Bṛhat

Towards Understanding the Aghorī Paramparā – Part 1
The first article in this three part series takes a comprehensive and detailed look at the Aghorī-s. The second article debunks and counters certain baised and ignorant narratives made notorious by various news, and entertainment channels/ organizations. The third article, albeit shorter, promises to be interesting as it deals with his personal experience and how he got the insider’s knowledge of this rare and much misunderstood tradition.

A sect that has borne the brunt of being caricatured ad infinitum is the Aghorī. It has been othered like no other and has spawned many a fantastical tale around its origins, practices, and membership. Making fun of its adherents for looking a certain way or creating an Indiana Jones level of misinformation around its supposed practices, is a reductionist caste, cows, curry (Rajiv Malhotra) approach towards a very revered panth. Trying to appreciate a different sect on its own merit takes patience, understanding, and empathy. It needs us to be non-judgmental and willing to open our hearts and minds.

Among the many legends that surround the Aghorī, some that stand out are that they are cannibalistic since they eat corpses, that they indulge in strange sexual mores at midnight hours, that they smoke marijuana, that they run amok naked, that they are often found frequenting cremation grounds and so on. In impressionable minds these tales conjure the macabre and end up generating fear and loathing for the Aghorī-s amongst most Indians. When we examine closely the very idea of what is macabre and what is not, what is acceptable societally and what is not, ultimately all this stems from our own colonial conditioning.

Added to this, what does not help clear misconceptions is the consistent negative press the Aghorī gets. While for most of us the window into the Aghorī world of beliefs and practices was opened by Robert E. Svoboda with his Aghora: At The Left Hand Of God (first of a three part series), for many others it was the 2017 CNN documentary by Reza Aslan that exposed them to the ‘Holy Men of the Dead’, to ‘India’s Cannibals’, to these ‘Man Eaters’, epithets hurled at a group who have no history of harming anyone wantonly. They have to also bear the brunt of the state in the form of anti-superstition laws such as those instituted by Maharashtra (2013) and Karnataka (2017) which bans many of their practices arbitrarily without consulting them. Although they indulge in extreme practices which may be unlawful, they are fully aware of kārmika consequences of their actions and participate in each ritual consciously for a higher purpose, in line with their dharma. Unlike say a promiscuous libertine, who ironically is allowed his indulgences in the name of ‘freedom of the individual.’

The Aghorī wants to examine physical death at close quarters because are we not all headed towards that same end? They take an extreme view of achieving one-ness, and make it their life’s mission to overcome fear, shame, passion, resistance, hate, disgust, and other negative traits within themselves via engaging in secret acts that offend normal sensibilities. In the process of practicing their sādhanā they end up riling the onlookers who are neither forced nor coaxed to participate or view any of these esoteric tāntric rituals. Their secretive ways have unfortunately made it even more difficult to appreciate them and take them as they are. For example many of the Aghorī-s have addressed abject poverty caused by colonialism by taking up charitable works as service to society but even this is not known amongst the public.

How then do we learn more about a group of people who are normally not so accessible even to regular Hindus?

Given his first-hand experience with the Aghorī sampradāya, Shri Prabhav Paturi would like to clarify certain misconceptions that people might have in their minds when they hear of the Aghora-s (adjective) and / or the Aghorī-s (noun).

The first article in this three part series takes a comprehensive and detailed look at the Aghorī-s. The second article debunks and counters certain baised and ignorant narratives made notorious by various news, and entertainment channels/ organizations. The third article, albeit shorter, promises to be interesting as it deals with his personal experience and how he got the insider’s knowledge of this rare and much misunderstood tradition.

Part 1- Towards Understanding The Aghorī Paramparā

Who are the Aghorī-s?

They are an independent tāntrika sect that claims its lineage from Guru Dattātreya to whom Sadāśiva revealed the knowledge of his aghora mukha or his aghora face.They are vāma panthi-s, who do not follow the vaidika strictures of society, hence causing a lot of fear and loathing amongst people, more so in non-Hindus who may not know the origins and the philosophy behind the various practices of the Aghorī-s.

