the United Provinces).

Two sordid events propelled him to notoriety – one, his arrest for his suspected role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi; and second, for being the moving spirit behind the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi agitation in its early days in 1949.

Following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on 30th January 1948, Mahant Digvijay Nath was arrested. According to the report of the Kapur Commission set up to investigate the assassination, Mahant Digvijay Nath had made inflammatory speeches against the Mahatma on 27th January 1948, just three days before the Mahatma was killed. While Digvijay Nath was imprisoned for 8 months pending an investigation, he was released due to lack of evidence.

It was in the Babri Masjid -Ram Janmabhoomi issue that he found a nucleus around which the Hindu Mahasabha could crystallise Hindu support for itself by taking advantage of the resentment to the country’s Partition in 1947 among the majority community. He thus hoped to revive the fortunes of the Mahasabha that had already suffered a grievous setback due to its involvement in Gandhi’s assassination and the subsequent arrest of most of its top leaders including Digvijai Nath.

Early Days of Ram Janmabhoomi Dispute

On the night of December 22, 1949, the idols of ‘Ram and Sita’ appeared inside the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, and it was widely claimed to be a ‘miraculous appearance’. While the dispute over the Babri Masjid site had been underway since 1885, there had been clearly demarcated areas between sites of Hindu and Muslim worship.

Despite the demand to remove those idols, KKK Nair, the local district magistrate, ordered the ‘status quo’ be maintained, and with this began a new phase of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It is widely believed that it was Mahant Digvijay Nath’s idea to install these idols in the temple, though there is no direct evidence to prove it.

But, very soon, Digvijay Nath’s plans to mobilise a Hindu movement behind the Ram Janmabhoomi issue with the help of sympathetic Congressmen came to an abrupt halt, due to a strong pushback from Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The election of Purushottan Das Tandon as Congress President in 1950 in the teeth of Nehru’s disapproval proved to be the last straw. Nehru pushed back with great finesse, stamping his authority on the party. Tandon was forced to resign in September 1951 and it seemed that Nehru had checkmated the Hindu right. Digvijai Nath, in the meantime, lay low and his only foray in public life was when he contested and won the Lok Sabha seat from Gorakhpur in 1967.

The Gau Raksha Agitation of 1966-67

It was the anti-Cow Slaughter or the ‘Gau Raksha’ agitation of 1966-67 that brought the Hindu Mahasabha and Digvijay Nath back into the political arena after a lull of 17 years. A series of events that included India’s defeat in the Indo-China War, the death of Nehru, the Indo-Pak war, the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent, and an ‘inexperienced’ Indira Gandhi becoming Prime Minister gave hope to Hindu traditionalists that the Congress was weakened and could be unseated from power.

So they decided to up the ante by using the issue of cow protection, seeking a ban on cow slaughter. A wide variety of traditionalist groups came together on the issue, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha and Ram Rajya Parishad. With this, both Mahant Digvijai Nath and Swami Karpatriji were back in action after 17 years. On 7th November 1966, thousands of sadhus mounted an assault on the Indian Parliament, which made global headlines.

Digvijai Nath gravitated towards the VHP in support of the cow protection movement but maintained his separate identity as a member of the Hindu Mahasabha on whose ticket he was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1967. Firm action by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made sure that the movement petered out though the Jana Sangh and other Opposition groups made some inroads into politics and power.

The 1971 success of Indira in the Bangladesh Liberation War and the consequent splitting up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh sidelined the Jana Sangh till it got united with the rest of the Opposition who were put in jail during the Emergency of 1975-77. The RSS grew disillusioned with the erstwhile Jana Sangh as part of the newly-formed Janata Party and after 1980 entrusted the VHP with the mobilisation of Hindu voters within the country and overseas Hindus beyond its borders. It was at this point that the VHP picked up the Ram Janmabhoomi issue started initially by Mahant Digvijai Nath but that had lain dormant all these years. The consequences of the temple movement are well known.

Digvijai Nath died in 1969 and was succeeded as the Mahant by Avaidyanath. Born as Kripal Singh Bisht in Kandi village in Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand, he was orphaned at an young age and raised at the Gorakhpur Math under the mentorship of Digvijay Nath.

Mahant Avaidyanath and the Ram Janmabhoomi Agitation

Interestingly, Mahant Avaidyanath, as a five-time MLA from the Hindu Mahasabha (1962, 1967, 1969, 1974, 1977), kept his distance from the Jana Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, echoing the traditional rivalry between the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS going back to the 1920s. It was the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation which brought him closer to the Sangh Parivar and the BJP.

A commemorative postage stamp on Mahant Avaidyanath | Wikimedia Commons

In 1984, he established the ‘Sri Ramjanmabhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti’. In 1989, Mahant Avaidyanath was elected to the Lok Sabha from Gorakhpur as a Hindu Mahasabha candidate. Just as the cow protection movement of the VHP had brought Mahant Digvijai Nath closer to it, the successful Ayodhya movement made Avaidyanath join the BJP after its electoral successes and in 1991 he won as a BJP candidate.

However, following in the footsteps of Digvijai Nath, Avaidyanath also kept his distance from the BJP despite contesting elections on its behalf, twice. In 1994, he named Yogi Adityanath as his political and spiritual successor, and in 1998 the latter was elected to the Lok Sabha on a BJP ticket. Born as Ajay Singh Bisht, in Panchaur village of Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand, Yogi Adityanath studied at the HNB Garhwal University and then participated in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the 1980s and ’90s. This was also when he joined the Gorakhnath Math.

But like his predecessors, Yogi Adityanath too maintained a certain autonomy from the BJP and in 2002 fielded a Hindu Mahasabha candidate for the Assembly elections against the official BJP candidate, who lost. He has also floated a youth group known as the Hindu Vahini, a force that is distinct from the RSS and the Bajrang Dal.

While the Mahants of the Gorakhnath Math have played an important role in North Indian politics for a century, this time around the equations are different. It is no longer the faithful of the Gorakhnath peeth and its surrounding areas who decide the outcome of the upcoming elections but the entire state of Uttar Pradesh, which will deliver its verdict on the performance of the Adityanath government as a whole.