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Does Afterlife Exist? What My Travels Along the Ghats in Varanasi Revealed

An estimated 100 bodies are cremated daily at Manikarnika, where a pyre burns 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

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On a misty December morning, four aghori sadhus – bodies smeared with ash probably taken from pyres – smoked the pot (read marijuana) at Manikarnika, one of India’s oldest and holiest cremation grounds located on the Ganges in Varanasi. 

I offered them tea in paraffin-laced paper cups and asked them if they genuinely believed death and moksha exist cheek-by-jowl at Manikarnika where 45-60 pyres are lit daily throughout the year. 

The sadhus laughed. They were unanimous that there is no afterlife if a person is cremated at Manikarnika. 
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The Quest for Afterlife

Moksha is a belief among the Hindus, and the aghoris very strongly stand by such belief. They said they cannot prove the existence of heaven or hell, but they can give people, especially radicals, enough hope.

In the strictest sense, the afterlife, or life after death, is a purported existence in which the essential part of an individual’s stream of consciousness continues to exist after the death of their physical body.

Belief in an afterlife is directly in contrast to the belief in oblivion after death. Worldwide, major views on the afterlife derive from religion, esotericism, and metaphysics.
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The aghoris agreed that spiritual beliefs carry through to concepts of an afterlife. And spirits can inhabit crematoriums, graveyards, cemeteries, or other sites. Even mountains, rivers, trees, and other parts of the natural landscape can have spirits or spiritual energy.

They said they live with spirits and feel very strongly that people can definitely or probably reunite with deceased loved ones, and that the dead can help, guide, or protect the living.

"We pray in crematoriums. Our way of staying in crematoriums is essential to our spirituality. We live with the dead. Our prayers show that the dead know what’s happening among the living. And the dead can communicate with the living,” said one aghori. 

He described himself as Swami Muktananda. He wore a smartwatch, given to him by a person who came to cremate his father.
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Muktananda said it was a dark night and he had helped the person perform the final rituals because the doms – traditional gatekeepers to heaven – were on a break at Manikarnika, considered the best place for the Hindus to break the cycle of rebirth and walk through heaven, both marked by the result of one’s karma.

An estimated 100 bodies are cremated daily at Manikarnika, where a pyre burns 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Manikarnika Ghat

Photo: Special Arrangement 

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The Eccentric Life of Aghori Sadhus

Aghoris are no ordinary sadhus. They claim they are the only surviving sect derived from the Kapalika tradition, a Tantric, non-Puranic form of Shaivism which originated in medieval India between the 7th and 8th century CE.

They also practice post-mortem cannibalism, eating flesh from foraged human corpses, including those taken from cremation ghats. 

"We live on the belief of afterlife and moksha, we live with spirits. We feel the spirits when we pray in the dead of the night. The spirits come close, they are all over us. They are the ones who have not been freed from this world despite death. You must trust us. Else, join the prayers," laughed Muktananda. 

Muktananda said the belief about moksha does not exist everywhere in India. He says Manikarnika is special. The place was named after the earrings of Sati – described in the Puranas as Adi Shakti fell there. The Puranas claim Sati married Shiva and walked into the fire to protest her father’s insult to her husband. Shiva, claims the Puranas, carried her body around the world and her body parts fell to the ground at 51 places, all sacred to Hindus.

But it is still a belief. 

Sitting next to Avadhoot, another aghori, said the debate over moksha and the afterlife will exist lifelong in India, especially among believers and non-believers. But afterlife is a part of the Hindu psyche. So is moksha that all Hindus desire because of their very strong belief there’s heaven, and there are Gods and there is something called the "final release from the cycle of life”.

An estimated 100 bodies are cremated daily at Manikarnika, where a pyre burns 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Burning Ghats of Varanasi

Photo: Author

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An Unwavering Belief System

He narrated a story many know in Varanasi. There is a temple of Lord Shiva which is half-submerged in the Ganga and close to next door Scindia Ghat. Ages ago, a Brahmin argued with his seniors that if someone has the cash, he can always clear life’s total debt. The Brahmin was probably arrogant, he left some gold coins in the temple of Lord Shiva and said it was to clear the debt of what his mother did for him in life. "He returned the next day to see the temple tilted and half submerged. A mother’s debt can never be repaid, Shiva told him,” said Avadhoot. 

