Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death, and Healing in Northern India / Edition 1

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For centuries, the Aghori have been known as the most radical ascetics in
India: living naked on the cremation grounds, meditating on corpses, engaging in cannibalism and coprophagy, and consuming intoxicants out of human skulls.
In recent years, however, they have shifted their practices from the embrace of ritually polluted substances to the healing of stigmatized diseases.
In the process, they have become a large, socially mainstream, and politically powerful organization. Based on extensive fieldwork, this lucidly written book explores the dynamics of pollution, death, and healing in Aghor medicine. Ron Barrett examines a range of Aghor therapies from ritual bathing to modified Ayurveda and biomedicines and clarifies many misconceptions about this little-studied group and its highly unorthodox, powerful ideas about illness and healing.

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Editorial Reviews

Feminist Review
“Fascinating in its exploration. . . . Adeptly introduces the reader to this system of healing and would be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in multicultural medicine.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520252189
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 3/4/2008
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Ron Barrett is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropological Sciences at Stanford University.

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Read an Excerpt

Aghor Medicine Pollution, Death, and Healing in Northern India
By Ron Barrett
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2008 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-25219-6

Chapter One The Cosmic Sink

The concentric mapping of microcosm to macrocosm is a dominant foundational schema in Indian religious traditions. The R. g Veda Samhita (hereafter RV) tells how humanity and the cosmos are embodied in the anatomy of Purusha, the "Cosmic Man" (RV 10: 90). In the Caraka Samhita (hereafter CS) the principal text of Ayurvedic medicine, the human body is a homunculus embodying greater cosmological principles (CS IV: 1). Similarly, Banaras is considered to be a microcosm of the divine world. As such, the city is thought to encapsulate all other centers of Hindu religious pilgrimage (Singh 1993). This concept is central in Diana Eck's comprehensive survey of Banaras's sacred geography: "The symbol that condenses the whole into the part is common in the Hindu world. The whole of the sacred Vedas, they say, may be packed into a single powerful mantra ... or the whole of the universe may be depicted in the 'sacred circle' of a cosmic map called a mandala. [Banaras] is this kind of symbol, which condenses the whole of India into a great 'sacred circle,' a geographical mandala" (1983: 41).

Just as Banaras is a prototype for sacred India, her sacred features are prototypes for the divine roles of the city as a whole. Foremost among these features are the Ganga and the two famous cremation grounds (shmashans) along her banks. Pilgrims commonly say that Banaras is like the Mother Ganga, who accepts and purifies anyone and anything that comes to her and transforms them into herself. Indeed, more than a million pilgrims visit Banaras each year for the same reasons that they bathe in the Ganga: to purify themselves of pollution and sin in hopes of better fortune in this life or the next, or spiritual liberation (moksha) from the perpetual cycle of rebirth.

For those desiring the latter, the Kashi Kanda offers the promise of instant liberation for all who die within the sacred boundaries of the city (Skanda Purana [SP] IV.1.30). Even people who die elsewhere can obtain an auspicious sendoff at the famous shmashans at Manikarnika and Harischandra Ghats. Unlike most cremation grounds, which are typically located on the outskirts of Indian towns and cities, these shmashans are centrally located in Banaras, along the bank of the river. Indeed, the shmashan of Manikarnika lies next to the purported site of cosmogenesis, the place where Lord Vishnu carved out the world with his discus. Manikarnika is named for the earring that fell to earth when Shiva shook with ecstasy over this earthly creation. To this day, Shiva continues to dance the Nataraj among the burning pyres of Marikarnika (SP IV.1.26). Lord Shiva is the ultimate ascetic of the shmashan. Banaras is the city of Shiva. So it is said that Banaras is the mahashmashan, the Great Cremation Ground (Eck 1983).

Each of these features-the Ganga, the shmashan, and the city as a whole-functions as a kind of cosmic sink, a sacred dumping ground for humanity's physical and metaphysical refuse. Yet although people who work as sweepers and cremation attendants are socially denigrated for managing the excreta of humanity, the same stigma does not apply to these sacred geographic features. On the contrary, people believe that these places derive their divinity and ritual power from their ability to take on the pollution of any and all who come to them. Shakti takes the form of Ganga Ma. Lord Shiva takes the form of cremation ascetic. Both are as infinite as their capacity to absorb the sins of the universe.

These dynamics hold true for Aghor as well. The Kina Ram tradition asserts that Aghor is like the Ganga, accepting the purest streams from the Himalayas as well as the sewage of the cities. The Aghori consider Baba Kina Ram to be the manifestation of Lord Shiva; his dhuni, a cremation pyre; and the Kina Ram Ashram, the mahashmashan. Like the city, the ashram and its namesake play the role of cosmic sink for the removal of pollution and sin from the many pilgrims and patients they receive. Significantly, this role is informed by the same models of purification that people use when bathing in the Ganga or offering the bodies of their ancestors to the fires of final sacrifice. These models of purification are the foundation for the practice of Aghor medicine. Thus, we need to understand their relationships to the history and sacred geography of Banaras.


