Aghora is a path of spiritual realization that defies convention, questions authority and shuns society by embracing the Universe.
There has been some controversy over a show on CNN named “Believer”, in which one episode featured Aghoris and their ‘eccentric’ practices. Many columns have been written accusing the channel of portraying the sect and its unusual rituals out of context and thus shouldering the colonial heritage of bringing Hindus a bad name. Even during the British regime many Christian Missionaries would selectively pick up bits of Hinduism and then paint a gory, unreal and demeaning picture of the Sanatana Dharma, and then use it as a justification for proselytizing more natives. In those days, Krshna and his stories used to be a favorite target, but now with the expansion of the Krshna cults and a world connected by the internet where the original scriptures and their commentaries are easily available for everyone to read, Krshna can no more be so easily maligned. But the deep rooted Abrahamic contempt for native cultures still remains.
Promo of CNN’s show on Aghoris
Aghoris are probably one of the least understood groups of Sadhakas (those engaged in serious spiritual pursuits) within the Sanatana fold, who choose to disregard the norms and conventions imposed by society. Reza Aslan, the CNN show host, a well-known apologist for Islamist terror, has already come under criticism from many Hindu individuals and organizations for his sensationalist portrayal of Hinduism and a misrepresentation of fundamental concepts to reinforce the colonial stereotypes about India. Although these protests are a welcome sign, yet on the flip side some of the learned commentators have unthinkingly thrown Aghora under the bus by being squeamish and apologetic, almost disowning the path by calling it a ‘fringe cult’.
So what exactly is Aghora and why does it invoke a strange reaction from even articulate Hindus? Before even going into an exploration of the fundamental values of this path, let us understand that the name Aghora – meaning non-terrifying – is one of the names of Lord Shiva. His southern face is called Aghora, south representing death and the cremation ground. Thus, the very first thing we learn is that Aghora has something to do with death. While scholars may say that this sect came into existence as a derivative of the ancient Kapalika and Pashupata sects, what makes an organized and non-superficial study of Aghora more difficult is the fact that we do not have any standard authoritative scriptures for the same. Most Aughar – the colloquial name in North India – practices are traditionally passed down from Guru to disciple and in a sense, can be broadly described as the Vamachari Tantric rituals taken to an extreme. It has a legendary fascination with the cremation ground because Aghora starts, in theory, with the acceptance of the one defining reality of human life: death.
Irrespective of what one believes in, death is certain and it is indeed the greatest miracle of Nature or Maya that we live most of our life unmindful of this fact. What Yudhisthira told the Yaksha in the lake stands true even today. We know in theory that everyone dies but in practice, our minds are configured to believe that it is not going to happen to us and this is certainly one of the great deceptions of nature to help us survive. But Aghora in particular and spirituality, in general, is not about mere survival. It is an attempt to rearrange our perspectives about things so that we see the world as it is, not as we would like to see it. With that in mind, the Aghoris seek to break down their anesthetized worldview and thus try to become fully cognizant of the deeply unsettling pressure of personal mortality. When the realization strikes that death is certain, all of our selfish endeavors become meaningless. A strong desire sets in, an urgency to transcend the human condition and find the larger meaning and purpose for life, similar to what must have happened to Parikshit Maharaj when he got to know that he had only seven days to live. Smashan vairagya – a dispassion about life that sets in when a person visits a cremation ground – does not last long. In a few days, the mind gets back to normal and old habits re-emerge to take control of our lives. What an Aghori tries to do is make that dispassion permanent, by ensuring that we constantly remember the inevitable end of our lives so that we seek that which is changeless.
