The Aghoris: Ascetic Shaivate Sadhus of Varanasi

Aghoris Practices

The Aghoris are a mysterious and fascinating group of ascetics who practice a unique form of Hinduism. Known as the “holy men of the dead,” they are notorious for their bizarre rituals and unconventional practices. Despite their unusual ways, the Aghoris are considered to be highly spiritual and are revered by many Hindus.

History of the Aghoris

The Aghoris trace their origins back to the ancient Kapalika and Kalamukha sects of Hinduism. These sects were known for their extreme practices, including the consumption of meat and alcohol, and the use of human skulls in their rituals. Over time, these sects merged to form the Aghori tradition.

The Aghoris are primarily found in northern India, particularly in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. They are a small and secretive group, and little is known about their history beyond their association with the Kapalika and Kalamukha sects.

Beliefs of the Aghoris

There is no evil, everything emanates from ‘Brahman’, so how could anything in this universe be impure? This is the belief that Aghoris follow.

The Aghoris believe that everything in the universe is interconnected and that all living beings are ultimately one. They see the human body as a microcosm of the universe, with each part representing a different aspect of creation. They also believe that the universe is inhabited by a vast array of spirits and deities, both benevolent and malevolent.

One of the core beliefs of the Aghoris is that the body is a temporary vessel for the soul, which is eternal and unchanging. They believe that by embracing death and decay, they can transcend the limitations of the physical body and achieve spiritual enlightenment. This is why they are known as the “holy men of the dead.”

Shaiva beliefs in Aghoris

The Aghoris follow two fundamental principles that are also found in broader Shaiva beliefs. Firstly, they believe that Shiva is perfect, possessing all-knowing, all-present, and all-powerful qualities. 

Secondly, they believe that Shiva is responsible for everything that happens, including all causes, conditions, and effects. This means that everything in existence is inherently perfect, and to deny this perfection would be to deny the sacredness of all life and the Supreme Being.

According to the Aghoris, every person’s soul is Shiva but is obscured by eight major bonds known as Astamahapasa. These bonds include sensual pleasure, anger, greed, obsession, fear, and hatred. 

The Aghoris engage in practices aimed at eliminating these bonds, such as performing Sadhana on cremation grounds to conquer fear, engaging in sexual practices with certain restrictions to overcome sexual desire, and being naked to overcome shame. Once all eight bonds are released, the soul becomes Sadasiva and achieves Moksha.

Practices of the Aghoris

Practices of Aghori

The Aghoris are known for their unconventional and often shocking practices. They are known to consume meat, drink alcohol and smoke marijuana. They also engage in rituals involving the use of human skulls and other human remains.

The well-known practice of the Aghoris is the consumption of human feces and urine. They believe that by consuming these substances, they can purify their bodies and achieve spiritual purity. This practice is often misunderstood and misrepresented by outsiders, who see it as a form of depravity.

Aghoris are recognized by the use of ash on their body from cremation pyres. They believe that the ash contains the essence of the deceased person and that by smearing it on their bodies, they can absorb their spiritual energy. They also use the ash to create a paste that they apply to their faces and bodies, giving them a distinctive appearance.

The Aghoris also engage in meditation (mostly in Shamshan Ghat) and other spiritual practices aimed at achieving enlightenment. They see these practices as a way to connect with the divine and transcend the limitations of the physical world.

Misconceptions about the Aghoris

The Aghoris are often misunderstood and misrepresented by outsiders, who see them as a bizarre and depraved cult. However, this perception is largely based on ignorance and prejudice. In reality, the Aghoris are highly spiritual and deeply committed to their beliefs and practices.

The biggest misconception about the Aghoris is that they regularly consume human flesh. While it is true that they consume meat, including that of humans, they do so only in rare and specific circumstances. It is not a regular part of their diet or their practice.

There are people who believe Aghoris are a violent and dangerous group. While they do engage in unconventional practices, they are not a threat to others. In fact, they are known for their peaceful and nonviolent approach to life.

Interacting With Aghori

An unorthodox path of Aghori (Source)

(Based on the experience of Vedicfeed team member)

I found myself wandering through Vanarashi, surrounded by lush greenery and ancient temples. As I explored the streets, I heard whispers of a mysterious and feared group of sadhus, known as the Aghoris. Intrigued by their reputation and curious about their way of life, I decided to seek them out.

After asking around, I finally came across a small hut on the outskirts of the village, marked by a crude skull mounted above the door. I took a deep breath and approached, unsure of what to expect.

As I knocked on the door, it creaked open to reveal a tall, wiry man with matted hair and piercing eyes. He stared at me intently for a moment before speaking.

What brings you here?” he asked, his voice deep and resonant.

I explained my curiosity about the Aghori and asked if he would be willing to talk to me. The man nodded slowly and motioned for me to enter the hut.

Inside, I was struck by the sparseness of the room. A few scattered items of clothing and utensils lay strewn about, but otherwise, the space was empty. The man gestured for me to sit across from him on a woven mat, and I did so, feeling a mixture of apprehension and fascination.

For a moment, there was silence. Then the man spoke.

