American Aghori

The fundamentals of Aghor-perhaps the most extreme religion in the world-are fantastically simple, though nonetheless repugnant to most. Repugnance, or rather the quest to overcome it, is in fact a central tenet of this belief system. Aghor is an...

Oct 1 2006, 12:00am

Gary Stevenson, aka Kapal Nath, drinks from a human skull and is quick with a knife. He was once arrested in Varanasi, India while trying to kill a man. Stevenson told me that he shot and killed a man in San Francisco. (Authorities refused to investigate the claim, though I was able to confirm the purchase of the pistol he said he used.)


he fundamentals of Aghor—perhaps the most extreme religion in the world—are fantastically simple, though nonetheless repugnant to most. Repugnance, or rather the quest to overcome it, is in fact a central tenet of this belief system. Aghor is an extreme sect of Hinduism. Its adherents principally worship Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. Aghoris live by a simple creed: 1. The gods are perfect. 2. The gods create everything: Every thought, every action, every bird and diamond, every birth and every death. 3. Since the gods are perfect, and everything is made by the gods, everything—everything—is perfect.

Since everything is perfect, being repulsed by anything or forbidding any behavior as taboo is tantamount to rejecting the gods. While this accounts for the willingness of more moderate Aghoris to work with lepers and other so-called untouchables, it also explains why some ardent Aghoris aim to overcome some of the more gruesome targets of revulsion. In my travels I’ve met Aghoris who would just as soon pluck an eyeball from a rotten human corpse and pop it into their mouths as eat chicken. He or she might carry a rotting dead dog over their shoulder for a week, or have sex with a dead cow (holy to other Hindus) or with a rotting human corpse. One Aghori in northern India ate part of the rotting penis of a bloated, vivisected corpse on the banks of the Ganges, engaging in this “sacred ritual” in full view of onlooking police. I’ve got pictures.

Gary Stevenson, a descendent of Robert Lewis Stevenson (author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island), legally changed his name to Giridas Rama Sitanatha in Honolulu. (He kept his old initials.) I traveled twice to Hawaii to research his life there, and found the legal document for his name change. His address was listed as a local Hare Krishna ashram.

Stevenson has extreme charisma for some. A beautiful French author once spent three days and nights with him in a cremation ground. In this photo, Stevenson chats up Italian travelers in Thailand.

Aghor has murky roots. It most likely originated in India, which continues to be the sacred center for Aghor adherents worldwide, although that country has outlawed some of the more extreme rituals followers have engaged in, like human sacrifice. A good deal of Aghoris do, however, still practice human sacrifice. In India, some Aghoris are found in and around the cremation grounds in Varanasi. But there are Aghoris in America, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Australia. In fact, once I learned that Westerners were among the devout, I traveled around the world six times researching this strange belief system. I lived with Aghoris in their ashram in Sonoma, California, and visited with a sect in Mezzago, Italy.

GI managed to get hold of his passport and make a detailed spreadsheet of his travels from the stamps and visas. Stevenson lived in California, Hawaii, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal.

The most severe Aghori I came across was born in Texas. A typical American kid from a typical if affluent family, Gary Stevenson’s life first veered off the normal path when he was stricken with polio as a child. A troubled youth and rebellious adolescence coincided with the Age of Aquarius and Gary set off on a spiritual path that took him to San Francisco, Hawaii, and finally into India and Nepal in an ever-deeper slide into the extreme. Along the way he shed his identity, legally changing his name to Giridas Rama Sitanatha as he sought a magical path to immortality and enlightenment. Eventually, he turned to Aghor and its dark tantric rites. As he studied and excelled at his new religion, his guru christened him “Kapal Nath,” and he became lost in a lifestyle of grave robbing and cannibalizing the bodies to consume the Shakti (life energy) of the dead. Today, Gary Stevenson is a free man—completely free as an Aghori.

Michael Yon is working on a documentary about Gary Stevenson with Principle Pictures. It’s called American Cannibal. Check out

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