Varanasi: A City of Death

The Aghori believe that nothing is blasphemous or independent from God. The Aghoris are distinct from other Hindu sects and Sadu’s (priests) by their alcoholic and cannibalistic ceremonies. Skulls and other human bones are obtained from the cremation grounds and used due to having life-force which they believe can be harnessed for ritual purposes. They are also alleged to pull bodies from the river Ganges, which are then eaten. They do things which a common man finds to be terrifying, so they overcome fears by facing them and acting out horrors, since they do it regularly it is a common thing for them. The Aghori mainly worship lord Shiva, according to the sect every human is a ‘shava’(dead body) with emotions and they should try to become ‘Shiva’ by denying the human pleasures and practicing Aghori rituals. Commonly living in charnel grounds, they smear cremation ashes on their bodies. To put this in context, it is only the untouchables or ‘Dalits’ caste that work on the cremation grounds, burning the bodies of the dead and raking the ashes into the Ganges. The remains are seen as abhorrent yet the Aghori wear this ash and bless people by smearing it on their foreheads as I was on numerous occasions. Sri Baba Nagnath Yogeshwar is the leading Aghori Sadu ascetic in Varanasi, the Aghori sect being synonymous with the remains of the dead. Suitably his temple or Ashram was located at one of the most famous site associated with death in India, the Burning Ghat (Dashashwamedh Ghat). The ghat itself is in constant motion, at any given time there are at least six cremations in progress. Wood pyres were piled high and only the appearance of human feet or an arm that had escaped its shrouding gave away what was really happening. He had not bent his arms in 17 years and he is alleged not to have eaten any food in the last 7 years, existing solely on water. This ascetic devotion has deformed his body with his shoulders and elbows being locked in place and holding his arms at 45 degree angles from his body. Kinaram ashram in Varanasi is the main location of worship for the Aghori as it is the location of the tomb of Baba Kinaram their patron saint. The entrance to the Ashram is flanked by two columns of concrete skulls stacked on top of each other. Inside there are murals outlining the life of Kinaram and a large pool which is said to have properties that can cure infertility. Apart from this, any cremation ground is a sacred location for the Aghori ascetic. The use of a corpse or body parts (most significantly the human skull as a bowl or drinking vessel) as part of ritual worship and the cannibalistic rituals are a symbol of the transcendence of the Aghori’s lower self and awareness of the higher Self that is oneness or universal consciousness. The holy men hope through their worship and practices (Sādhanā) they will attain Moksah or release from the cycle of reincarnation. Another symbol of the Aghori, which he has in common with other Hindu sects, is Shiva’s trident. The staff part of a trident in Hinduism represents the human spinal cord which is the path that the kundalini energy rises up, bringing the Aghori or yogi, or meditation practitioner into full spiritual enlightenment. Essentially it has the same meaning as the Caduceus or staff of Hermes as it was known to the Greeks. A symbol that has become synonymous with medical practice and can be seen in hospitals and pharmacies all over the world. My search took me to the other main Aghori Ashram in Varanasi. Avadhoot Bhagwan Ram Kustha Sewa Ashram is located on the other bank of the Ganges. There it was explained to me that the temple was founded in 1961 and while its roots where in Aghori they had moved on as they said ‘into the modern world’. They told me about skull use and how they no longer practiced it, they explained that the skull had power or Prana which the Aghori would harness but also as the early Aghori would practice hermiticism it served the practical purpose in scaring off people. However it was symbolic of the ultimate reality a concept called ‘Atman’ or the individual soul or essence. Part of their development was moving from practices that were seen as abhorrent to working with the lowest of society, the lepers. With this view, Parampujya Aghoreshwar started a service centre at Parao, Varanasi for the lepers in January 1962. This centre adopts the Ayurvedic and Fakiri system of treatment and prepares most of the medicines and received acknowledgement from the Guinness book of records for treating more leprosy patients in the world with 99,045 patients registered with ‘full’ leprosy and 147,503 with ‘partial’ leprosy all of which have been cured. The final part of this essay took place down the winding maze of Varanasi lanes to the tiny temple of Shri Baba Chamunda Ram, an Aghori, Tantra and Yantra yogi whom I witnessed carry out a ritual involving the skulls he possessed. He filled both a skull and skull cap with whisky and other liquids and went through the ritual of blessing the liquid, chanting mantra and then drinking deeply from the skull. I didn’t know what to make of it, it felt like a bit of a show, it reminded me of the Catholic rituals I grew up with where bread and wine were believed to literally transform into the flesh and blood of Christ. To believers it had relevance and power but to those outside of religion it was a relic of time past.

Varanasi: A City of Death

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Created by U.S. Editor

29 May 2013

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