The Yogi Warrior

William Dalrymple explains that “yogis sometimes took very different forms from the peaceful sages the West has loved to imagine as archetypically Indian since Gandhi succeeded in presenting Hinduism to the world as the religion of ahimsa, nonviolence”:

Yogis seem to have gone particularly out of control during the eighteenth-century anarchy between the fall of the Mughals and the rise of the British. This is a subject explored by William Pinch in his brilliant 2006 study of the militant yogis of the period, Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires.

European travelers of the period frequently describe yogis who are “skilled cut-throats” and professional killers. “Some of them carry a stick with a ring of iron at the base,” wrote Ludovico di Varthema of Bologna in 1508. “Others carry certain iron diskes which cut all round like razors, and they throw these with a sling when they wish to injure any person.” A century later the French jewel merchant Jean Baptiste Tavernier was describing large bodies of holy men on the march, “well armed, the majority with bows and arrows, some with muskets, and the remainder with short pikes.” By the Maratha wars of the early nineteenth century, the Anglo-Indian mercenary James Skinner was fighting alongside “10 thousand Gossains called Naggas with Rockets, and about 150 pieces of cannon.”

Pinch focuses in particular on the well-attested case of Anupgiri, a Shaivite ascetic and mercenary warlord who led a large army of killer yogis and fought with both modern weaponry and spells: Mahadji Shinde, a rival leader of the time, was convinced that Anupgiri had attacked him with a painful case of boils through his “magical arts.” Nor was Anupgiri necessarily a champion of Hindu interests: “Far from thinking of themselves as the last line of defense against foreign invaders, armed ascetics in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth century served any and all paymasters,” writes Pinch.