August 4, 2008
Embracing the fear of disease
By Carol Clark
For centuries, the Aghori of India were known as wild-eyed, dreadlocked ascetics who lived naked on cremation grounds, meditated on corpses, drank intoxicants from human skulls and engaged in ritual cannibalism.
In the past few decades, however, the Aghori tradition has radically evolved, extending beyond the cremation grounds to become a mainstream movement known for social services, including healing of stigmatized diseases.
“It’s been a remarkable transformation,” says Ron Barrett ’99G–’02PhD, a medical anthropologist and assistant professor in the school of nursing, who recently published the book “Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death and Healing in Northern India,” through University of California Press.
Aghori-type movements can be traced back to at least the 11th-century AD. The extreme practices of the Aghori holy men aimed to achieve a spiritual state of non-discrimination by seeing the divine in everything — even pollution and death.
“The idea was to overcome all fears and aversions. Non-discrimination means you can have no hatred or fear of anything or anyone,” Barrett explains.
In the 1970s, a reform movement began among the Kina Ram Aghori sect. Instead of embracing untouchable practices — such as the ritual consumption of human flesh and feces — the Kina Ram Aghori began embracing untouchable people through social services.
It was these reforms that intrigued Barrett, who holds a degree in nursing, and a Ph.D. in anthropology from Emory. “India fascinates me not just because of all its medical problems, but also because of all its solutions to these problems.”
Barrett conducted two years of fieldwork in India, much of it focused on the Krim Kund clinic and ashram of the Kina Ram Aghori in the holy city of Banaras. Leprosy patients, many of them discarded by their families, come to Krim Kund to receive therapies ranging from Ayuvedic medicine and ritual bathing to Western biomedicine.
“The Aghori are working with people considered the most untouchable people in humanity, in Banaras, a place that is all about purification,” Barrett says. “In a sense, the leprosy treatment clinic has taken the place of the cremation grounds, but instead of the fear of death, the Aghori are taking on the fear of a disease.”
Death symbolism continues to pervade the Kina Ram Aghori practices, Barrett adds, describing the oversized concrete skulls that decorate the peaceful, garden setting of the ashram. A fire burns wood left over from a nearby cremation pyre and bathers use the ashes like a medicinal powder, rubbing them over their afflicted areas, in addition to receiving the services of Ayuveda physicians who volunteer at the ashram. “The medicines and blessings are mixed together,” Barrett says.
The patients ritually dump their pollution of disease at the ashram and the Aghori “digest” this pollution, converting it into further power for healing and the provision of social services.
The patients may be doing more to de-stigmatize the Aghori than the other way around, Barrett says, adding that he believes the resulting social reforms of the Kina Ram Aghori are positive indicators of collective change. Many people who come to the ashram as patients become Aghori themselves, resulting in a thousand-fold increase in membership during the past 30 years, including prominent members of society.
The Aghori tradition itself is serving as a medicine for the biosocial illness of discrimination, Barrett concludes.
“The Aghori have turned social stigmatization from a problem into a potential solution,” he says. “This isn’t just people in white coats telling other people what to do. Here, you have this intense problem and this very local and relevant solution.”