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Childs Nerv Syst

DOI 10.1007/s00381-013-2204-7


Use of the human calvaria and skull as alms bowls and drinking
vessels by Aghori ascetics in present-day India
Anand N. Bosmia & Christoph J. Griessenauer &
R. Shane Tubbs

# Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Abstract Monistic philosophy, social convention, and taboo

Introduction The purpose of this article is to discuss the use
of the human calvaria and skull as alms bowls and drinking Classical monism in Hindu religious thought holds that
vessels by a sect of Hindu ascetics in present-day India every soul (jiva) is identical with Brahman, the ultimate
known as the Aghoris. The authors attempt to explain the reality that is the transpersonal equivalent to the personal
rationale behind the Aghoris' use of the human calvaria and God of the Abrahamic faith traditions. This school of thought
skull in this manner. endorses pantheism, which holds that the universe and ev-
Methods A review of the literature using standard search erything included in it constitute “God.” Category distinc-
engines was conducted to obtain information about the his- tions are illusory, and the unity behind all polarities must be
tory and philosophy of the Aghori ascetics. realized through psychophysical exercise. The ultimate goal
Results Multiple academic references confirm the persis- of the ascetic is to abolish his perception of duration and
tence of the practice of using the human calvaria and skull death by abolishing his perception of duality. The members
as alms bowls and drinking vessels among Aghori ascetics in of an ascetic order known as the Aghoris demonstrate an
present-day India. This practice is inspired by the Aghoris' eccentric lifestyle as a result of their quest to attain this
monistic philosophy, a principle of which is that observance spiritual goal [6].
of social convention deters the individual soul in its journey The Aghoris belong to the Saivite tradition of Hinduism,
towards liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. which emphasizes veneration of the god Shiva. The term
Conclusion Certain anatomical features of the human body “Aghori” means “not terrible” and is an alternative name for
have had religious significance in the past. Multiple academ- Shiva [2]. However, this name for Shiva denotes a very
ic references concerning the Aghoris argue that religious frightening portrayal of Shiva, and as devotees of this form
significance continues to be ascribed to certain components of Shiva, the Aghoris disregard the social conventions and
of human anatomy. In the case of the Aghoris, these compo- traditional boundaries of South Asian Hindu society [4]. By
nents are the calvaria and skull. engaging in taboo practices, the Aghori ascetic defies social
convention, which is interpreted as a category distinction and
thus an illusion stemming from spiritual immaturity. Endors-
Keywords Calvaria . Skull . Aghori . Hinduism . India ing category distinctions is thought to deter the individual
from identifying with Brahman, and thereby prevent the
individual from attaining salvation from human suffering.
Foulston and Abbott [1] eloquently write: “The ideology of
A. N. Bosmia : R. S. Tubbs
the Aghoris completely transposes the opposites of purity
Pediatric Neurosurgery, Children’s Hospital, with pollution and morality with immorality in an effort to
Birmingham, AL, USA fully subdue the ego and to transcend even the order of
dharma (the principle of cosmic order). This form of wor-
C. J. Griessenauer (*)
ship…takes many forms ranging from the most complex
Division of Neurosurgery, Department of Surgery, University of
Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL 35294, USA purification and visualization techniques to the most extreme
e-mail: sexual and potentially polluting practices.” Included among
Childs Nerv Syst

their practices is the use of the human calvaria and skull as cattle (pashu).” These ascetics considered themselves to be
alms bowls and drinking vessels. Shiva's cattle, and believed Shiva would assist them in free-
ing themselves from the bondage of the earthly realm. The
Pashupati were also called the Lakulisha, which means
Anatomy and terminology “worshippers of the one who carries a club (lakula).” Organ
writes that one Saivite legend involves Shiva entering the
The calvaria, or skullcap, consists of a large part of the corpse of an unknown person, picking up a club, and going
frontal bone, most of the two parietal bones, and usually forth club in hand to teach the sect's doctrines. This legend
small parts of the temporal and occipital bones [8]. Various exemplifies the morbid imagery associated with Shiva. The
cultures have used the human calvaria and skull as orna- practices of the Pashupati enforced this association. The
ments and drinking vessels. Hindu deities, such as Shiva, Pashupati taught that in order to end affliction stemming
have been portrayed carrying containers made of human from attachment to the material world, the individual had
skulls [8]. Such use of the human calvaria and skull persists to engage in specific rituals. These rituals include smearing
among the Aghoris. The members of this sect employ the one's body with ashes from cremation grounds, eating ex-
human calvaria and skull as alms bowls and drinking vessels crement and human flesh, using human skulls as drinking
as part of their practice of self-abasement (Fig. 1) [3]. bowls, and engaging in orgiastic sex [5].
In Sanskrit, the calvariae used as drinking vessels are Two other predecessors to the contemporary Aghoris were
referred to as kapala and cuppella, which mean “cap” and the Kalamukhas and Kapalikas. The Kapalikas were described
“cup,” respectively [8]. The term “kapalin” means “skull by other ascetic groups and dramatists during the seventh and
bearer,” and refers to any ascetic who uses a human skull eighth centuries, although none of the Kapalikas' own written
either as a decorative ornament or as an alms bowl. The records have survived. The Kapalikas are cited as worshipping
Kapalikas, an ancient sect of Saivite ascetics, carried human and emulating the characteristics of the wrathful form of Shiva
skulls, and this sect's name appropriately originates from this by wearing long and matted hair, smearing their bodies with
term [4]. Furthermore, the term “kapal kriya” refers to the ash from cremation grounds, carrying clubs, using human
religious rite of breaking open the skull of a deceased indi- skulls as bowls, and engaging in behavior considered taboo
vidual whose corpse is on the funeral pyre [6]. within South Asian Hindu society, such as drinking alcohol,
eating meat, using hallucinogenic substances, and enjoying
orgiastic sexuality [4]. By the eleventh century, the most prom-
Ancient Saivite sects and the Aghoris inent Saivite ascetics were the Kalamukhas, whose name
means “black-faced” and refers to their habit of wearing a
The Aghoris are believed to be descended from earlier black mark on the forehead. They were regarded as “perverts,
Saivite ascetic orders [4]. Organ [5] denotes the Pashupati drug addicts, drunkards, and murderers” for their practices [5].
as the earliest Saivite sect and discusses this sect at length: The Aghoris emulate their predecessors by living on cremation
The Pashupati is noted in the Indian epic Mahabharata. The grounds, smearing their bodies with ash, eating decomposed
term “pashupati” means “worshippers of the Lord (pati) of flesh torn from corpses awaiting cremation, wearing long and

