By Damini Singh
The religions prevalent in India, throughout history, have led to the creation of different cults and practices, which act as subdivisions of the main body. Each sub-group has its own beliefs, rituals, deities, and dictate their own ways of living.
About the community
One of the most feared and simultaneously revered cults are the Aghori sadhus. Worshippers of the deity Shiva and his female counterpart, the Goddess Kali, these sadhus incite bafflement, fear, and loathing in equal measures, in all those who see, speak, or even merely hear the name. Simply known as Aghoris, these sadhus are associated with the post-death rituals and cremation activities, engaging in all post-mortem rituals. Infamous for their ascetic ways of living, the religious practices of these sadhus are often viewed as notorious and seeking to gain a higher level of spirituality.
Shrouded in an aura of mystery, the sadhus’ bizarre lifestyle has led to the spreading of off-putting rumours, leaving the general population more fearful. Other than mystifying Indians, Aghori ascetics also attract the attention of intrigued foreigners. These tourists spend days with these sadhus, photographing and interviewing them as they go about their daily lives, attempting to learn more about this self-induced and extreme asceticism.
Exploring the rationale
As is with every cult, these sadhus also have a motive for their practices, which is in a lot of ways, inconsistent with the beliefs of the rest of the Hindus. While the vast pool believes in and worships the innumerable gods present in the Hindu mythology, the Aghoris believe that Shiva is everything and everything is Shiva; that every other god is but a manifestation of the One God. They mainly worship Bhairava: Form of Shiva associated with death. Their divergence from the standard Hindu worship rituals does not end here. Aghoris seek spiritual enlightenment and upliftment and do not practice idol worship, relying instead on meditation and a combination of alcohol and marijuana (now infamously and rhetorically known as “baba ka prasad”) to practice greater concentration. They claim that the use of recreational drugs transports them to a different ‘spiritual level’, which is one step closer to God. The purpose of incorporating these “polluting and corrupting practices” through their various customs is the realisation and embracement of non-individuality.
Aghoris live on the margins of societies, choosing to make places with extreme weather conditions – deserts, caves, the mountains in the Himalayas—their homes. In holy cities such as Varanasi, which are the centre points of holy rites, the sadhus live in cemeteries and other places where most people don’t willingly choose to venture. Other than to be separated from society, Aghoris choose to live close to the dead since the latter play a huge role in their rituals of worship.
Aghori sadhus are known for their rumoured necrophilia and other bizarre practices involving the dead. These practices involve meditating on top of bodies, performing sexual acts with consenting menstruating women in the middle of cemeteries and smearing human ash all over their bodies. All these rituals are carried out with only one purpose—to embrace what society considers ‘dirty’ and transcend spiritual levels to reach God. The practice of performing sexual acts in the midst of dead bodies, it is claimed, gives these sadhus supernatural powers, which enable them to practice black magic—which they are inhibited from using on others.
The Aghori cult has not been present for a very long time. Their origin can be traced back to Baba Keenaram, an ascetic who died in the mid 18th century, allegedly having lived for 150 years. Dattatreya, an avadhuta, was a founding adi-guru of the Aghori way of living. According to writer Ron Barret’s study of and the consequent book on the Aghoris:
“Lord Dattatreya, an antinomian form of Shiva closely associated with the cremation ground, appeared to Baba Keenaram atop Girnar Mountain in Gujarat. Considered to be the adi-guru (ancient spiritual teacher) and founding deity of Aghor, Lord Dattatreya offered his own flesh to the young ascetic as prasād (a kind of blessing), conferring upon him the power of clairvoyance and establishing a guru-disciple relationship between them.”
A distinctive way of living
It is believed among the Aghoris that Dattatreya was an incarnation of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, all three united into one. They hold the Hindu deity sacred, along with the goddess Kali and the god Shiva. Aghori tradition also includes Tantric practices, Hinglaj Mata being their kuladevta. The foremost pilgrimage centre of the Aghoris is the ashram of Kina Ram in Ravindrapuri, Varanasi. Apart from this, cemeteries and cremation grounds are also considered holy grounds for Aghori ascetics.
The Aghoris believe in shrouding themselves in complete and utter darkness, then getting into ‘light’ or self-realisation. They live in cemeteries and cremation grounds, all over India and Nepal; however, their practices tend to be adherent to worship and achieving a higher spiritual state, as opposed to social recognition.
The most widespread hearsay about the Aghoris is cannibalism. They are known to fish dead bodies out of water bodies and consume human flesh. They believe that this accords them with spirituality and supernatural powers. They are also known for their heavy use of alcohol and recreational drugs such as cannabis and marijuana. A tourist-writer, who once met an Aghori priest, reported that he was told that the sadhu was consuming a concoction of alcohol, cannabis and human ash, drinking it straight from a human skull.
Aghoris look like living embodiments of Lord Shiva, seeming like nightmares. They have long hair, which remains uncut throughout their lives. Covered head to toe in human ash and sometimes dressed in all black clothes, they are heavily drugged with “eyes that seem sober despite the heavy intoxication”. According to word-of-mouth stories, the mere sight of an Aghori will frighten anyone too attached to a materialistic lifestyle, or even life in general. However, all these reports come from the minds of people who fear these sadhus. Aghoris actually live quite simple and straightforward lives, in spite of their abnormal practices. If an Aghori sadhu carries hatred in him, he will eat that which he hates. If he feels violent, he will practice meditation to learn to let go of that violence.
Practice of medicine
Aghoris are also known for their practice of medicine. Their healing processes comprise of purification. People often come to these sadhus in order to be treated for diseases, when western medicines fail them. These patients believe that the Aghoris can treat them by transferring health to their bodies. This is known as a form of “transformative healing”, and the implementation of this practice is possible due to the heightened spirituality of the mind and body of an Aghori sadhu. Whether these practices actually heal patients is not verified.
These bizarre traditions and lifestyle of the Aghoris are what incite the crowd into being fearful, yet reverent of them. Despite these cannibalistic diet and rituals involving the dead, the Aghoris have the same motive for their practices as any other theist—seeking God. Aghoris seek an ascetic lifestyle, and as long as their practices do not cause harm to the rest of the population, it is imperative that they are left on their own, as is their wish.