The Spiritual Cannibal
Omkareshwar, India 2009
We had just finished traveling through the Deccan Plateau in the Indian summer heat. We had taken a small boat across the Narmada River to visit the holy town of Omkareshwar, situated on a small island that has the shape of the word “Om” as it is written in Sanskrit – hence the town’s name. The town and its main temple are dedicated to Lord Shiva and are among the most sacred sites in India. It is therefore a pilgrimage area for many sadhus – the wandering holy men dressed in orange robes that have abandoned all material comforts to seek spiritual enlightenment.
Upon arrival, we walked up the ghats – the traditional staircase that emerges from the river – and through the ancient town’s narrow streets. After visiting the main temple, we decided to walk around the island because we knew that many sadhus, hermits and holy men lived there.
A few scattered simple homes were built on the arid red landscape, surrounded by dry bushes and strangely shaped leafless trees. Two little girls in tattered dresses carried large rocks over their heads while a few sadhus relaxed in front of their simple homes, some of which were like wall-less shacks. One sadhu, who spoke very good English, was sitting on a bamboo table under the shaded veranda of his home, smoking a joint the size of a Cuban cigar, and invited us to join him for tea and a short conversation. A bit further down, we met more sadhus, some of whom had small gatherings around them, mostly of local young women. Every now and then, we would see small shrines to various gods painted with bright colors, fantastical sculptures of deities, and lingams (holy phalluses – the symbol of Shiva).
After a while, we saw a very impressive Shiva shrine, and we stopped to admire it. In front of the shrine sat a woman wearing an all-black salwaar kameez – the traditional Indian outfit of a loose-fitting tunic and trousers. She was sitting in a yoga posture and meditating. When she saw us, she stood up, smiled, and beckoned us to approach her. She was a European woman in her early fifties, with dyed reddish-black hair and a weary face with old acne scars. She stared at me with her penetrating brown-green eyes, as if trying to locate the heart of my soul and connect with it. I will never forget that first glance.
“Hi, my name is Radhika. Let me show you how to prepare an offering to Shiva,” she said with what sounded like a German accent.
Radhika started to sprinkle red gulal (powder) on the wide black lingam sitting on a round base that was full of offerings to the god. She then placed a string of wildflowers around the lingam, as well as two small votive candles next to it, all the while chanting in Hindi. Jane and I were impressed with the graceful manner of her movements that had apparently been honed through years of practice. The ease of her chanting revealed a profound devotion. We had only seen Indians perform such rituals before, never non-Indians.
When she finished, Jane said, “What a beautiful offering you’ve made. Are you a practicing Hindu?”
“My dear friends,” she said with a soft smile, “I guess I have practically become an Indian. I’ve been making offerings to Lord Shiva for almost 30 years now.”
“You sound like a German,” I said.
“Yes, I am. Unfortunately, this German accent of mine will stay with me forever!” she said, and invited us to sit opposite her.
“A German praying to Lord Shiva for 30 years – you must have quite a story!” I said enthusiastically. “We are dying to hear it.”
“ ‘Dying’! Interesting that you said this. For my life’s story revolves around this word,” she remarked with a mysterious grin.
She then began to share her story: She came to India in the early 1980s as part of her spiritual quest and traveled around the country visiting most of its famous sacred sites. But just as she was about to return to Germany, she fell madly in love with Anand, an Indian man fifteen years her senior. She stayed with him and his family for a few months and then decided to marry, even though his family did not approve of it. Anand was a true soul mate, who shared Radhika’s deep curiosity for spiritual matters. They were soon exploring all aspects of Hinduism, reading books, traveling to religious sites, and meeting with various teachers from many different sects.
Jane and I listened intently. Up to this point, her story sounded like a typical love story – a European traveler falls in love with an Indian and creates a life in India. But then, Radhika’s tone changed abruptly.
“All was well, but after fourteen years of marriage, Anand unexpectedly died!” Radhika said and then paused, as if allowing dark clouds to hover above us.
“At this moment, this saddest moment of my life,” she continued, “his family threw me out of their home and banished me from the village.”
Without us interrupting her, she continued sharing her life’s story:
To cope with her husband’s devastating death, she moved to the holy city of Varanasi and started exploring the various spiritual sects there. She tried to delve deeper into the mystery of death by approaching some Aghoris – a very fringe sect that is obsessed with death, their practices dealing with all aspects of death and dying. The Aghoris are “philosophical radicals,” she explained, in that they have taken the idea that everything is an expression of the Divine to its extreme. So they practice Equality to all sensations and all experiences. For the Aghoris, there are no ugly things or reprehensible objects, no fearful situations, no disgusting acts. Everything in the universe has a unique value and a reason for being what it is. So every aspect of the creation has to be embraced. All distinctions and categorizations, mental notions of good and bad, clean and unclean, holy and unholy, are for them obstacles against spiritual advancement and union with their monistic god. Above all, Death, whom humans fear most, is not to be put aside – and never thought about or talked about – but should be faced head on, so that its supposed sting is removed forever. Therefore, the Aghoris of Varanasi live near the cremation area on the shores of the Ganges River, in order not just to be continuously “near Death” but also to use the nearby dead bodies from the funeral pyres in many of their unorthodox rituals. Radhika soon became attracted to both their philosophy and the fact that they had no inhibitions or taboos. Without overthinking it, she decided to join the Aghori sect.
