The Sanskrit word nātha नाथ literally means "lord, protector". The related Sanskrit term Adi Natha means first or original Lord, and is a synonym for Shiva, the founder of the Nāthas. Initiation into the Nātha sampradaya includes receiving a name ending in -nath.
The term ‘’Nath’’ is a neologism for the Shaivism tradition now known by that name. Before the 18th century they were called Jogi or Yogi. However, during the colonial rule, the term "Yogi/Jogi" was used with derision and classified by British India census as a “low status caste". In the 20th century, the community began to use the alternate term Nath instead in their public relations, while continuing to use their historical term of “yogi or jogi” to refer to each other within the community. The term Nath or Natha, with the meaning of lord, is a term also found in Vaishnavism (e.g. Gopinath, Jagannath) and in Jainism (Adinatha, Parsvanatha).
The term yogi or jogi is not limited to Natha subtradition, and has been widely used in Indian culture for anyone who is routinely devoted to yoga. Some memoirs by travelers such as those by the Italian traveler Varthema refer to the Nath Yogi people they met, phonetically as Ioghes.
Nath are a sub-tradition within Shaivism, who trace their lineage to nine Nath gurus, starting with Shiva as the first, or ‘’Adinatha’’. The list of the remaining eight is somewhat inconsistent between the regions Nath sampradaya is found, but typically consists of c. 9th century Matsyendranatha and c. 12th century Gorakhshanatha along with six more. The other six vary between Buddhist texts such as Abhyadattasri, and Hindu texts such as Varnaratnakara and Hathapradipika. The most common remaining Nath gurus include Caurangi (Sarangadhara, Puran Bhagat), Jalandhara (Balnath, Hadipa), Carpatha, Kanhapa, Nagarjuna and Bhartrihari.
The Nath tradition was not a new movement, but one evolutionary phase of a very old Siddha tradition of India. The Siddha tradition explored Yoga, with the premise that human existence is a psycho-chemical process that can be perfected by a right combination of psychological, alchemy and physical techniques, thereby empowering one to a state of highest sprituality, living in prime condition ad libitum, and dying when one so desires into a calm, blissful transcendental state. The term siddha means "perfect", and this premise was not limited to Siddha tradition but was shared by others such as the Rasayana school of Ayurveda.
According to Mallinson, "the majority of the early textual and epigraphic references to Matsyendra and Goraksa are from the Deccan region and elsewhere in peninsular India; the others are from eastern India". The oldest iconography of Nath-like yogis is found in the Konkan region (near the coast of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka). The Vijayanagara Empire artworks include them, as do texts from a region now known as Maharashtra, northern Karnataka and Kerala. The Chinese traveller, named Ma Huan, visited a part of the western coast of India, wrote a memoir, and he mentions the Nath Yogis. The oldest texts of the Nath tradition that describe pilgrimage sites include predominantly sites in the Deccan region and the eastern states of India, with hardly any mention of north, northwest or south India.
Gorakhshanatha is traditionally credited with founding the tradition of renunciate ascetics, but the earliest textual references about the Nath ascetic order as an organized entity (sampradaya), that have survived into the modern era, are from the 17th century. Before the 17th century, while a mention of the Nath sampradaya as a monastic institution is missing, extensive isolated mentions about the Nath Shaiva people are found in inscriptions, texts and temple iconography from earlier centuries.
In the Deccan region, only since the 18th century according to Mallison, Dattatreya has been traditionally included as a Nath guru as a part of Vishnu-Shiva syncretism. According to others, Dattatreya has been the revered as the Adi-Guru (First Teacher) of the Adinath Sampradaya of the Nathas, the first "Lord of Yoga" with mastery of Tantra (techniques).
The number of Nath gurus also varies between texts, ranging from 4, 9, 18, 25 and so on. The earliest known text that mentions nine Nath gurus is the 15th century Telugu text Navanatha Charitra. Individually, the names of Nath Gurus appear in much older texts. For example, Matsyendranatha is mentioned as a siddha in section 29.32 of the 10th century text Tantraloka of the Advaita and Shaivism scholar Abhinavagupta.
