NEW YORK: CNN’s Iranian-American host Reza Aslan got good response to the premiere episode featuring Aghori sadhus in India on Believer with Reza Aslan on Sunday night: with 787,000 viewers, it was #2 in cable news among both total viewers and adults 25-54; #1 in younger viewers (18-34), with 81,000 viewers tuning in.
It was a ‘coup’ for the much reviled and shunned cannibal monks Aghori, too. Not that they really care, immersed as they are in their belief of Lord Shiva and hope for salvation from rebirth, with gory rituals in cemeteries and haunted houses in the vicinity of the Varanasi ghats – devouring flesh from human corpses left in the open, eating excrement, drinking urine from human skulls, chewing the heads off live animals, meditating on top of dead bodies in search of spiritual enlightenment. It won’t surprise me if they don’t have a subscription to CNN or Netflix.
Ok, if you don’t want to read anymore, want to go puke, that’s understandable.
But Aslan did get more than three-quarter of a million people in America to watch Aghori rituals unfold in that episode. And then some more: he ate a piece of cooked brain with Aghoris, who smeared ash on him to acclimatize him.
Some human poop was thrown at him and his crew by an incensed Aghori, who threatened to cut off Aslan’s head. It’s not sure if parts of the episode was rehearsed, engineered for audience exclamation and stupefaction. Whatever. Aslan’s still no match for the incomparable Anthony Bourdain, who’s eaten a variety of stomach churners, like maggot fried rice, balut, bull penis, dried shark and raw seal eye.
The religion scholar beat a hasty retreat from the angry Aghori. After all, he had five more socially abrasive and culturally stimulating (read that as sensational ratings) to fulfill as part of his contract with CNN.
Aslan, who will also feature an episode on Sufis – to show apparently an aspect of Islam (wonder if he even mulled doing something on the mullahs of Iran and their, literally, ‘executive orders’ of fatwas on writers like Salman Rushdie) – is not the first bold ‘civilized’ human to mingle with the Aghoris, or show on television.
Aghoris have gained notoriety in the past for their depiction in popular culture: they have been featured in Believe It Or Not television series; Italian photographer Cristiano Ostinelli has done a fantastic series on them; the sadhus were a main theme in the British suspense thriller film ‘Feast of Varanasi’ that released last year; a song ‘Just Add Nauseam’ by the British death metal band The Rotted features the Aghori, with the cover of the album featuring a likely Indian demonic figure; the Tamil film ‘Naan Kadavul’ by Bala saw the actor Arya playing the role of an Aghori with great effect. The film won two national awards. Not to forget the Kannada novel ‘Aghorigala Naduve’ (Life with Aghoris), published in 1980.
So, Aslan had plenty of past material on Aghoris to realize it was good bankable material. It’s highly improbable he did it to burnish the Hindu faith. Aslan did what a new anchor would try to do: get top ratings to perpetuate his career in TV, make some good moolah along the way. If that meant becoming a cannibal in the process, minus the fava beans and chianti, then so be it, seemed to be his mantra.
Of course, it’s unlikely any Aghori has been brought to court in India for their rituals. So, Aslan need not fear that in case he’s acquired a taste for human flesh and brain, wants to pay a more discreet visit to India to hobnob with his new-found friends on the banks of the Ganges (smeared in ash), he won’t be arrested.
Some Hindu organizations in the United States have gone ballistic in their response to ‘Believer’. A group Hindu Students Council has announced protests against CNN in several cities in the US, next week. University of San Francisco professor Vansee Juluri called the Aghori episode “reckless, racist and dangerously anti-immigrant” in a blog post on The Huffington Post. Some groups fear repercussions on Indian children in schools, stereotyping Indians.
Before you pitchfork into melodrama and hysteria about perceived insult and mockery of Hinduism, remember that Hinduism is also comprised of thousands of small sects of believers with faith in their respective God or Goddess, though they don’t practice anthropophagy. Hindus don’t need a cross or a saint to worship, to become believers. They also worship animals and trees. Some worship living human beings too. Agoris are worshippers of Lord Shiva and consider their rituals as sadhana.
The Aghoris’ way of worship is similar to some other cannibal groups, like some Amazonian tribes who eat part of a dead tribal member’s body as a religious ceremony, but different to cannibals like the Aztecs or the Karankawa tribe of Texas, who ate flesh of their defeated enemies.
Most Americans who watched the CNN episode on Aghoris are likely to be liberals, elite, educated background, who can differentiate between some unique practices around the world, that it’s not mainstream culture. You can bet your next concert ticket it was not being played at bars around the US, at 10 pm EST.
I’ve been to a ritual at the Shinnecock Indian Nation reservation, in Long Island, New York. The drums, dancing, food, rituals, the people, reminded me of everything in India. The moment I came out of the reservation, I was back in ‘real’ America. I realized I got a glimpse of life, a way of life, that was not mine to emulate. Period.
If you want to hate CNN and Aslan for ‘Believers’ then protest also against Danny Boyle’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ or Roland Joffe’s ‘City of Joy’, or Mira Nair’s ‘Salaam Bombay!’ too. They show the real underbelly of India, depict India’s poor and the destitute, the reprehensible poverty, overt crime and corruption, the inhumane treatment of women and children by criminals.
Americans can understand that the Aghori, despite their cannibalism, are different from a deranged individual like Ottis Toole, the American serial killer, arsonist, and cannibal, who is known to have murdered and eaten over 400 people.
The portrayal of Aghori is just commercial tamasha. Nothing more. Nothing less. Let Aslan and CNN get their ratings. Hindus should be proud of India, and their culture.
Aghoris exist. They will continue with their rituals. That’s all they know to do. From birth, till they die.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him Twitter @SujeetRajan1)