Hinduism comprises numerous sects, creeds and cults and the origin of most of them is lost in antiquity. The Nath Sampradaya, later known as the Navnath Sampradaya, is one of them. Some scholars are of the view that this sect originated with the teachings of the mythical Rishi Dattatreya, who is believed to be a combined incarnation of the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The unique spiritual attainments of this legendary figure are mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana, the Mahabharata and also in some later Upanishads. Others hold that it is an offshoot of the Hatha Yoga.
Whatever be its origin, the teachings of the Nath Sampradaya have, over the centuries, become labyrinthine in complexity and have assumed different forms in different parts of India. Some Gurus of the Sampradaya lay stress on bhakti, devotion; others on jnana, knowledge; still others on yoga, the union with the ultimate. In the fourteenth century we find Svatmarama Svami, the great Hathayogin, bemoaning ‘the darkness arising out of multiplicity of opinions’ to displel which he lit the lamp of his famous work Hathayogapradipika.
According to some learned commentators, the Nath Gurus propound that the entire creation is born out of nada (sound), the divine principle, and bindu (light), the physical principle and the Supreme Reality from which these two principles emanate is Shiva. Liberation according to them is merging of the soul into Shiva through the process of laya, dissolution of the human ego, the sense of I-ness.
In the day-to-day instructions to their devotees, however, the Nath Gurus seldom refer to the metaphysics discovered by the scholars in their teachings. In fact their approach is totally nonmetaphysical, simple and direct. While the chanting of sacred hyms and devotional songs as well as the worship of the idols is a traditional feature of the sect, its teaching emphasises that the Supreme Reality can be realised only within the heart.
The Nath Sampradaya came to be known as Navnath Sampradaya when sometime in the remote past, the followers of the sect chose nine of their early Gurus as examplars of their creed. Bur there is no unanimity regarding the names of these nine Masters. The most widely accepted list however is as follows:
Of these nine Masters, Gahaninath and Revananath had large followings in the southern part of India, including Maharashtra, the state to which Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj Revananath is said to have founded a sub-sect of his own and chose Kadasiddha as his chief disciple and successor. The latter initiated Lingajangam Maharaj and Bhausahib Maharaj and entrusted to their care his Ashram and the propagation of his teaching. Bhausahib Maharaj later established what came to be known as Inchegeri Sampradaya, a new movement within the traditional fold. Among his disciples were Amburao Maharaj, Girimalleshwar Maharaj, Siddharameshwar Maharaj and the noted philosopher Dr. R. D. Renade. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj is the direct disciple and successor of Siddharameshwar Maharaj.
It may be mentioned here that, though officially the current Guru of the Inchegeri branch of the Navnath Sampradaya, Sri Nisargadatta does not seem to attach much importance to sects, cults and creeds, including his own. In answer to a questioner whi wished to join the Navnath Sampradaya he said: "The Navnath Sampradaya is only a tradition, a way of teaching and practice. It does not denote a level of consciousness. If you accept a Navnath Sampradaya teacher as your Guru, you join his Sampradaya... Your belonging is a matter of your own feeling and conviction. After all it is all verbal and formal. In reality there is neither Guru nor disciple, neither theory nor practice, neither ignorance nor realisation. It all depends upon what you take yourself to be. Know yourself correctly. There is no substitute for self-knowledge"
The teaching of Nath Sampradaya offers the seeker the royal road to liberation, a road in which all the four by-lanes of bhakti, jnana, karma and dhyana of Lord Shiva, in his hagiography, entitled Nathlingamrita, claims that the path shown by the Nath sect is the best of all and it leads to direct liberation.