Human beings have always been fascinated by ritual – especially that which is arcane, sacred and profane. Welcome to the world of the Aghori.
Aghoris represent a gruesome intersection of the three. Their ash-smeared faces, elaborate bone necklaces and composed yet piercing gaze make them stand out. The ash, taken from graveyards and cremated corpses, is just one aspect of their lack of aversion to what is normally considered repulsive.
They live in and hang around graveyards, fearing no living or dead creature. They eat and drink everything from human feces to urine and putrid flesh. They smoke ganja and, sometimes, sleep with the dead.
While many Indians are aware of their existence, they have traditionally been considered as both taboo and sacred. You find them most often in holy places of pilgrimage in Northern India. Their blessings can be both feared and sought after, in particular, the ashes they carry. Medical and cultural anthropologist Ronald L. Barrett describes orthodox Brahmins as scrambling to use these, believed to hold strong medicinal value.
Ostensibly, it may seem that Aghoris thrive on a culture of provocative performance, a ritualist existence in its essence. But they have been around for a long time, and continue to exist in contrast to mainstream beliefs surrounding purity, pollution, caste, and perhaps even hygiene.
We found one on the road to Shimla and had a short conversation about his life. Named Jeet Nath, he was orphaned at birth. What family members he had, left him with a Guru who resided near Tapovan, Rishikesh. Initially, he herded cattle, but soon he was put in the Guru’s Seva (service). Pupils were each assigned a sect, and he was Aghori.
The Guruji put us in various (sects). Udhrasi, Sanyasi, Baragi, Nirvan, Aghori, Nage, Giri, Puri, Bharti. I was assigned to my sect, my throne as an Aghori. I got the throne of the graveyard. I’m very happy with whatever I have got.
In the various articles and documentaries on Aghori that exist, they represent an ethos of indifference, perhaps even of rebellion. As with all things heretic and rebellious, the cult of the Aghori has found appropriation within that ritualist sub-culture of the defiant – the genre of Death Metal music.
Metal musicians from Europe and South Asia have embraced the Aghori story and ethos. From the Nepalese ‘Dying Out Flame’ (Vedic Death Metal), to the Bangladeshi ‘Orator’ (Death Metal), and even Czech examples (Cult of Fire) – all have dabbled with lyrics and themes related to Aghori practices.
In an interview given to the blog ‘Death Metal Nepal’, Orator explain what their understanding of Aghori culture, coming from a dominantly Islamic nation:
We do not take Aghori as a saintly Hindu figure sitting and uttering mantra from scriptures. To us Aghorism is individualism. An Aghori is that individual, who is beyond the shackles of belief, societal norms and against religious oppressions. He is mad against the establishments and any form of material limitations. That Aghori is an Atheistic Avadhut.
Death metal enthusiast and reviewer Achintya Venkatesh, who pointed us towards these bands, had this to say:
Aghoric philosophy captures the attention of extreme metal. Morbid themes find congruence with morbid, abstract music/art. The coupling of Aghoric doctrines/ themes with the grim and the macabre feel of extreme metal is only logical, in light of its narrative aspirations.
It is a quirk of our anthropological imagination, that practices that are considered taboo can arouse such curiosity across the world. Henry Balfour, a British archaeologist writing in 1897, explains part of our fascination with the profane –
The interests of culture demand the suppression of such aggressively ascetic doctrines, but the interests of anthropology demand that they should be thoroughly investigated and studied before it is too late
His account gives us a long description of Aghori rituals, confirming much in common with the Aghori he interviewed then and the one we found.
Both had been orphaned early in their lives, compelling them to seek out a Guru, who later trained and enlisted them into the Aghori community. Both had to change their names subsequently, and eventually eat the flesh and liquids of human corpses out of skulls called Kapalas.
Curiously, Balfour suggests that the community was nearing extinction, and existed only in small pairs or trios across the land. Yet more than a century since, they persist to this day in much of the same locations as they have always been such as Haridwar, Varanasi, Rishikesh.
Barrett suggests that the Aghoris have changed in recent times – shifting from solely living out their ethos to offering cures for stigmatized diseases like leprosy. He describes their cures as existing in two parts. One of an eclectic mix of self-purifying rites, Ayurveda, and biomedicine. The other, ‘Aghor as medicine’, featuring a ‘philosophy of nondiscrimination that challenges people to overcome their prejudices by confronting core fears and aversions, particularly those concerning death and disorder’.
Those who have faced the prospect of social death seem inclined to turn to Aghoris – for whom society’s consent or dissent is irrelevant. This might explain why they persist on today, alongside various other hues of India that are at once modern and ancient.
To reference Bob Dylan, ‘when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose’ might describe the ethos that Aghoriphiles are looking for. To reference him once more, the times are a changin’, for an Aghori today might even own a vehicle, as we were told in a short interview.
We see within the Aghori community a blend of ritual, practice and cultural expression that forces one to rethink the nature of vice and avarice. It may explain why videos about Aghoris receive hundreds of thousands of views, for an internet culture that is obsessed with the bizarre. There is much more to be studied about the dangers of Aghori practices. A surface reading does not fully explain how they came to be what they are, and whether they need to be anything else.
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