After attempting to present our understanding of the Aghorī paramparā in this previous article, here we would like to talk about some of the common misrepresentations of the Aghorīs as well as their actual practices and provide a safe space to learn about them.
Let us look at Reza Aslan’s CNN Documentary, which tried its level best to twist and misinterpret the Aghorī sampradāya. Blatant Hindumisia blinds journalists and researchers alike, it prevents them from being rooted in the emic approach and makes them run with wherever their agenda takes them. This documentary produced by CNN in 2017 needs to be dissected, sentence by sentence, frame by frame and a critical look at it is needed to debunk and unravel the layers of misinformation that it has generated.
At the very outset, Reza makes the comment that the Aghorī sect is “technically” 500 years old, which is absolute bunkum. In the previous article it was already mentioned that the Aghorīs trace their lineage back to Guru Jalandharanātha. That makes the tradition at the very least, even according to Indological dating methods, 1300 years old. We can arrive at this conclusion because Guru Jalandharnātha, also known as Jalandharipa, in Tibetan Buddhism, is credited with developing a treatise on a special path of tantra known as ‘Hevajra tantra’. The book is dated by Indologists to be at least 1300 years old.
In the same documentary, Aslan also adds that the Aghorī system is trying to “append the caste system embedded within Hindu spirituality.” Although the sentence itself is wrong on many levels; whether it is the understanding of the jāti, or the varṇāshrama system in Bharat or the understanding of Hinduism, its spirituality and various connections therein, here we will focus solely on the Aghorī sampradāya.
The main objective of the Aghorī sampradāya is to kill the ghora thoughts that arise within a person’s mind, to transform them, and thereby live a selfless life.
What has this got to do with appending the ‘caste system’? The objective of all ‘castes’ irrespective is also to grow as selfless contributors to society and finally to be liberated and free from this very society and the world itself via karma yoga and upāsanā. While living in this world in the here and now. Without this basic appreciation of the Hindu thought process behind an age-old functioning social structure, it is easy to get lost in the shock value of the visuals and use it merely for optics alone.
The Aghorīs prefer black to any other color as according to them, black indicates equanimity. We need to pay attention to what they are saying here – they are NOT talking about equality through uniformity, but equanimity. They call it samatulyatā, samabhāvanā, and samadṛṣṭi. They help anyone regardless of jāti, kula, varṇa, and even mata. That is how they practice this principle of equanimity. This has absolutely nothing to do with appending the caste system. The objective of all the ‘castes’ is also to help one another, irrespective of everything else. In fact the whole social structure of the jāti, and the varṇāshrama system relies on interdependency; of reaching out to one another as and when need arises, as per skill sets and value systems. A wedding for example will need the services of goldsmiths, weavers, carpenters, priests, money lenders, marriage brokers, vegetable and flower sellers and so on. No one can live in isolation and refuse to serve the other within the community, especially in rural areas. What the Aghorī does differently of course is hearing a calling beyond what the social set up demands, the Aghorī will reach out and help at all times, even when doing so is detrimental to his person. This is where s/he differs.Reza goes on to say that Aghorīs are challenging the fabric of Indian society. It could not be further from the truth.
The fabric of Indian society is woven out of the cloth of Dharma. This is what the Aghorīs too believe.
They also believe that they are here on Earth to protect Dharma. Given this, they counter anyone who challenges the fabric of Indian society, i.e., Dharma. They consider both duṣṭā śikṣaṇa – that is killing the negativity within a negative element in society and siṣṭa rakṣaṇā – protecting those who abide by Dharma, as part of their Dharma rakṣaṇā (protection) and parirakṣaṇa (to keep protecting) initiative, which is one of the core principles of the Aghora sampradāya.This has absolutely nothing to do with appending the caste system. Is this not what a kṣatriya is taught to do traditionally?
Reza then visits the Ashram of Lāli Bāba who he claims to be an Aghorī. There are some conflicting videos of this Bāba. This same person it seems also belongs to the Giri sampradāya, one of the subsects of the daśanāmī sampradāya established by Ādi Śhankarāchārya. Reza even goes on to call him the most famous Aghorī. We have yet to meet an Aghorī who is from the daśanāmī order! He then enquires of this Bāba about those who eat meat. Lāli Bābā goes on to say that someone told him that human meat when eaten right after it is burnt on the pyre is “so tasty. Oh so sweet and so tasty.” As it was previously re-iterated here: Aghorīs do not eat human meat and neither do they survive on it. This myth would have been busted by this Bāba if he knew the true depths of the Aghorī way of life and philosophy. Unfortunately, he has ended up contributing to the confusion surrounding Aghorīs, especially to a Western audience who thrive on such exotica from the East.