Aghora is a form of Śiva, the Supreme God of Yoga, the destroyer. The Aghora form represents destruction and faces southward. God Śiva as Aghora is represented by a magnificent 6th century vigraha at the Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu. As Aghora (“To Whom Nothing Is Horrible”) he depicts the uncanny traits of his nature (evil, death, punishment) and also their opposites (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

As per ‘The Practical English Sanskrit Dictionary’ by Vaman Shivaram Apte (Pg No.34):

Aghora (अघोर).—a. Not terrific [terrifying] or fearful. -raḥ [nāsti ghoro yasmāt]
1) Name of Śiva or of one of his forms, (īśānāghoranā- mānau vāmadevastataḥ param | sadyojāta iti proktaḥ kramaśo’rcanakarmaṇi ||)
2) A worshipper of Śiva and Durgā.
-rā [aghoraḥ śivaḥ upāsyatvena asyāṃ sā, aghora-ac]

The fourteenth day of the dark half of Bhādra sacred to Śiva (bhādramāsyasite pakṣe hyaghorākhyā caturdaśī | tasyāmārādhitaḥ sthāṇurnayocchivapuraṃ dhruvam ||).

iha no likhitaṃ vyāsabhayāccānupayogataḥ /
tā eva nirmalāḥ śuddhā aghorāḥ parikīrtitāḥ // 257
ghoraghoratarāṇāṃ tu sotṛtvācca tadātmikāḥ /
sṛṣṭau sthitau ca saṃhāre tadupādhitrayātyaye // 258

Tantrāloka Chapter 3, (tṛtīyamāhnikam)

The relevant part roughly translates to: those forces that are flawless and have the quality of the aghora (fearless) delve deep into more horrifying depths of the human mind to emerge as courageous on that auspicious occasion.

Aghora – adjective; un-dreadful, fearless, without fear
Aghorī – noun; a sect of people who are un-dreadful, beyond seeming dreadfulness, beyond fear, who live without fear
Aughar – colloquial North Indian word for an Aghora

In their own words, Aghora-s (individuals) have defined the Aghorī (the sect, and a group of people i.e. Aghora-s) as people who live life in an unlimited form. They are not bound by societal rules, norms, and taboos. They are boundless. The sthiti and avasthā, or state of being, where nothing is scary, nothing is disgusting, in one word, where nothing is ghora is: a+ghora. Those who live in such a state are called the aghorī.

They live in a state of detachment and dispassion all the while completely adhering to the principle of the whole world being their family. They stand by anyone in the time of need, regardless of religion. They regard themselves as being placed on earth to solve humanity’s problems both at the macro and the micro levels. They strongly believe that they are here to protect dharma. Their ultimate aim is to emulate Śiva, who only knows how to give and not take. Their life’s purpose is to attain liberation through this method.

When we examine their name further we see that the real scary, disgusting, or ghora that exists within this world is the thought that goes “regardless of what happens to anybody else or whatever else, I will live my life, and I will be happy by taking whatever I please by hook or crook to survive.” Aghora tattva or essence of Aghora aims to counter this worldly thought and encourages a sense of complete giving and dedicating oneself to the betterment of society by upholding dharma.

Their method of realizing one’s self is via a practical nature-driven approach, since they are masters in traditional sciences such as āyurveda and yoga. Their sādhanā mārga includes mantra japa, mudra pradarśana, havana, yajña, karma, kriyā, nyāsa, rakṣā, samasya-vimukti, duṣṭa-śikṣaṇa, śiṣṭa-rakṣaṇa, and through all this dharma samrakṣaṇa.

Their sādhanā is done in three distinct phases, while the duration of each phase varies from sect to sect. The first phase of their sādhanā is called śiva-sādhanā, the second phase is smaśāna-sādhanā while the third and final phase after which one becomes a pūrṇa aghorī is the śava-sādhanā. Once they do become a pūrṇa aghorī, they dedicate themselves completely to the cause of the betterment of society.

Societal identities do not form barriers to entry on this path, however being a Guru yoga , one is initiated into the path only after the required testing process.

Guru is central to the Aghorī-s, service to one’s guru, adherence to one’s guru’s words, commitment to one’s guru, all these traits are essential markers. Worship of one’s guru is primary even before worship of the chosen deity.

The Lineage

Śiva has five faces and each has a name. Sadyojāta, Vāmadeva, Aghora, Tatpuruṣa, Īśāna. The dakśiṇa or south-ward looking face is called aghora. The essence of this knowledge was first passed down to guru Dattātreya. Dattātreya swāmi as he is popularly known divided this knowledge into two. The first is called yoga sampradāya. The second is called aghora sampradāya. Both these traditions together are called Nātha sampradāya (Shankar Maharaj ji, Sri M, Yogi Adityanath ji are few of the well known adherents of this order)

The first disciple to get initiated into the aghora sampradaya was guru Jalandhara Nāth. The person who popularized the aghora tradition is guru Khanifa Nāth. The first one to get initiated into the yoga sampradāya was guru Matsyendra Nāth. His disciple guru Gorakhnāth popularized this sampradāya. The current day Aghorī-s trace their lineage all the way back to guru Jalandhara Nāth. Many trace back their origin to the great guru Baba Kinaram too.

