Drunken Peacocks: A Lineage of Saiva Rajagurus and Yogis

Saiva sages who wove the threads that tied India into a common idiom and religion of Saivism

Manish Maheshwari
| 11 min read
July 26, 2021
Mattamayura sage, shaiva ascetics
Illustrations by Shreyansh

Deep into the heartlands of Madhya Pradesh, somewhere between Gwalior and Guna, sits an ancient village called Ranod. To get there, one has to leave the Mumbai-Agra National Highway, which cuts across Madhya Pradesh, and drive for several hours along a small road. During his annual archaeological trip in 1864-65, Alexander Cunningham, the first director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India, probably travelling on a horse or a bullock-cart, “discovered” this ancient village, and found a large archaeological ruin. Struck by the remarkable architecture and aesthetics of the few surviving monuments, he described this as an “old Hindu palace”.

A few decades later, this place was correctly identified as the remains of a large Hindu monastery (matha) that flourished here during the 9th-13th centuries. The correct identification of the history and the function of this place was no doubt helped by the discovery of a monumental inscriptional slab found at the site, also called the Ranod Inscription (discussed below). Along with large monasteries, the archaeologists found the remains of large temples, administrative centres, living quarters of saints—in short, a complete monastic township. In the later years, more such ruins of 9th-12th century Hindu monasteries with large inscriptional records were found at multiple sites all across India.

Rannod Monastory, saiva hermitage, ascetic Present Remains of Ranod Monastery (Image Credit: Lallesh Kumar, Phd Thesis)
The monastery at Ranod is arguably the earliest archaeological remains of a Hindu monastery built on such a monumental scale. No doubt earlier large Hindu monasteries existed but we do not have archaeological evidence of them at present. The Ranod inscription says that the king Avantivarman had invited a Saiva sage, Purandara, belonging to a prestigious lineage of sages known for their austerity and learning, to reside at his capital and initiate him into Saivism. The inscription mentions that a large monastery was built for Purandara as his residential place, and a forest hermitage was built for his austerities. The inscription also mentions that the sage was profoundly honoured and worshipped by the king, who offered the “essence” of his kingdom to this Saiva master. But the question is, who were these sages and why did the kings so actively seek them?

Origins

We have been documenting (see here, here) that, from the 5th century to the 13th century, India was a land of Saivism. The kings received Saiva initiations (diksha) from the Saiva acharyas and dedicated their kingdom to God Siva. Prominent acharyas of various Saiva sects—Pashupatas, Saiva Siddhantins, and Kalamukhas—were invited by kings to become the Rajagurus of their kingdom. Due to such patronage, the acharyas of these Saiva sects had established their monasteries and temples in almost all the major dynasties of medieval India (a trend especially visible in our archaeological and epigraphical record from the 9th century onwards). These Rajagurus were ascetics, yogis and Siva ritualists who acted as the spiritual preceptor of the kings and their kingdoms. Such was their renown that Kings would call these Saiva ascetics from far off places and ritually offer their kingdoms to them (as the inscription at Ranod suggests). These ascetic yogis were the spiritual guardians of the kingdoms.

One of the most influential lineages of Saiva Rajagurus were the Mattamayuras—loosely translated as drunken peacocks—who belonged to the Saiva Siddhanta sect, one of the most influential and widespread schools of Saivism in medieval India (currently confined only to Tamil Nadu). This lineage of Saiva ascetics, originating in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, initially acted as Rajagurus to the Saiva kings of many central Indian dynasties, especially the Kalachuris. Later they established monasteries (mathas) in Bengal, where they were patronised by the (Buddhist) Pala Kings, in Andhra, where they acted as Rajagurus to the Kakatiyas, and in Konkan, where they were patronised by the Silharas. By the 11th century, the lineage of Mattamayura ascetics ran their network of monasteries and temples from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, and from Gujarat to Bengal.

A myth describing the origins of Mattamayura tells how, in a pine forest, God Brahma devoutly approached Siva at the completion of his austerity. Pleased at this devotion, Siva initiated Brahma, and from this initiation emerged the multiple lineages of Mattamayura ascetics. However, at a more mundane level, the Mattamayura line of Saiva acharyas originated in Madhya Pradesh, probably around the 8th century, before spreading ripple-like out of their original home and establishing an institutional presence across India.

