Image: Cristiano Ostinelli
Image: Cristiano Ostinelli
They’ve been called “extreme,” “disgusting,” “terrifying” and “divine madmen.” Their rituals involve consuming excrement, imbibing urine from human skulls, chewing the heads off live animals, daubing their bodies with ash from burnt corpses, meditating on top of cadavers, and devouring human flesh – “dead or alive,” in the words of one guru. A combination of marijuana, alcohol and meditation helps them to reach a disconnected state of heightened awareness that they believe brings them closer to revered Hindu god Lord Shiva. They are India’s outcast Aghori sect.
The Aghori sadhus, or holy men, consider all things to be sacred – even animal feces and rotting flesh. Nothing, then, is off limits. Indeed, they hold that the less they discriminate between pure and impure, or sacrosanct and sacrilegious, the more powerful they become.
The Aghori also believe that by immersing themselves without prejudice in what others deem taboo or disturbing, they’re on course to achieving enlightenment. Central to this is an intense state of being that disregards what they perceive to be mortal illusions and distractions.
Indeed, the Aghori sadhus wander the country unrestricted and unencumbered, minus any communication with their relatives. They live among India’s cremation sites – where Lord Shiva and goddess Kali Ma are said to dwell – and feed on what others throw away.
Interestingly, the Aghori also believe that flesh and blood are transitory and that the body is ultimately inconsequential. Indeed, they emphasize this notion through their habit of dwelling in cemeteries and by surrounding themselves with death and decay.
Further, the sadhus shun material belongings and often walk around unclothed. This encourages detachment from what they see as earthly delusions, or “maya,” and better signifies the human body in its purest form.
Tracing the Aghori’s origins is problematic. Given a lack of religious texts, explanations as to their roots are largely based on theories and assumptions, with the mystery perhaps only deepened by accounts from those who’ve witnessed their bizarre practices.
One theory is that the Aghori parted from the infamous – and now supposedly defunct – Kapalika “skull bearer” sect during the 1300s. Like the Aghori, the Kapalikas are thought to have practiced dark, unconventional rituals, including group sexual rites and cannibalism.
Today’s Aghori sadhus, however, trace their roots to 17th-century puritan Baba Keenaram, who is said to have lived for somewhere between 150 and 170 years. Supposedly, Keenaram was an embodiment of Shiva, and his writings and the numerous texts he directed are thought to represent the Aghori’s sole collection of religious volumes.
Keenaram’s remains are believed to be buried in his spiritual center, the Baba Keenaram Sthal, which is situated little more than a stone’s throw from the River Ganges and Varanasi’s sacred ghats. This temple is the holiest of all Aghori sites and the seat of their faith.
The path toward becoming a fully-fledged Aghori sadhu is anything but simple. It comprises roughly a dozen years of meditation and a series of challenging rituals. The first step involves locating a guru whose commands inductees have to follow. Next, new Aghori disciples need to acquire a human skull, or “Kapala,” from which they must consume all food and drink until their initiation is complete.
Another aspect of the initiation – and, indeed, enlightenment – process entails novice sadhus smearing their bodies with ash from cremated humans while meditating. Later, the Aghori disciples are required to eat rancid flesh and meditate whilst sat on a cadaver, which represents their ascension from weak, unenlightened being – “Shava” – to the desired holy state of “Shiva.”
Once a budding sadhu’s initiation process has begun, he is forbidden from seeing his family again – or, indeed, from returning to his birthplace. The Aghori state that breaking these rules not only distracts followers from their true path but also dishonors their faith.
As well as residing alongside North India’s sacred river Ganges, the Aghori can be found in Nepal and, albeit sparsely, parts of Southeast Asia. Wherever they go, though, the sadhus evoke a combination of suspicion, fear and, intriguingly, significant respect – for their strange practices are thought to give them healing abilities.
Image: Christopher Michel
The majority of Hindus, however, do not consider the Aghori part of their religion, as the sadhus’ rituals and ceremonies are so flagrantly at odds with the tenets of their faith. For example, mainstream Hindus avoid touching dead bodies, since they believe it has a contaminating effect. The Aghori, on the other hand, are known to pull lifeless corpses out of the Ganges.
One of the Aghori’s most significant rites is “Shiv Puja,” which for them involves the offering of a human corpse in order to stir the spirits and placate the gods. The nuances of the clandestine ritual are unknown, but it starts with the sadhus sketching a holy circle around their bodies to ward off any wicked spirits.
Eventually, the corpse’s head – which the Aghori see as the body’s main source of power – is severed in an attempt to summon enough energy to bring the sadhus nearer to the deities.
The final goal for the Aghori – and, indeed, traditional Hindus – is to free themselves from the reincarnation cycle by attaining “moksha,” the fourth and final “artha,” or goal. They strive to achieve this through overriding the illusory “maya” and achieving self-realization.
Despite the Aghori’s intense commitment to their beliefs, their macabre practices have seen them positioned as outcasts. And though they’re feared and, in certain cases, even loathed, in some quarters they’re also revered. Their lives are dedicated to the detachment from what they regard as the delusions of the mortal world. Paradoxically, perhaps, they believe that true holiness can only be achieved by being “unholy.”
Explaining the Aghori’s outlook, one sadhu said, “I do this [to] bring out the strength inside me. If you digest all evil, you have no fear. You can do anything.”