Matsyendra’s heart swelled with compassion. The childless woman standing before him was deeply unhappy and wanted nothing in the world except a child.

“Take this,” he said, giving her a pinch of ash. Matsyendra, credited with founding the hatha yoga tradition, and some say an incarnation of Lord Shiva himself, was no ordinary sadhu begging for alms. But the unknowing woman thought, “All these years I’ve tried everything, and still no child. What good will this dirty ash do?” She threw the ash on the manure compost.

Twelve years later, Matsyendranatha returned and asked about her child. When she admitted throwing away the ash, he went to the compost heap and called out, “Alakh-niranjan!” (O Hidden Pure One!). Immediately a beautiful, radiant, twelve-year-old boy took shape and rose up from the manure compost. He was called Goraksha and became Matsyendranatha’s best-known student.

Guru Goraknatha became a well-known yogi who spread the hatha yoga Natha tradition far and wide.

Matsyendra trained Goraksha, and after some time, in accordance with tradition, sent him away to do his sadhana. Twenty-four years passed. Goraksha wanted to return to his master, but couldn’t find him in all the likely places. Finally he turned inward, and using the techniques Matsyendra had taught him, entered the brahma-randha nadi and the subtle realm of the guru chakra. There he located his master living with a jungle tribe in Assam, fashioning arrows, and embroiled in a complicated family situation with several wives and many children. His master seemed oblivious to him, and indeed to anything other than the usual problems of the world. So Goraksha traveled to the village, but Matsyendra still did not recognize him. No matter what he did or said, Goraksha could not trigger Matsyendra’s memory.

Finally, Goraksha was able to pry Matsyendra, still suffering from amnesia, away from his life in the jungle. On their way back to central India, Goraksha noticed that Matsyendra fiercely guarded a bundle he kept with him at all times. One day, when Matsyendra went for his morning ablutions, Goraksha searched the bundle, found a hunk of gold, and threw the whole thing into a nearby well. When Matsyendra returned and frantically inquired about the missing bundle, Goraksha said, “What use is it? We can’t eat it! And because of it we are living constantly in fear. So I threw it away.”

Matsyendra reacted the same way you or I would: “How could you?!”

Goraksha answered, “If that gold is so precious to you, then here!”—and he urinated on a big boulder, which promptly turned into gold. You can imagine what Matsyendra wanted to know next.

So Goraksha said, “It was you who taught me this and much more. Don’t you remember?”

It was then that Matsyendra blessed Goraksha, saying, “From this day on, you and only you, rather than me, will be known as the guru. You will be known as Guru Goraknatha.”

And so it happened. Guru Goraknatha became a well-known yogi who spread the hatha yoga Natha tradition far and wide. He is revered in Nepal, mentioned in the writing of Kabir, famous in the legends of Panjab in western India, remembered throughout central India and Assam, and claimed by Buddhists as well as Hindus and everyone in between. Today we are blessed to hear of him and Matsyendranatha in the oral tradition and in texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The powerful and sophisticated body of wisdom and practice that these two great masters have given us is a precious gift to all of humanity.

More in this Series

From Asana to Samadhi: Exploring the Hatha Yoga Pradipika