CNN’s Believer: Reza Aslan's show on Hindu mendicants is bigoted no matter how you look at it

The author and TV host has been criticised for his feature on India's Aghoris.

It is the ultimate dog-whistle against immigrant Hindus in America. At a time when Indians are being shot dead in the US in suspected racist attacks, when rules for H1-B visas – which are used extensively by Indians – are being re-examined, and when Donald J Trump, the new President of the United States, is making the whole world nervous with his cynical exploitation of conservative American sentiment, US news channel CNN has produced Believer, a show that puts the spotlight on bizarre cults around the world. It is hosted by Reza Aslan, a TV personality and expert on Abrahamic faiths.

The series begins in the Indian city of Varanasi with the Aghori, who are described as cannibals from what Aslan calls the “City of the Dead”. The producers intersperse footage of devout Hindus bathing in a river and worshipping images of Hindu deities not far from burning corpses with interactions with ash-smeared, pot-smoking mendicants who hold human skulls in their hands, state matter-of-factly that human flesh is tasty, and throw their own excrement at the curious onlooker.

Of course, the American Hindu lobby is outraged. On Twitter, American politician Tulsi Gabbard accused CNN of using its power and influence to “increase people’s misunderstanding and fear of Hinduism”.

But Aslan, an Iranian American Muslim with a liberal bent of mind, in his characteristic calm voice, has retorted that the documentary was not about Hinduism, but about the Aghori, thus rationalising and defending his show. To explain away the outrage, he pointed to caste, a “touchy subject for many Hindus in America”.


American-Hindus on the defensive

CNN reported that Believer premiered at the No 2 slot on cable news. It was No 1 among those in the 18-24 age group, with over 750,000 viewers. Now, CNN will insist – just like Indian news channels Times Now, or NDTV do – that as a news channel it is simply reporting facts, and that its intentions should not be misunderstood or misconstrued.

The calm responses will reinforce the idea that angry voices against the show are those of hysterical Hindu radicals, the ones who attack American academicians for exposing the evils of the caste system, who deride everyone who challenge them by calling them “sepoys”, and who want to whitewash the truth about the excesses and outliers of Hinduism.

The self-image of American-Hindus, already exhausted by the relentless Orientalist portrayal of their faith in Hollywood and school textbooks, will be on the defensive once again. They will have to deal with uncomfortable questions raised by their own children who will now surely be bullied in schools. They will have to explain the show to racist neighbours always looking for an excuse to make fun of brown people who eat curry with their hands.

The proud, vegetarian Hindu-American, who has always argued there is no reference to beef in the Vedas and has contemptuously referred to his meat-eating friends as flesh-eaters all his life, will have to answer why some Hindu holy men back home eat human flesh and drink from human skulls like characters from a Conan the Barbarian comic book. There is no escaping this.

Bigoted series

To be fair, the show will go on to show black people who follow voodoo, Hispanics who visualise Mary and Jesus as skeletons, and the unusual rituals of orthodox Jews. In other words, by the looks of the show’s promotional video, the American fear of the Other will be stoked equally across all minority groups with the clever use of words like believer, cult and spiritual adventure. Take, for example, the promotional video in which Aslan explains what a cult is and clarifies that a cult is a kind of proto-religion. Yet the entire video focuses on the bizarre and the grotesque, including a man with a Nazi tattoo on his forehead. For one who battles against the stereotypical images of Muslims, surely Aslan is aware of subliminal messaging – the disjuncture between what is said and shown. Of course, he can blame CNN editors for mischief and clarify his pure intentions.

Will Aslan also present as a bizarre cult Muslims who believe beheading American soldiers and journalists on camera will secure them a place in heaven with 72 virgins? In his many television appearances, Aslan has insisted that terrorism and religion should not be confused. Thus, he has always placed himself in a position of power, determining what constitutes religion, faith, belief, and bizarre cults. He who valiantly fights Islamophobia on American television will certainly reject accusations that he is stoking Hinduphobia.