The most revolting scenes within this documentary are when Reza goes on to meet a few madmen, people who are probably insane and need proper psychiatric treatment, unfortunately they end up being fodder for his film. One of them has a bunch of bones of some animal strung around as a sort of disgusting garland, and is wearing that around his head. He takes something out of one of the human skulls in front of him and claims that it is brain matter.
An Aghorī would never do anything so arbitrary and careless with a skull.
When a Aghorī in fact acquires a skull, which he does so by residing at the bank of a river, day after day, deeply involved in sādhanā, performing his Agni kriyās, his daily sādhanā rituals, and his daily prayer to Mā Samshāna Tāra or Samshāna Kāli or svacchanda Bhairava, whoever his Guru has told him to pray to, and patiently waits for the result.
One of those days, he will find that either a skull has floated to him naturally, or he finds it in the sand around him. He then takes this skull, washes it with the river water, and depending on whether he wants to use it for his Dhanunjaya kriyā sādhanā using the Dhanunjaya śakti which resides within the skull or whether he wants to use it as a Mahāpātra, he further does the needful and only then starts to use it.
A human skull for an Aghorī is a very sacred object. Usually, the skulls or munḍa that are used for sādhanā are not to be touched by other people, other than the sādhaka himself and his children (his śiṣyas). The Mahāpātra is even more personal as it is carved from the whole human skull to make it into a bowl, and then a kapāla mokṣa sādhanā ritual is performed to rid it of its old form and energies and resurrect it as his personal bhikṣa pātra. Now, if for the Aghorī the munḍa or the skull is so sacred why would he desecrate it by eating the brain matter from inside of it?
Then in the next scene, things turn even more bizarre, the person who is wearing the animal bones now pees and drinks his own urine. Then he tries to throw this liquid mixture on Reza, and Reza’s translator. Not one known text, or surviving pāramparika guru allows this practice among the Aghorīs. So how is this being shown as Aghorī sampradāya? This action is the exact opposite of Aghora tattva which is crystal clear in that it revels in the Self, the Consciousness within, even while swimming through the ocean of Māyā. Such clarity in thinking would not resort to such crude actions, even for camera.
An Aghorī is a scientist and a doctor. He cures insanity and insane people through his knowledge of Āyurveda. He himself is not insane. What has been shown though in the documentary is the real insanity, parading as a deep dive into an alien heretofore inaccessible culture.
In any other country such blatantly insensitive reportage would call for outcries and lawsuits from the press and human rights organizations but given how little even Indians know of the Aghorīs or respect them, this documentary has now become the major arbiter on all things Aghorī.
If one simply searches for the term Aghorī on Youtube, one will find all sorts of crazy which includes bizarre rituals where animals are cruelly killed or someone is pulling out a rotting corpse floating on the Ganga, cutting it into pieces and eating its meat, as though having his lunch, and so on. None of these form a part of the Aghorī paramparā.
The Aghorīs have kept their sādhanā, their rituals, a secret. Only a few have been allowed to witness them in their full glory. Even those who have been allowed to witness, the Aghorīs strictly instruct the new participants to keep it all a secret. Why all this secrecy? Ill Intentioned books, interviews, and documentaries, such as the one under discussion by Reza Aslan, are the reason; all this secrecy is to prevent sensitive practices and information about the Aghorīs from falling into wrong hands, from being misunderstood, from being used for titillation, from being misused as desacralized performers to evoke shock and awe.
Just as a layperson is not privy to matters pertaining to national security of a country, and those who are in the know are asked to keep it classified, the Aghorī too consider the knowledge of their pantha to be of very powerful nature and more than deserving of protection in every which way possible. Such a potent tāntrikā system in the wrong hands could lead to multiple disasters. Hence, the Aghorī tests his children (śiṣyas) and carefully selects only a few who are taught the most secretive of rituals. Very few who they trust, some from outside their circle too, are given permission to witness these rituals, if the Aghorī deems them worthy. And even then only shares limited information.
Most of us have heard of ‘scary’ practices by the Aghorīs, but did not know who to ask for more details. So what exactly are śava sādhanā and śava bhakṣaṇa that they are bad mouthed for, and how are these rituals involving corpses practiced? The information that we share today is not whole or complete in any way, but is an attempt to give a slightly better peek into the Aghorī way of life.