Aghora involves rituals that have roots in the tantric vamachara where meat, alcohol, sex are used in a controlled manner to transcend our human limitations. One of the greatest Tantric MahaSiddha, Matsyendranath, is supposed to have said that even maithuna (sex) can be used as an instrument for prarthana (prayer). Naturally such practices were looked with suspicion and resulted in the oft-repeated misunderstanding that the Aghoris are a depraved cult of pleasure seekers pretending to be spiritual men and women. While it cannot be denied that many Aghoris ended up ruining themselves in the process and also bringing a bad name to the path, there have also been those who realized the highest truths of Sanatana Dharma while following the path of Aghora. In the beginning of the 17th century, Kinaram Aghori lived in Kashi who is considered nothing less than a legend in the path. He was a disciple of the immortal Lord Dattatreya, so it is believed. Trilanga Swami of Varanasi was an aghori too, and even the highly popular Ramakrishna Paramhamsa had practiced vamachara sadhana (except Bhairavi sadhana) under a competent guru and proclaimed that it was a valid path of sadhana. Critics are wont to say that this path is more dangerous than others but the plethora of paths within the ambit of Sanatana Dharma exists because no two individuals are exactly similar. An individual is led into one or the other path of sadhana based on his/her karmic progression and svabhava.
The use of intoxicating substances is aimed at transcending the limitations posed by the mind and body such that the individual is able to connect to the Divine at any place under any condition. This can happen when all inhibitions are shattered. Alcohol, when used in limited quantity, creates a flush of intoxication in the mind, and that can be used to strengthen one’s concentration. The key, however, lies in being in control of the drink. Moreover, a ritualistic alcohol partaking involves purifying the alcohol and consecrating it with mantras so that it is the deity who consumes the alcohol through the tantrika or aghori. Similarly, the Aghori sexual rites are not akin to the normal carnal indulgence of the uninitiated. Here, the Aghori is again asked to keep a firm grip on his awareness even in the throes of an orgasm, preventing the release of semen and consciously transforming the shakti into a subtler form.
It must be remembered that none of the above practices are compulsory aspects of Aghora and one may often find Aghora sadhakas who eschew one or the other of these much talked about rituals. Raja Krshnachandra of Bengal was a Tantrika-Aghora sadhaka who would stay away from alcohol. The legendary Tara siddha, Bamakhepa, who performed many Aghora sadhanas, remained a lifelong celibate. There have been some famous Aghoris who were known to be strict vegetarians. The point to note is that Aghora has no strictures or mandates and each one follows, wholly or selectively, parts of this sadhana that is needed for one’s own development. It is important to realize that for a sincere follower of Aghora there is a tremendous, overwhelming sense of urgency for breaking down his own limitations so that he can experience and live in the infinite. This makes him take extreme measures in sadhana, which ordinary people would never think of attempting. For example, a particular kind of Aghur sadhana involves sitting on a fresh corpse inside a cremation ground and chanting mantras of the deity. The psychological pressure generated by the vital environment of such a sadhana can bring about a nervous breakdown in an individual. In fact, very few who attempt this actually succeed and crucially, failure in this case does not yield another chance because a botched up shava sadhana – that is what it is called – leads to insanity or death.
In a promotional video on CNN, they showed an Aghori sadhu eating human flesh and in one instance, even throwing his own waste towards the program conductor. Disgusting as it may be, this is not a defining aspect of Aghora but more importantly, neither is it forbidden. In fact, Aghora allows for everything and each Aghori makes his own practice. There is a simple and powerful statement used in sadhana – Shame, Disgust and Fear are the first three enemies to be overcome. Therefore, Aghoris sometimes embody disgust, overcoming their aversion towards the most frightful of things without disturbing their equanimity. Such practices may be confused with necrophilia, cannibalism etc. but are, in fact, entirely different. There used to be a legendary Aghori who lived near the Bakreshwar Shaktipeetha smashan, who would eat, once in three days, rice mixed with the brain matter from burning skulls. This is also Aghora. A good Aghori is one who can switch between gunas – Satwa to Tamas and back again – in a flash as needed by the occasion. To be able to plunge into the heart of darkness and yet hold on to the light of consciousness is the hallmark of authentic Aghora.
A Buddhist Lama had been practicing in a calm, scenic retreat, away from people for several years. He attained to a very high state of consciousness, had many wonderful experiences, following which, he went to meet his Guru. The Guru was happy, smiled in mild encouragement and then told him that he must do another three months of sadhana. Only this time it would be a ‘slightly different’ place, a remote cave filled with scorpions, snakes and other night crawlers. There would be no normal food available. The cave itself was in a remote location. The disciple went there and sat in meditation. By night a severe thunderstorm started with the wind howling at making strange noises in the darkness of the night. The Lama was already struggling to focus his mind. On and off, he would feel strange creatures crawling over his body. Suddenly there was a massive lightning flash and he heard a blood curdling roar of a tiger close by. That was it. He shot out of the cave and kept running down the hillside till he reached his Guru’s house and confessed his inability to continue. The Guru smiled but did not relent and sent him back.