Somehow, one doubts Aslan’s innocence. For someone as educated and articulate as him cannot be that naïve. Aslan should know that explaining religion to non-believers in a fragile, impatient, oversensitive, and judgemental ecosystem is notoriously difficult. One has to consider context, content, medium and of course, gaze.

Indians too have long been fascinated by the Aghoris. If you scan the internet, you will come across a superhero called Aghori published by Holy Cow Entertainment. And on YouTube, one will come upon the dance of the Aghori, and television shows on ETV Hindi that speak of Aghori rituals during the Kumbh Mela. There is even a B-grade English film called The Himalayan Aghori. Aslan should know when Hindus talk about bizarre Hindu rituals on Indian television, it is very different from the way Iranian-American Muslims talk about bizarre Hindu rituals on American television. And when that is compounded by false information such as phrases like “city of the dead”, and a very juvenile explanation of Hinduism presented with messianic certainty, there is a problem.

Credit: Holy Cow Entertainment.
Credit: Holy Cow Entertainment.

Pedestrian understanding of Hinduism

Aslan’s patronising and pedestrian understanding of Hinduism, and the manipulative nature of the episode becomes obvious when one views the video (click here) where he explains to his audience what Hindus really believe in. (Note: this is not an episode in the series but part of the promotional offerings of the series.) There are no videos explaining what do Christians, Muslims, Jews or Buddhists really believe in. Only Hinduism is isolated for explanation. But isn’t the series about bizarre cults, and not religion?

(Image credit: CNN video grab.)
(Image credit: CNN video grab.)

Points to be noted when readers watch the video are:

  • Hindu polytheism is presented as actually being a masquerade for monotheism, where one can pick and choose one’s deity from a spiritual buffet. Also, Aslan uses the word idol, not icon, for Hindu deities. There is no reference to the fact that Hinduism has no concept of sin so integral to Christianity of the bulk of the show’s American viewers, or prophecy or Judgement Day so integral to Aslan’s own faith. Words like yoga, Vedanta, and atma, are conspicuous by their absence.
  • The Hindu trinity is presented at 1.30 in the video. But it is obvious that the deities referred to as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are badly disguised images of Lakshman, Ram and Sita. I have yet to see such images of the Hindu trinity anywhere in India, and yet to see a temple that worships the Hindu trinity in the manner presented. He should – with his alleged scholarly experience – know that Hindus do not worship the creator, and his temples are an exception, not the rule.
  • After 2.30, Aslan presents his favourite deity, Shiva, the destroyer, who is worshipped as a symbol, the phallus (of course). Did the local priest agree with that explanation? He does not clarify how this is the symbol of soul or pure consciousness that Western scholars vicariously prefer to see as genitalia, using the occasional textual reference, ignoring the gaze of the faithful. Would he agree then that Muslims during Haj go around a rock and an empty room, which is technically accurate, or that the Pope holds a crucifix, which is an instrument of torture in his hand. A student of religion needs to know that a symbol is not a sign and is never taken literally. But does Aslan care as he trips on trivialising the subject he talks of?

The damage is done. Even if Aslan eventually apologises, and I doubt he will, or if CNN pulls out the show, which I doubt they will, the arrow has been unleashed. It will be tough to shake off the grizzly images of Aghoris from the gaze of bigoted Americans, just as Jawaharlal Nehru University will find it tough to shake off the image nationalists have of its students shouting anti-India slogans.

If Aslan was sincere, he has proven how insensitive and disrespectful he is of other religions, as well as how he is clearly out of his depth in this episode. He cannot be taken seriously by Hindus. He does to Hindus what conservatives in America do to Muslims. If Aslan was strategic, he has succeeded in expanding his television footprint.

As far as Hindus are concerned there are two options. Follow the Abrahamic path, favoured by Hindu supremacists, of trying to prove what real Hinduism is as opposed to false Hinduism. Or simply accept, like a stoic yogi, that one cannot hope to be understood by those who profit, financially, socially and emotionally by deliberately misunderstanding Hinduism.

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