First of all, śiva sādhanā, smaśāna sādhanā, and śava sādhanā are the three levels of sādhanā within the Aghora paramparā. The first two stages could be done in a different order, meaning śiva after smaśāna or smaśāna after śiva depending on which sub-sect, order, prānta one belongs to within the ocean that is called the Aghorī parampara. But regardless of the order in which the first two stages are done, śava sādhanā is always the final stage which keeps happening till the Aghorī leaves his mortal vessel of a body.
There are two methods by which śava sādhanā is done. The first one is the darśanā kriyā and the second one is the sadgati prāpti kriyā. When the first type of kriyā is to be done, a specific body arrives at the sādhanā sthalī of the Aghori, of a person that belongs to a specific age group. This kriyā is done to get the darśanā of śmaśāna Tāra, or svacchaṃda Bhairava to guide the sādhaka further in his journey. This is done at the command of the Guru after one takes sanyāsa within the Aghorī sampradāya. The second type of kriyā is performed usually when a family member requests it. Here, the Aghorī sits on the corpse, or beside it, meditates, and helps the corpse attain sadgati. Now, let us come to corpse-eating or śava bhakṣaṇa.
Do Aghorīs really eat rotting corpses? Absolutely not.
A Guru from a paramparā may instruct one of his children (śiṣyas) to take the right or left toe finger from his (the guru’s) own corpse while it is being cremated and take a bite out of it as a prasāda, as a form of śaktipāta. It is a once-in-a-lifetime event for the Aghorī and even then not every Aghorī gets a chance to partake in it. In fact, most Aghorīs never go through this kriyā.
As previously discussed in the last article, an Aghorī can live a normal life, be married, be happy with children, and still practice aghora tattva and the sādhanās therein, of course all the while staying within certain limits. He can be plain clothed, look completely normal, and still be an Aghorī. There are quite a few children who lead such a life, because their parents took the mantra ḍīkśa within the paramparā and they encourage their children to do the same, just like every other āchāra or paddhati. These people have nothing to do with the “śava” part of the Aghora sādhanā whatsoever and stay within certain limits when doing smaśāna sādhanā and are fully immersed in śiva sādhanā and devī upāsanā . They are usually given a guru mantra, śābara mantra , and some limited sādhanā tools and rituals to practice, by the pūrṇa Aghorīs.
But the pūrṇa Aghorīs themselves, although they definitely participate in śava sādhanā, they too mostly may never have a chance to acquire the śaktipāta mahāprasāda by participating in this extremely secretive or gupta ritual.
ulṭi khopḍi cchat masān,
mā bhūtni bāp se tān,
āti poti sabhī beimān,
yahī asli Aghorī ki pehcān!
These cryptic Hindi lines of poetry loosely translate to:
“The one who follows the fortnightly rules of the cremation ground, the one who keeps away spirits, diseases and even death, as his mother and father themselves are the keepers of these, the one who considers anything and everything as a part of his family, he is the one who is truly an Aghorī.”
This summarizes the paramparā in a fun little way and is not a literal word to word translation. Just like the Vijnāna Bhairava Tantram, many sūtras exist to wean out devotees who are not eligible yet, i.e., the ones who take the sūtras literally. Same method has been followed here too by confusing the practitioner with these lines!
One last thing to keep in mind is that the Aghorīs never beg. Aghorīs never ask. Aghorīs always offer. If you approach them with humility, and with an open mind, you can get whatever your heart desires from them. They never use their abilities for themselves. Always for the betterment of others, society, and the protection of Dharma.
In the next article, Shri. Prabhav Paturi will offer tips to identify and differentiate between real Aghorīs and the rest.
Prabhav himself is a practitioner, a sādhaka, within the Aghorī paraṃparā of the nātha saṃpradāyam.
He belongs to an extremely rare upa-panthā within the dakṣiṇa panthā called vyoma bindu. It is one of the last remaining śākateya upa-panthā within dakṣiṇa panthā, aghorī paraṃparā. Their kūlā is tārā kūlā and their upa-kula is cinnamastā. He is the only surviving binducāryā of vyoma bindu. As the last surviving binducāryā, he has been given the responsibility (ādeśa) of carrying forward his tradition when his guru, parama pūjya aghoreśvara śrī Vidurendranātha Sarasvatī bestowed upon him sarva mantra, sarva kriyā adhikārā of his panthā, at his binducāryā initiation ceremony. He is not a pūrṇa Aghorī yet, as he has not yet taken up sannyāsa.
Until then, Ādeś! Ādeś!!