The Life of a Mattamayura Sage

In the inscriptional corpus of the Mattamayuras, one is struck by the emphasis on asceticism, chastity, and austerity. Though they administered large monasteries, managed temples, and acted as spiritual and ritual advisors to the kings, their lives were like those of tapasvins (ascetic renunciants) who spent their time in forest hermitages called tapovanas to practice tapas (austerity). Here is a description of one of their tapovana:

He, the virtuous one, the companion of sages, living on fruits, lotus-stalks and roots,

who sanctified the surface of the earth by the rows of his foot-prints,

built an incomparable and quiet hermitage,

well known to people, at the foot of the Bee Mountain

covered with the forest of priyala (trees), situated at the confluence of the river Sona.

 

In this place, herds of monkeys kiss the cubs of lions,

the young one of a deer sucks at the breast of the lioness.

Other hostile animals forget their antipathy to one another,

for the minds of all become tranquil in penance-groves.

 

This picture of an idyllic ascetic retreat for the practice of tapas will not be unfamiliar to the readers of Hindu literature. However, their frequent mention in our inscriptional records (which are then confirmed by archaeological findings) provides independent verification of the popularity and significance of such ascetic hermitages. While the monasteries were located in urban centres, used primarily as administration centres, meeting places for the devotees, and for the training of students, hermitages were located in the forests to be used exclusively for meditation, yoga and tapas. 

The frequent occurrence of the word tapas in their inscriptional record needs explanation. Tapas in Sanskrit means ascetic heat generated through the rigorous practice of a physical and mental regime of austerity to either attain worldly goals, including supernatural siddhis (powers), or the transcendental goal of liberation (samadhi). The Mattamayuras were masters of tapas and harnessed the ascetic heat gained through austerity for their spiritual development and for the benefit of others. It was their fame as yogic masters and meditators that brought them to the notice of kings and nobles. Here is a short description of their practice”

Seated in a solitary place,

he who had mastered all the asanas,

he who felt the inner joy,

his steady mind absorbed in the meditation of Siva

in the midst of the lotus of the heart

 

He went through all the Agamas. He realized God in ritual and meditation.

He lived only on fruit, radish, seeds, greens, and lotus root.

Imitating his teacher, he practised tapas on the river banks.

Even as a child, he amazed the world.


Common among the numerous descriptions of sages is their sparse vegetarian diet, the intense practice of tapas, their vast learning of the scriptures and the sheer simplicity of their existence. The Saiva Siddhanta sages, to which belonged the Mattamayuras, were ritual specialists who managed large Saiva temples and initiated people into Saivism (initiation being the first step to receive the teachings of this form of Saivism). However, the evidence for the Mattamayuras suggests that, over-and-above being ritual specialists, they were primarily spiritual counsellors to the kings and scholar-practitioners of meditation, pranayama and yoga.

After-life

Though the lives and times of these Saiva Rajagurus as religious specialists and yogis have not been integral to the popular discourse on Hinduism, their role in the formation and evolution of Hinduism is seminal. It is they who wove the threads that tied India into a common idiom and religion of Saivism. In the 10th century India, if one travelled from the Himalayas to the western shores of Gujarat and to the southern tip of Tamil Nadu, the presence of Siva would have been the common factor that unified these diverse places. There is not a dynasty in medieval India that did not actively seek out their presence to sanctify their kingdoms. Unlike the Vedic brahmins, these Saiva yogis did not exclusively belong to a particular caste or community, and caste was not a barrier for Saiva initiation. They respected the Vedas as a form of revelation but considered their own scriptural corpus a higher revelation. 

Cintra Prasti travels of a pashupata sage Saiva pilgrimage of a 13th century Pashupata Rajaguru, as reconstructed by Prof. Jurgen Neuss
But what happened to them and their monasteries and hermitages? With the advent of Islamic rule, the patronage for these yogis dried up. At least in north India, their monasteries were destroyed and converted into Islamic seminaries and mosques (or, in academic-speak they were “architecturally repurposed”). With the primacy of devotional Vaisnavism and the advent of Vedanta as the reigning philosophy of Hinduism, these Saiva masters of asceticism and yoga retired to their forest retreat or became wandering yogis or found limited patronage in the courts of South India. The other sects of Saiva yogis—Pashupatas and the Kalamukhas—also met a similar fate. However, from these traditions of Saiva ascetics emerged the Natha lineage of yogis, who are credited with composing some of the seminal works of hatha yoga. Largely a product of Saiva ascetic tradition, the focus on physicality as a way to reach the divine was a momentous development in the history of Hinduism. Therefore, though their monasteries and lineages died out, their practices did not.  

Manish Maheshwari is the curator and editor of Tattva. He can be contacted at manish@tattvamag.org. He tweets at @manish_tattva

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