One of the highlights of my recent trip to Inda was a boat ride along the Ganges river with a magnificent views of the ghats of Varanasi. Long considered one of the holiest sites of Hinduism (as well as Buddhism and Jainism), the city of of two million is a strange mixture of modern industry and traditional religious practices. That early morning ride was marked by views of the shamshan ghats (cremation grounds) and the immolation of corpses so that their ashes could be scattered in the river. Although several electric crematoriums exist in the city, traditionalists insist on bodies being burned in large pyres along the river's bank and the smoke of the fires blends with the normal industrial pollution in a strange mixture. Along with the cremations, there were also the ritual bathers and ascetics praying along the riverbank to provide non-Hindus with an intriguing glimpse of how Hinduism is practised in India. Not all of the exotic religious traditions of Varanasi are available for casual view, however. While sadhus (ascetics following various Hindu schools involving meditation and contemplation of the Divine) are common enough with their ochre-coloured robes, begging bowls, and austere lifetyles, there is one sect that is very different: the Aghori.
Given their habitual avoiding of publicity, what little is known about the Aghori is shrouded in legend and rumour. Believed to date back to the 14th century, having split off from the less well-known Kapalika sect, Aghori ascetics are usually spotted in or near cremation grounds with matted hair and little or no clothing (they may wear nothing but funeral shrouds or cremation ashes smeared on their naked bodies). They also carry a traditional human skull for use as an eating or drinking bowl and often make circuits around cremation grounds where they may meditate on top of corpses after smearing themselves with cremation ashes. Worshippers of Shiva (the Destroyer), Aghori believe that close contact with the dead allows them to focus on the true nature of reality and their religious practices focus on detachment from the living world and seeking enlightment through meditation and self-denial. While corpses are typically viewed as impure by Hindus (only members of the untouchable Dalit caste are permitted to touch them), Aghori sadhus view funeral pyres as a reminder of human mortality and view their communing with the dead as a way of achieving moksha (liberation from the cycle of reincarnation). Their rituals also call for many practices shunned by mainstream Hindus such as eating meat, drinking alcohol, and smoking cannabis or tobacco. Wearing material torn from a shroud is meant to symbolize that the Aghori is "dead to the world" and free from all human concerns.
The most controversial practice of Aghori sadhus involves the ceremonial eating of flesh taken from human corpses. Since the Aghori view human corpses as natural matter with no trace of the human life that had once occupied it, taboos against cannibalism are not considered to apply and the human flesh can be eaten in the same way that flesh from animals can. Aghoris justify this practice as a way of converting one form of matter into other forms. There is a supernatural element in this belief in that consuming human flesh allows it to be "purified" and changed into a more benign state. This is considered especially important for the bodies of those who died violent or "unnatural" deaths (i.e., sucide) with the Aghori consuming parts of the corpse to prevent the dead person from becoming a homeless ghost. Many of the corpses eaten by the Aghori are taken directly from the Ganges (often found floating in advanced states of decay). Even among Aghori, the consumption of human flesh is typically only done once in a lifetime as a test of faith.
The actual number of Aghori ascetics at any given time remains unclear although some sources suggest there are as few as seventy at any given time (a definite minority considering that one recent study of Varanasi's ascetics found as many as 1300 practitioners of Hinduism's various sects). An 1893 census study of Aghori mystics reported 316 Aghori ascetics, all male, although the number has definitely declined since then. Though largely decentralized with no real hierarchy or organization, the primary ashram (hermitage) for Aghoris is located at the Baba Kinaram centre in Varanasi (Baba Kinaram Jee was the ascetic who founded the Aghori school and his tomb remains a prime pilgrimage site for his followers). The current abbot of the ashram, Baba Siddharth Gautam Ram, is considered to be a reincarnation of Baba Kinaram himself and the titular head of the Aghori sadhus across India.
The role that Aghoris play in Indian society is hard to understand by non-Hindus (and they tend to be controversial even among Hindus for that matter). Their association with human bodies places them outside the traditional caste system and they seem to embrace their outcaste status. Legends surrounding the most famous Aghori mystics attribute them with the power to transform any poisonous or polluted substances they consume (including human flesh). They are also said to be able to communicate with spirits and use their abilities to learn about the invisible world.Stories about famous Aghori mystics and their power over nature help reinforce the perception of Aghori sadus as being miracle workers and traditional Hindus often seek them out to receive their blessing. On the other hand, many Hindus are known to consider Aghori sadus with revulsion given their religious practices and their often-sinister reputation. It probably doesn't help that non-Indian news stories about the Aghori and their role in Indian society almost invariably focus on their cannibalism rituals with little real attempt at balance.
Despite the popular support that Aghori sadhus enjoy, evidence suggests that the actual number of ascetics have been declining in recent decades. Some source suggest that the gruelling lifestyle and religous hardships cause many Aghoris to return to their families within a few years. Whether the Aghori sect becomes another casuality of India's push for modernization remains to be seen.