Australian television host Todd Sampson toured India for the first time for the 2016 show Body Hack. Sampson stepped into the shoes of a Bollywood stuntman in Mumbai, literally setting himself on fire. Sampson has returned to India for the second season, but for a different mission: to understand the lives of the sadhus and Aghoris of Varanasi.
“I am personally fascinated by India, and I felt I wasn’t finished with India in the first season,” Sampson told Scroll.in over the phone from Australia. “We have done 16 episodes, with every episode shot in a different country except India. Doing the Bollywood stunt showed only one side of India.”
The second season, which was premiered in Australia in 2018, will be premiered in India on Discovery Channel on March 25.
“All my shows that I have ever done, the first place all of them get illegally downloaded is in India,” Sampson observed. “As soon as my show is done, I can find it online even when it’s not even aired in India. It’s handy for me. When people say they missed my show, I just tell them go online, and tell them it is already downloaded in India.”
The travel and adventure series follows Sampson across the world as he attempts to understand how various sub-cultures operate. He achieves this feat by putting himself “in the shoes of the extraordinary people” he meets along the way. These included mixed martial arts fighters and Mongolian eagle hunters in the first season. Among the characters in the second season are Amazonian hunters and holy men.
The essence of the show is to look at a way of life through the science behind it, Sampson said. He gave the example of a sadhu in Varanasi, who is said to have held up his arm in the air for 19 years.
“There is a religious explanation as to why a man holds his hand up in the air for 19 years,” Sampson said. “But Body Hack would go to another level from the science perspective. The sadhus, through meditation, have learnt to shut down parts of the brain with which they think the task is impossible, so that they can manage discomfort for a long time. Science shows how they do it by breathing exercises.”
The Indian episode also sees Sampson interact with the Aghori, the Shaivaite sect of ascetics who have drawn attention for their esoteric rituals. A backlash followed the last occasion on which an international television network followed the Aghoris. Religious scholar Reza Aslan’s Believer on CNN was slammed for its insensitive portrayal of the ascetics.
It is essential to part with biases while covering sub-cultures, Sampson pointed out. “A lot of people are scared of the sadhus, but mostly it is the fear of the unknown,” Sampson said. “This episode hopefully shows that in an interesting way. I don’t judge them for what they do. I accept them for their culture. It does not mean that I want to do what they do. My mission is to try and understand. The sadhus were some of the most beautiful, welcoming, kind and intelligent people that I have filmed.”
Body Hack was born out of Sampson’s fascination for adventure and science. “I have been an adventurer since I was a young boy,” he said. “I climbed Mount Everest in my twenties. On the one hand, I was into adventure and on the other, I was a science nerd. That is how I understood the world. I basically smashed those two things together into a new format of adventure science.” His other shows include Redesign My Brain (2013).
Sampson has one criterion for picking a sub-culture: “Are they unique and have they adapted to their environment in an interesting way?” Among his biggest challenges in the latest season, in which he explores the lives of Iraqi frontline soldiers and learns kung fu from Chinese masters, was hunting with the Matses, an indigenous tribe in Brazil.
“The Amazonian hunters use a frog poison to enhance their senses,” Sampson recalled. “The experience was one of the worst ones. I survived the war, but I thought I was going to die from a frog. My heart rate went down, but I recovered and continued on with the journey.”
Sampson credited the series with shaping his outlook. “I have had a lot of physical damage, but the body recovers,” he said. “I train every day. And mentally, I try to use meditation and visualisation. I don’t look at things with fear. I feel like each year I become better equipped to deal with the unknown that comes my way. I feel confident to explore risky situations, and the experience helps.”