Categories: Hindu Culture

Yogi: Practitioners of Yoga and Spiritual Traditions

A yogi is a practitioner of yoga, often engaged in sannyasa (renunciation) and meditation across various Indian religions. The feminine form, yogini, is similarly used for female practitioners. Since the 12th century CE, the term has also referred to members of the Nath siddha tradition in Hinduism. In broader terms, yogis are practitioners of tantra in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Hindu mythology depicts the god Shiva and the goddess Parvati as the iconic yogi-yogini pair, symbolizing the perfect balance of spiritual practices.

Yogi

Etymology

In Classical Sanskrit, the word yogi is derived from yogin, indicating a practitioner of yoga.

Yogini

While traditionally, yogi is male and yoginī is female, the term yogi has come to be used more generically for both genders. Additionally, yogini can refer to divine goddesses and enlightened mothers, revered as aspects of Devi, the mother goddess. It is important to note that a yogi is distinct from someone practicing extreme asceticism or self-mortification, which is not a requisite part of being a yogi.

Yogis in Hinduism

Textual References

The spiritual practices of yogis can be traced back to ancient texts. The Kesin hymn in the Rigveda is one of the earliest mentions, describing yogis as follows:

“Carrying within oneself fire and poison, heaven and earth, ranging from enthusiasm and creativity to depression and agony, from the heights of spiritual bliss to the heaviness of earth-bound labor. The Kesin does not live a normal life of convention. His hair and beard grow longer, he spends long periods of time in absorption, musing and meditating and therefore he is called ‘sage’ (muni).”

The term yogin also appears in the Katyayana Shrauta-sutra and the Maitri Upanishad, denoting a follower of the Yoga system or a contemplative saint. Additionally, the term is used for individuals belonging to the Natha tradition, typically following Shaiva or Vaishnava practices, influenced by Advaita Vedanta, Madhyamaka Buddhism, and Tantric traditions.

Classifications of Yogis

The Yoga-Bhashya (400 CE), the oldest commentary on the Yoga-Sutra, categorizes yogis into four types:

1. Prathama-kalpika: Neophyte or beginner, devotional
2. Madhu-bhumika: One who enjoys spiritual pursuits effortlessly
3. Prajna-jyoti: Advanced practitioner with deep spiritual knowledge
4. Atikranta-bhavaniya: Those who have attained siddhas and are on a personal path to ultimate insights

Sexuality and Ethical Duties

Yogis and yoginis are guided by Brahmacharya, meaning celibacy if single or fidelity if married. There are two primary views on sexuality in Hindu texts:

Restraint: Some texts advocate for sexual restraint as a means to focus on spiritual growth, viewing it as a personal choice rather than moral repression.

Tantric Practice: Particularly in Tantra, sexuality is seen as a path to experiencing divine consciousness, exemplified by the lingam-yoni iconography of Shiva and Parvati.

Ethical duties for yogis and yoginis, known as Yamas and Niyamas, include:

Ahimsa: Nonviolence
Satya: Truthfulness
Asteya: Non-stealing
Daya: Compassion
Arjava: Sincerity
Ksama: Forgiveness
Dhrti: Fortitude
Mitahara: Moderation in diet
Sauca: Cleanliness
Tapas: Austerity
Santosa: Contentment
Dana: Generosity

Nath Siddha Tradition

Historical Context

Nath siddhas, known as ‘realized, perfected ones’, have been respected across various regions of India. Historical records indicate that yogis from the Nath tradition received land grants and temple dedications from local rulers. For example, a general of the Yadava king Ramacandra donated a village to a yogi in the 13th century, and a monastery and temple were dedicated to yogis near Mangalore in the 10th century.

Cultural Contributions

Nath yogis have significantly contributed to Indian culture, particularly in establishing Hindu temples and monasteries in South India. Their legacy is preserved in popular tales and stories, ensuring the remembrance of prominent yogis like Gorakhnath and Matsyendra in contemporary times.

Persecution and Resistance

Historical Persecution

Yogis have also faced persecution, especially during the Mughal Empire. Nath yogis were sometimes viewed with suspicion by the ruling elites, who associated them with heterodox practices. Mughal records indicate instances of yogis being targeted and oppressed by officials.

Resistance to Oppression

In response to persecution, some yogi groups militarized and resisted oppressive forces. The Nath yogis, particularly under Gorakhnath, institutionalized warrior ascetics. These yogis sometimes collaborated with Sufi fakirs and played prominent roles during the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire periods, receiving both recognition and conflict from the ruling authorities. They also actively resisted the British colonial armies in later periods.

Conclusion

Yogis and yoginis have played a crucial role in the spiritual, cultural, and historical landscape of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Their practices and philosophies have contributed to the rich tapestry of Indian religious traditions, emphasizing the pursuit of spiritual growth, ethical living, and resilience in the face of challenges.

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Krishna Das is an experienced article writer. He writes about Hinduism in his spare time.

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