The mention of Nath gurus as siddhas in Buddhist texts found in Tibet and the Himalayan regions led early scholars to propose that Naths may have Buddhist origins, but the Nath doctrines and theology is unlike mainstream Buddhism. In the Tibetan tradition, Matsyendranath of Hinduism is identified with "Lui-pa", one referred to as the first of "Buddhist Siddhacharyas". In Nepal, he is a form of Buddhist Avalokiteshvara.
According to Deshpande, the Natha Sampradaya (Devanagari:नाथ संप्रदाय), is a development of the earlier Siddha or Avadhuta Sampradaya, an ancient lineage of spiritual masters. They may be linked to Kapalikas or Kalamukhas given they share their unorthodox lifestyle, though neither the doctrines nor the evidence that links them has been uncovered. The Nath Yogis were admired by Bhakti movement saint Kabir.
The Nath tradition has two branches, one consisting of sadhus (celibate monks) and other married householder laypeople. The householders are significantly more in number than monks and have the characteristics of an endogamous caste. Both Nath sadhus and householders are found in Nepal and India, but more so in regions such as West Bengal, Nepal, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka. The ascetics created an oversight organization called the Barah Panthi Yogi Mahasabha in 1906, which is based out of the Hindu sacred town of Haridwar. According to an estimate by Bouillier in 2008, there are about 10,000 ascetics (predominantly males) in the Nath ascetic order, distributed in about 500 monasteries across India but mostly in northern and western regions of India, along with a much larger householder Nath tradition. The oldest known monastery of the Naths that continues to be in use, is near Mangalore, in Karnataka. This monastry (Kadri matha) houses Shaiva iconography as well as three Buddhist bronzes from the 10th century.
A notable feature of the monks is that most of them are itinerant, moving from one monastery or location to another, never staying in the same place for long. Many form a floating group of wanderers, where they participate in festivals together, share work and thus form a collective identity. They gather in certain places cyclically, particularly on festivals such as Navratri, Maha Shivaratri and Kumbh Mela. Many walk very long distances over a period of months from one sacred location to another, across India, in their spiritual pursuits.
The Nath monks wear loin cloths and dhotis, little else. Typically they also cover themselves with ashes, tie up their hair in dreadlocks, and when they stop walking, they keep a sacred fire called dhuni. These ritual dressing, covering body with ash, and the body art are, however, uncommon with the householders. Both the Nath monks and householders wear a woolen thread around their necks with a small horn, rudraksha bead and a ring attached to the thread. This is called Singnad Janeu. The small horn is important to their religious practice, is blown during certain festivals, rituals and before they eat. Many Nath monks and a few householders also wear notable earrings.
According to James Mallinson, the ritual covering of ash, necklace and tripundra tilaka was likely missing in the past, and it may have emerged in the modern era. Those Nath ascetics who do tantra, include smoking bhang (cannabis) as a part of their practice. The tradition is traditionally known for hatha yoga and tantra, but in contemporary times, the assiduous practice of hatha yoga and tantra is uncommon among the Naths. In some monasteries, the ritual worship is to goddesses and to their gurus such as Adinatha (Shiva), Matsyendranatha and Gorakhshanatha, particularly through bhajan and kirtans. They greet each other with ades (pronounced: "aadees").
The Yogis and Shaiva sampradayas such as Nath metamorphosed into a warrior ascetic group in the late medieval era, with one group calling itself sastra-dharis (keepers of scriptures) and the other astra-dharis (keepers of weapons). The latter group grew and became particularly prominent during the Islamic invasions and Hindu-Muslim wars in South Asia, from about the 14th to 18th century. According to Romila Thapar, along with Shakta Hindus, subtraditions within the "Natha Jogis were known to take to arms".
The Nath tradition revere nine, twelve or more Nath gurus. For example, nine naths are revered in the Navnath Sampradaya. The most revered teachers across its various subtraditions are:
The establishment of the Naths as a distinct historical sect purportedly began around the 8th or 9th century with a simple fisherman, Matsyendranath (sometimes called Minanath, who may be identified with or called the father of Matsyendranath in some sources).
