The true story of Gorakhnath Mutt's role in Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute
Everything about the case stems from one person’s legacy: Mahant Digvijay Nath.
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On December 6, 2017, 25 years will pass since the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.
The aim of my essay is to offer a perspective that most people are not aware of – the largely unknown story of the key historical role of Gorakhnath Mutt that eventually led to the demolition of the mosque, changed the political landscape of India forever and fractured our nation over the sensitive Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue that is most likely to become a part of the national political agenda of BJP and the Hindutva forces – the Sangh Parivar – in the immediate future.
The metaphysical origin
One has to begin from the ancient past and speak about the journey of the Gorakhnath Mutt over the centuries to a centre of ultra-orthodox quasi-militant variant of Hindutva ideology from the free-flowing, esoteric and unorthodox Nath tradition of ancient India.
Nath or Natha (lord, protector) is a Shaivism sub-tradition movement that developed in medieval India by combining ideas from Shaivism, Buddhism, Advaita, Tantra and Yoga.
Uttar Pradesh's Gorakhnath Temple, as we know it today.
The Nath yogis were praised profusely by Kabir. Its roots are the more ancient unorthodox Siddha tradition that is also linked with the Kapalikas. But the founder of Natha Sampradaya is Matsyendranatha – an early 10th century saint and yogi who was a revered master of various Indian/Sanatan traditions – both orthodox and unorthodox. He is considered as the founder of Hatha yoga. In the Tibetan tradition, Matsyendranatha is identified with “Lui-pa”, who is referred to as the first of the “Buddhist Siddhacharyas”. In Nepal, he is a form of Avalokiteshvara. He is mentioned in the esoteric text of Tantraloka by Abhinavagupta, who belonged to one of the major schools of Indian thought that we know as Kashmir Shaivism. Matsyendranatha is the guru of Gorakhnath after whom Gorakhpur has been named.
Gorakhnath was the Guru of the Nath tradition when the expansion of the monastic movement took place under his guidance between 11th and 12th centuries. He didn’t emphasise a specific metaphysical tradition. He championed an ethical and righteous way of life and the spiritual search for self-realisation through self-effort. He wrote the first books on Laya Yoga. He also discarded intellectual arguments about dualism and non-dualism (a burning topic of the times), and only emphasised spiritual yogic practice as a way to transform consciousness.
Nath tradition – an amalgamation of what is known now as Hinduism and Buddhism – aimed for the “blissful ‘void-like’ ‘identity-less’ transcendental state of being” that is ever-present at the background of “being and consciousness”.
The prime discovery, teaching and goal of Sanatan Dharma – meaning all the philosophical and religious traditions which originated in India – since the time of the very first Upanishad: Aranyakas (forest books) which were collected together, and are now known as Brihadaranyaka Upanishad – the oldest of the 13 principle Upanishads.
Gorakhnath in Buddhism.
Neither Matsyendranatha nor Gorakhnath thought themselves to be “Hindus” – the word didn’t exist in their time. It got popularised much later over a long process of history. That’s why the word “Hindu” doesn’t appear in the four Vedas, the Upanishads and the Buddhist scriptures – as pointed out in my essay about the four key words: Hindu, Hinduism, Hindustan and Hindutva.
An article by Manoj Singh – published in The Wire titled "Before the Rise of Hindutva, Gorakhnath Nurtured Muslim Yogis" – pointed out that in his book Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis, George Weston Briggs put a number of yogis in India with reference to the 1891 census. The data also included a large number of Muslim Yogis.
The philosophy of the Nath tradition wasn’t restricted to the Hindus. It is a meditative-practice based philosophy that is geared towards the transformation of consciousness and the experience of transcendentalism. It is a philosophy that attracted people from various faiths and regions.
The philosophy inspired many yogis all round India, including the Nath Yogis in Bengal.
Gorakhnath Mutt at Gorakhpur bears the name of Gorakhnath – the revered Guru of the Nath tradition.
During a certain period of Indian history, a group of Nath Yogis became a warrior ascetic sect. This happened after the 14th century. A smaller group of people started to call themselves sastra-dharis (keepers of scriptures) and astra-dharis (keepers of weapons) – the two terms that the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and the Mahant of Goraknath Mutt, Yogi Adityanath too uses now.
