AGHORA, At the Left Hand of God by Robert E. Svobod
(1986, Brotherhood of Life)
AGHORA, At the Left Hand of God is still the best book in English about the mystical Hindu sect known as the Aghori. Published thirty years ago it is now available as an electronic book for those who wish to download it. The book was followed ten years later by AGHORA II: Kundalini and in 1998 by AGHORA III: The Law of Karma. The other two books are available in print editions.
The book is a running monologue from a man only known as Vimalananda. This is not his real name, but the one his chronicler, Robert Svobod, selected to use for the book. Vimalananda was initiated into an Aghori sect at some point in the past; he never says what year and learned much from his guru. He also claims to have been a competitive wrestler, a member of a wealthy Bombay family, an owner of a dairy farm, a breeder of racehorses and a family man.
The book is divided into ten chapters, starting with “Ma”, his own personal relationship with Mother Kali, one of the supreme Hindu deities. It’s followed by “Shakti”, “Shiva”, “Rnanubandhana”, “Mentors”, “Aghora”, “Spirits”, “Avishkara”, “Sex” and “Girnar”. The author talks about Vimalananda in the introduction, what kind of person he was, how he smoked constantly and his generosity. What emerges is a portrait of a fascinating individual. A man who can use the most complex Sanskrit terminology to illustrate a point, and yet mention a Stanley Kubrick film to illustrate an example.
Since the book is written as a monologue, you have the sensation of sitting across the table from someone listening to their talk. I don’t know how Robert Svobod managed to compile this book, but I hope he wrote down everything Vimalananda told him in a diary or followed the man around with a tape recorder. There are no subchapter titles or any other headings; when Vimalananda decides to go off on a tangent with a parable to illustrate a point, he simply does it.
The Hindu sect to with Vimalananda belonged, the Aghori, are not understood in the West. Every now and then, someone puts up and interview with an Aghori sage who seems to tell the interviewer whatever they want to hear. Since the Aghori’s live on the cremation grounds, cover themselves with the ash, and carry around skulls, most people find them pretty scary. However, Aghori’s are not just Hindu heretics who indulge in forbidden practices of raw meat eating and smoking their pipe all day. They are ascetics who see the presence of God everywhere in the form of Lord Shiva and do not see any reason to differentiate one thing from another, since everything is a product of the Universal Soul. They spend their days begging for food or pursuing intense spiritual devotions.
It would take more than this one book review to go deeply into the system of belief Vimalananda espouses, but this gives you some idea:
“You must try to understand that Maya can exist only where there is duality. The universe is full of pairs of basic principles: male and female, positive and negative, active and passive. Our philosophy maintains that the Soul is only one, indivisible, in the state of Sat-Chit-Ananda (existence-consciousness-bliss). However, the Soul cannot enjoy itself unless there is some observer, someone who can perceive the Reality. Observers cannot exist when the whole universe is in a state of nonduality because all is one; no distinction between observer and observed would be possible. To satisfy this urge for an observer, Shakti projects Herself. This Shakti is Adya, the undifferentiated form, the totality of all universes. She is as unbounded and absolute as is the Universal Soul or Atman, and the only difference between them is that She feels Herself to be separated from Him, the male principle, the unchanging Atman, and this gives Her the impetus to try to locate Him and reunite with Him.”
Some of his parables are very interesting:
“About 600 years ago, in the time of the Vijayanagara empire in South India, the prime minister of one of the kings was named Vidyaranya, who was a great devotee of Ma [Kali]. It came to pass that in the course of time Vidyaranya was ruined. He lost his position and was reduced to almost nothing. All his power and most of his wealth were taken away, and as a result his family began to hate and abuse him. He became so fed up with everything that he decided to renounce the world and become a hermit.
He went out into the forest and made a pledge to this effect. Then he worshipped Ma one last time. At the height of his power, the zenith of his glory, he worshipped with the best items available. Solid gold dishes were set aside for Ma’s use, priceless jewels adorned Her, She was offered only the choicest foods. Now, reduced to poverty, he could do nothing but prepare unleavened bread out of mud and offer it to Her saying, “I’m sorry, Ma. Now I have nothing, and I can no longer worship you as I did before.”
Suddenly Ma stood before him, and said, “Speak your wish.”
He looked at Her quizzically and said, “Ma, what are You talking about? If You had really wanted to give me something, You should have arrived five minutes ago. Then I could have accepted something. Now I have vowed to renounce worldly things, so I don’t want anything, not even You. I want only God.”
Ma smiled at him and said, “Don’t you understand yet? Close your eyes.” When he did, he saw mountains and mountains of ashes-and a small pile of something that was still emitting smoke. He still couldn’t understand, so Ma explained it to him: “You have been worshipping me for many years,” She said, “and by my grace all the karmas of your previous births have been burned to ashes except that little pile, which is all that remains. If you had not lost your position you would never have renounced life, so it was essential for you to be ruined. Do you see?”
Vidyaranya did full prostration to Her, and immediately went into a state of divine intoxication. Afterward, he wrote a famous Sanskrit treatise called Jivanmuktiviveka. That is what grace can do for you.
You see, when you have learned your lesson and have only the desire for Ma remaining in your heart, She will come to you. Then you have a chance to achieve. But when Ma does come to you, don’t ask for grace. Grace is Hers to give, according to Her own sweet will. You can’t get it on your own. Ask for compassion, learning, Jnana, and when you get Jnana you will know how to obtain grace.”
This is an amazing book full of fascinating information.
How much of this story is true is debatable, but I don’t think it matters much. The veracity of the tale is not important as to what is told. Some people have suggested Vimalananda is an amalgamation of several people, others that the book is “spiritual fiction”. It doesn’t really matter, because the stories, talks and parables the author shares are priceless. This is one book I will refer back to repeatedly.