And then, almost instantly, he reminds everyone present at the Manikarnika Ghat that discussions about afterlife and moksha are all about belief. 

Such beliefs grow high when they are in Varanasi, considered the religious capital of Hinduism. It is a city high on ancient traditions and Hindu spiritualism.

He says this very belief of moksha draws thousands of pilgrims who absolve themselves of sin by immersing themselves in the sacred Ganga that comes from the Himalayas to its mouth in the Bay of Bengal. It is a 1560-mile run. 
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The two other aghoris, meanwhile, had walked close to the cremation pyres which flickered like a million fireflies in the morning light. Nearby relatives of the dead sat silently, some had their heads tonsured as per Hindu traditions, some weeping inconsolably. 

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The Hindu Cycle of Birth and Rebirth

An estimated 100 bodies are cremated daily at Manikarnika, where a pyre burns 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Across Varanasi, nearly 200 bodies are burned every day. “If you talk to them they will tell you they have all come here with a single belief that the soul will not take any shape again,” says one of the aghoris.

Shruti Dwivedi, a seasoned astrologer and mind healer, offers an interesting perspective: “Moksha is not something that you desire. Moksha is the termination of the need to desire. It is not something you need to achieve. It is not a must-to-do list and it is not something anybody can provide you. It is a desire to remain in a state of not desiring anything.”

But the Hindu desire for moksha remains high. People are cremated in Varanasi at Harishchandra and Manikarnika ghats and ashes dumped into the Ganga in the belief that the immersion of the ashes will relieve the immortal soul of the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.
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“We have been drawn to this city in this very belief of stopping rebirth and attaining salvation. We are in Kashi, the home of Lord Shiva. We have total faith in him. It is Shiva who breaks the cycle of death and birth in Varanasi. It is Shiva who decides my afterlife,” says S Ramakoti, an 82-year-old resident of Varanasi’s Mumukshu Bhavan or the House of Death.

It is a residential facility where people wish to die in Varanasi in the lap of Lord Shiva. There are over 300 devotees of the Hindu deity.

An estimated 100 bodies are cremated daily at Manikarnika, where a pyre burns 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

People are cremated in Varanasi at Harishchandra and Manikarnika ghats and ashes dumped into the Ganga

Photo: Special Arrangement

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An Untouchable Caste Behind Hindu Cremations

Priyankar Raha, a top professor at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) offers a more logical explanation about life after death and the much-hyped concept of moksha. “This debate has grown very rapidly in Varanasi because it is a sacred place. Hindus prefer to be cremated here. And most of them want to be cremated with sacred fire that stays with the city’s doms. Over the years this belief has grown strong.” 

The doms are a century-old untouchable caste that handles cremation and oversees the earthly end of a Hindu’s spiritual journey.
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The aghoris now move close to the sacred oven at Manikarnika that has been lighted for centuries. It contains the eternal flame, without which the funeral pyres cannot be lighted.

It is imperative for those who bring their dead to cremate in Manikarnika to take a flaming bunch of hay from the sacred oven. The courtyard is filled with smoke and surrounded by walls coated with soot accumulated over decades.

The aghoris said they have a midnight prayer in a makeshift home at Manikarnika. “We live in a world of the dead with our belief that moksha exists in Varanasi. Some believe us, some don’t.”

For them, Varanasi remains the most fortunate place to die: If the spirit departs from the envelope of the body in Varanasi it will bypass the endless cycle of birth and rebirth and ascend directly, nonstop to heaven.

No one argues.

(Shantanu Guha Ray is the Asia Editor of Central European News, UK and Zenger News, US. He is also a columnist with Moneycontrol. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Varanasi   untouchability   Ganges 

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