Friday, April 29, 2016

Uunusual occupations – Yogis from the Himalayas

Unusual occupations – Yogis and Sadhus from the Himalayas

Prelude - Naga Sadhus 
As prelude watch the documentary - Naked in Ashes by Paula Fouce

Among the many Yogis and renounciates who live in the Himalayan mountains, the most intriguing ones from the perspective of the so called 'civilized' world are the Aghori Sadhus.

Aghori Sadhus are monks who are worshippers of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of Destruction. They are most famously known for eating human flesh from the dead corpses, human excreta and urine.  They use a dead person’s skull as their begging bowl.  
Shiva the ascetic God of destruction does not differentiate the good, bad and the ugly. It is exactly this philosophy that his followers of the Aghori sect follow.  It is believed that all that has been created gets destroyed in the current form and reincarnates into another. In the scientific world it is known as decomposition.  It is therefore that Aghori Sadhus believe in attaining and awakened consciousness by following the most savage path to nirvana or liberation.  

The Aghori peeth / headquarters of the Aghori sect is located in Ravindrapuri in the heart of Varanasi city and is known as Baba Keenaram’s Ashram after the most influential Aghori Sadhu who lived in the 17th century.   It is a quiet monastery and an impeccably clean one with huge ancient trees dotting the campus. 

Devotees who are followers of Baba Keenaram throng the place. Photography is prohibited. There are pictures of the current head of the Aghori sect, Siddhartha Gautama, who looks very modern, unlike what one would imagine an Aghori saint to look like. 

About 200 meters towards the east of the Ashram flows the River Ganges at the Harish Chandra Ghat.  Harish Chandra ghat is one of the two Ghats where the dead are cremated in Kashi.  It is believed that the soul passes directly into eternity when the ashes are immersed into the holy Ganges.  Hundreds of corpses are cremated in these Ghats every day.

I spot an Aghori Baba near the cremation Ghat . I have identified him based on his black attire and the iron Trident that they carry with them.  He is chatting up with some locals on the stairs that lead down the river.  Not sure how to break into a conversation with him I ask one of the locals where I could find the Aghori Babas  and their Ashram. 

He points out to the Aghori Baba and says, he will sit on cremation ground after sunset and mediate. At dawn he would carry the ashes from the cremation ground for the daily worship of the deity at Baba Keenaram’s ashram.

Do they eat dead corpses in the night? I ask the local man who is walking with me to direct me to the Baba Keenaram’s  ashram for which I had asked him directions.

He laughs and says, that while they do eat human flesh, I must have been intrigued after seeing the films that have been made and put on the internet. I nod and say that is correct.
He says the one film that is doing the rounds on YouTube was taken by a desperate documentary filmmaker who wanted to show it all raw and sensationalize it for his film. 

He had an Aghori Baba get drunk and by the night, leased a boat, had him to eat the limbs of a corpse for the filming.  They do eat human flesh but just as the way they eat chicken, mutton, fish and drink liquor and smoke marijuana like anyone else.  It is not all that spooky as the filmmakers project it out to be.      
I had reasons to believe the local man as the Aghori Baba that I was trailing that day was casual and striking conversation with the locals at a small tea shop like anyone else. 
Aghori Babas congregate at Baba Keenaram’s ashram at noon time and soon after dusk for their lunch and supper.  The lunch and supper is free for anyone who visits the ashram at that time. Unlike most other Hindu religious temples which follow a strict vegetarian regime for food, at Baba Keenaram’s ashram the free food offered to devotees  is fish curry and rice. The breeding of fish happens in a huge pond filled with a species of fresh water fish. Devotees either take a dip in the pond or take a handful of water and sprinkle it over themselves and take a sip as a mark of respect for the holy site of Baba Keenaram.  

The pond is clean and devotees are forbidden from offering anything to feed the fish.   
The fresh ash from the cremation ground is consecrated and offered to devotees by the priest.  The significance of the ash is that these belonged to the souls who have passed on the day before and have escaped the cycle of birth and rebirth by having been cremated by the holy river.     