Gorakshanath is considered a Maha-yogi (or great yogi) in the Hindu tradition. WIthin the Nath tradition, he has been a revered figure, with Nath hagiography describing him as a superhuman who appeared on earth several times. The matha and the city of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh is named after him. The Gurkhas of Nepal and Indian Gorkha take their name after him, as does Gorkha, a historical district of Nepal. The monastery and the temple in Gorakhpur perform various cultural and social activities and serves as the cultural hub of the city. The monastery also publishes texts on the philosophy of Gorakhnath.
Gorakshanath did not emphasize a specific metaphysical theory or a particular Truth, but emphasized that the search for Truth and spiritual life is valuable and a normal goal of man. Gorakshanath championed Yoga, spiritual discipline and an ethical life of self determination as a means to reaching siddha state, samadhi and one's own spiritual truths.
Gorakshanath, his ideas and yogis have been highly popular in rural India, with monasteries and temples dedicated to him found in many states of India, particularly in eponymous city of Gorakhpur. Among urban elites, the movement founded by Gorakhnath has been ridiculed.
According to Muller-Ortega (1989: p. 37), the primary aim of the ancient Nath Siddhas was to achieve liberation or jivan-mukti while alive, and ultimately "paramukti" which it defined as the state of liberation in the current life and into a divine state upon death. According to a recent Nath Guru, Mahendranath, another aim was to avoid reincarnation. In The Magick Path of Tantra, he wrote about several of the aims of the Naths;
"Our aims in life are to enjoy peace, freedom, and happiness in this life, but also to avoid rebirth onto this Earth plane. All this depends not on divine benevolence, but on the way we ourselves think and act."
The earliest texts on Hatha yoga of the Naths, such as Vivekamartanda and Gorakhshasataka, are from Maharashtra, and these manuscripts are likely from the 13th century. These Nath texts, however, have an overlap with the 13th century Jnanadeva commentary on the Hindu scripture Bhagavada Gita, called the Jnanesvari. This may be because of mutual influence, as both the texts integrate the teachings of Yoga and Vedanta schools of Hinduism in a similar way.
Numerous technical treatises in the Hindu tradition, composed in Sanskrit about Hatha Yoga, are attributed to Gorakshanath.
The Natha Sampradaya is an initiatory Guru-shishya tradition.
In The Phantastikos, Mahendranath, a guru of the Adinath Sampradaya, wrote;
"The passage of wisdom and knowledge through the generations required the mystic magic phenomenon of initiation, which is valid to this day in the initiation transmission from naked guru to naked novice by touch, mark, and mantra. In this simple rite, the initiator passes something of himself to the one initiated. This initiation is the start of the transformation of the new Natha. It must not be overlooked that this initiation has been passed on in one unbroken line for thousands of years. Once you receive the Nath initiation, it is yours throughout life. No one can take it from you, and you yourself can never renounce it. This is the most permanent thing in an impermanent life."
The Nath Sampradaya is traditionally divided into twelve streams or Panths. According to David Gordon White, these panths were not really a subdivision of a monolithic order, but rather an amalgamation of separate groups descended from either Matsyendranath, Gorakshanath or one of their students. However, there have always been many more Natha sects than will conveniently fit into the twelve formal panths.
The Inchegeri Sampradaya, also known as Nimbargi Sampradaya, is a lineage of Hindu Navnath c.q. Lingayat teachers from Maharashtra which was started by Shri Bhausaheb Maharaj. It is inspired by Deshastha Brahmin Sant Mat teachers as Dnyaneshwar, Eknath and Samarth Ramdas. The Inchegeri Sampraday has become well-known throughout the western world due to the popularity of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.
The Hatha Yoga ideas that developed in the Nath tradition influenced and were adopted by Advaita Vedanta, though some esoteric practices such as kechari-mudra were omitted. Their yoga ideas were also influential on Vaishnavism traditions such as the Ramanandis, as well as Sufi fakirs in the Indian subcontinent. The Naths recruited devotees into their fold irrespective of their prior religion or caste, converting Muslim yogins to their fold.
The Nath tradition also influenced Bhakti movement sants such as Kabir, Namdev and Jnanadeva.