When one hears the phrase “sadhus of Varanasi,” the mind immediately conjures up an image of an emaciated, ash-smeared man with matted dreadlocks, almost naked, and constantly smoking marijuana.

To a large extent, this image has influenced the hippie culture, where people seek to live life in sync with nature and spirituality, and away from the dictates of society (which include a certain dress code, personal hygiene, and monogamy).

An Aghori sadhu wearing bone jewellery

However, apart from having become an icon of the world’s counter-culture since the 1960s, what do we really know about the sadhus of Varanasi?

Who are the Aghoris?

The Aghori ascetics belong to a sect of Shaivism (worship of Lord Shiva) that contradicts mainstream Hindu practices. They indulge in a large array of post-mortem practices, which include smearing ash from cremation grounds on their bodies, dwelling in charnel grounds, and using human bones to craft jewellery.

They are devotees of the Bhairava form of Lord Shiva, and believe that all binaries are mere illusions, which is why they seek to go against social restrictions and taboos with their practices that embrace physical degradation.

The Eight Nooses

The Aghoris believe that every soul is Shiva, but is covered by eight “nooses,” and these have to be removed in order to attain moksha or enlightenment. The nooses include sensual pleasure, anger, greed, obsession, fear, and hatred.

Naked Aghoris

Tamasic Practices to Transcend Human Failings

In order to transcend these nooses, the Aghoris indulge in a variety of tamasic practices, which include performing spiritual acts in cremation grounds, using certain controls during sexual acts, and also being naked, as they feel that nudity removes shame.

An Aghori sadhu smearing ash on himself

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Necrophilia and Cannibalism

The Aghori believe that Goddess Kali, a form of Lord Shiva’s companion, demands meat, alcohol, and sex. They believe that the capacity to be focused on God and find purity even in the dirtiest of acts is a sign of true devotion, which is why the Aghori seek to satiate the needs of Goddess Kali through cannibalism and sex with corpses.

An Aghori in a cremation ground

The Aghori also have a belief that sex in the presence of the dead can give one great supernatural powers. So, they indulge in sexual intercourse with menstruating women smeared with the ashes of the dead in a graveyard, in an attempt to take the form Shiva and Shakti, another form of his consort.

Feces as Prasad

The belief that profanity gives way to liberation is held dear by the Aghori, who curse people who ask for their blessings, and sometimes throw feces at them in the form of prasad.

An Aghori with a human skull

Despite the habit of cursing, the Aghori believe that a true devotee of Shiva must not hold hatred in his heart, and so they share all their meals with dogs and cows in graveyards, even eating from the same plate, as they believe it is wrong to consider animals to be dirty.

It is important to keep in mind that different religious sects have different ways of looking at spirituality. For the Aghori, the approach lies in seeking purity from filth.

An Aghori sadhu performing a ritual

The Aghori are a group with a great aura of mystery and danger surrounding them, but in reality, they only aim for complete acceptance of the most base aspects of the world that repulse most people in order to attain wisdom and oneness with Lord Shiva.


Image Credits: Google Images

Sources: Speaking Tree, Wikipedia, Quora


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