As kids we were often threatened by our parents in the name of the wandering sadhus with ash smeared all over their body and bloodshot eyes. As we grew the staple of late night slumber parties- Ghost stories almost always contained a story about the flesh-eating sadhus in the cremation grounds. How much truth do these folklore hold? Let’s dive in.
Aghor (a + ghor), a term usually rendered as an absence of fear, dread, difficulty, is an inner state of being that can be gained through the spiritual discipline known as Aghor sadhana. The one who is instructed in this practice is known as Aghor, Aghori or Aughar.
An aghor condition is obtained by the one who transcends the fourth state, Turiya, beyond the state of wakefulness, the state of dream and the state of deep sleep without dreams. The one who gains this condition is celebrated as Turiyatita, Avadhuta or Aghor. In his eyes, nothing more is pure or impure because, transcending duality, he realized the Supreme Unity. He becomes like a dried seed, unable to produce karma.
Aghor sadhana is considered by Aghoris the straight way for the fourth state because it is perfect (Siddha) and heroic (Vira). It is Guruvani, passed through the word from Master to disciple, in an immemorial continuum. Aghor sadhana is a sum of practices that nowadays survives mainly in India and in the nearest zones.
Origin of Aghoris
The Aghoris trace their origin to Baba Keenaram, an ascetic who is said to have lived 150 years, dying during the second half of the 18th century. Dattatreya the avadhuta, to whom has been attributed the esteemed nondual medieval song, the Avadhuta Gita, was a founding adi-guru of the Aghor tradition according to Barrett.
It is said that Lord Dattatreya, an antinomian form of Shiva closely associated with the cremation ground, who 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”, convening upon him the power of divining and establishing a guru-disciple relationship between them.
Numerous are the theories proposed about Aghori’s origins. The most famous is that they come from Kapalikas, a presumed extinct school. Some think that Aghoris are Buddhists merged with Hinduism after the religion’s extinction from the Indian continent. In popular tales, they were a non-vedic population or a tribe, probably established in the region of the rivers Narmada or Son. For still others, Aghoris may come from an archaic spiritual lineage now disappeared, may be located in the heart of the ancient realm of Maghada, land of birth of modern Buddhism. Some say that it is possible that they come from other Shaiva schools while others suggest that Kapalika, Sarbhanga, Brahmanishta, Avadhuta, Abhyadhar, Aghor and other names, used in different times and different places, are synonymous. Hindus regard Aghoris as coming directly from Shiva. In a study done in Kashi about organizations of sadhus Shaiva, Vaishnava and sadhus of minor factions, Aghoris aren’t placed in any of these religious divisions.
The Aghors and the other Gods
In accordance with ancient texts, the first Kapalika is Shiva himself, in his terrific Bhairava form. The story, as told in Puranas, tells that He cut off one of Brahma’s heads in a fit of rage. Guilty of the loathsome crime of brahmanicide, he was condemned to wander with the skull of his victim stuck to his hand and to use it as begging bowl and food bowl. After twelve years he arrived in Kashi (Varanasi) and the Kapal (skull) spontaneously came off his hand, falling in the place now known as Kapalamochana.
Aghoris also hold sacred the Hindu deity Dattatreya as a predecessor to the Aghori Tantric tradition. Dattatreya was believed to be an incarnation of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva united in the same singular physical body. Dattatreya is revered in all schools of Tantra, which is the philosophy followed by the Aghora tradition, and he is often depicted in Hindu artwork and its holy scriptures of folk narratives, the Puranas, indulging in Aghori “left-hand” Tantric worship as his prime practice.
In Hindu iconography, Tara, like Kali, is one of the ten Mahavidyas (wisdom goddesses) and once invoked can bless the Aghori with supernatural powers. The most popular of the ten Mahavidyas who are worshiped by Aghoris are Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, and Bhairavi.
Lifestyle of Aghori Sadhus
The Aghori Sadhus are one of the toughest people on earth. They can survive scorching heat of the plains and freezing cold temperatures of the snow clad Himalayas without any covering on their body. They believe that in order to reach the ultimate almighty, one must not get distracted by small things like cleaning up or covering bodies with the material. This is the reason that they do not cut their hair as well.
The Aghori Sadhus wear minimal clothing and are not embarrassed by their bare body. They renounce worldly pleasures to be in oneness with God and being naked is one of the ways to do it.Yet, they cover their bodies with the ash found in the cremation grounds near the burning pyre of human corpses. They accessorize themselves with human bones and skulls Aghoris dwell far away from worldly hatred. They symbolize harmony with whatever Lord Shiva has in store for them based on their past Karma. This is important in order to attain Moksha.
Tantric powers are possessed by a majority of Aghoris. They also indulge themselves in black magic and are said to contain supernatural powers in them once they start chanting fruitful strong mantras. Some are said to surpass the normal life expectancy.
It is said that an Aghori will directly work on his patterns. If an Aghori carries hatred towards something, he will eat what he hates. If he has any violence in him, he will learn to love that violence in order to let go of it. If he loves something and thinks it’s binding him, he will immediately throw it away. They don’t believe in gradual liberation by letting go of an object mentally but keeping it with them physically. They let go of everything they like and expose all their five senses to what they hate.
Various aspects of Aghors tend to make us uncomfortable. Such as:
Cannibalism and flesh-eating
Aghoris feed on dead human flesh. They eat them raw or smoke them. This practice, though illegal is the most astonishing and takes place openly on the Ghats of Varanasi.
Use of marijuana
Aghoris can be seen smoking marijuana openly. For them, marijuana is not a means to get high but a channel to enter a state of trance that would take them closer to divinity through meditation thereafter.”
Aghoris indulge in sex, with the assent of women, over the dead corpses of humans in the cremation grounds. Drums are played during sex and this activity takes place, not for achieving pleasure but to enter a state of trance.
Though Aghoris are prevalent in cremation grounds across India, Nepal, and even sparsely across cremation grounds in South East Asia, the secrecy of this religious sect leaves no desire for practitioners to aspire for social recognition and notoriety.
The Aghori Headquarters
Hinglaj Mata is the Kuladevata (patron goddess) of the Aghori. The main Aghori pilgrimage center is Kina Ram’s hermitage or ashram in Ravindrapuri, Varanasi. The full name of this place is Baba Keenaram Sthal, Krim-Kund. Here, Kina Ram is buried in a tomb or samadhi which is a centre of pilgrimage for Aghoris and Aghori devotees. Present head (Abbot), since 1978, of Baba Keenaram Sthal, is Baba Siddharth Gautam Ram.
According to Devotees, Baba Siddharth Gautam Ram is a reincarnation of Baba Keenaram himself. Apart from this, any cremation ground would be a holy place for an Aghori ascetic. The cremation grounds near the yoni pithas, 51 holy centers for worship of the Hindu Mother Goddess scattered across South Asia and the Himalayan terrain, are key locations preferred for performing sadhana by the Aghoris. They are also known to meditate and perform sadhana in haunted houses.