Now in 21st century independent India, I feel that astra or weapons are no longer required when there are no new invasions going on in India. Independent India has the Indian Army, Indian Navy and Indian Air Force to defend land and citizens. Therefore, there is no need now for the astra-dharis. What is the use of those weapons which intimidate our fellow citizens!
The Natha tradition should ideally return to its ancient roots of esoteric identity-less unorthodox spirituality and spread the profound teachings of Matsyendranatha and Gorakhnath among the people.
But this won’t happen any soon, because the prime centre of Nath tradition – the Gorakhnath Mutt – has linked itself with Indian politics for nearly a century.
During the last hundred years or so, Gorakhnath Mutt has moved away from the unorthodox teachings of the mystical Nath tradition and has turned to orthodox ritualistic religion while imbibing the far Right Hindutva issues of cow protection, quasi-militancy, love jihad, anti-Romeo squad, theocratic nationalism and Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.
Mahant Digvijay Nath of Gorakhnath Mutt
Christophe Jaffrelot – the distinguished French political scientist of our times – has called the Gorakhnath wing of Hindutva theocratic-nationalism “the other saffron”. The reason for that is astonishing and not well-known, beyond a smaller circle.
We in India are largely not much aware of Mahant Digvijay Nath. We must know his name and also know about his crucial role in the modern political history of our nation.
Mahant Digvijay Nath (1894-1969) was born as Nanhu Singh in Udaipur, Rajasthan. His Rajput Thakur parents died when he was 8 years old. His uncle gave him away to a yogi Phul Nath who took the young boy to Gorakhnath Mutt in Gorakhpur. He studied at St Andrews College in Gorakhpur; was average at studies but excellent at sports and horse-riding.
Nanhu Singh became Mahant Digvijay Nath in 1935.
Before he became the head of Gorakhnath Mutt, he had joined the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1921. He was arrested by the British for taking an “active part” in the Chauri Chaura incident where a large group of protesters participating in the Non-Cooperation Movement clashed with the police — who fired at them, killing three civilians. The protesters retaliated and set fire to a police station. This reprisal killed 22 policemen.
Mahant Digvijay Nath strongly opposed Gandhi’s non-violent movement and was imprisoned for publicly inflaming passions against the Mahatma. Photo: Wikimedia
Mahatma Gandhi, who borrowed the idea of ahimsa – the refusal to do any harm — from Indian philosophy, was deeply disheartened by the violence committed by the protesters. He halted the Non-Cooperation Movement because of the Chauri Chaura incident that happened in the Gorakhpur district of the United Province, British India on February 4, 1922. Mahant Digvijay Nath joined the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937 when VD Savarkar – who coined the word “Hindutva” – became its president.
VD Savarkar (1883-1966) had founded the right-wing political party Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha in 1915. In 1923, he wrote his manifesto Essentials of Hindutva that inspired Dr KB Hedgewar to severe his connection with INC and start Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925.
Mahant Digvijay Nath joined forces with Hindu Mahasabha and tied Gorakhnath Mutt with rightwing Hindutva politics.
He rose quickly and became the head of the party’s unit in “United Provinces”. He strongly opposed Gandhi’s non-violent movement and was also arrested and imprisoned for 9 months for publicly inflaming passions against the Mahatma.
He did this, just three days before Gandhi’s assassination on January 30, 1948.
A bit of the essential background history ought to be remembered; let me add this here.
The first recorded communal riot in Ayodhya (in the Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh) happened in 1853. There was already a dispute about the site of the Babri Masjid where the Hindu groups claimed was an original Hindu Ram temple. The colonial imperial British settled the matter in 1853 by putting a fence around the site and denominated separate areas for worship for both Hindus and Muslims.
The first case about the Ayodhya dispute was filed in 1885 by Mahant Raghubir Das of Nirmohi Akhara. The suit sought permission to build a canopy and temple in the Ram Chabootra area, adjacent to the Babri Masjid. The plea was rejected by the Faizabad court because the judge felt that two large structures in close proximity would be a “threat to public order”. Since 1853, when the colonial British demarcated areas of worship for Hindus and Muslims, all was at peace for 90 years till something happened in the night of December 22, 1949.
