The Mystical, Fascinating and Bizarre World of the Aghori

This Summer I was blessed with the opportunity to spend a month in Asia, traveling through Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. During my travels in Kathmandu, Nepal, I spent some time at the Pashupatinath Temple a sacred complex located on the banks of the Bagmati River, dedicated to Pashupati – an incarnation of the Hindu god, Shiva.

Pashupatinath Temple Complex, Kathmandu, Nepal

Pashupatinath’s grounds are enveloped in an air of mystery and mysticism. Cremations are done in the open on the sides of the Bagmati, and the temples are beautiful beyond words. Shiva’s presence reverberates through every corner, and you can’t help but feel the power of this potent deity.

Pashupatinath Temple Complex, Kathmandu, Nepal

Whilst exploring the grounds, I had the chance to connect with some of the Aghori babas – a fascinating, but small group of sadhus dedicated to Shiva. These unique souls practice unique post-mortem rituals that include smearing cremated ashes on their bodies, and using the bones of human corpses for “skull cups” (kapalas), as well as jewelry – and believe in the non-duality of existence, that everything is perfect, and to deny perfection would be denying the sacredness of all life.

Aghori babas in Nepal, photo by Jennifer Sodini

According to Wikipedia:

Aghoris are devotees of Shiva manifested as Bhairava, and monists who seek moksha from the cycle of reincarnation or saṃsāra. This freedom is a realization of the self‘s identity with the absolute. Because of this monistic doctrine, the Aghoris maintain that all opposites are ultimately illusory. The purpose of embracing pollution and degradation through various customs is the realization of non-duality (advaita) through transcending social taboos, attaining what is essentially an altered state of consciousness and perceiving the illusory nature of all conventional categories.

Aghoris are not to be confused with Shivnetras, who are also ardent devotees of Shiva but do not indulge in extreme, tamasic ritual practices. Although the Aghoris enjoy close ties with the Shivnetras, the two groups are quite distinct, Shivnetras engaging in sattvic worship.

Aghoris believe that every person’s soul is Shiva but is covered by aṣṭamahāpāśa “eight great nooses or bonds”, including sensual pleasure, anger, greed, obsession, fear and hatred. The practices of the Aghoris are centered around the removal of these bonds. Sādhanā in cremation grounds destroys fear; sexual practices with certain riders and controls help release one from sexual desire; being naked destroys shame. On release from all the eight bonds the soul becomes sadāśiva and obtains moksha.

It is also believed that the Aghori possess mystical healing powers, which are gained through their extreme rituals, and rites of purification.

Ahgori are known for their disturbing nature to eat anything. It is discovered that the mysterious tribe members live in cemeteries and feast on human flesh as part of their rituals. They will also eat rotten food, putrefied garbage, and even excreta such as human feces or urine. Often these items will be consumed out of a human skull bowl or some other dish made from human bones. To an Aghori, eating garbage is all the same as eating anything else.

They are also known to meditate and perform worship in haunted, or charnel grounds, and notorious for smoking a generous amount of cannabis, as according to the Vedas, this one of five sacred plants with a “guardian angel” living in its leaves.

“The Vedas call cannabis a source of happiness, joy-giver, liberator that was compassionately given to humans to help us attain delight and lose fear (Abel, 1980). It releases us from anxiety. The god, Shiva is frequently associated with cannabis, called bhang in India. According to legend, Shiva wandered off into the fields after an angry discourse with his family. Drained from the family conflict and the hot sun, he fell asleep under a leafy plant. When he awoke, his curiosity led him to sample the leaves of the plant. Instantly rejuvenated, Shiva made the plant his favorite food and he became known as the Lord of Bhang.”  – Jann Gumbiner PhD., Psychology Today

To learn more even more about the fascinating world of the Aghori, check out the documentary below by National Geographic.

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