By on June 1, 2011 in Culture, World Religions

Totally Taboo

Some social taboos are unique to a culture, such as the forbidden consumption of beef in the Hindu faith. However there are other taboos that are universal. Cannibalism, homicide and incest, for a very good example, are taboos that have existed in nearly every human society since the beginning of time. Most everyone agrees that human societies across the millennia established these taboos for a very good reason: to protect the sanctity of human life. But the Aghori tribe in Northern India has been known to break every taboo in the book.

The Aghori are self-proclaimed holy men – holy men who embrace some decidedly unholy things. To begin with, the Aghori smoke copious amounts of ganja, sometimes laced with the ashes of human remains. They also drink alcohol, along with their own urine, and occasionally dine on animal feces. They sip out of severed human skulls and are rumored to practice cannibalism.

Aghori, which means “non-terrifying” in Sanskrit, is most likely one of the most extreme cults in the world, and yet the core belief system of the Aghori is amazingly simple.

Overcoming Repugnance

For the Aghori, the gods are the creators of everything – every birth, death, action, word, and deed. The gods are perfect, infallible in their wisdom and strength. Because they are the creators of everything, everything on earth is perfect. And by proxy, everything humans do is also perfect. In fact, for the Aghori anything humans can even imagine doing, is perfect. Absolutely anything.

The Aghori apply this same theory to our natural carnal desires. According to their philosophy, forbidding any sort of behavior is equivalent to snubbing the perfection of the gods. They consider it their duty to embrace all things labeled “impure” by society, and their quest to overcome judgment and repugnance is a major component of the Aghori faith.

A Gruesome Group
In their quest to “overcome repugnance” some Aghori work with social outcasts such as lepers and other untouchables. However many Aghori set out to overcome repugnance by indulging in activities so gruesome they are hard to imagine. Travelers who have encountered the Aghori have returned home with captivating, but horrifying accounts; Aghori who eat human eyeballs, carry around rotting animal corpses, troll the Ganges River for edible human remains, and even practice necrophilia. They are a mysterious and enigmatic community, and because of social mistrust, many Aghori reside in graveyards, where they can use the dead for their rituals.

American Aghori

Believe it or not, the most notorious Aghori is actually a Texas-born American, Gary Stevenson. Stevenson was a typical American kid from a middle-class family when he was crippled by polio as a child. A tormented youth, Stevenson eventually cut ties with his family and set off for India and Nepal where he began to seek a path of spiritual enlightenment. From there, Stevenson’s behavior took a plunge towards the extreme. He was at one point locked up in a guarded psychiatric unit, and is currently wanted by the FBI for questioning in connection with several missing backpackers. One traveler who shared a rickshaw with Stevenson in India reported that he declared human flesh to “smell like rawhide and taste like pork”. The traveler also reported that Stevenson was carrying around the skull of a young girl that he had pulled out of the Ganges, methodically stroking the refined bone.

Feeding the Dead

Getting video footage of the Aghori has proved nearly impossible in the past – the group is notoriously cagey and secretive when it comes to outsiders. It can take months to gain the trust of an Aghori and no one has ever been allowed to film a cannibalistic ritual. Recently however, a ten-minute documentary was completed about the Aghori called “Feeding on the Dead”. Director Sandeep Singh followed an Aghori Sadhu for 10-days, until the Aghori fished a rotting corpse out of the Ganges and allowed Singh to film the ensuing cannibalistic ritual. Singh later told the Associated Press in an interview about the experience: “The body was decomposed and bluish in color, but the sadhu was not afraid about falling sick. He sat on the corpse, prayed to the goddess of crematoriums and offered some flesh to the goddess before eating it.”

Sensationalized Sadhus

Some people see the Aghori as a sensationalized urban myth, and make comedy out of cannibalism, joking about what it would be like to eat friends. However despite some people’s light treatment of the topic, discussing the Aghori is a very touchy subject. Several years ago, the Tampa Tribune ran an article about the Aghori, focusing on the American Aghori, Gary Stevenson. Even though the Aghori are shunned in India, the Hindu community in Tampa took issue with the Tribune article because they felt it sensationalized their country and religion.
The Aghori are shunned by every society in which they dwell because they refuse to respect universal taboos such as cannibalism. But why do we find their behavior so repulsive? One answer is that taboos protect the fabric of human society. Society exists to maintain order and, simply put, taboos threaten that order. Cannibalism has, for the most part, been condemned throughout human history because the practice of snacking on your own species threatens social order in the most fundamental way. If you fear your neighbor is going to eat you, you may never leave your home, or preemptively, just kill him. Without the cannibalism taboo, it’s easy to see how the social fabric would quickly fray. Besides, when we hunt game together we form social and kinship bonds that probably wouldn’t last very long if we started to heat up the cooking pot to eat each other.

Those Aghori who indulge in cannibalism, (not to mention consumption of feces, and other “extreme” rituals with the dead), push up against the societal constructs that, simply put, keep our world in order. And as long as they choose to live that way, they are doomed to remain vilified outcasts, and in this country at least, criminals.


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