Two idols of Rama and Sita appeared inside the Babri Masjid and it was claimed to be a “miraculous appearance” that proved the site was Rama’s birthplace. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wanted the two idols to be removed but the local district magistrate KKK Nair – who had Hindutva nationalist connections – refused to carry out the orders because he felt there will be communal violence. The gates were locked; the idols remained inside.
Babri Masjid was demolished, brick by brick, on December 6, 1992. Photo: India Today Group
(Later, in 1986, after requests by the Sangh Parivar, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was instrumental in allowing priests to perform daily worship from within the Babri Masjid premises, while the idols remained locked in the inner chamber. This led to a renewed movement by the Sangh Parivar to free the idols from “captivity””, by bring stones from all over the country for the construction of Ram Mandir. Soon after, riots erupted in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.)
The district magistrate KKK Nair was dismissed because he refused to carry out prime minister Nehru’s order. He became a hero of the Hindutva groups and later a politician.
Mahant Digvijay Nath had joined an offshoot of Hindu Mahasabha in 1946 – Akhil Bharitiya Ramayana Mahasabha – that began an agitation to take possession of the site, believed to be the very place of “Rama’s birth”.
After his release from prison for hate-speech against Mahatma Gandhi, Mahant Digvijay Nath of Gorakhnath Mutt led the original Ram Janmabhoomi movement of 1949. He organised a nine-day long recitation of Tulsidas’ Ramcharitamanas, after which the idols of Rama and Sita “appeared” inside the Babri Masjid on December 22, 1949.
This led to the government locking the Babri Masjid shut and the political rise of Mahant Digvijay Nath. He was appointed the general secretary of Hindu Mahasabha and was elected as the MP from Gorakhpur in 1967.
Now, in 21st century India, the greater role of Mahant Digvijay Nath in our modern history has been highlighted. Several sources and an excellent book published by HarperCollins in 2013, Ayodhya: The Dark Night (The Secret History of Rama’s Appearance in Babri Masjid) by Krishna Jha and Dhirendra Jha, point out the following:
The “miracle of Rama’s appearance” on the night of December 22, 1949 was the brainchild of three friends: Maharaja Pateshwari Prasad Singh, the ruler of the princely state of Balrampur, KKK Nair, the deputy commissioner-cum-district magistrate of Faizabad, and Mahant Digvijay Nath of Hindu Mahasabha, Akhil Bharitiya Ramayana Mahasabha and the head of Gorakhnath Mutt — who was the chief mastermind behind the idea.
Mahant Digvijay Nath’s politicisation of the religious issue in 1949 has led to the deaths of thousands in various Hindu-Muslim riots. Photo: Independent blog
The “idea” was to put the idols of Rama and Sita inside the Babri Masjid, under the main dome, and make the faithful believe that it was a divine, miraculous proof that the site was the actual Ram Janmabhoomi; and then claim the site for the Ram Mandir.
Writers Krishna Jha and Dhirendra Jha described Mahant Digvijay Nath as “politically the most cunning sadhu of 20th century”.
The person who actually placed the idols inside the Babri Mosque was Abhiram Das who originally hailed from Darbhanga district of Bihar. He was a Naga Vairagi living in Hanumangarhi – the main seat of power of the Nirvani Akhara. He was later known as “Ram Janmabhoomi Uddharak” (liberator of the Rama’s birthplace) and Uddharak Baba.
Uddharak Baba died in 1981.
There was no dispute in Ayodhya since 1853 – when Hindus and Muslims prayed at their respective areas within the Babri Masjid compound. There was harmony, amity and no communal violence or tension till the year 1949.
Mahant Digvijay Nath’s original Ram Janmabhoomi movement and his role in the “magical appearance” of the two idols inside Babri Masjid in 1949, led to the shutdown of the mosque, the second Ram Janmabhoomi movement being re-ignited in 1984 by the Sangh Parivar, the communally divisive 1990 Rath Yatra by BJP leader LK Advani and the subsequent demolition of the mosque on December 6, 1992.
