In India, there is a religious sect based in Hinduism, but very different from that of the mainstream. Called the Aghori, the sect challenges traditional religious beliefs and seeks enlightenment through seemingly radical and unconventional means. They believe that seeing purity in everything, including things normally considered dirty and grotesque, brings one closer to god and to enlightenment. They renounce earthly possessions and materialistic pursuits, often owning few to no personal possessions and wearing saffron-colored clothing. Some of their beliefs and rituals have caused them to be nearly universally denounced by mainstream Hindus. One such ritual is cannibalism. But, boiling the Aghori and their practices down to just one sensationalistic word does a disservice to the strength of their beliefs.
There have been countless depictions of cannibals in pop culture. Hannibal Lecter, of Thomas Harris's classic thriller, The Silence of the Lambs, is a notable practitioner, and throughout Greek mythology, there were dozens of people - sometimes close family members - devoured piece by piece.
Because of these negative connotations, it may be hard to believe that cannibalism is still practiced in certain parts of the world. The Aghori partake in cannibalism, but their reasoning becomes clear once their beliefs and intentions are understood. From their belief in mysticism to their post-mortem practices, the Aghori people have carved out a unique place as one of the most fascinating groups in the world.
The Aghori are probably best known for their ritual of consuming human corpses, otherwise referred to as ritual cannibalism. Their belief system is unique and must be considered in order to understand their ways. The Aghori practice Shavism, a religious tradition in which practitioners devote themselves to the Hindu god Shiva. Their ultimate goal is to break the cycle of reincarnation and achieve transcendence. The Aghori use cannibalism as a way to embrace death and reject Earthly attitudes and customs, which they believe will help them become an incarnation of Shiva.
The Aghori consume the recently deceased, but have also been known to retrieve corpses from the severely polluted Ganges River. People who live along the river often throw bodies into the Ganges for a variety of reasons, but efforts are made to weigh down the corpses to keep them submerged. Inevitably, some of the bodies surface and the Aghori pull them from the river.
Aghori tribe members practice cannibalism, but they also utilize most parts of the body, transforming human skulls into bowls, and carving various pieces of bone into jewelry. Each Aghori owns a human skull to be used as a bowl. It's believed that after death, the human life force (or prana) of the deaceased clings to the top of the skull.
In order to transcend their Earthly bodies, the Aghori believe they must face death and decay directly. Because of this, they have been known to gather human ashes from cremation grounds and smear them on their bodies from head to toe.
It is believed that, in addition to bringing them closer to Shiva, this act will also protect them from any future disease. Afterwards, the Aghori meditate and pray.
The Aghori live in or near the city of Varanasi, located in northern India along the banks of the Ganges River. Hindus believe that Varanasi is the favorite city of Lord Shiva and that death and cremation in this city bring salvation in the afterlife. As a result, thousands of people, many of them terminally ill, travel to the city each year to die and be cremated. The Aghori typically reside in old cemeteries, near crematoriums, and within walking distance to many ghats (stone steps where bodies are cremated and/or dumped into the Ganges). Because they use bodies and human remains in their rituals, it makes sense that they live near places which provide this resource.
Another Hindu taboo transgressed by the Aghori is swearing in everyday language. They believe that there should be no taboos in life and that swearig helps to bring them closer to spiritual enlightenment.