The appointment of Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh has occasioned anxiety on the Left and exultation on the Right. Both sides would seem to agree, despite their markedly different points of view, that Adityanath’s ascent marks a significant new departure in modern Indian politics.

But obviously Adityanath is not the first yogi (or sadhu or sanyasi or gosain or bairagi) to enter the political arena. Many instances can be cited. The British worried, for example, about the gravitation of ascetics toward nationalist politics, especially during the Gandhian Non-Cooperation Movement, and derided such men (and by implication, Gandhi himself) as “political sadhus” in their intelligence reports, with an undertone, sometimes made explicit, that an involvement in worldly affairs was a betrayal of their religio-ascetic vows. Of particular concern to one government informant was Gandhi’s address to a group of Naga sadhus who attended the 1920 Congress at Nagpur. The fear was that should the Naga akharas be harnessed to Non-Cooperation, the movement would spread like “wildfire among the masses” and “government would be unable to control [them]”. In the end, however, it seems these fears were misplaced, or exaggerated. Most sadhus seemed unwilling to subordinate their sectarian commitments to Gandhian nationalist asceticism.

There were, of course, exceptions. Some sanyasis did join the movement. One was the peasant leader Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, who first encountered Gandhi at Ahmedabad in 1921. He would recall many years later that Gandhi seemed to him then like a form of Siva, “hurling thunderbolts at government”. Sahajanand would have his own falling out with Gandhi in the 1930s, whom he would accuse of selling out to the zamindars. Sahajanand would himself remain a key political figure into the 1940s, moving increasingly to the Left and committed to the interests of landless wage-labourers.

Political ascetics

The British condemnation of “political sadhus” is itself based on the view that Hindu asceticism is necessarily otherworldly. The very existence of the soldiering akharas and the legacy of the military ascetic armies of the early modern era suggest, however, a different understanding, that “political ascetic” is not necessarily a contradiction in terms. Interestingly this pairing did not go unchallenged in some strands of early modern Indian religious thought. A verse attributed to Kabir, but very likely composed centuries later, asks “such yogis” whether they were ascetics or archers, and lambasts military mahants as “mindless and negligent”, “false siddhas” who “acquire villages and strut about like millionaires”.

The target of this critique were figures like Anupgiri Gosain, aka “Himmat Bahadur”, a Saiva warrior descended from a long line of Nath yogis, who rose up through the ranks of his guru’s akhara-army to eventually (with his brother Umraogiri) command thousands of Naga Gosain troopers (and many Rajputs, Afghans, and “Hindustanis” as well). Anupgiri and Umraogiri found service with the nawabs of Awadh, the erstwhile Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, the Persian adventurer Najaf Khan, the Maratha warrior Mahadji Scindia, and others, before Anupgiri joined forces with Ali Bahadur, the grandson of the Peshwa Bajirao and his beloved Mastani, to conquer Bundelkhand in the early 1790s. On the way to Bundelkhand, Anupgiri built a palatial headquarters on the banks of the Yamuna in Vrindavan, sometime in the 1770s. Around the same time Umraogiri built a massive fortress-like structure on the ghats in Banaras, which through the 19th century was known as “Umraogiri Pushta” and is today marked as Jalasen Ghat. If any mahants approximated the image of the jewellery-draped warrior yogis of Kabir’s taunts, it was these two.

Kamptagiri, who was the senior disciple of Kanchangiri, who in turn was a senior disciple of Anupgiri. Image courtesy: Letters Written in a Marhatta Camp, by Thomas Broughton, 1813.

Anupgiri would eventually sign a treaty with Governor General Wellesley in 1803, ceding Bundelkhand to the British and thus protecting Lord Lake’s southern flank from combined Maratha attacks while the Company army made its way to Delhi. He died in the following year and most of his army was dispersed soon thereafter, with many of his descendants and chelas settled on a jagir near Kanpur (many others received separate pensions for services rendered). Umraogiri would die soon thereafter, in Banaras in 1809.

Neither false ascetic nor nationalist

What lessons can we draw from the experience of warrior asceticism in centuries past, and from the political engagement of sadhus and sanyasis more generally?

First we must cut our way through a thicket of ideological representations. When such men are not being derided as false ascetics, they are being celebrated as sprung-from-the-soil patriots. The late 19th-century novel Anandamath by Bankimchandra Chatterjee is the finest expression of this ideal, but this was a consciously romantic imagining however much it may have been inspired by real events (the “Sanyasi and Fakir Rebellion” in the 18th century in northern Bengal and adjacent areas of Bihar).

It would be as anachronistic to call Anupgiri a proto-nationalist patriot as it would be to call him a traitor to the nation (which one early 20th-century writer did). Neither should we think of him as a false ascetic. To do so would be to bow to a modern Western (but also “bhakti-sant”) conception of what asceticism, and religion, should be. It seems clear that a major strand of asceticism is not predicated on a retreat from or a renunciation of power. To the contrary, asceticism is fundamentally concerned with the cultivation of supernormal abilities. In one of the Brajbhasha poems that celebrate Anupgiri’s 1792 victory, the apotheosis of the yogi as warrior-king occurs precisely because the mental discipline required of yogis happens to enhance the warrior’s strategic vision, political acumen, and tactical prowess. It renders him a second Chanakya. This results in the accumulation of untold wealth and far-flung realms – and lots of horses, elephants, and weapons.

A bairagi Naga trooper. Image courtesy: British Library via Asia Society.

Unfortunate circumstances, unpredictable times

There is another, more basic reality that underpinned the success of the military akharas. Anupgiri and Umraogiri were, according to oral tradition, orphaned as infants – their destitute mother is said to have given them over, or perhaps sold them, to their guru. There is evidence from the generation of Gosain warriors that followed that this was not uncommon, that many of the recruits who found their way into the Naga akharas did so due to unfortunate circumstances in unpredictable times (as a result “chela” was often considered synonymous with “banda”, or “slave”).

Moreover mahants tended to ignore questions of social rank – hence the early 20th-century oral tradition that the Naga armies were peopled by shudras. The army that resulted was, in many ways, the antithesis of the high-caste army of the East India Company in Bengal. In fact, a formal disdain for matters of caste and religious orthodoxy was a feature of many of the religio-ascetic communities that were coalescing around the memory of charismatic personalities in prior centuries, including (most famously) Ramanand and Gorakhnath.

The myriad sovereigns who sought out the services of Anupgiri did so not simply because of his tactical genius and military prowess, but because he had ready access to manpower via a churning sea of down-on-their-luck boys with nowhere to turn. Those sovereigns used him, and he used them – eventually becoming sovereign himself in his homeland of Bundelkhand. That is, until the Company came along, and he ran out of time.

What does this have to do with Adityanath? Well, at the very least one might speculate that it was as much for his broad social appeal (partly a legacy of the institutional culture to which he belongs), particularly among “subaltern” groups (including Other/Extremely Backward Classes and Dalits, in today’s parlance), as for his strident (and occasionally polarising) rhetoric on the campaign trail that the Bharatiya Janata Party and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh were attracted to Adityanath as the chief minister of the new government in Uttar Pradesh. The question is, who will use whom, and who is running out of time?

William R Pinch is Professor of History and Environmental Studies, Wesleyan University.