New Delhi: CNN and US religious scholar Reza Aslan have drawn criticism for portraying Hinduism in a negative light in a new show for the network called Believer with Reza Aslan. The show’s first episode, which premiered Sunday (March 5), showed Aslan eating what was described as cooked brain tissue with a group of Aghori, a small Hindu sect some of whose members subscribe to extreme rituals.
Aslan met with the group on the outskirts of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, where they smeared the ashes from cremated humans on his face, made him drink alcohol out of a human skull and also gave him what was “purported to be a bit of human brain,” according to the Washington Post.
The Post report also described other parts of the show:
At one point, the interview soured and one cannibal threatened Aslan: “I will cut off your head if you keep talking so much.” Aslan, in turn, said to his director, “I feel like this may have been a mistake.”
And when the guru began to eat his own waste and hurl it at Aslan and his camera crew, the CNN host scurried away.
Aslan and the network have drawn flak from several Indian Americans for focusing on an obscure Indian religious sect for the shock value of it.
Indian American industrialist Shalabh Kumar, who is also a big supporter of US President Donald Trump, had harsh words for the show. He told PTI, “This is a disgusting attack on Hinduism”. Kumar also took to Twitter to express his ire, linking (without any further explanation) the show’s unflattering depiction of Hindus with Hindu Americans’ support for Trump.
— Shalabh Shalli Kumar (@iamshalabhkumar) March 5, 2017
Sanjay Puri, chairman of the United States India Political Action Committee, also denounced the episode, telling PTI, “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. In a charged environment, a show like this can create a perception about Indian Americans which could make them more vulnerable to further attacks”.
Apart from the hurt caused by the mischaracterisation of the Hindu religion, many Indian Americans are also worried about the impact such a show will have on their lives at a time when two Indians have been shot dead for being immigrants (or simply, non-white) in the US in the past month alone.
Vamsee Juluri, a media studies professor at the University of San Francisco, wrote in the Huffington Post that “CNN and Reza Aslan seem oblivious to the kind of discomfort and even danger that images like this could create for South Asians, Sikhs, Muslims and other brown people in America”.
Juluri also offered detailed a criticism of the show, pointing out the voyeuristic quality with which sensitive material like religious rituals, especially to do with the passing of loved ones, were handled by the show. In addition to that, Julluri pointed out several offensive instances of language on the show such as labelling the entire city a “giant crematorium,” incorrectly referring to it as the “city of the dead,” referring to the immersion of ashes in the river as “dumping”.
However, Aslan seems unfazed by the criticism. His Twitter account features a pinned tweet where he asks followers to check out a “hilarious deleted scene with the Aghori guru I ran for life from.”
— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) March 6, 2017