Aghori sadhus, the most feared and most respected clan of sadhus or ascetics are notorious for their uncommon and ghastly rituals performed as part of their religious routine. Aghori sadhus are associated with cannibalism, using human skulls and having sex with corpses.
These followers of Shiva dress in black clothes, sport long black hair, look drunk and drugged, yet their eyes seem calm and sober. Living in cremation grounds, Aghoris prefer to live in remote places far from public gaze.
Worshippers of Shiva or Mahakali, the Destroyer, or its female manifestation, Shakti or Kali, Goddess of Death, Aghoris believe they satisfy the demands of Goddess Kali when they consume meat and alcohol, and have sex. All three things are banned for other sadhus.
The Aghora clan is said to have been created over 1,000 years ago and the first Aghori sadhu was Keenaram. Inhabitants of Varanasi can be seen along the banks of the Ganga River where the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is located. They are devotees of Shiva manifested as Bhairava who seek moksha or liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. This freedom is a realization of the self’s identity with the Absolute.
They eat anything and everything. Their food habits would repulse a normal person who would never even consider eating things such as food from heaps of rubbish, faeces, urine and rotting human corpses. After eating the flesh, they meditate all night while sitting on top of a corpse. They have reasons for their culinary choices. Consumption of excreta is said to kill ego and derail the human perception of beauty which is essential for a man to lead his life as an Aghori. They try to gain awareness of the Oneness of Everything and eliminate discrimination.
Sharing food with dogs and cows does not sound repulsive to them as that is how they share their meals, with animals which frequent cremation grounds, out of the same bowl. It is their belief that if they were to start worrying about insignificant things like animals dirtying their food, they would not be able to focus on their higher aims of meditating and becoming one with Shiva. They believe that one who hates cannot meditate.
Like other sadhus, they live in a state of celibacy with one exception. Aghoris consider that when Goddess Kali demands satisfaction in sex, they then have to find an appropriate corpse and have sexual intercourse with it. They have a specific ritual for sexual intercourse. The ritual claims that they can acquire supernatural powers through sex in the midst of the dead.
Late at night in the cremation ghats smeared with the ashes of the cremated, Aghori clans unite to perform this ritual. Women taking part in this act are smeared with the ashes as well and the consummation is done to the sounds of beating drums and recitation of mantras. Taking the form of Shiva and Shakti, the men and women perform this act in a state of trance releasing sexual energy in the form of supernatural powers.
The Aghori’s life revolves around the dead or the burial ground. He lives there night and day. He covers himself with ash which comprises of the five elements. Ash protects him from disease and mosquitoes. His desire to be one with Shiva leads him to imitate his physical appearance.
The human skull is the first thing he must procure from floating corpses of holy men in rivers where they are laid to rest. After receiving the magical incantation from his guru, he starts life as an Aghori, eating remains of the dead and bathing in the waters of the Ganga. The fire pit is his temple and the abode of ghosts and evil spirits his home.
Some Aghoris roam around with the femur (thigh bone) of cremated people as a symbol. They do not cut their hair letting it fall to their knees. They cover their bodies with a skimpy jute loincloth and at times with nothing, in the nude. Nudity, in their terms, is complete renunciation from the material world and its attachments. Most often, they smear their bodies with ash and wear human skulls around their necks as accessories,
Aghoris claim that they have medicines that can treat diseases such as cancer and AIDS. These medicines, called ‘human oils,’ come from burning human bodies and are collected from the burning pyre. It is claimed that these medicines are very effective but are not used in modern medicine due to ethical considerations. However, the authenticity of their claim has never been tried and tested yet by the scientific community.
The healing powers of Aghori sadhus are said to come from their expertise in black magic. What they say about these practices is that they never use their powers for harmful deeds. Instead, they absorb the diseases from the patients into their own bodies and eliminate the diseases by burning them using black magic. Some Aghori practitioners with expertise in black magic claim that the more they please Shiva and Kali, the more they gain powers.
While the whole world follows the ‘Right Way’ to reach God, these sadhus claim that they follow the ‘Left Way’ to reach God which is far quicker than the former. The ‘Right Way’ includes vegetarianism, sanctity and abstinence from lust according to Hinduism. But Aghoris believe true godliness lies in seeking ‘purity in the filthiest’. Sadhus claim that they could be true Aghoris if they were able to concentrate on God while performing the most perverted acts such as necrophilia (intercourse with a corpse), necrophagy (feeding on corpses) and coprophagy (faeces-eating).
Aghoris smoke ganja or marijuana as they believe it helps them concentrate on their mantras and strenuous yogic practices that they routinely perform. They deny when asked if they consume the weed for pleasure. The stages of delusion and hallucinations provided by weeds are taken as religious ecstasies and heightened spiritual experiences.