An Aghori Sadhus

CNN’s Believer  criticized for offensive portrayal of Hinduism.

There is a line dividing what is curiously interesting and outright offensive. The new CNN show Believer, a documentary series about spirituality around the world hosted by religion scholar Reza Aslan, crossed this line in their Sunday premiere. They featured the Aghori, a group of cannibals in India, with Aslan drinking alcohol from a human skull and eating cooked human brain tissue with the group’s guru. Some prominent Hindu leaders and activists were not pleased with the portrayal, and Aslan was accused of “Hinduphobia” and presenting the religious group in a false, misleading light.

The part of the episode in question begins with Aslan meeting up with a religious Indian sect, a group of nomads called the Aghori, outside Varanasi City in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh. The group does not accept the Hindu caste system and the concept of untouchables in society and believes there is nothing that can make the human body impure. The Aghori has Aslan bathe in the Ganges river, which is sacred to the Hindus, and they smear human ashes on his face. Then, the unthinkable. He eats a bit of human brain with an Aghori Guru. The guru then says he will cut off Aslan’s head if he asked anything else, and throws his own feces at the host and the camera crew.

Among those who spoke up were lobbyist group U.S. India Political Action Committee. The group stated, “With multiple reports of hate-fueled attacks against people of Indian origin from 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.”

Vamsee Juluri, a media studies professor at the University of San Francisco, called CNN “callous and reckless.” In an article in the Huffington Post, she wrote, “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.”

One particularly notable social media reaction was that of wealthy Indian American industrialist Shalabh Kumar, who contributed greatly to Donald Trump’s campaign for the elections. He thought the episode was an attack on Hindu Americans who supported Trump. However, Aslan made no mention of the President in the episode. He tweeted, “Disgusting attack on Hindus for supporting @POTUS.” He also said in a follow-up tweet, “CNN, Clinton News Network has no respect for Hindus. All Hindus worldwide should boycott CNN.”

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard also expressed his disapproval of the show: “While good people across our country are working hard to increase mutual understanding and respect between people of different religions, I am very disturbed that CNN is using its power and influence to increase people’s misunderstanding and fear of Hindiusm.”

The Hindu American Foundation also voiced out their concern in a statement. The said they were “extremely concerned that while they are not Aslan’s intentions, erroneous depictions, misleading imagery, and provocative first half of the program could exacerbate Hinduphobia in the face of widespread religious illiteracy about Hinduism.”

Aslan defended himself on Twitter. He clarified the show was not about Hinduism but about the Aghori. Ben Selkow called viewers to keep on watching. Aslan also said in a statement:  “As someone who writes and speaks about religion for a living I know better than most the sensitivities of the topic, and I have spent much of my career trying my best to address those sensitivities.”

Previously in Huffington Post, Aslan said his experience of being part of these communities may make them seem “more relatable.” “Our hope is to introduce people to world views and faith communities that may seem a little strange and foreign and even frightening.”

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