What one may experience or achieve in a comfortable environment may not be sufficient to withstand the psychological turbulence in an unstable atmosphere. This is precisely where Aghora differs. It starts with the dark cave of depredation till it can teach the seeker to break out into the light. Thus, while a satwik sadhaka may get rattled in a non-satwik environment, a true aghori would be at home under all circumstances.
One may ask why at all one should follow a Tamasic path, to which an Aghori is likely to respond with a “why not?” Even the deities we worship display to our limited consciousness a mixture of Gunas, some appearing to have more satwa and some more raja guna or tama guna. All three gunas work constantly in the universe for creation, sustenance and destruction and which one dominates is according to the need of the hour. While a satwik lifestyle is wonderful for achieving sukha (happiness), an overreliance on satwa leaves one powerless in front of a marauding, barbarian army.
Durga leading the Eight Matrikas in Battle Against the Demon Raktabija, Folio from a Devi Mahatmya [Creative Commons License]
In the famous Devi Mahatyam’s 3rd Chapter we have a sloka where the Goddess after a long fight with Mahisasura takes a break. She picks up the panapatra, a drinking bowl, and prophesizes to the Asuric army in these words:
“Garja garja Kshanam moorha, madhu yavat pivamyaham |
Mayaa twayi hatehtraiva, garjishyantyashu devatah ||”
[Take your time and rejoice while I finish this wine, (for thereafter) you shall be slain and the gods shall rejoice].
This verse is considered particularly interesting because not only does it legitimize the use of wine in rituals, but gives a hint on when the Tama guni nature of alcohol is most useful – to destroy something that is deeply tamasic. It is no wonder that the Tantric texts became popular in this age. Shiva says to Devi in one of the Tantras that in this age of Kali (Kaliyuga), Tantra-based sadhana is more efficacious. While Aghora may seem like an extreme case of Tantra, it is particularly useful for this age. The beatific bliss of satwa is no antidote to asuric tamas, one must have the courage and strength to plunge into Tamas and destroy it without letting the gravity of this guna corrupt our own chitta. The gods are in reality trigunatita – beyond the three gunas – but appear to the sadhak colored by his own gunas. As a famous Aghori remarked, “You cannot cut something with a sword made of gold, you need to have a sword made of iron.”
Probably the most authentic and formalized (as far as it is possible to formalize a thing like Aghora) ashram of Aghora is the Kinnaram Ashram in Varanasi. They have maintained the necessary control and discipline in this path and historically have produced some terrific Aughar masters. Their sadhanas are performed away from the public eye and the ashram has a sanguine grip over the proceedings of the legendary Manikarnika and Harischandra Smashan in Kashi. Legend has it that nearly four centuries ago, Kinnaram and Kaludom, who was also an ace Aghori, had taken a fire from the cremation grounds and created a Rudra dhuni, which is kept burning to this day. A pond inside the ashram has been consecrated by the Shakti of Devi Hinglaj, whose original Shaktipeetha is now in Pakistan. Though most Aughars traditionally worship Kalabhairava – the form Shiva assumed when residing in cremation ground – many of them also perform upasanas of aggressive forms of Devi. In the medieval times, Kamakhya and Hinglaj were the favorite Shakti peethas for sadhakas of the Aghora persuasion.
Of course, there have been those who have entered this path driven by an attraction for the exotic, only to completely ruin themselves. But it is also true that spiritual corruption is not the exclusive privilege of Aghoris, every path has its dangers. How many priests in temples have had a genuine spiritual transformation even though they keep doing the rituals day in and day out? There are as many bigoted, corrupted mainstream religious folks as there are Aghoris, for eventually, no path is a guarantee for authentic spiritual realization.
