Reza Aslan’s ‘Believer’- An Exhibit of Unconcealed Hinduphobia

Hindus, and every other rational member regardless of their religious / cultural affiliation must come together and speak out against Aslan’s unconcealed Hinduphobia.

From colonial times, Indians have been characterized as predominantly savage, otherworldly, uncivilized, and by implication, in need of ‘civilizing’. These long perpetuated portrayals of Hindus did not remain merely confined to voluminous tomes and academic cliques, but rapidly percolated into the wider pop-cultural domain. This is quite evident through films such as ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, portraying Hindus as a bloodthirsty, violently ritualistic cult, with a penchant for consuming live snakes, and “chilled monkey brains” served on a chalice- intact head and all. Indeed, few communities have been subjected to this level of ridicule, vilification, exaggerated caricatures, and miscast definitions through media and academia, as the Hindus have.

In CNN’s ‘Believer’, host, Reza Aslan, approaches the topic of ‘Hinduism’ from a similar perspective, presenting not only a contemptuously scornful, patronizing and exoticized view, but also negligently misrepresenting the Hindu traditions in his commentary and voice-over.

Through this article, I wish to address two areas. First, being a general critique of the content, and second, the deleterious consequences such portrayals would have on the Hindu community- especially the diaspora living abroad.

CONTENT ANALYSIS: Here, for the sake of public scrutiny, we sample two excerpts from the episode hosted on the CNN website.

Excerpt 1:
http://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2017/02/27/believer-reza-aslan-who-are-aghori-sahdus-india-orig-ff.cnn/video/playlists/believer-with-reza-aslan/ (Video length: 2:47 min.)

Title: Who are the Aghori?
Caption: This mystical Hindu sect is known for extreme rituals. Reza Aslan explores the facts and myths behind this religion.

Reza Aslan (RA): “There is a sect of Hinduism called the Aghori, challenging the very fabric of Indian society” (0:17- 0:23)

Response: The Aghoris are by no means “challenging the fabric of Indian society”, as Aslan claims, but are very much a product of it- not only well assimilated into, but an integral part of the broader social framework, contrary to what he would have viewers believe. Nor are their rituals “extreme”- which in itself is a highly subjective- if not negative way of putting it.

Among the various qualities deemed as favorable for spiritual growth, vairāgya– dispassion, and samatva– equanimity toward all objects and situations- are but two of them, which the Aghoris place added focus on. Their commitment is admirable, and an unmistakable testament to the colorful, richly multilayered variations found within the pluralistic Hindu society, which provides a favorable, nurturing environment for all its members to grow in their direction of choice.

RA: “Most Hindus are Obsessed with maintaining ritual purity” (0:29 – 0:34)

Response: Again, a very dismissive way of characterizing a Hindu’s social mores. The concept of Śauchyam– cleanliness/purity of the body, speech and mind, is deeply embedded in the cultural psyche of Hindus. To call it an obsession once again reveals the disdainful slant from which Aslan is approaching the subject. Surely a scholar with a PhD in ‘Sociology of Religions’ should have the accountability to bring more professionalism and objectivity into his work

RA: “What this Obsession with purity and pollution has done is it’s created what we now know as ‘caste’, from the Brahmin who are at the very top, to what we now refer to as the Dalit, or the untouchables at the very bottom.” (0:39-0:56)

Response: The word ‘obsession’ is uttered and even intoned with perceptible deprecation in the video, for the second time. Furthermore, ‘Varṇa Vyavasthā’ is wrongly conflated with the notion of ‘Caste’, a word derived from the Spanish/Portuguese ‘Casta’, which has racial undertones –this is a grievous error. However, considering it is one of those many expressions that made their way into popular usage over time through the omissions and commissions of former Indologists, this can be conditionally sanctioned,  provided Aslan issues a correction. A falsity repeated a thousand times over does not make it credible. That technicality aside, the Varṇa Vyavasthā is better understood as division of labor, which considers not only one’s Jāti (parentage), but also Karma (profession), and Guṇa (mental attributes/proclivities). There are numerous instances in Hindu teachings and living examples in society, which have indicated a lateral as well as vertical movement between the Varṇas. Significantly many Pujāris (temple “priests”) in India hail from outside the Brāhmin community.  A celebrated verse states: janmana jayate sudrah samskarat dwij uchchte. veda pathnat bhavet viprah. brahma janati iti brahmanah. The gist being that everyone- without exception- is born a Śūdra, and it is only the one who abides in the Self, Brahman, who can be referred to as a Brāhmin. The Bhagavad Gitā, one of the most widely read Hindu scriptures adds: cāturvarṇyaṃ mayā sṛṣṭaṃ guṇakarmavibhāgaśaḥ, i.e. the four-fold order was created by me (the Lord) based on the divisions of mental attributes and profession. One wonders why none of the liberating virtues of Hindu teachings find mention? Whichever way one looks at it, the claim that an “obsession” with purity led to the “caste system” is a blatant untruth.

Even the pyramidal chart (0:48) showing Brāhmins at the top, with Śūdras and Dalits at the bottom can be accredited as Aslan/CNN’s own projections. The Puruṣa Sūkta, one of the earliest hymns to reveal the Varṇa Vyavasthā do not allude to any notions of inferiority or superiority among the Varṇas. Indeed, if anything, the official census papers handed out to Indians during the British rule, compelled Brahmins to identify themselves as “upper caste”, and Dalits/Śūdras as “lower caste”. The so-called “civilized” West is at least in some part responsible for propitiating inequality. Moreover, who can blame them? Widening the chasm of social inequality was, after all, favorable to the successful ‘Divide and Rule’ policy, instated by the British. This legacy, I am afraid, still lingers on.

