NEW YORK: Several Indian American groups and prominent individuals have protested Reza Aslan, host of the new six-part series ‘Believer’ on CNN, for showcasing the Aghori in India, a much reviled, wandering nomads who are known for cannibalism, in the premiere episode broadcast on Sunday.
In the episode, Aslan, a Muslim religion scholar who teaches creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, was shown at one point to eat cooked human brain tissue with the Aghori. The series is touted as documentary episodes about spirituality around the globe.
The outcry was immediate. Aslan was accused of “Hinduphobia” and of mischaracterizing Hindus.
“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,” lobbyist group U.S. India Political Action Committees said in a statement.
“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,” said USINPAC chairman Sanjay Puri.
In the episode, Aslan meets up with a sect of Indian religious nomads outside of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. The Aghori, as they are known, reject the Hindu caste system and the notion of untouchables, and espouse that the distinction between purity and pollution is essentially meaningless. In the Aghori view, nothing can taint the human body, Aslan said.
“Kind of a profound thought. Also: A little bit gross,” said Aslan, whose bestselling books on religion include “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” He also hot noticed for getting into heated arguments about Islam with Bill Maher on his program on HBO.
The Aghori convince Aslan to bathe in the Ganges, a river that Hindus considers sacred. An Aghori guru smears the ashes of cremated humans on his face. And, at the Aghori’s invitation, Aslan drinks alcohol from a human skull and eats what was purported to be a bit of human brain.
“Want to know what a dead guy’s brain tastes like? Charcoal,” Aslan wrote on Facebook. “It was burnt to a crisp!”
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 that, “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.
“Pretty sure that was not the Aghori I was looking for,” he said.
Aslan also interviewed several non-cannibal Aghori practitioners, including those who ran an orphanage and a group of volunteers who cared for people with leprosy. Still, some critics felt the focus on the flesh-eating Aghori inappropriate and done for the shock value.
“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,” wrote Vamsee Juluri, a media studies professor at the University of San Francisco, in an article for the Huffington Post.
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.”
Shah added: “Mr. Aslan attributes the quest for societal-equality in Indian society to Aghori influence, ignoring the fact that underpinning of this equality is inherent in the most ancient of Hindu scriptures, including Rig Veda, the earliest scripture of Hindu dharma. As most non-practicing Hindus, Mr. Aslan has not gained deeper understanding of difference between varna (caste label that is acquired based on profession and is not based on birth) and jaati (family association that traditionally passed through inheritance).”
According to Shah, Aslan denigrates other religions, except Islam, pointing out that he promotes ‘moderate’ Islamic Sufi tradition as mainstream in the media, while ignoring the peaceful, non-violent, all accepting and universal ideals of Hindu dharma.
Shah also raised the concern that the portrayal of Hinduism in ‘Believer’ will promote ignorance about Hindu traditions and incite ridicule of Hindu children in schools.
Aslan told Salon in an interview before the series premiere: “I convert. I become one of them. I join their cult or their religion,” he explained, of his interaction with the subjects he documented. “It’s very experiential. It’s less informative than it is ‘You’re going to learn about these faiths by watching me live these faiths.’”
Cannibalism, while not formally outlawed in the United States, may lead to charges for desecration of corpses. Eating human brains has also been linked to prion disease.
Monsters and Critics noted of ‘Believers: “This jaw-dropping series that will either turn you off to all religions as man-made, superstitious hogwash or reinforce the godly who believe in a higher power, Believer with Reza Aslan is guaranteed to shock viewers either way.”
In next week’s episode Aslan visits an apocalyptic doomsday cult in Hawaii led by a guy who calls himself JeZus, noted Salon.
(With inputs by Ben Guarino of The Washington Post)