Religious studies scholar Reza Aslan’s recent documentary on the Aghoris for a series on extreme religious practices drew flak from several quarters for being sensationalist and orientalist. Hindu groups in the West condemned it for furthering Hindu stereotypes in an already charged anti-immigrant atmosphere. So, who are the Aghoris? What is the origin of their morbid rituals? What do these mean? James Mallinson, senior lecturer in Sanskrit and classical Indian studies at SOAS, a yoga scholar and himself an ordained mahant with an ascetic cult, offers some insights into the esoteric tradition that is suddenly in the news.
Aghoris are often described as “fringe”. Could you go back in time to explain their role in Hindu society?
The Aghoris are certainly fringe, indeed being fringe is key to their identity: they live on the margins of society and undertake practices beyond the pale of ordinary people. I don’t think there are mentions of “Aghoris” as such prior to the 18th century, but there are clear predecessors, in particular the Kapalika (literally ‘skull-bearer’) tantric ascetics. They engaged in many of the practices now attributed to Aghoris, which were current and are attested to in inscriptions from the 7th century. They are ascetics who dwell in cremation grounds and practise rituals involving sexual rites and the consumption of impure substances. Descriptions of Kapalikas are always from outsiders, however, and, like those of Aghoris, are often full of fantasy and exaggeration. But an underlying principle of their practice is transcending purity laws in order to realise ultimate non-duality. And, like Aghoris, it seems that the Kapalikas were not really a specific lineage; the word is more of an external descriptor for a member of a tantric religious order who decides to undertake these cremation-ground practices
What is the genesis of these cremation ground rituals?
These rituals arose in tantric systems, which can be traced back to the Pashupata tradition of Shiva worship whose earliest text dates to about the 2nd century CE. Among the practices of Pashupata ascetics was the transgressing of normal social behaviour and behaving like a madman. Kapalika practice developed out of this tradition. The shock of experiencing such a transgression will force one to understand that ultimate reality is free from such distinctions as pure and impure. Aslan’s contention in the film that the Aghoris are against caste and notions of ritual purity is a distortion of the truth, though. The Kina Ram Aghori lineage that he shows approvingly in the last part of the show is anomalous and I think it is disingenuous to suggest that their position on caste derives from Aghori philosophy. The spiritual practices of Aghoris, in fact, require the existence of caste and related purity laws in order to be effective: if not how would you experience the liberating shock of breaking them?
What is your response to Azlan’s film?
This spurious linking of Aghori philosophy and anti-caste Hindu reformism is, for me, the weakest part of the film. There are many much more coherent and explicit anti-caste religious movements such as the Kabir panth. Otherwise I don’t think the film is too bad and I can only understand the outrage about it expressed by Hindu groups as the result of its condemnation of caste, which Hindu groups, particularly diasporic ones, are often touchy about. On more than one occasion Aslan expresses his love and admiration for Hinduism. If I understand it correctly, the purpose of the film series is to explore extreme religious beliefs. If I were asked about extreme Indian religious beliefs, those of the Aghoris would probably be the first I would mention. OK, so it’s sensationalist TV, but that’s TV for you and I don’t think Aslan is misrepresenting the Aghoris; indeed, by showing the reformist Kina Ram Aghori tradition, which is against caste distinction and performs many inspiring charitable works, he provides a nice balance to the outrageous behaviour of the Aghori sadhus on the far bank of the Ganga, which he did not have to do.
On email newsgroups, my US-based academic colleagues have expressed outrage at the show, describing it as orientalist for its focus on the esoteric Aghoris, but, as I have said, focusing on extreme religious beliefs is the point of the show, and the Aghoris are as much an object of fascination for Indians as they are for non-Indian “orientalists”. Others have upbraided Aslan for seeing caste as a purely religious phenomenon when it needs to be understood more in terms of worldly power relations, but this is a programme on religion, and caste is still closely linked to religion and karma in the minds of Hindus.
How are Aghoris viewed by other ascetic traditions in India?
Among ascetics of established lineages, Aghoris, at least the ones that one gets to meet, are generally viewed with disdain, even though it is generally admitted that their practices can be very effective and that there are some great adepts among them. Ascetics of pukka sampradayas are disdainful because there are no well-established Aghori lineages (apart from the sanitised one of Kina Ram) and often the Aghoris that one gets to meet seem little more than opportusnist show-offs. Indeed it seems to me that those who call themselves Aghori often award the title to themselves and are not part of a parampara (I would guess that this is the case with most of the Aghoris in Aslan’s documentary). True ascetics practising these paths will not reveal their practices or draw attention to themselves.
There have been some revered and pukka Aghoris, like Lalli Baba, who is interviewed in the film. Perhaps the most famous of all was Dr Ram Nath Aghori, who was guru to the king of Nepal. What were your interactions with Aghoris like?
I’ve had very few—they aren’t really my cup of chai. I’m initiated into the Ramanandi sampradaya, a Vaishnava order for whom purity laws are important and Aghori-type practices are forbidden. I did spend some time with a Ram Nath Aghori up in Uttarakhand several years ago. The Bedi brothers made a good documentary on him in the early 90s. Last month I was at a yogi monastery in Kutch whose impressive young mahant told me that he practised Bhairava sadhana. All he would tell me about this was that every day he smeared his body with ashes from a cremation ground.
Do you have any insights into who joins the sect?
In its more pukka forms, it is associated with the Nath yogi sampradaya. Not every Nath is an Aghori: adopting Aghori practices involves a secondary initiation. Then, as I suggest above, there are many Aghoris who simply give themselves the title. This would include most, if not all, of those who would be easy to find in Varanasi if you were wandering about with a film crew: “tourist Aghoris”. Having said that, the Aghori with whom Aslan interacts on the other bank of the Ganga does embody many of the characteristics that I would like to see in an Aghori—he’s a little crazy and unpredictable, seems unfazed by various revolting transgressive practices and, as a result, spending time with him is unsettling. To what extent he is putting it on for the cameras is unclear, but it’s clearly not all put on: I don’t think he’s eating human flesh and his own shit simply because CNN has offered him some money and stuck a camera in his face.
Malini Nair writes on, and lives for music, dance, theatre, and literature.