Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Susan Snow Wadley

Second Advisor

Tazim Kassam


Aghor, Aghoreshwar, Ascetic, Bhagawan Ram, Sadhana, Varanasi

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Archaeological Anthropology


Aghoreshwar Mahaprabhu Baba Bhagawan Ram Ji, a well-established saint of the holy city of Varanasi in north India, initiated many changes into the erstwhile Aghor tradition of ascetics in India. This tradition is regarded as an ancient system of spiritual or mystical knowledge by its practitioners and at least some of the practices followed in this tradition can certainly be traced back at least to the time of the Buddha. Over the course of the centuries practitioners of this tradition have interacted with groups of other mystical traditions, exchanging ideas and practices so that both parties in the exchange appear to have been influenced by the other. Naturally, such an interaction between groups can lead to difficulty in determining a clear course of development of the tradition. In this dissertation I bring together micro-history, hagiography, folklore, religious and comparative studies together in an attempt to understand how this modern day religious-spiritual tradition has been shaped by the past and the role religion has to play in modern life, if only with reference to a single case study.

My study is about Aghoreshwar Bhagawan Ram Ji's life, a biography gleaned from books published by the society he established, but given flesh, blood and continuity by the stories narrated to me during fieldwork, and by comparative analysis with practices found in other long-standing traditions of spirituality in India. It is also about his viewpoints on the nature and subject of worship, humanism, nationalism, universalism, and an astute manner of communicating ideas with efficacy. Such a study not only illuminates the rigors of the life of an Aughaṛ ascetic, but also gives new insight into the workings of this tradition, as well as into what being a monk or a saint means to followers of this tradition in this age of modernity.


Open Access