The Sanskrit word Nath is the proper name of a siddha sampradaya (initiatory tradition) and the word itself literally means Lord, Protector, or Refuge. The related Sanskrit term Adi-Nath means first or original Lord, and is therefore a synonym for Shiva, Mahadeva, or Maheshvara, and beyond these mental concepts, the Supreme Absolute Reality as the originator of all things.
The Nath tradition is a heterodox siddha tradition containing many sub-sects. It was founded by Matsyendranath and further developed by Gorakshanath. These two individuals are also revered in Tibetan Buddhism as Mahasiddhas (great magicians) and are credited with great powers.
The Nath Sampradaya
The Nath Sampradaya, a development of the earlier Siddha or Avadhut Sampradaya, is an ancient lineage of spiritual masters. Its founding is traditionally ascribed to Shri Bhagavan Dattatreya, considered by some to have been an incarnation of Lord Shiva. However, the establishment of the Naths as a distinct historical sect 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).
One story of the origin of the Nath teachings is that Matsyendranath was swallowed by a fish and while inside the fish overheard the teachings given by Lord Shiva to his wife Parvati, who had taken her to the bottom of the ocean in order to avoid being overheard. After being rescued from the fish by another fisherman, Matsyendranath took initiation as a sannyasin from Siddha Carpati. It was Matsyendranath who became known as the founder of the Nath Sampradaya.
Matysendranath's two most important disciples were Caurangi and Gorakshanath. The latter came to eclipse his Master in importance in many of the branches and sub-sects of the Nath Sampradaya. Even today, Gorakshanath is considered by many to have been the most influential of the ancient Naths. He is reputed to have written the first books dealing with Laya yoga and the raising of the kundalini-shakti. He is also reputed to have been the original inventor of Hatha yoga.
There are several temples in India dedicated to Gorakshanath. According to tradition, his samadhi shrine (tomb) resides at the Gorakhnath Temple in Gorakhpur. However, Bhagawan Nityananda has stated that the samadhi shrines of both Matsyendranath and Gorakshanath reside at Nath Mandir near the Vajreshwari temple about a kilometer from Ganeshpuri, Maharashtra, India. 
The Nath Sampradaya does not recognize caste barriers, and their teachings were adopted by outcasts and kings alike. The heterodox Nath tradition has many sub-sects, but all honor Matsyendranath and Gorakshanath as their originators and supreme Masters.
The twelve Nath Panths
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. According to Rajmohan Nath (1964, quoted in Bandyopadhyay, P. K. (1992)), the twelve Natha Panths are as follows:
However, there have always been many more Nath sects than will conveniently fit into the twelve formal panths. Thus minor wandering sannyasin sub-sects are typically either ignored or amalgamated into one or another of the formal panths.
The notion of panth is simply intended to indicate the major branches of the lineage. The most populous panth is the Goraknath panth. Most of the other panths came after Goraknath, created either by the Nath after whom they are named or more likely by his followers, who preferred to distinguish themselves from the broader Goraknath tradition by indicating to which branch descended from Goraknath they belonged. Some of the panths may likewise have branched earlier, from the Minanath or Adinath panths, and the Balaknath panth claims descent from Dattatreya.
Our modern Nath lineage
Our lineage decends from a recent Nath of the Adi-Nath Sampradaya, Shri Gurudev Mahendranath (1911-1991), who received initiation in 1953 from H.H. Shri Sadguru Lokanath, the Avadhut of the Himalayas. In 1978, he founded the International Nath Order in order to make the Nath way of life available in the West. He wrote many essays and articles, some of which were collected as The Scrolls of Mahendranath, first published in 1990. His successor as head of the Order, Shri Kapilnath, continues to teach and initiate sincere seekers.
The Nath Initiation
The Nath initiation is conducted inside a formal ceremony in which some portion of the awareness and spritual energy (Shakti) of the Guru is transmitted to the Neophyte. The Neophyte, now a Nath, is generally also given a new Name with which to support their new identity. This transmission or "touch'" of the Guru is symbolically fixed by the application of ash to several parts of the body.
In The Phantastikos, Shri Gurudev Mahendranath wrote,
- "The passage of wisdom and knowledge through the generations required the mystic magick 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 Aims of the Naths
In The Magick Path of Tantra, Shri Gurudev Mahendranath wrote,
- "The Nath Tantriks value the development of the three super-psychic faculties of Insight, Intuition, and Imagination. These three super-faculties or master powers also enable them to create their own texts, mantras, and rituals, all having utility and being in harmony with Cosmic Law. The faculties of Insight, Intuition, and Imagination are the building blocks on which we build our occult world and magick way of life.
- "The Tantra or Nath way of life can best be described as a state of mind. In no way can it be mistaken for an agglomeration of rules, morals, or prohibitions. It assumes that human beings can and want to live without them. Even when it advises you to do or not to do something, it is not a rule but a guideline to spare you trouble and pain. But you are still free to do and think as you wish.
- "Of course, our way of life has many physical aspects, but our minds still determine the success or pleasure of an act. Our life should have a plan and purpose, since most people blunder their way through life and generate misery for themselves and for others too. 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."
- Adityanath (2002). Nath FAQ. Retrieved Oct. 20, 2004.
- Bandyopadhyay, P. K. (1992). Natha Cult and Mahanad. page 73, Delhi, India: B.R. Publishing Corporation.
- Deshpande, M.N. (1986). The Caves of Panhale-Kaji. New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India, Government of India.
- Mahendranath, Shri Gurudev. The Magick Path of Tantra. Retrieved Oct. 20, 2004.
- Mahendranath, Shri Gurudev, Notes on Pagan India. Retrieved Mar. 6, 2006.
- Mahendranath, Shri Gurudev. The Phantastikos. Retrieved Oct. 20, 2004.
- White, David Gordon (1996). The Alchemical Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.