Kāpālika or Kālamukha

Kāpālika-s and Kālamukha-s are the two primary sects that emerged from within the Paśupatinātha sampradāya. Aghorī-s primarily belong to the kāpālika śaiva tradition, but there are a few sects that trace their lineage back to kālamukha-s as well.

Kāpālika-s primarily carry two types of skulls with them. One skull to use as part of their daily sādhanā, where the dhanañjaya śakti residing within the skull is used in certain rituals. This is called a muṇḍa. Depending on the phase that they are in, they may even do pañca muṇḍi, nava muṇḍi, ekādaśa muṇḍi, and śata muṇḍi sādhanā where they bury 5, 9, 11, or 100 skulls beneath the ground, sit on that very ground, and perform their sādhanā. They carry another skull that they call the mahāpātra. They perform kapāla mokṣa sādhanā to rid the skull of any subtle energies that might be lingering or inhabiting the skull and then use that skull to have at least one meal of their day in.

The few remaining sects that trace their lineage back to the Kālamukha-s do use skulls within their sādhanā but the pātra in which they get their bhikṣā is usually made out of a coconut shell, a dried pumpkin shell, or clay.

Sects originating from either tradition use as many as 324 different types of pātra-s made out of various different materials ranging from wood and metal, all the way to the human skull for various different rituals.

Śaiva-s or Śākteya-s?

The Aghorī-s are primarily a śaiva tradition, while some sects are śākteya in nature. The śaiva sects consider Kālabhairava to be their primary deity while the śakteya sects consider Sarveśvari to be their whole and sole. Devi-s at Kāmākhya and Hinglaj (now in Pakistan) were once the favourite śakti pīṭhā-s for aghorī-s. The śiva paramya or śakti paramya does not result in any conflict between the sects as śiva is always seen with śakti and vice versa, one is not seen without the other. The difference arises only when prakṛti is considered either as śiva or as śakti.

Within the śaiva sect, the primary three sub-sects are kinaram panthi, dakśina panthi, and vāma panthi. Each of them has their own approach to sādhanā, their specific lifestyle, and their special rituals. The common element between all three is their selfless and giving attitude towards society.

Within the śākteya sect, the primary four sub-sects are kāli kula, tārā kula, tripurā kula, and śrī kula. Each again is associated with different goddesses that originate from the Mahāvidya philosophy, of which there are primarily ten goddesses who are known as daśa Mahāvidya-s. Depending on location they are further subdivided into Kāśmīra, Gauda, Dakśiṇa, and Triliṅga sampradāya-s.

Journey

Every seeker on the Aghora path starts as a ‘paśu’, that is as an ‘animal’. At this stage, he is not yet civilized, he has not yet realized anything beyond this animal self. Then in the second stage, he becomes a vīra. Again this stage is further subdivided into suvīra, ativīra, mahāvīra, and paramavīra. These are different stages of the realization of his human self. Finally, he becomes a divya, realizing his divine self.

There are stages beyond divya for a sanyāsī where they return to their child-like innocence at the bāla stage, which is further divided into jaya bāla, ajita bāla, aparājita bāla, and paṭṭa bāla. Then he turns inward and delves deep into the darkness within, where he goes through unmatta (drunk), then piśāca (insane) stages to finally emerge as an avadhūta.

After a person reaches the avadhūta state of being, they go through various stages of being a haṃsa or a swan where according to the legend, swans of the Mānasasarovara swim in the lake but never get their wings wet, the Avadhūta too swims through the ocean of māya never getting attached to it. Here the journey is further subdivided into three stages of rājahaṃsa, brahmahaṃsa, and finally paramahaṃsa.

Once a person reaches the paramahaṃsa state of being, they are seen as jīvanamukta, sthitaprajña, and finally Īśvara itself. In the Aghora sampradāya, they are given the title of Aghoreśvara.

Svecchācāra and Pañca Makara

The sādhanā mārga of the Aghorī is known as vāmācāra. Vāma means left, and hence popularly described as the left-handed path to liberation. The best answer as to what this entails comes from the practitioners themselves, as always.

