The Aghori (in Sanskrit, aghora) are ascetic Shaiva sadhus (holy men). The Aghori are known to engage in post-mortem rituals. They often dwell in charnel grounds, have been witnessed smearing cremation ashes on their bodies, and have been known to use bones from human corpses for crafting kapalas (skull cup)which Lord Shiva and other Hindu deities are often depicted holding or using it and jewelry. Due to their practices that are contradictory to orthodox Hinduism, they are generally opposed by other Hindus.
Many Aghori gurus (teachers) command great reverence from rural populations as they are supposed to possess healing powers gained through their intensely hermit rites and practices of renunciation and Tapasya (meditation). They are also known to meditate and perform worship in haunted houses.
The Aghoris are devotees of Lord Shiva manifested as Lord Bhairava. The Aghoris are monists (concept of singleness) who seek moksha (liberation) from the cycle of samsara (reincarnation). This freedom is a realization of the self’s identity with the absolute. Because of this monistic doctrine, the Aghoris maintain that all opposites are ultimately illusory. The purpose of embracing pollution and degradation through various customs is the realization of non-duality through transcending social taboos, attaining what is essentially an altered state of consciousness and perceiving the illusory nature of all conventional categories.
Aghoris are not to be confused with Shivnetras, another community who are also ardent devotees of Lord Shiva but do not indulge in extreme ritual practices. Although the Aghoris enjoy close ties with the Shivnetras, the two groups are quite distinct.
Aghoris base their beliefs on two principles common to broader Shaiva beliefs, that Lord Shiva is perfect (having omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence) and that Lord Shiva is responsible for everything that occurs – all conditions, causes and effects. Consequently, everything that exists must be perfect and to deny the perfection of anything would be to deny the sacredness of all life in its full manifestation, as well as to deny the Supreme Being.
Aghoris believe that every person’s soul is Lord Shiva but is covered by Astamahapasa (eight great bonds) which is sensual pleasure, anger, greed, obsession, fear, ignorance, discrimination and hatred. The practices of the Aghoris are centered on the removal of these bonds. On release from all the eight bonds the soul will obtain moksha (liberation).
Aghori practices healing skills through purification as a pillar of their ritual. Their patients believe the Aghori are able to transfer pollution and health to and from patients as a form of “transformation healing”, due to the superior state of body and mind of the Aghori.
Though Aghoris are prevalent in cremation grounds across India, Nepal, and even sparsely across cremation grounds in South East Asia, the secrecy of this religious sect leaves no desire for practitioners to aspire for social recognition and notoriety.
The Aghoris trace their origins to Kina Ram, an ascetic who is said to have lived 150 years, dying during the second half of the 18th century. An Aghori believes in getting into total darkness by all means, and then getting into light or self realizing. Though this is a different approach from other Hindu sects, they believe it to be effective. They are infamously known for their rituals that include such as Shava Samskara, ritual worship incorporating the use of a corpse as the altar to invoke the mother goddess, Goddess Tara.
In Hindu iconography, Goddess Tara, like Goddess Kali, is one of the ten Mahavidyas (wisdom goddesses) and once invoked, can bless the Aghori with supernatural powers. The most popular of the ten Mahavidyas who are worshiped by Aghoris are Goddess Dhumavati, Goddess Bagalamukhi, and Goddess Bhairavi. The male Hindu deities primarily worshiped by Aghoris for supernatural powers are manifestations of Lord Shiva, including Lord Bhairava, Lord Virabhadra, Lord Avadhuti, and others.
The gurus and disciples of Aghora believe their state to be primordial and universal. They believe that all human beings are natural-born Aghori. They believe that human babies of all societies are without discrimination, that they will play as much in their own filth as with the toys around them. Children become progressively discriminating as they grow older and learn the culturally specific attachments and aversions of their parents. Children become increasingly aware of their mortality as they bump their heads and fall to the ground. They come to fear their mortality and then palliate this fear by finding ways to deny it altogether.