Yogi Adityanath, the Militant Monk

In 2017 Uttar Pradesh swore him in as its Chief Minister. Now, there is no man more powerful, visible, and controversial in India’s most populous state.

Neha Dixit

February 15, 2022

Yogi Adityanath, the Militant Monk
Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath gestures as he speaks during an election campaign rally in Modinagar in Ghaziabad district, some 45km east of New Delhi, on February 1, 2022. (MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images)

Ajay Singh Bisht was born in Uttarakhand, a hilly state carved out of Uttar Pradesh. A mathematics graduate, at 22, he was unemployed and looking for work. So he joined the Gorakhnath Math monastic order, named after 11th-century saint Gorakhnath, in the Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh. The Nath tradition did not believe in idol worship or one God. Rather, its syncretic culture welcomed people from all castes and religions. Even today, the Math has non-Brahmin priests, a break from the Hindu caste order, and runs schools, hospitals, and cow sheds in its large temple complex.

On joining the Math, Ajay took on a new name and a vow of celibacy, shaved his head, embraced saffron robes for life, and officially changed his last name to be similar to that of the head of the Gorakhnath Math, Mahant Avaidyanath.

Four years later, in 1998, he would become the youngest Member of Parliament in India at age 26, representing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose claim to fame at the time was the political arm of a national movement to reclaim Hindu god Ram’s birthplace. 

In 2017, Uttar Pradesh would swear him in as its Chief Minister. Uttar Pradesh, as the most populous state in India, sends the most people to the Indian Parliament. The party that wins Uttar Pradesh impacts national politics. There is no man more powerful and visible in the state today than Yogi Adityanath. And this is his story.