Religious scholar and author of books such as “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” and “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam,” Reza Aslan made his debut on CNN March 5 with “Believer with Reza Aslan,” and managed to stir up a debate about the motive of the show.
In the premiere episode of this spiritual adventure series, through which Aslan, an Iranian-American, aims to bring to the audience various sects, cults and rituals practiced by people all across the world, the focus was on understanding the ‘Aghoris,’ an ascetic sect of Hinduism known for extreme rituals.
In his quest to find the ‘right’ Aghori, Aslan traveled to the holy city of Varanasi, where he met various Aghoris, who he says immerse themselves in the ashes of burnt corpses, denounce any differences between pure and polluted, eat human flesh, drink alcohol from human skulls, defecate on camera, and fling it at Aslan when he decides to run away from it all.
“I will cut off your head if you keep talking so much,” shouts the Aghori in the show. Aslan’s reaction to his cameraperson: “I feel like this may have been a mistake.”
In the latter part of the show, Aslan, who is a tenured professor at UC-Riverside in California, visited schools for orphans and hospitals run by Aghori sadhus, not the cannibal kind, where people suffering from leprosy were treated for their wounds and also given dignity and hope.
One could get a sense of what he was trying to achieve here: highlighting the role of Aghoris in making India a more modern and a caste-free society since they regard all life and all creation sacred. But the timing and the presentation of facts was where he went wrong. Replete with graphic images, this was clearly an attempt to pull in the numbers.
No doubt, the show sparked an immediate outcry from Hindu groups, who are upset with Aslan’s sensational piece on Hinduism and cannibalism, which, according to them, presents Aghoris as the face of Hinduism.
The US India Political Action Committee is one of the Indian American groups strongly protesting CNN and Aslan’s portrayal of Hinduism in this narrow fashion. USINPAC said that with multiple reports of hate-fueled attacks against people of Indian origin across the U.S., the show characterizes Hinduism as cannibalistic, which is a bizarre way of looking at the third largest religion in the world.
This show will create confusion about their faith and make them further targets of hate crimes, it said.
“We are very disappointed. This is an issue that is of deep concern to the Indian American community evidenced by the large number of calls/emails we have received,” said Sanjay Puri, chairman of USINPAC. “In a charged environment, a show like this can create a perception about Indian Americans which could make them more vulnerable to further attacks.”
American Hindus Against Defamation believes that this crass representation of the Hindu faith will do little to promote interfaith understanding. It will promote ignorance about Hindu traditions and promote ridicule of Hindu children in the schools, it said.
“Within days of seemingly racially motivated shooting of two Hindu engineers in Kansas, CNN is unleashing a program that is certain to promote xenophobia, specifically, Hindu-phobia,” said Ajay Shah, convener of American Hindus Against Defamation. “Mr. Aslan attributes the quest for societal-equality in Indian society to Aghori influence, ignoring the fact that underpinning of this equality is inherent in the most ancient of Hindu scriptures, including Rig Veda, the earliest scripture of Hindu dharma.”
The show, AHAD said, painted Hindu dharma (spiritual, religion and cultural tradition) by accentuating a lesser understood tiny sect of a faith that count 70 ascetics among a one and a quarter billion adherents, whose mainstream practices and philosophical underpinnings have flourished for thousands of years. It also demanded that Hindu-related episodes in the series be reviewed by practicing Hindu experts before they are aired.