I finally get to meet and talk to an Aghori Sadhu sitting by the riverside chanting his Mantras the next day.  I instantly recognize the Aghori sadhu by his skull and black robes. 
I am intrigued by the electronic watch that he is wearing in one hand which to me seems like a misfit to the image of a monk. 

Neverthless it is a picture postcard moment, however I hesitate to take a picture as many of them, I was told are known to object being photographed for the fear of being misrepresented.  
I walk up to him and place some money in his begging bowl and strike conversation with him.  I am intrigued by the skull. He says it is a real one, if that is what I want to know. It looks smaller than usual and ask him if this may have belonged to a child. Aghori Baba tells me that this must have belonged to someone young about 18 to 19 years old and may have been a woman. The skulls of little children is not very hard and sturdy and slightly smaller in size.

It is this skull that is his kamandal ( begging bowl) and he was initiated into the Aghori sect with this skull.  He shows me the skull upside down and I see that the connection with where the head could have been and the throat is a small hole for the nerves to pass through.  It is not hollow as I would have imagined a begging bowl to be. 

Aghori Baba says that the skull belonged to someone who had an untimely death. In this case the young girl took her own life. According to the Hindu belief, the souls of people who take their own lives do not pass into the next world. Their bodies are not cremated and are left to float in the river.  It is these dead bodies that the Aghori sadhus eat and then use the skull as their begging bowl.  
I ask him, how he got initiated into the sect. He says he would not lie.  It was his biological father (the Aghori sadhus do not believe in the institution of marriage) who took him along wherever he went. When he came of age, he expressed interest in being initiated into the Aghori sect.  His father asked him to think through.  The initiation into the sect involved hard core rituals that meant eating not only human flesh but also the excreta and drinking the urine.  
It meant training oneself to not feel any repulsiveness towards anything that is considered dirty or polluting. 
It meant being ordained by Lord Shiva himself to clean up the old and the decomposed to make way for the new.   

He had seen his father all along and when he knew his time had come, he had expressed his consent in being initiated into the Aghori sect. To live the life of an Aghori Sadhu does not obviously come cheap especially if you are living amidst civilization.   It is a different matter in the wild and in the mountains where animal flesh is easily available.  Aghori Sadhus are nomads and keep travelling on pilgrimages throughout the year.

Despite the hype of being the monks who practice cannibalism and known to eat human excreta and drink urine, they are highly respected and sought after for being blessed by their devotees. The devotees normally host them and feed them while they are on their way to pilgrimages.

I ask if there are any more Aghori sadhus who would be initiated in the generations to come. The Aghori baba smiles and says that there are many Aghori Sadhus who live a life of anonymity, away from mainstream civilization spread over the dense mountains in the Himalayas. 

If I were asking if educated modern people would take to being an Aghori Sadhu, I should look up the internet and would find an engineer from the south (of india) who has embraced the Aghori sect. 
Living beings are being constantly destroyed and revived. There are many awakened souls who are not necessarily known to the civilization.  The Aghori sect does not believe in making much contact with the non-believers. However those who believe in the awakened consciousness of Aghori Sadhus like Baba Keenaram  know of the infinite power and compassion that he spreads across the universe. 

Finally Aghori Baba obliges for me to take a photograph of him with his skull and the wrought Iron trident.  

He says he will be leaving in a few days for Ujjain where there is a Kumbh Mela on the banks of River Narmada which is held once every twelve years.  

Many Aghori Sadhus will also congregate over there this year and if I were to visit I would see how big and spread out the Aghori sect is.      

Here is the interesting YouTube video of the educated and once upon a time a well paid engineer who renounced the world to become an Aghori sadhu


  1. Jayanti, you will make an amazing journalist. I bow to you for research and ground work in offering such a fresh and unique perspective on Aghori Sadhus.

  2. I have to agree with Vishal. Your style, coupled with the depth of your research and detail of your presentation make a great read.

    Keith Channing A-Zing from

  3. Thank you Ketih and Vishal for your encouragement and kind words.

  4. I had no idea about the Aghori Sadhus. There is so very little that I know about India and all of the different tribes and races that make up its population. So this was indeed a fascinating read. Too bad that I have just discovered your blog, but I will be back.

    Visiting from the A to Z Blog Challenge.

    Patricia @ EverythingMustChange


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