The tension is obvious. On one side are the celibate Naths who chant, “Alakh Niranjan!” referring to the formless divine that they sometimes choose to see as the very masculine Shiva. On the other side are the Yoginis, representing every phase of womanhood and different forms of nature.
The Naths refer to divinity that has no form and remains uncontaminated by all things worldly: this divinity is often named Shiva. The Naths are siddhas, which means they have siddha, esoteric knowledge, springing from their ascetic practices, that harnesses their celibacy. These are the kanphata yogis so called because as part of initiation into their order their ears or karna are pierced right through the central cartilage, not the fleshy lobule below that is conventionally pierced for earrings. They smear ash, wear strings of rudraksha beads, wander through the country side, singing songs and telling stories that speak of maya (delusion), bhakti (devotion) and shakti (power). They trace their origins to Adi-nath, the first teacher, who acquired wisdom by observing the elements and the behaviour of rivers, mountains, plants, animals, birds, bees and humans, and to Matsyendra-nath, who was born a fish but transformed into a great sage after hearing the secret conversations of Shiva and his consort, and to Gorakh-nath, who was born not through a woman’s womb but when sacred ash was cast in a pit of dung.
On the other side are the sixty-four Yoginis, representing every phase of womanhood and different aspects of nature, enshrined in temples that are circular in shape, with no preference for any particular direction. They are associated with raw power and untamed sexuality, causing illnesses and affecting fertility and fortune unless acknowledged and worshipped. They accompany the Goddess in her battles and drink the blood of her male opponents before it hits the earth and has a chance to regenerate. The nath-yogis speak with dread of Kadali, the land of women, in the middle of the banana grove. The queen of Kadali, Kamala, once laughed when she saw the genitals of a gandharva as he was flying across the sky. Embarrassed, the gandharva cursed Kamala that no man would ever be able to enter her land, thus leaving her eternally frustrated and yearning for romantic and sexual companionship. When Matsyendra-nath finally does enter, taking recourse of his magical powers, he finds himself entrapped by Kamala’s sensual charms, forgetting everything and submitting himself to a life of pleasure. To save him, Gorakh-nath disguises himself as a singer, penetrates the kingdom of women, uses songs to remind Matsyendra-nath of the bliss and power that comes from staying away from the householder’s life.
This tension between ascetic men and sensual women continues in the story of Puranmal, a prince whose hands and feet were cut by his father, the king, when he was falsely implicated of having sexual relationship with his father’s youngest queen. He is discovered abandoned in a well by Gorakh-nath who sprinkles ashes on his mutilated body, restores his limbs and asks him to go to his father and reveal the truth. Puranmal refuses and instead becomes a follower of the nath-order taking the name Chaurangi-nath, the one whose four limbs was lost because of sexual desires and regained through ascetic practices.
Then there is the story of Gopichand, a handsome prince, who must turn away from the world of sensual pleasures and becomes a student of Jalandar-nath if he wishes to avoid death in early youth. And the story of the eternal boy sage Balak-nath of the hills, who rides a peacock and shuns all female company. And the story of Bhartrihari-nath who discovers his beloved wife is actually in love with the groom of the royal horse stables, who in turn is in love with a sweeper girl. Disillusioned, he becomes an ascetic and champions against all things sensual. Mostly famously, we find the story of Ranjha who unable to marry his beloved, Heer, takes refuge in Tilla Jogian, the hill of ascetics, and becomes a kanphata yogi.
Even the story of the great Vedanta teacher, Shankara, has these elements when he was challenged about his knowledge of the erotic arts by Ubhaya Bharati, wife of Mandana Mishra. Since he is a celibate ascetic, Shankara knows nothing so he resurrects a dead king, Amaru, by entering his body at the moment of his death and then going on to experience sensory pleasures in the inner quarters of the palace with queens and courtesans for several months. Unlike Mastyendra-nath, however, Shankara does not succumb to the pleasures of the flesh and eventually leaves the king’s body and returns to being an ascetic, thus establishing the superiority of his mind over his flesh.
In these medieval legends, asceticism seems a refuge from delusion, ignorance, heartbreak, from sorrow, from worldly frustration and human helplessness. The way of the hermit holds the promise of power over all suffering. This notion is as old as the Buddha who abandoned his wife, his infant son and his kingdom to figure out the cause of old age, death, disease and worldly misery. Or perhaps older when in the Veda we find tales of Shiva beheading Brahma for chasing Ushas, the first woman he created.
And yet, the Puranas and the Agamas seek reconciliation. God and Goddess must marry. Shiva must open his eyes, emerge from his cave, descent the icy slopes of Mount Kailasa take up the role of the householder Shankara in Kashi on the banks of the river Ganga. Kali, wild and sovereign, must tie her hair, clothe herself and transform into Gauri, the demure housewife. The irony is inescapable: he who has outgrown hunger must accept as the kitchen-goddess Annapurna as his spouse. Together they must produce children who will protect and provide for humanity, grant them validation.
But this marriage is precarious and the divine household full of conflict. Shiva and Shakti quarrel constantly, one son feels ignored and leaves home, while another son evokes jealously and violent rage.
One wonders if are they talking about men and women, or something else. And as in all things Indian, the answer is both.
At an apparent level, they are talking about men and women, and there seems to be glory in a man being celibate, and a woman being faithful to a single man. Underlying this is male anxiety before the sexuality of women. Unlike in most animals, human sexuality is not restricted by reproductive cycles such as mating seasons and periods of heat. Sex for both men and women is not just about procreation; it is also about pleasure. Men may be physically bigger and stronger but their sexual peaks are intense, brief and very visible unlike the diffuse, prolonged and almost invisible sexual responses of women. A man can never be sure if he has satisfied a woman, a man can never be sure if it is his child that the woman carries; this contributes to his insecurity, making him more territorial, dominating and possessive. A wife embodies the anchoring of the wild man and a husband embodies the restraint of the free woman to household responsibilities. Tension then is inevitable.
At a symbolic level, these tales speak of the relationship between self (symbolized by the male characters) and the other (symbolized by female characters). The self can be consumed by fear, as in case of Brahma and his sons, including the devas and the asuras, the rakshasas and the yakshas. The self can outgrow fear as in case of Shiva (who remains indifferent to the other, impatient of their shortcomings) and Vishnu (who empathizes with the other, indulgent of their shortcomings). The female figures embodies both things and thoughts that is outside the self. Tension stems from the self’s refusal to acknowledge the autonomy yet interdependence of thoughts and things. This refusal stems from fear and leads to ignorance, the desire to control things, which unleashes a spiral of tension that blocks the path to true happiness.