In dakśiṇācāra tradition, or the more formal vaidika tradition, there usually exists a count as to how many times one must chant a particular mantra. It is not so within the vāmācāra path. One has the sveccha or freedom to practice depending on one’s anubhava or the lived-experience that one gets from chanting one’s guru-given mantra. In the same way, in dakshinachara meat and wine are replaced with anukalpa i.e appropriate substitutes but become vehicles of sādhanā within vāmācāra.

Whether the pañca makara-s have to be taken literally or metaphorically, has been a point of debate among scholars. The practitioners themselves take it as both with the metaphorical meaning of the pañca makaras:

1: madya – alcohol
The nectar that flows, that which creates ultimate ecstasy within us, is madya.

2: māmsa – meat
Just like a being has turned into meat and has become food for another being, the Aghorī have to be selfless and serve society and if need be, be ready to even give up their lives for others.

3: maithuna – intercourse
When jīva-s get into a union with Īśvara, they are said to be in a state of maithuna, symbolizing the union of prakṛti and puruṣa. Hence the sexual act of the female principle with the male principle replicates the cosmic union.

4: matsya or mantra – special chants
Just like fish cannot stay out of water even for a few minutes so too the Aghorī must have a deep longing for a union with Īśvara (in the form of one’s paramya deity/ iṣṭa devata).

5: mudra – finger postures
Manifesting what we want from the universe by using the technology of holding certain postures with our fingers (called mudra). This symbolizes attunement to natural forces and laws.

Now, are these aspects literally in use within their sādhanā? Yes. A sādhaka who has risen from the animal state (of a paśu) and attained the state of vīra, starts realizing their true nature; whether that of Kālābhairava or Sarveśvari. Nothing is off-limits for these deities, hence nothing is off-limits for their sādhaka too, who is a vīra now.

Consumption of Human Meat

This has been the most debated topic when it comes to the aghora sampradāya. Do Aghorī-s consume human meat? The answer is yes and no.

Yes, because they do it in a very secretive ritual (that cannot be described in detail in an article such as this). The ritual itself is highly symbolic in nature, the symbolism again has many layers that needs unwrapping. At the very outset, it symbolizes the mindset of an aghorī where they showcase that they can survive by consuming a dead body if nothing else is available. At the second level it works within the framework of not considering anything scary or disgusting, not even a rotting corpse. At the final level, it symbolizes jīva consuming itself to be one with Īśvara. Since all reality is a circle, 360 and 0 are the same. So the extreme “good” and the extreme “macabre” are the same thing. Aghora-s engage in such extremes as part of the philosophy in action

No, because they are not cannibals. A rotting corpse floats to them when they need to go through this ritual. They do not go in search of it. They just wait on the bank of a river and everything falls into place!*

Nāga Sādhu vs. Aghorī

We keep hearing the phrase ‘Nāga Sādhus and Aghorī-s’ bandied about as though they belong to the one and the same tradition, which is far from the truth. Here are some of the differences between them:

Aghorī-s Nāga Sādhu-s
Lineage Starts from the guru Jalandhara Nāth Starts from Adi Śankarācārya
Tradition Primarily nātha sampradāya Daśanāmi order established by Adi Śankarācārya
Primary deities of worship Sarveśvari, Mahākāl, and Kālabhairava Sadāśiva
Application of Holy Ash They apply it all over their body only for specific rituals, else wearing it as tripuṇḍa (three horizontal lines) or ūrdhvadhara aekapaṅkita (a single horizontal line)  Apply it all over their body, all the time
Being naked Almost never naked, covering themselves at the very least with a loin cloth, and mostly remaining fully clothed. Loin cloth at the beginning of their journey and fully naked thereafter
Consumption of Marijuana Rarely ever As part of their sādhanā
Smoking and Drinking As part of their rituals and sādhanā Never
Consumption of Meat As part of their sādhanā, being mindful of causing the least amount of pain and suffering to the living being killed for meat Rarely ever. Primarily vegetarian

This article presents facts that were learned directly from the practitioners within the sampradāya. It gives an introductory but comprehensive look at the sampradāya. In the next two parts more myths will go bust, taking you deeper into the depths of this unique, fascinating, and much maligned sampradāya.

Till then, as the Aghorī-s say – Adesh! Adesh! Alakh Niranjan.

*In the second article in this series as part of countering the audio-visual material that depicts an aghorī munching away on a human and many other such perverse acts, we will get into as much detail as possible as emic researchers without revealing those parts of the ritual that have been kept secret so as to not offend the sensibilities of the aghorī-s.

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Towards Understanding the Aghorī Paramparā - Part 1