We are the Aghoris,” he said, his eyes fixed on mine. “We do not believe in societal norms or constraints. We seek to break down the barriers between life and death, between the material and spiritual worlds.

He went on to explain some of the practices that had made the Aghoris infamous – the consumption of human flesh, the use of skulls in rituals, and the rejection of traditional Hindu caste distinctions. He spoke with a calmness and conviction that was both disconcerting and compelling.

As he spoke, I found myself drawn into the worldview of the Aghoris, despite my initial discomfort. I began to see the logic in their rejection of societal norms and their embrace of the primal and raw aspects of existence.

Finally, the man fell silent, and I realized that the conversation was coming to an end. I thanked him for his time and rose to leave.

As I stepped out into the sunlight, I felt a sense of disorientation and confusion. The encounter with the Aghori challenged my preconceptions and opened up new possibilities for understanding the world. I was left with a sense of awe and respect for a way of life that was both terrifying and fascinating.

I concluded that these ascetic Shaivate Sadhus are a unique and fascinating group of ascetics who practice a form of Hinduism that is often misunderstood and misrepresented. Despite their unconventional ways, they are highly spiritual and deeply committed to their beliefs and practices. While their practices may seem shocking and bizarre to outsiders, they are an integral part of their spiritual journey and their quest for enlightenment.

Jaggu Vasudev (Sadhguru) on Aghoris’ way of living

Is there an Aghori path? Definitely, there is, still a very active spiritual process. A recently dead body has certain possibilities, so certain systems use that. If you really want to see Raising the Dead and that kind of stuff, these are the people.

Aghori means… ‘Ghora’ means terrible, and ‘Aghori’ means that which is beyond terrible. So is there an Aghori path? Definitely, there is, still a very active spiritual process. People use various substances to do many different things. A recently dead body has certain possibilities, so certain systems use that.

So, what they are doing is – there is still prana in the body that is dead. So they are sitting there – if you go there to Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghat, Aghoris will be sitting there, watching. Everybody who’ll come, enquire, “How old is this person? How did he die?”

That’s why some of them who don’t want that to be known, they’re covering with plastic sheets, you know, where people cannot see.“How old is the person?” They won’t say – how old was the person. But the Aghoris want to know. If it’s a young person, somebody who was vibrant life and for some reason he died, they want that kind.

When that happens, they want to do work there. They want to make use of the energy that’s released. Once the body begins to burn, this prana has to exit immediately. When that exits, they want to make use of that life energy to do something with themselves.

If you do not know the science of that, you cannot just think it’s all bizarre. Yes, it’s an extreme way of doing things; it is not for everybody. Why should somebody choose such a way? Because they don’t see life as good and bad, they just see life as a possibility towards the ultimate. They don’t care how; they don’t care how they get there.

Aghora has never been a socially acceptable kind of path because the things that they do are totally beyond anything that you would imagine. So, they do a variety of things, these are a kind of people…If you really want to see Raising the Dead and that kind of stuff, these are the people. It is a very, I would say, crude technology.

If you want to look at all systems of spirituality as a technology, it’s a very crude technology, but still a technology. It works, but very crude. See, now you want to find water, you can dig a well with your bare hands or you can use a crowbar and a shovel and dig, or you can use some other kind of more sophisticated augers or whatever and dig or you can use a drilling machine and dig.

Today you can actually do it in laser, it’s expensive so nobody does it, otherwise, with laser, you could just dig a well. Same well, the same water, but the way you do it is different. So if you do it with your bare hands, by the time you drink water you will neither have nails nor skin left upon your hands, but you don’t care because you are that thirsty.

You are that thirsty and it’s also going to be a very long process, but still, you don’t care, you don’t want to look anywhere except where the water is, you just want to go. If you are in that kind of thing, yes. But the problem with that kind of thing is your hands may wear out before you reach the water. People have reached, not that they have not.

With bare hands, people have dug wells and found water, but if you don’t have strong enough hands they may just wear out to the bone before you get to the water and after your skin peels off, you may not have the strength to dig anymore. So those are kinds of paths, if a thousand people seriously take it on, one may make it, and others will get lost. So these paths are generally taken more than spiritual dimension to acquire occult powers, that’s why they go on that path.

As a spiritual process also it’s a possibility, but most people may not get there because most people do not have that kind of perseverance, nor do they have that kind of courage, nor are they capable of handling disgust, because you have to do the most disgusting things in the Aghori path. But they are done by people who want to acquire certain powers, to dominate life, to dominate other human beings.

In that context, yes, it has been an active and effective path. It has also been an active and effective spiritual process for some people, but that’s very rare, not for others. Others will just break on paths like that, they will just break up because it demands a different kind. They want to evolve to a place where what you hold as something that you abhor, they are trying to befriend that. Because the moment you like something and the moment you dislike something, you have divided existence.

And once you’ve divided existence, you cannot embrace it. So they are going with whatever you would not be able to stand. What is most abhorrent for you, is what they befriend. Because they want to take away what they like and what they do not like; everything is the same to them. This is a way of embracing the universe.