It must be admitted that the path of Aghora entails much more dangerous consequences of failure. It is not meant for the masses and can never be mainstreamed. Like the Kapalika of the old, one has to move away from society and live in those settings, completely cutting off from all bonds and attachments. Trying to move with one foot in Aghora and another in samsara is a sure shot recipe for disaster. The path was never meant to be traversed by ordinary men and women and so it must remain. Aghoris are deeply conscious of this fact and are consequently, very secretive about their practices.
A simple yet extremely useful thumb rule to follow when encountering an Aghori is that anyone who is eager to show off his rituals in front of a camera or strangers is probably a thrill seeking upstart and has attained to nothing. In this context, it must also be remembered that the fascination that Indians, including the so-called ascetics, have for the white skinned foreigner with a camera is nauseating. This author was once in Kashi before a Kumbha mela where all Nagas and Aghoris had set up small camps on the banks of the Ganges. The most entertaining part of the spectacle was that each camp had one or two firangis sitting and smoking with these so called ‘babas’. No Indians were allowed, only foreigners. So, whenever an ‘Aghori’ is eager to show off his aghori-ness to a camera trotting foreigner, know for a fact that he is a fake and may be thank your stars that providence spared you the intense encounter with a real master. Devoid of context, Aghora looks like an assortment of necrophilia and depravity. In the hands of a true expert, it becomes the shortest path to changing ones limited human consciousness into that of the Eternal and Infinite Lord Shiva! True Aghoris will always remain obscure, performing and perfecting their sadhanas away from the voyeurism and politics of the media and sundry thrill seekers.
Representational image of an Aghori [Source: Pinterest]
What is most disheartening is the general squeamishness that average Hindus feel whenever the topic of Aghora comes. This may be a result of centuries of orthodox, puritanical mores imposed by foreign cultures and rulers, and our subconscious desire to match up to those alien standards has made us disown or disregard our core paths and their nuances. The Mahavrata of the Kapalikas, whose reference we have seen in various ancient texts, would require a sadhak to stay away from society, feed from a human skull whatever he may receive by begging, and roam around in desolate and remote places like cremation grounds outside of towns and villages in a brave and tremendous emulation of the great god Bhairava who, it is said, had thus roamed with the kapala of Brahma across the length and breadth of Bharata. The Aghoris do not worship something outside of the Hindu fold, for Bhairava is none other than Shiva in his form as the Lord of the cremation ground. And come to think of it, the whole world is like a cremation ground because death can come anytime, anywhere. No other standard religion apart from Sanatana Dharma has been able to look at the Divine not only as a creator and sustainer, but also the ultimate destroyer of things. This is what an Aghori tries to do. Become Bhairava by emulating his external form so that eventually, internally, there is no difference between the seeker and the god.
Now, the question that no one has asked in this media fuelled controversy, but which must be answered nonetheless, is where do we place Aghoris in the ambit of law? The anti-superstition law in Maharashtra bans Aghori practices, which brings us to the question of what constitutes superstition. To an atheist all religion is superstition. Should all religions be banned? More importantly, what gives our legal luminaries the confidence to be able to define Aghori practices, when there is no scriptural documentation of the same? As with so much else in the Indic tradition, the most valuable instructions are transmitted orally from teacher to disciple. Outsiders are not privy to this information by design.
Aghoris, as explained earlier, choose to live free of societal constraints and therefore, by definition, they do not subscribe to the diktats of society. At the same time, social norms and even our laws, to a large degree, have evolved from universal moral intuitions and to that extent, there could very well be an overlap between an Aghori’s lifestyle and what is considered legal. For example, the sexual rites mandate a consenting partner and any use of fraud or force starts a new chain of negative Karmic repercussions. But even then, were the mainstream Indian society, under the spell of ignorance of the modern education system and an alien jurisprudence, to take a negative view of Aghora and ban the ritualistic consumption of dead human flesh, for instance, how should ordinary Hindus react? In my view, we would do well to pose this question to an Aghori himself and the likely answer that we would get is that it would not matter. Why? Because the path of Aghora is a path of extremes and Aghoris tend have a rather dismissive view of worldly danger. Having done away with double standards, an Aghori takes full responsibility for his actions and does not shy away from potential adverse consequences, which include being on the wrong side of the law in this life and karmic payoff in the next. And frankly, it takes half a brain to guess which is scarier, imprisonment or death by nervous breakdown.