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Aghor Medicine

Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death, and Healing in Northern India

Ron Barrett
Foreword by Jonathan P. Parry
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Aghor Medicine
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94101-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Jonathan P. Parry

    Ron Barrett’s lucidly written and totally absorbing account of Aghor medicine is a landmark addition to the already considerable anthropological and Indological literature on the sacred north Indian pilgrimage city of Banaras. But it is also a major contribution to the sociology of Indian renunciatory traditions, describing the way in which these practices qualify and relativize the values of hierarchy and their place in a pluralistic system of healing practices. Thus, this book also has real significance for the field of medical anthropology.

    Barrett’s study is based on more than two years of field research in Banaras; before this period,...

  5. Note on Transliteration, Abbreviations, and Names
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-28)

    Early one Sunday morning in Banaras, India, people gathered to wash their hopes and afflictions in Krim Kund, an algae-covered pool that the gods had sunk into the south side of the city. Six mothers came to cure their children ofsukhāndī(dehydration); their babies were like tiny wet skeletons crying and thrashing in the water. A retired jeweler with vitiligo bathed there in hopes of restoring his original skin color, along with his good standing in a divided family. A pair of brothers from one family escorted a pair of sisters from another to receive blessings for their joint...

  8. CHAPTER 1 The Cosmic Sink
    (pp. 29-56)

    The concentric mapping of microcosm to macrocosm is a dominant foundational schema in Indian religious traditions. The Rg Veda Samhitā (hereafter RV) tells how humanity and the cosmos are embodied in the anatomy of Purusha, the “Cosmic Man” (RV 10: 90). In the Caraka Samhitā (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...

  9. CHAPTER 2 Fire in the Well
    (pp. 57-83)

    Anil had filled in the white patches on his son’s arms with a ballpoint pen. Although the black ink was a noticeable contrast to his son’s “wheatish” complexion, it was not as socially discrediting as the patches beneath. Despite the fact that the condition is noncontagious and completely harmless, people commonly consider the patchy depigmentation of leukoderma (cf. vitiligo) to be a kind of leprosy, with all the accompanying social penalties: a lifetime of ostracism, job discrimination, and few if any prospects for marriage or a family of one’s own.¹ The disease was a tragic sentence for an otherwise handsome...

  10. CHAPTER 3 The Reformation
    (pp. 84-100)

    Eleven Aghori ascetics have succeeded Baba Kina Ram as the head of his lineage from 1771 to the present day (table 1). However, there is little available information about eight of them. Aghor was thought to have had a renaissance under the sixth head of the lineage, Baba Jainarayan Ram (1882–1927), who apparently reconsolidated the organization and improved upon its teachings and healing practices (Asthana 1994b). Unfortunately, a dispute after his death led Jainarayan’s natal family members to break off from the lineage, taking most of its internal documents with them. The leadership became increasingly isolated over the next...

  11. CHAPTER 4 The Wrong Side of the River
    (pp. 101-118)

    You can make an ass of yourself, quite literally, by dying on the wrong side of the Ganga. The Kashi Kanda guarantees that those who die immediately across the river from Banaras will be reborn as donkeys, just as it promises spiritual liberation for all who die within the sacred interior of the city.¹ So while pilgrims and priests scramble for a few square feet along the ghats, not a singlesadhuis willing to take up residence along the wide open spaces on the far shore of Mother Ganga. None, that is, except an Aghori.

    On the “ wrong...

  12. CHAPTER 5 Dawā and Duwā
    (pp. 119-137)

    This statement by Sangita, the chief manufacturer of herbal medications sold at the Kina Ram Ashram, echoed many others by disciples who had worked in healing occupations under the auspices of Aghor. All attributed the efficacy of their therapeutic interventions to the blessing of the guru. Similarly, many patients who sought out the Aghori for healing spoke repeatedly of thedawāandduwāof the ashram medicines, with a particular emphasis on the latter.Dawāandduwārelate the pluralism of Indian medicine to the pragmatism of Indian patients, who often stress the power of the healer over the intrinsic...

  13. CHAPTER 6 Death and Nondiscrimination
    (pp. 138-166)

    One afternoon, I was sitting with the Mishra family in theshmashānat Harischandra Ghat when the second-eldest son of the patriarch, Ramchandra, asked what I thought to be a fairly basic question:

    Ramchandra:How many people do you think there are in the world?

    Ron:Maybe six and a half billion.

    Ramchandra:No, no. More. Many more.Allthe people who have lived in the world. [pause] Think of all the people who have lived in the world. All these people, and none are the same. You and me, and even my brothers . . . there may be...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 167-186)

    This book began with the proposition that the medico-religious practices of the Kina Ram Aghori comprise a unique healing system, which I refer to as Aghor medicine. This system has two major aspects. The first aspect is the medicines of Aghor: an eclectic combination of modi-fied herbal medications, biomedicines, and ritual healing practices. Within a cultural model ofdawā aur duwā,these medicines are a medium for the transmission of healing power, Aghor shaktī, from the Aghori to the patient. This shaktī, in turn, is closely associated with human mortality. Indeed, the prototypical healing rite for all these medicines—the...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 187-194)
  16. Glossary
    (pp. 195-198)
  17. References
    (pp. 199-210)
  18. Index
    (pp. 211-216)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 217-217)