The Kina Ram Aghor tradition emerged as an ideology of resistance to the pervasive social inequalities and power dynamics of Banaras during the British Raj. These dynamics have persisted through independence, and they continue to shape the context in which Aghor medicine is practiced today. The hagiography of Baba Kina Ram illustrates this fact well, though it has been filtered through the lens of the postreform Aghor tradition. His story has taken shape through oral legends recounted by Aghor disciples, published in tracts written by the Aghori, and illustrated on the many signboards hanging in Aghori ashrams (Ram 1997; Asthana 1994a, 1994b).

Although the Kina Ram Aghori have left more written records than the kapalikas before them, a reliable history of the lineage before the 1950s awaits the discovery of sufficient primary source materials. Three potential sources exist for these materials, but such a historical project is beyond the scope and scale of this investigation. I therefore represent the hagiography of the Aghori in the same way that I have operationalized my definition of Aghor itself: that is, according to the stated beliefs of my informants. Although this definition is biased toward a postreform agenda, it is salient within the current Kina Ram Aghor tradition, its social and medico-religious practices, and the image the Aghori projected to the outside world. It follows the argument that one should evaluate such hagiographies more for their ideological lessons than for their historical accuracy (Lorenzen 1995).

The Kina Rami tell of the miraculous circumstances surrounding the birth and early childhood of their founder and namesake. According to them, Kina Ram's parents were a childless elderly couple who lived in a small village in the district of Chandouli near Banaras. Kina Ram was conceived shortly after Lord Shiva visited his mother in a dream. Just after his birth, the infant was visited by Lords Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva disguised as wandering sages, who whispered an initiating mantra into his ear. As a young child, Kina Ram gave inspirational teachings to his age-mates and lived a pious life. His marriage was arranged by the time he was nine, but he correctly foresaw the death of his bride-to-be on the eve of their wedding. The circumstances surrounding her death were considered ominous, and the young Kina Ram was released from the obligations of family life to become a wandering ascetic.

Such miraculous accounts of early childhood are common in Indian hagiographies, where they serve to establish the saint's supernatural power and religious vocation at an early age, but they are more common for saints of lower caste or untouchable origins for the likely reason that they serve to mitigate or deny their natal social status (Lorenzen 1995). In the case of Baba Kina Ram, however, divine conception would mitigate his upper-caste origins, supporting the argument that Aghor functions as an ideology of resistance to the entire schema of social hierarchy, not just to any caste or class within it.

As a young ascetic, Baba Kina Ram wandered India for many years before encountering Hinglaj Devi, a goddess associated with a legendary center of tantric worship in northwestern India. Hinglaj Devi directed him to go to Banaras, where she said he would find her once again, dwelling beside a sacred bathing tank that would eventually be known as Krim Kund. This message was reinforced by Lord Dattatreya, an antinomian form of Shiva closely associated with the cremation ground, who appeared to Baba Kina Ram atop Girnar Mountain in Gujarat. Considered to be the adi guru (ancient spiritual teacher) and founding deity of Aghor, Lord Dattatreya offered his own flesh to the young ascetic as prasad (a kind of blessing), conferring upon him the power of clairvoyance and establishing a guru-disciple relationship between them.

The young Kina Ram found his guru once again in Banaras. This time, Lord Dattatreya appeared in human form as Baba Kalu Ram, sitting in the shmashan at Harischandra Ghat. The guru gave three supernatural tests to his disciple. In the first, he fed grains to a group of chattering skulls. Kina Ram commanded the skulls to stop eating. Baba Kalu Ram then stated that he was hungry, so Kina Ram caused three fish to jump out of the Ganga. The disciple cooked the fish for his guru with wood left over from a cremation fire. With Kina Ram having passed these two tests, Sri Kalu Ram offered a third: he pointed to a body floating in the river. Kina Ram pulled the body ashore and brought it back to life. The revived soul was an Aghor disciple who later became known as Baba Jivayan Ram. Satisfied with the performance of his disciple, Sri Kalu Ram accompanied Baba Kina Ram to the dwelling place of Hinglaj Devi at Krim Kund.

Having reunited with the goddess, Baba Kina Ram established his dhuni (and thus, the seat of the Aghor lineage) beside Krim Kund. There, he became famous for his social activism and healing, the two dominant themes of his hagiography. The most famous story of Baba Kina Ram relates his confrontation with Chet Singh, the maharaja of Banaras. The maharaja built a grand fortress just south of the shmashan to improve his physical presence within the sacred boundaries of Kashi. In celebration of its completion, he ordered a grand yajña (Vedic fire sacrifice) in the courtyard. The sacrifice was to be a very auspicious affair. A number of reputed Brahmin priests and pandits were on hand to perform the rite, and the richest and most powerful men of Banaras were in attendance.

