CNN's newest original series Believer With Reza Aslan, which premiered Sunday, has been termed "callous," "reckless," "disgusting" and other such uncharitable things.
Social commentators have raised concerns over the show's impact at a time when the U.S. is infested with fears about the "outsider."
The first episode of Believer takes host Reza Aslan to Varanasi, also known as the city of dead, in northern India. It explores the Aghori sect of Hinduism which is known for its extreme, almost cannibalistic, rituals.
It shows Aslan hanging out with bare-bodied sadhus on the ghats (riverbanks) of Varanasi and attempting to blend in.
He allows an Aghori guru to smear the ashes of cremated humans on his face; he even drinks alcohol from a human skull and eats what is likely to be a bit of human brain.
At one point in the show, a cannibal threatens Aslan: “I will cut off your head if you keep talking so much.”
The host turns to his director and says: “I feel like this may have been a mistake.”
And when the guru begins to eat his own waste and hurls it at Aslan and his crew, they sprint in the opposite direction.
But not before Aslan snarks: “I'm pretty sure that's not the Aghori I was looking for."
Though the episode also sheds light on several non-cannibal Aghori practitioners, CNN has been lambasted for inordinate focus on the flesh-eating sadhus.
“It is unbelievably callous and reckless of CNN to be pushing sensational and grotesque images of bearded brown men and their morbid and deathly religion at a time when the United States is living through a period of unprecedented concern and fear,” Vamsee Juluri, a media studies professor at the University of San Francisco, wrote in the Huffington Post.
Shalab Kumar, an Indian American who is a public speaker and philanthropist, also described the show as a “disgusting attack on Hinduism” and called for a "boycott" of CNN.
Even the U.S. India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) has said that the show would “add more misrepresentation, bias and may lead to more hate crimes.” An Indian immigrant was recently shot dead in a Kansas pub.
In a statement to The Indian Express, USINPAC chairman, Sanjay Puri, said: “In a charged environment, a show like this can create a perception about Indian Americans which could make them more vulnerable to further attacks."
After the backlash, Rezlan put up an elaborate post on Facebook stating: "In the case of the episode on the Aghor — which, as I repeatedly state on camera and in voice-over, are not representative of Hinduism..."
Ajay Shah, Convenor, American Hindus Against Defamation, said in a statement, “The six-part CNN series, Believer with Reza Aslan, purports to demystify some of the world religions, however, from the promotional material and review articles about the show, it is clear that the show paints Hindu dharma (spiritual, religion and cultural tradition) by accentuating a lesser understood, tiny sect of a faith that count seventy ascetics among a one and a quarter billion adherents, whose mainstream practices and philosophical underpinnings have flourished for thousands of years.”