AGHORI – The legitimate cannibals of India
Večernji list, September 2004
If somebody were to tell you stories about people who indulge in alcohol and drugs, who live in cemeteries, eat human flesh, and have sexual intercourse with corpses, you would definitely think that they are talking about some lunatic, Satanist, or at least mentally ill person. However, if these people live in India and are called Aghori, then almost billion Hindus believe they are holly men, and their ‘filthy’ deeds are not considered repulsive and pervert, rather they are welcomed and worthy of respect. If you attend a ritual burning of the deceased somewhere in India, and Aghoris happen to be nearby, then you may witness an astonishing and disgusting event. In rare instances, the flesh of the deceased does not burn completely, which is a bad sign. The son of the deceased, regardless of the caste he belongs to, then seeks a filthy, messy, and drunken Aghori, and kindly asks him to eat his deceased parent’s remains. The Aghori would then prepare himself for the ritual called sadhana and meditate near the fire. When the fire would extinguish, he would eat the remains of the deceased, thus saving the soul of the deceased from aimless wondering, so it can head towards new reincarnation. And the deceased one’s son, who may be a renowned citizen or even rich Brahman, will then be grateful and forever bound to that ascetic, filthy and forsaken by the world. Where does that compassion and contradiction come from? From a thousands of years old Indian tradition that is often unacceptable to us westerners. Only through communication and understanding can we overcome the huge cultural gap that stretches between us.
Life and death in India are an inseparable picture of existence. People are born and burned on the streets, in plain sight to the public. The dream of every Hindu is to die in Varanasi, the holy city of the dead, along the banks of the holiest of all rivers: the mother Ganges. Those more courageous will renounce the world when they reach an old age and make a pilgrimage to Varanasi, in order to await their death there. An early morning river trip is an experience of the entirety of existence. On one pier, people sell fruits and vegetables, on another they offer massages or ayurvedic therapy, while yet on another they receive blessings from saddhus. On the rest of the piers, they perform ritual baths. Some piers, however, serve for burning of the deceased. They are open 24 hours a day, and fires there burn permanently. As I neared the main burning pier Manikarnika by boat, another boat pushed off the shore towards the center of the river. At its bow, high above the water, a middle aged man stood frozen with tears in his eyes, holding a small bundled corpse in his arms. Other men from the family paddled through the serene surface of the large and slow river. When they reached the centre of the river, the father threw the body of his child into the water and then collapsed onto the boat’s floor in anguish. They turned back and paddled back to the shore, where they then got out of the boat and went back to their business. Grief is only allowed on the river. The wheel of life had made one turn of the circle and then kept on going, slowly, inevitably…
According to Hindu tradition, deceased children are not burned; rather they are thrown into the Ganges River. Fire purifies, and those that are already pure, like children, need no cleaning ritual. Therefore, pregnant women and saddhus are also thrown into the river after their death. They are considered holy. Snakebite victims are also exempt from burning, because the snake is a holy being and its poison purifies. And those who die from leprosy and small pocks have also suffered a lot in their life, and have thus been purified by their suffering.
A few Aghoris live on the Manikarnika pier. Dark skinned Shiva followers dressed in black clothes, with long black hair, are easy creatures to spot. They are so obviously drunk and drugged that they can barely stand, yet their eyes seem calm and sober. Besides living by ritual burning areas, Aghoris also live in remote places far from the public: in the cold caves of the Himalaya, in the jungles of Bengal where tigers reign, or in the bare, empty, hot deserts of Gujarat where no living creature survives. Their way is radical; it demands the greatest challenges of physical endurance and the most complicated psychological tests. Their way is called ‘the left way’ to reach God. The average Hindu follows the ‘right’, or conventional way. Through devotion to God, everyday rituals, and plenty of ethical norms to follow, like nonviolence and vegetarianism, they slowly make their way toward the final enlightenment – moksha. Those wishing to speed up that process are followers of ‘the left way’. There are hundreds of left ways, for example saddhus differ by the way they have renounced the world and in the vows they undertake. Aghoris, however, are the most radical and the most challenging.
Aghoris worship Shiva or Mahakala – the destroyer, or its female manifestation: Shakti or Kali, the goddess of death. Aghori Meronath, whom I met in Varanasi, explained to me their devotion to the gods of destruction. “Each deity in Hinduism is just one manifestation of the same God. Different orders worship different deities, thus satisfying all manifestations of God. But what Shiva and Kali demand from their followers is not acceptable to most people. Thus Aghoris are the only ones willing to please them. The rest of the Hindus respect us for that because we cover the field they don’t dare to enter.”
