Aghori ascetics, while being devotees of the Hindu god Shiva, are monists who adhere to the common Hindu belief in liberation (moksha) from the cycle of reincarnation (samsara). This liberation is a realization of the self's identity with the absolute. Because of this monistic doctrine, the Aghoris maintain that all opposites are identical and the conventional Hindu distinctions between purity and impurity are ultimately illusory.
The Aghoris are ascetics living in cremation grounds, smearing themselves with the ashes of corpses and eating from a cranial begging bowl. They are attributed with eating corpse flesh, which may be a once in a lifetime ritual act, and meditating seated upon a corpse and thereby gaining control over the corpse's spirit. They have also been accused of practicing human sacrifice.
These are candid photographs cinematographer James Adolphus captured while on assignment with CNN for Believer with Reza Aslan, a project that follows the author, religious scholar and show host Reza Aslan as he immerses himself in various religious traditions all over the world. Varanasi, India - October 2015.