The Kanphata Yogis refers to a monastic order of Hindu renouncers, found predominantly throughout India and Nepal, who worship the god Siva. They are also known as the Darsanis, Gorakhnathi or Natha Yogis. The name Kanphata refers to the split through the hollow of their ears and Darsani refer to the large earrings they wear through these holes, their most distinctive feature. Gorakhnathi or Nath refers instead to their supposed founder, Gorakhnath, who is also credited as the founder of Hatha Yoga. Though he is said to be the author of a large number of books it is more likely that he authored only a few and other followers of his have since added to the collection. (Bouillier 2018:18-26).
Gorakhnath takes on both the roles of founder and deity in the Kanphata Yogi order. On the one hand he is a Guru praised for his purity and asceticism, and on the other he is said to be a being born through the miraculous power of Siva and is also a form of Siva (Bouillier 2018:14). The mythology surrounding Gorakhnath’s upbringing is extensive and not all of the stories agree on all points. One popular story is that a barren woman was given ashes from Siva to eat. Instead she threw them into a heap of cow dung and 12 years later upon searching the heap of dung, a 12 year old boy was found within it. The boy was then accepted as a pupil by the mighty guru, Matsyendranath, who named the child Gorakhnath meaning filth or lord of cattle (Briggs 182). His relationship to his Guru was complicated as he acted at times as a pupil and at times as an instructor or even savior of his master, saving his master from temptations of the flesh and other worldly influences (Bhattacharyya 285). In these ways the followers of Gorakhnath through legend and mythology deify him and simultaneously establish his teachings as being directly from the Gods. Actual historical data surrounding his birth, life, and death are however largely hypothetical and many scholars disagree on the date and location of his birth (Bouillier 2013:158). In the books accredited to his authorship, he appears to have borrowed inspiration from Jainism and from Vajrayana Buddhism, both in the strong focus on the obtainment of supernatural powers, through Yogic meditation, and on the incorporation of tantric doctrines into their core ideals (Bhattacharyya 285, Briggs 259, 274-276). Examples of this focus are found in the Gorakh-bani (Sayings of Gorakh), in which their quest for superhuman powers and immortality or divinity is explained (Bouillier 2013:161). Supernatural powers are considered a gratuity, rather than the actual end goal of Hatha Yoga, which is to reach mukti or enlightenment. The ordered discipline of yoga serves as a vehicle to assist or aid the Yogi as he or she endeavors in this quest (Briggs 2, 262-265).
Kanphata Yogis take their heritage from the Himalayan foothills and share common ancestry with the Siddhas in Tibetan Buddhism, as Gorakhnath is identified as Luipada by the Buddhist texts (Bhattacharyya 284-285). A rift in the teachings between the followers of Gorakhnath and the Siddhas is illustrated in the account of Gorakhnath saving his master from lust and sensual pleasures, and so doing, changing the guidelines for his followers from the overtly sexual tantric practices of his predecessors to a chaste focus in the internal development of oneself (Bouillier 2018:16-17). There is however a large focus on the maintenance of one’s body physically and spiritually, sexual practice of any kind is forbidden (Bouillier 2018:301-302). Many members of the tradition try to keep as far away from women as possible (Bhattacharyya 287-288), though some women, mostly widows, do join the order (Briggs 4-5).
Heavy focus is also placed upon the large earrings that they wear through the hollows of their ears. Some explain that the split through the cartilage of the ear is done in such a place as to cut through a mystical channel, thus assisting the bearer in their path to enlightenment (Briggs 6). Strict care is placed on the Yogi to protect their ears after the split has been made. There are some indications that, in the past, if one of the Yogis had the earring pulled out or their ear was mutilated in some other way that they would either be killed outright or be buried alive, though more recently banishment is a more common punishment (Briggs 8-9). These earrings, or mudra, are traditionally made of clay, but as these are easily broken they can be substituted for rings made of antler, horn, wood, precious metals, or shells. Kanphata Yogis also differ from orthodox Hindus also in their death rituals, namely that they bury their dead rather than cremate them. This practice is substantiated by the legendary dispute between Muslims and Hindus over who were masters of the earth. In response to this dispute Gorakhnath sat on the ground and called on it to yield to him, the earth then opened up and he sank below the surface (Briggs 39-40).
Kanphata Yogis and their supernatural powers have also played a part in the development of various kingdoms in the areas of Northern and Western India as well as Nepal. In Nepal in particular, a powerful Yogi is credited with using supernatural powers to assist the king of a small nation to unify the Nepalese area under one crown (Bouillier 1991:154-156). Similar stories can be found throughout India, and each Nath Monastery will generally have its own myths about the supernatural powers of the founding Yogi. These supernatural powers include controlling the weather, changing the physical size of the Yogi, exorcism, healing, the power of flight, necromantic powers, and psychic or telekinetic abilities to name a few (Briggs 271). These stories of supernatural powers gave the yogis a certain notoriety among both commoners and nobility, causing them to be warily honored lest they curse the public just as in the story of Gorakhnath’s visit to Kathmandu when he caused a drought to befall the people as punishment for receiving him poorly (Bouillier 2018:16).
Modern Day Kanphata Yogis exist largely in monasteries throughout India and South-East Asia or very occasionally as wandering ascetics and renouncers. Disciples known as Aughars rather than Yogis are inducted into the order of monastics through several stages of discipleship (Briggs 7-11). Contrary to what their name may suggest many Kanphata Yogis do not actively practice yoga (Briggs 251). They possess no official cannon of texts but instead cite a mishmash of books with varied and dubious authorship, including many texts that are nearly identical but with different titles or authors (Bouillier 2018:18-26, Briggs 252-257). Exact knowledge of the contents of these texts are also not largely stressed, but focus seems to be more on an oral tradition of legends and secret techniques which are passed down from Guru to Aughar (Briggs 7-10,251). That is not to say that the Kanphata Yogis are without modernization as they have formed the Pan-Indian Nath Yogi Association, and in some ways attempted to organize themselves by the 12 panths or branches of their order. There are currently more than 12 branches in existence but this number likely refers to an original division rather than a current one (Bouillier 2018:54-56).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath (1982) History of the Tantric Religion. New Delhi: Manohar Publications.
Bouillier, Véronique (1991) “Growth and decay of a Kanphata Yogi monastery in south-west Nepal” The Indian Economic and Social History Review 28,2: 151-170
Bouillier, Véronique (2013) “A Survey of Current Researches on India’s Nath Yogis” Religion Compass Vol 7 #5 (May): 157-168
Bouillier, Véronique (2018) Monastic Wanderers: Nath Yogi Ascetics in Modern South Asia. New York: Routledge.
Briggs, George W. (1938) Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Jacobsen, K.A. (2012) Yoga Powers. Extraordinary Capacities Attained through Meditation and Concentration. Leiden: Brill.
White, D.G. (1996) The Alchemical Body. Siddha tradition in Medieval India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
This article was written by Christopher J Boehmer (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.