Sunday, July 14, 2024

Aghori – The Cannibal Holy Men of India

On the banks of the Ganges in Northern India, centred around the ancient city of Varanasi, live a sect of Hindus who practice some of the most extreme rituals of any existing religion. The Aghori are devotees of Shiva, sadhu in the extreme, shunning not only conventional ways of life but those well beyond other Hindus who have sought a completely spiritual existence. The Aghori eat the flesh of dead people.

Photo of an Aghori from 1875

The Aghori are the only remaining sect of a form of Shaivism dating back to Medieval India, around the 7th and 8th centuries. Shiva is the Lord of the yogis and the patron of yoga – Shiva is everywhere; is in everything; the epitome of perfection – the ultimate creator, featuring in the texts of both Buddhism and Sikhism as well as Hinduism.  However, Shiva is also the destroyer; a god of transformation. This omniscience has attracted worshippers who have adopted different ways of paying their respects. The Kāpālikas were one of the earliest sects, a tantric form which saw the followers take their name from the Sanskrit word for ‘skull’ – they were ‘the skull men’.

Carrying a trident adorned with a skull and using a hollowed-out skull as a begging bowl, they revered the malevolent form of Shiva, Bhairava, a fearsome dog-riding avatar wearing an apron of human bones. Perhaps not surprisingly considering they are reported to have existed 2800 years ago, primary sources for their worshipping practices and habits are thin on the ground. However, what sources there are tell of naked worshippers with long matted hair, their bodies smeared in the ashes of the cremated, who drank alcohol, ate meat and took part in sexual orgies and performed human sacrifices. They are only said to have existed for around 100 years…and yet their bizarre behaviour is replicated in many ways by the Aghori centuries later.

The Aghor date back to the 17th century, specifically to Baba Keenaram, considered by followers to be an incarnation of Shiva. Awakened to his destiny, he settled in Varanasi and wrote several books, the key volume being ‘Viveksar’ which set out the basic tenets of aghor. Said to have lived to the impressive age of 168, leaving behind a legacy which can only be considered extreme.

Opinion is oddly divided as to how fellow Hindus view the Aghori. What is certain is that they are allowed to live out their strange lives without being bothered by locals. Though largely based around their spiritual home of Varanasi, followers can be found in less densely popular areas two, from the extreme cold of Himalayan caves of Nepal to the steaming jungles of Benghal and the deserts of Western India. The Aghori fundamentally seek an escape from the cycle of birth, death and reincarnation. Shiva is seen as being everywhere and in everything, rendering ‘the real world’ as nothing but an illusion. Whereas we may see something as revolting or rotten, they see only perfection, as it must in fact be Shiva whatever its appearance. It is this vision of the world and those beyond which drives the Aghori to acts many would consider abhorrent or against nature.

By embracing those things which the rest of the world shuns, Aghori can break the cycle of reincarnation and join Shiva in totality. By eternally destroying their ego, losing their sense of self and seeing beyond the delusion of the material world, they can achieve pure divinity. This path to enlightenment is practised by many Hindus – Advaita Vedanta – a school of thinking which directs the follower to look beyond the illusion of the world around them. Many live by this theory – few live it to the very letter. Their methods of achieving this are extreme.

The most notorious of all Aghori practices is the consumption of human flesh. More accurately, the consumption of the flesh of corpses. The Aghori surround themselves with things the rest of the world avoid, therefore becoming desensitised and seeing everything as being of equal worth. Among these are the dead; the rotten; the foul. The majority of Aghori live in remote, sparse environments – caves for example, so that they become accustomed to their stark surroundings as a city-dweller would, seeing no difference between the two. Others live in cemeteries and cremation grounds, accentuating their belief that life, death and everything in between are the same. They avoid wearing clothes, other than perhaps a loincloth, to rid themselves of shame.

But yes, they do eat human flesh. Not regularly, but at night, as part of their ceremonies, they will eat the flesh of human corpses – sometimes raw, sometimes roasted over open fires. They use human skulls as bowls and as part of their rites, not in an overly egregious way so as to taunt onlookers but in the pitch black of night away from the masses. They see the beauty in the filth around them and are also known to drink their own (and animal) urine, eat the putrid flesh of other animals, human faeces and smear their bodies in funereal ashes and leave their hair in long, matted clumps.

For all this, the Aghori are peaceful. They do not kill and avoid all forms of confrontation. The corpses they eat are almost always those they drag in which are floating down the Ganges river. They spend many hours meditating, with some performing rituals to cure illnesses or exorcisms to rid a person of demons. They also drink alcohol, smoke pot and eat magic mushrooms. One might think that all these things could be connected.

Alas, I cannot find any evidence of Aghori in the UK, there would surely be enough corpses to nab floating down our waterways. As such, these books are recommended to help you find your path to enlightenment:

Aghori Trilogy by Robert E. Svoboda 


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