The first episode of a new show, hosted by CNN television presenter, Reza Aslan, has kicked up a storm. The opening episode of Believer with Reza Aslan, which premiered worldwide this Sunday, shows Aslan interacting with an obscure Hindu sect of Aghoris, who are known to live near cremation grounds in Varanasi, and eat the flesh of human corpses.
While the episode is a visual description of the Aghoris practices and habits, there are segments in the show – where Aslan eats a piece of human brain on television and drinks from a human skull – that have made viewers deeply uncomfortable.
Tulsi Gabbard, an Indian-American and a practicing Hindu in the US Congress, has already registered her strong disapproval of the show’s portrayal of Hinduism.
2/ I am very disturbed that CNN is using its power and influence to increase people’s misunderstanding and fear of Hinduism.— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) March 7, 2017
The episode also shows Aslan being visibly uncomfortable with one of the Aghori ascetics and wanting to stop the conversation. The ascetic threatens to behead Aslan for asking too many questions. The episode ends with the man throwing his faeces at Aslan and the crew as they run away.
Indian-Americans and practicing Hindus, however, say the focus on such an extreme group, at a time that is fraught with religious tension in America, is a misrepresentation of Hinduism to an audience that has little understanding of the religion.
In recent weeks, there have been instances of violence and crimes against Indians in American.
Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer from Hyderabad, was recently shot dead in Kansas by a man who thought he was “middle-eastern”. Before that, an Indian-born, Harnish Patel, was shot dead in South Carolina.
The Guardian quoted Vamsee Juluri, a professor of media studies at the University of San FranciscoIt is unbelievably callous and reckless of CNN to push sensational and grotesque images of bearded brown men and their morbid and deathly religion in such a tense atmosphere for Indian-Americans.
A statement from Hindu American foundation read:
When the knowledge deficit is so stark, and minority communities are facing a rise in hate incidents across the US... why would Aslan and CNN sensationalise the Aghoris as a prime time introduction to the faith of a billion Hindus, most of whom have never even seen or met an Aghori?
Aslan, however, maintained that the episode made it clear that the sect is only a fringe group, and their depiction would not lead to anti-Hindu sentiments. In a Facebook post he wrote:
...as I repeatedly state on camera and in voice-over, [the Aghori] are not representative of Hinduism, but are instead an extreme Hindu sect who reject the fundamental Hindu distinction between purity and pollution. In almost every interview I did about the show, I talked at length about the issue underlying in the episode, including the fluidity of the caste system, the problems inherent amongst the untouchable class, and how devout Hindus of all stripes are working tirelessly to overcome both.