Fig. 1 Aghori male holding (a,

cover figure) and drinking (b)
from the human calvarium.
Image courtesy of Thomas L.
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matted hair, and consuming their own excrement, urine, and Conclusion
vomit [1, 2, 6].
Despite these historical connections to extinct Saivite sects, The human calvaria and skull have important roles in the
the Aghoris trace the founding of their order to an ascetic named regimen of psychophysical exercises employed by the
Kina Ram. The Aghoris claim that Kina Ram was an incarna- Aghoris in present-day India. Their use of these anatomical
tion of Shiva and died in the second half of the eighteenth structures as alms bowls and drinking vessels, from which
century at an age nearing 150 years. His tomb is located in they consume raw human flesh, emetic fluids, fecal matter,
Banaras, which is also the site of an ashram he founded. Only and urine, evidences their willingness to ignore social con-
one or two ascetics reside at this ashram, and each one is thought vention. Such behavior is inspired by their monistic philos-
to be an avatar of Kina Ram, and thus an avatar of Shiva [6]. ophy, which instructs them to obliterate the category distinc-
tions of “acceptable” and “forbidden” and to transcend the
polarities of propriety and taboo.
The religious significance of the human calvaria For more detailed reading on the Aghoris, the authors
and skull recommend the following references:
Barrett RL. Aghor medicine: pollution, death, and healing
Aghori ascetics eat and drink from bowls made from human
in North India. United States of America: University of
skulls to remind themselves of human mortality [2], yet the
California Press, 2008.
skull has greater significance to an Aghori ascetic. The
Lorenzen DN. The Kāpālikas and Kālāmukhas: two lost
Aghoris believe that the skull contains the spirit of the
Śaivite sects. United States of America: University of
deceased individual, from whose corpse it was taken, and
California Press, 1972.
the possessor of the skull controls that individual's spirit until
Parry J. 1982. Sacrificial death and the necrophagous
the skull is cremated [7]. Thus, the human skull functions as
ascetic. In: Bloch M, Parry J (editors). Death and the
an instrument through which an Aghori ascetic purportedly
regeneration of life. Great Britain: Cambridge Universi-
performs magic. This function is related to the aforemen-
ty Press. pp 74–110.
tioned ritual of kapal kriya, as noted by Parry [6]. In this
Parry JP. Death in Banaras. Great Britain: Cambridge
ritual, the chief mourner releases the pran, or “vital breath,”
University Press, 1994.
of the deceased by cracking the departed individual's skull
midway through the cremation with a bamboo stave. Death
occurs when the pran exits the skull. Acknowledgments We would like to acknowledge the photographer
Parry [6] notes that the skull must be obtained ideally Thomas L. Kelly for his contribution to this article.
from a cremation ground and belong to an individual who
has died prematurely; that is, an individual who has suffered
an “untimely death.” For example, the corpse of a young
man who has died from a snake bite is a suitable candidate. References
The skulls of individuals who have died prematurely are
believed to store power that the Aghoris can invoke with 1. Foulston L, Abbott S (2009) Hindu goddesses: beliefs and practices.
the proper incantations for various purposes, such as coun- Sussex Academic Press, United Kingdom
tering the effects of poisons. The Aghoris reason that the 2. Haviland WA, Prins HEL, McBride B, Walrath D (2010) Cultural
skulls from the corpses of those who have died prematurely anthropology: the human challenge. Cengage Learning, United
States of America
are repositories of power because the pran is not released 3. Laufer B (1923) Use of human skulls and bones in Tibet
from the cranium by the rite of kapal kriya. In contrast, the 4. Lochtefeld JGT (2002) The illustrated encyclopedia of Hinduism.
pran is released from the skull of an individual who has not A - M Rosenfeld Publishing Group, United States of America
died prematurely; that is, an individual fortunate to have had 5. Organ TW (1974) Hinduism: its historical development. Barron’s
Educational Series, United States of America
a “good death.” The heat from the funeral pyre is believed to 6. Parry JP (1994) Death in Banaras. Cambridge University Press,
cause the pran to climb to the top of the skull, from which it Great Britain
exits when the skull is broken during kapal kriya. Further- 7. Shah T (2011) The sorcerer's apprentice: an incredible journey into
more, skulls from individuals who were of certain profes- the world of India's god men. Arcade Publishing, United States of
sions are especially valued. For example, the Aghoris believe 8. Tubbs RS, Loukas M, Shoja MM, Apaydin N, Salter EG, Oakes WJ
the cunning of a trader enables the possessor of a trader's (2008) The intriguing history of the human calvaria: sinister, and
skull to access greater powers. religious. Childs Nerv Syst 24:417–422