Her teacher and his group adopted her as if she were their sister, taking very good care of her. She felt she had found her true family in life. With a developing mutual trust, she was then ready to plunge into the strange rituals of the sect: She would drink water and eat her food from a human skull, the “kapala.” She would take the gray ashes of the dead and cover her whole body with them; she learned to eat shit and drink urine without feeling disgusted, and much more. She meditated with the others of her group surrounded by corpses, often even sitting on a dead body. The Aghoris’ special “obsession with death,” she said, serves many functions, including the final overcoming of the fear of death. She recounted in detail her realization that there is truly no death, but only transformations, endless changes of form. “We die every day and are reborn: Are you today the same person you were at your birth? No, you are a completely different being,” she asked and replied in rhetorical manner. “Yet you think you are connected somehow to that newborn because you have created the notion of a personal history. But the truth is you constantly change – the baby dies and the boy is born, the teenager dies and the adult is born. Similarly, our apparent ‘final death’ when we leave behind our physical body, is simply one of many such transitions. But there is no death; only constant transformations of energy. And this energy that lies at the heart of our being, is immortal.”
She described how every day she practiced the Aghori versions of what in effect is Hatha and Raja yoga, with the aim of controlling some of the subtle energies of the cosmos. The Aghoris are famous, she explained, for mastering esoteric psychic powers, but these must be handled with extreme care and mindfulness. She had gained some of these powers, but she was reluctant to elaborate, save to say that she mainly uses them for her own spiritual advancement, or, whenever she can, to help others.
One of the most important milestones in her training was the first time her teacher asked her to eat human flesh – part of a dead body that was not completely incinerated during its cremation. Doing this, she emphasized, is not so much an expression of any cannibalistic cravings, as many people think, but a meditative exercise in experiencing the Equality of all objects and all sensations. Human flesh is just a piece of meat, as is pork or beef. By consuming it, the Aghoris break all bonds to the identifications, the likes and the dislikes with which we have been conditioned as we grew up. She said things were difficult in the beginning, but she had willpower and she managed it – one of few women who had completed the full initiation that lasts for more than five years. She finally connected with her innermost being that is identical in nature with the Divine, and she now knows that everything in the universe is a manifestation of the one Divine Being. All the Hindu gods, such as Shiva, next to whose shrine we were sitting, are simply different aspects, manifestations of the Divine Nature and of the Divine Forces. She also stressed that Shiva’s lingam is not sexual but symbolizes the regenerative power of the universe and is related to the round base on which it usually rests, the yoni, the lingam’s feminine counterpart that is an emblem of the goddess Shakti. The lingam and the yoni symbolize the union of the masculine and feminine principles, but also the unity of all existence.
Radhika finally addressed the fact that many people in India are fearful of the Aghoris or are disgusted by their rituals and way of life. She said that irrespective of what the majority thinks, the Aghoris are the kindest and most open-hearted of people, never harming anybody, and never creating any problems.
Listening to her fascinating story, Jane and I were mesmerized and awed. Her penetrating eyes were now truly shining, and we both felt that she was being truthful with us. She may have exaggerated some parts of her story to capture our full attention, but it was obvious to both of us that she truly had lived through the events she was describing. We stayed silent for a minute or so. Radhika was very forthcoming in her answers to all of our subsequent questions – although we didn’t have many, because she had already told us everything we would have liked to know, as if she could see into us.
The end of her story was less fascinating. In the past few years, she had moved to Omkareshwar, where she now lived alone like a hermit, enjoying her peace and quiet near nature while being in constant communion with the Divine. She was now basically a sadhu in her own right, although she was not a teacher nor had any pupils, nor traveled much anymore.
After spending over two hours with her, we thanked her for everything.
“Dear Radhika,” I said. “We need two days to truly absorb and digest everything you have told us. Know that if you are still here when we return to Omkareshwar, we may end up staying with you for a few days to delve deeper into this most fascinating world of the Aghoris.”
“You are always welcome,” she said, and then chanted something and moved her hands and body in a strange way. I guess she blessed us and transferred some of her Aghori powers to us.