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Aghor Medicine

Pollution, Death, and Healing in Northern India

Ronald L. Barrett

Publication Year: 2008

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.

Published by: University of California Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

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, ...

Note on Transliteration, Abbreviations, and Names

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pp. xvii-xviii

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pp. xix-xxii

This research was funded by grants from the American Institute for Indian Studies, the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and the Mellon Foundation. Special thanks to the National Center for the Study of Human Culture for providing institutional affiliation, and for the generous support of the Emory University Graduate Fellowship Program. ...

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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 of sukhānḍī (dehydration); their babies were like tiny wet skeletons crying and thrashing in the water. ...

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1. The Cosmic Sink

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pp. 29-56

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

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2. Fire in the Well

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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, ...

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3. The Reformation

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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), ...

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4. The Wrong Side of the River

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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 ...

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5. Dawā and Duwā

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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. ...

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6. Death and Nondiscrimination

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pp. 138-166

He then discussed how he had studied various arguments for the existence of God when he was attending university. Of all the arguments and evidence that he had considered, this miracle of human diversity struck Ramchandra as the most compelling proof for the existence of God. We were quiet for a long time afterward. ...

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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 modified herbal medications, biomedicines, and ritual healing practices. ...


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pp. 187-194


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pp. 195-198


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pp. 199-210


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pp. 211-216

Production Notes

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p. 240-240

E-ISBN-13: 9780520941014
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520252189

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2008