Kali demands satisfaction through meat, alcohol, and sex. All three things are banned for other saddhus. To eat meat actually means to eat everything. To have no limits, because all is one. By eating anything, Aghoris try to gain awareness of the oneness of everything and eliminate discrimination. Therefore they consume feces, human fluids and human flesh. Even dogs that had died a long time ago and that had already started to decay are eaten by Aghoris. Like other saddhus, they live in celibacy, but with one exception. When the goddess Kali demands satisfaction in sex, they then have to find an appropriate corpse and have sexual intercourse with it. Furthermore, Aghoris consume all intoxicants, especially alcohol. In a few Shiva temples, believers that are not allowed to drink alcohol, bring offerings of whiskey to Shiva. That whiskey is later given to Aghoris. The most famous Shiva temple in India is the Kalbheru temple in Ujjain, where the Shiva statue ‘drinks’ alcohol. Is it another religious fraud or a miracle, nobody knows, but thousands of Hindus make a pilgrimage there, carrying bottles of whiskey.
“The reason why we do things that seem outrageous to the outside world is actually simple.” Meronath told me. “To find purity in the filthiest! To remain straight in the head after performing the greatest perversions. Thus we can speed up our spiritual development. If an Aghori manages to remain focused on God even during sex with a corpse or while eating a human brain, then he is on the right way. Unfortunately, there are very few real Aghoris. With time, most of them go crazy.” He described two kinds of people that are usually interested in following that way. “One of them are sick, twisted individuals that cannot succeed any other way. Others are attracted by a positive idea, but then the challenge scares them away. There are very few Aghoris that pass all exams. Those who do are the real Aghoris, and their task is to transform the darkness into the light!”
Meronath came to India from Nepal, where, in spite of a big number of Hindus, there are no Aghoris. Before he chose the radical way, he had a successful worldly career. After he finished studying medicine, he went to the army. He advanced quickly, and became a commander of Special Forces. In the meantime, he received his PhD in war medicine. Then he left everything and started living in the forest in isolation. After realizing which way to go, he became an Aghori. He is still interested in medicine and explained to me how it can be connected with the Aghori vocation. “Black energy is the same as all other energies. What matters is the reason why somebody uses it. If someone who knows how to manipulate with black energy wants to hurt somebody, the curse will come back to him because of the universal law of karma. Aghoris know how to deal with black magic, and they use it exclusively for good causes, like healing. We can take over other people’s illnesses on ourselves and then burn them by using black magic. Even illnesses like cancer or AIDS. For example, I collect human oils that are extracted from burning human flesh. For these are extremely strong cures. The human body contains a lot of healing substances that classical medicine wouldn’t use for ethical reasons.”
The night was falling upon Varanasi. The fires at the Manikarnika pierced the dark blue dusk while preparations for the burning ritual of the newly deceased were in progress. Meronath described the process to me. The son of the deceased who leads the ritual shaves all of the deceased one’s hair, leaving only a small lock at the back of the head. They then cover the corpse with firewood and start the fire. The son murmured chants and walked around the corpse, while pouring water around. Then he spotted Aghori Meronath, and approached him. He asked him questions about the journey of the soul. Meronath patiently listened, and then answered the question. The deceased one’s son Dinesh Mahayan, who is an owner of a gold watch shop, answered a few of my questions too. “We Hindus respect Aghoris because they embody Shiva. An Aghori that worships Shiva is Shiva himself, and only he, the supreme god of destruction, can help the soul make its journey from one life to another. When an Aghori performs the sadhana over the body of the deceased, he speeds up and guides the journey of his soul.” Dinesh Mahayan then asked Meronath to perform the sadhana on the corpse of his father, but only the family members could attend the ritual.
The Aghori practice is a tantric dimension of Hinduism. Tantra is a science of personality, meta-psychology, methods of exploring the mind, and development of perception. According to Tantra, ill are those who are condemned to live with limited personality. Only those who step out of time, space, and causality, can live in harmony with the universe and achieve immortality. An individual that practices tantra may not necessarily succeed in achieving immortality, but can accumulate enough energy to gain special powers. He can then use them to accelerate spiritual evolution or even to achieve bad things. But then he would just get stuck deeper in the cause-and-effect circle. Because of this sensitivity, tantra has been kept as a special secret known only within circles of enlightened Hindus. All that a true tantric would ever say to a curious person are a few ritual questions he asks himself at the end of each day. “Have I lived? Have I loved? Have I laughed?” Vimanalanda, the only Aghori that tried to bring tantric knowledge closer to the western mind, explained it like this: “Have I lived – Have I used each moment of the day to grow, to learn and to develop? Have I loved – have I made other people aware of the love that I have in my heart, and relieved them from burden of doubt and non believing? Have I laughed – Have I noticed the funny side of each, even the most painful experience? If I have, then I have lived each moment in its entirety – that is the only true description of Aghori.”