Baba Kina Ram was not on the guest list, but he nonetheless arrived at the ritual riding atop a donkey, an inauspicious way to show up at an orthodox ceremony. When the maharaja and his priests berated him, the Baba responded, "Do you think that knowledge of scripture gives you the authority to decide what is holy and virtuous? Such knowledge is nothing special. Look, even my donkey can chant the Vedas." The donkey proceeded to chant the Vedas to an astonished court. Baba Kina Ram then cursed the maharaja, foretelling that his new fort would be occupied only by pigeons and that his family would never give birth to sons. Shortly thereafter, the British routed Chet Singh from the fortress. It has remained unoccupied ever since. Moreover, as Baba Kina Ram predicted, Chet Singh's successors had to adopt male children to maintain the lineage until the most recent generation.

Although some scholars emphasize potential conflicts between the ritual authority of Brahmin priests and the worldly authority of their Kshatrya kings (Dumont 1966; Gupta 1995), the story of Baba Kina Ram's curse instead serves as an allegory of resistance against the collusion between these two groups. Such collusion has been a recurring theme in the history of Banaras, which has been as much a political and economic crossroads (tirtha) as a symbolic one. The city arose out of a cluster of shrines and temples at the intersection of two key northern Indian trade routes, the Ganga and the Grand Trunk Road, sometime around the ninth century B.C.E. (Eck 1983). Because of its strategic location, Banaras became a major inland commercial capital, developing as a nexus of economic activity in parallel with its development as a religious center (Freitag 1989). This codevelopment of symbolic and material prosperity was evident in the activities of the Gossains, mendicant warriors organized around local temple networks, who protected traveling merchants and pilgrims by providing armed escorts, safeguarding merchandise, and enforcing trade agreements. The Gossains operated in small decentralized, feudal houses that concentrated religious, economic, and military power into more than three hundred local neighborhoods, or muhallas, through complex networks of patron-client relationships similar to the jajmani system of rural India (Beidelman 1959).

This complex and persistent web of local power relations made Banaras easily conquerable from without but totally untamable from within. The city's strategic location, auspiciousness, and wealth of resources have made it a key asset for political rulers, beginning with its emergence as one of sixteen Janapadas ("Great Kingdoms," literally "foothold of a tribe"), from the eighth to the sixth centuries B.C.E. Banaras was the capitol of the Gahadavala kingdom in the twelfth century C.E., before submitting to a long chain of Mughal and British colonial masters. Yet none of these authorities were able to control Banaras without close collaboration with its local centers of power. Such collaboration entailed careful and often problematic exchanges of symbolic, social, and material power.

The emergence of the maharaja of Banaras during the Mughal and British periods provides key examples of these problematic exchanges. The city's status shifted radically under Mughal occupation. Its religious and cultural institutions enjoyed generous patronage under Akbar, only to see these mainstays destroyed two generations later under the intolerant rule of Aurangzeb (Freitag 1989). These structures were partially rebuilt in the declining years of the Delhi Sultanate, for which Banaras remained an important source of revenue as well as a symbolic instrument for appeasing its Hindu subjects. To achieve the requisite local support for these objectives, the nawab of Awadh appointed the head of a prominent family of Hindu Bumihar landholders to serve as tax collector instead of a Muslim zamindari, as was usually the case. Through key alliances with the Gossains and nine families of merchant bankers known as the Naupatti, members of this Bumihar family became highly successful government revenuers, indispensable to Mughal and later British rulers, who granted them the title of raja, and then maharaja, in subsequent generations (Freitag 1989).

Despite his success, the maharaja held a tenuous position in Banaras. Lacking a royal pedigree and perched between potential war with colonial authorities and a revolt by the local population, the new maharaja was badly in need of symbolic legitimacy. He therefore adopted the same strategy of "sanskritization" that many of his merchant bankers had pursued. He heavily patronized the city's temples, some with mahants of previously marginal standing. They, in turn, honored him in their words and ritual deeds. He patronized schools of traditional literature and music, which lauded him in their arts. He supported large religious festivals, such as the Ram Lila, a public enactment of the epic Ramcharitmanas (a popular form of the Ramayana), the largest of which had him appearing before thousands to exchange salutes with the gods (Lutgendorf 1989). Without the need for a costly standing army, royal patronage of the arts increased under the British, resulting in more elaborate festivals, expanded institutions of traditional learning, and a near monopoly in publishing (King 1988). Not surprisingly, the products of these local institutions later served as templates for linguistic and religious revivalism and nationalist identity in the half centuries before and after Indian independence (see Dalmia 1996).

These historical relationships illustrate the classic struggle between temporal and ritual authority that Dumont (1966) describes. Yet these struggles never yield a clear winner, and the lines of defense are often blurred. Instead, a dialectic of coercion and conflict emerges that persists specifically because it is never resolved (see Nuckolls 1996; Guha 1989). Baba Kina Ram attempted to break this dialectic by confronting the maharaja, the priests, and their mutual patronage. The Aghori were usually explicit about this confrontation when retelling the story-some would even go so far as to trace the flow of money, power, and prestige between the various interests-noting that that these overall dynamics continue into the present day. (Continues...)

Excerpted from Aghor Medicine by Ron Barrett Copyright © 2008 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Jonathan P. Parry
Note on Transliteration, Abbreviations, and Names

The Cosmic Sinks
Fire in the Well
The Reformation
The Wrong Side of the River
Dawa and Duwa
Death and Nondiscrimination



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