Mahant Digvijay Nath’s politicisation of the religious issue in 1949 has led to the deaths of thousands in various Hindu-Muslim riots – especially post-1986, destroyed countless lives, created religious polarisation in the country, altered the psyche of India, vitiated the political atmosphere and created “communally-charged” socio-economic tensions in the country, which are rising once again due to the aggressive far-Right Hindi-Hindustan-Hindutva campaign.
One feels a strange sense of disbelief and bitterness when one realises that everything about the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute stems from one person’s legacy – Mahant Digvijay Nath, the head of Gorakhnath Mutt.
He ignited the issue in 1949 and set out a political direction that was later adopted up by the Sangh Parivar – consequences of which are still unfolding in 21st century India.
Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was formed in 1964 by MS Golwalkar and SS Apte in collaboration with Swami Chinmayananda. VHP set up Sarvadaliya Gauraksha Maha-Abhiyan Samiti (Committee for the All Party Campaign for Cow Protection) in 1966.
This brought Mahant Digvijay Nath and Gorakhnath Mutt further within ambit of the larger Sangh Parivar whose key organisations were Hindu Mahasabha, RSS, VHP, and then, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that was formed in 1980.
Mahant Digvijay Nath remained a part of Hindu Mahasabha and died in 1969.
His successor was Mahant Avaidyanath.
According to the 2014 article “The Other Saffron” by Christophe Jaffrelot in The Indian Express, Mahant Avaidyanath described Mahant Digvijay Nath as being like “a father”. Mahant Avaidyanath was also elected as an MP from Gorakhpur in 1970 and 1989.
When the Sangh Parivar reignited the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement in 1984, Mahant Avaidyanath joined the BJP and got elected as the MP of Gorakhpur in 1991 and 1996.
Yogi Adityanath replaced Mahant Avaidyanath as the head of the Gorakhpur Mutt in 2014. He has been BJP MP from Gorakhpur from a young age since 1998 and in 2017 he became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
The role of Gorakhnath Mutt in the political future of India
The role of Gorakhnath Mutt in our modern political history has been immense. It is likely to intensify in the near future.
Kalyan Singh, a BJP veteran, was the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh when the Babri Masjid was demolished. Then, a Congress government was at the Centre. Today, both central and Uttar Pradesh governments are under BJP rule.
The BJP government has been in power at the Centre since 2014; Yogi Adityanath, head priest of Gorakhnath Mutt, took charge of Uttar Pradesh on March 19 this year. So we can understand that the Ram Mandir issue will be brought back as an antidote to falling support for the BJP government whose “development mantra” has fallen into the abyss due to “unreal promises” and the adverse effects of neoliberal economic policies.
Yogi Adityanath – who was once considered a part of the 'fringe' – is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh today. Photo: PTI
The sensitive Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue is more likely to become a prime agenda along with the Sangh Parivar’s dream of an unconstitutional Hindu Rashtra – that, in reality, is a far Right “Hindutva Rashtra”.
(I say “Hindutva Rashtra” because “Hindu Rashtra” is a propaganda term to garner the support of Hindus for the cause of the Hindutva ideology, not the actual Hinduism/Sanatan Dharma. In another essay, I have explained why Hindutva is not Hinduism.)
As far as Gorakhnath Mutt is concerned, I doubt whether the original teachings of Matsyendranatha and Gorakhnath will ever return to the seat of the Nath tradition in Gorakhpur.
The peaceful mystical teachings – which transcend identity – have been largely forgotten. Now it is all about the aggressive religious identity politics of Hindutva.
The lesson that can be derived from the story of the journey of Gorakhnath Mutt only shows why religious/spiritual institutions should be kept out of politics: when any religious or spiritual institution actively aligns with politics – primarily with the aim to grab political power – then the decline of its humane, spiritual and mystical values becomes imminent.
Yogi Adityanath – who was once considered a part of the “fringe” – is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh today. The way things are going in the Sangh Parivar — and due to the fading of the “aura”/ “wave” of Narendra Modi, UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath – also the presiding Mahant of Gorakhnath Mutt – is even more likely to become a leading BJP candidate for the post of the prime minister of India.
In 2017, 25 years since 1992, Gorakhnath Mutt is firmly placed to play its key role, like it has done so many times before, in the political history of modern India.