Outsiders may view them with the same horror as a vegetarian reacting to the terrified shriek of an animal being slaughtered for meat or a ritual sacrifice. Or a suckling pig roasted whole and served with an apple stuck in its rictus. Or meat shops festooned with skinned carcasses. Different things disgust or horrify different people.
But the aghoris in India freely follow the strange customs of their tribe that most people might find revolting. And people who live around the areas they inhabit – Indians who don’t share these customs – apparently let them be. They believe the aghoris are merely following their karmic paths.
Is this indifference? It could be, but it probably isn’t. It’s more likely acceptance. Or deep-rooted fatalism. It is the belief that aghoris are born into or adopt this life for a purpose that can’t be rationally explained, but can be spiritually understood in terms of karma and rebirth.
The aghoris haven’t been corralled with the goal of integrating them into the dominant culture, if there is one. They retain their identity. Joining the mainstream is an individual choice and happens organically. Maybe this is true freedom?
So far, the government hasn’t tried to homogenise India and has largely stuck with ‘unity in diversity,’ the phrase used by Jawaharlal Nehru to describe us. Social engineering may only deracinate them, so they are left worse off, unless specific measures to rehabilitate them are put in place beforehand. This is difficult because there are too many groups clamouring for government support. Unfortunately this gives opportunists room to prey on their ignorance and defencelessness.
I heard about the documentary on the aghoris on CNN from someone living in the US. A man of Indian origin working in the US, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, had been fatally shot in Kansas just a few days before the program was aired. The Hindu community in the US was afraid that all Hindus would be seen through the lens of this documentary and violence against them would increase. At the time I shared their fears. It occurred to me a little later that they were only concerned about how it made them look, about how this perception could endanger their lives. To be fair, I would’ve had the same concerns if I lived there.
Even so, I wish someone had spoken up for the aghoris: “Let them be. Why ridicule them? They have not harmed anyone. They have never forced their beliefs on anyone. They haven’t threatened anyone who has criticised or mocked their religion. Targeting people who won’t pick up arms and retaliate – what a cowardly thing to do.”
Isabel, a girl born and raised here in Bangalore, spent a few hours with aghoris while travelling in Varanasi with friends. She refers to them respectfully as aghori babas.
She and her friends sat with them peacefully smoking chillum. They talked about Life. One baba said, “What do you take from this life? Nothing. We learn to live with nothing.”
This is Isabel’s take on aghori babas:
They leave everything and go through life not wanting anything. They connect with God this way. I feel they do a job like what undertakers and gravediggers do for society. They respect the dead and don’t recoil from them.
It’s a myth that they all eat human flesh. Very, very few of them do. They just apply the ash from burnt bodies on themselves like how tribes put on war paint.
Many of them are there by choice, they come leaving families behind to live this way. All are not born there. I met people who talked about homes and families elsewhere … I don’t remember seeing women …
They are nomadic. They move around quite a lot. I met them in Manali and in Calcutta too. They are a community. The younger people are expected to take care of the old.
Every spring many of them go to Kailash on a pilgrimage for Shiva’s blessings.
To my questions she replied:
Local people give them their space, they don’t interfere.
They’re confident – other people’s opinions of their religion don’t make them insecure.
Her acceptance, her lack of censure of any sort, moved me. She saw right through to their core. She shrugged it off as just being Indian. Her Christian values of compassion and love had blended with values she had imbibed from other religions. From Hindus, acceptance of all life situations as arising from past karma; from Muslims, the idea of brotherhood, which she extended to encompass all human beings; from Buddhists, inner quietude and the ability to live in harmony with others.
They never asked us for money. They accepted food and provisions. They made tea and shared it with everyone.
The older ones don’t like being treated like tourist attractions. They refuse to be photographed. They say you’re capturing a part of their soul. But the younger ones don’t mind because they’re used to cell phones…
Of course, Isabel didn’t get herself photographed with the aghoris. She wouldn’t impose on them. She would consider it an affront to their dignity.
May her tribe increase.