RA: “More and more middle-class Indians, Brahmins even, disgusted with the ‘Caste System’ in India, have begun to adopt Aghori ideals, but through social activism, by taking care of the weak and the hungry, by feeding and caring for the poor, by touching those who are outcaste- the lepers and the sick” (2:01-2:43)

Response: The word ‘Disgusted’, capriciously inserted for effect, is another disparaging reference to Varṇa Vyavasthā. Aslan would be well advised to practice restraint; his biases are nearly fully transparent. Even everything else that follows is moot. For starters, Aslan seems to be suggesting that social activism in terms of taking care of the weak, the hungry, looking after the poor etc. were somehow not intrinsic to Hindu society, and it is only those “Disgusted” with the “Caste System” who have begun to take the initiative in recent years. This is a complete fabrication of facts and distortion of reality. The Hindus have always stressed on Pūrta Karmas– actions directed toward social service- this includes donating to the underprivileged, building wells in drought stricken areas, providing for the needy and so on- and yes, without any expectations of conversion. The scriptures explicitly stress upon the Pancha Mahāyajñas– two of which include Manuṣya Yajña and Bhūta Yajña. This includes serving not only all members of our society, but all living beings, and by extension the environment, too. Aslan’s attempts to cloak these actualities are contemptible and reek with unveiled prejudice and negativity.

Video Excerpt 2:

http://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2017/01/20/believer-reza-aslan-india-clip-1.cnn/video/playlists/believer-with-reza-aslan/ (video length: 1:11)

Title: Face to face with a cannibalistic sect
Caption: Reza Aslan learns why some fear the Aghora Hindu sect when he sits down with a bizarre guru covered in cremated ashes. Explore the world’s most fascinating faith-based groups

Response: Eating the remains of the dead form a part of an Aghori’s practices, not the defining factor, and by no means is it an honest way to describe them- especially in the Title of a video. The term ‘cannibal’ carries with it a strongly negative connotation in the Western society, and harks back at the imagery of the untamed savage. Calling the Aghoris a Cannibalistic sect is a loose and incredibly irresponsible way of putting it. To illustrate the absurdity of it, I cite a few equally ludicrous examples:

  1. Christians could be referred to as cannibals- even if symbolically, when consuming the blood and flesh of Jesus during Eucharist* (Example borrowed from Vidyasankar Sundaresan ji)
  2. Jesus, owing to the resurrection imagery, may well be likened to a ‘Zombie’
  3. Similarly obtuse allegations could be leveled toward the Prophet on the issues of marriage

As Hindus, we would fervently hope and pray that out of a heartfelt sense of mutual respect, kinship, and fraternity, no such attempts are made to denigrate the aforementioned figures, knowing the personal distress it would bring to adherents of their respective faiths- not to mention the social stigma that it comes bundled with. Is it too much to expect some civility in return? Following his cow-caste-curry narrative of India, would Aslan feel comfortable to host an episode on Islam comprised of a montage of Sharia beheadings, severed hands, female genital mutilation, madrassa indoctrination, suicide bomb attacks and women’s subjugation, with an occasional patronizing nod to some sections of Muslims trying to reform Islam? Clearly not. The reflection is always ugly when peering into the ideological mirror of bigotry held up to one’s own face.

Further, the caption states “some fear the Aghora”- this continues to feed the derisive tone that Aslan/CNN is seemingly committed to uphold. Indeed, there are just as many people in awe of the Aghoris, as ones who glance upon them with wonderment and reverence. Theirs is a tough act to follow. Aslan’s specious attempt at depicting Aghoris as ‘frightful outsiders’ far removed from Hindu society, must be duly challenged.

Also, and at this point rather unsurprisingly, one cannot help but notice the word “bizarre” callously employed as an adjective for the ‘Guru’. For the CNN film crew and Aslan to voluntarily seek out the hospitality of their Aghori hosts- seemingly even being initiated in a ritual- only to vilify them overseas on public television using unflattering expressions,  is not only unprofessional and devoid of neutrality, but downright disrespectful and Hinduphobic.

Now, there is also no denying that the many topics touched upon here lend themselves to different interpretations, even within the broader section of the Hindu community. Pluralism in viewpoints is not the problem- it has never been the problem. My concern, and that of many Hindus who have voiced their disapproval over the documentary, is that Aslan has consistently managed to cherry pick only the most egregious of interpretations, made sweeping generalizations, and painted a skewed, sordid and unflattering image of Hindus, in what ought to have been a respectable overview of the Hindu culture for an international audience. The sensationalism on display here would befit a “reality show”, not an expert documentary. The bar of Journalistic Integrity set by CNN sinks very low, indeed.

Each subject matter discussed here could be a volume in itself. This piece is not intended to comprehensively refute Aslan’s many omissions and commissions, but to give a fair indication that they exist, and in no small numbers. Overall, even his tenor and approach were not one of curious humility, nor were any genuine attempts made to look beneath the surface, to understand the deeper philosophical moorings of the Aghoris, independent of them being implemented as a tool to criticize other members of Hindu society. It was painfully obvious to see Aslan duplicitously praising the Aghoris only when using them as a contrasting foil to find fault in what he considers “mainstream” Hindus, but when portraying the Aghoris in isolation, presented them in a peculiar, hostile light.

THE COST OF HINDUPHOBIA:

I would like to move our attention to the heavy cost that such irresponsible media portrayals can have on the practicing native, and his/her community at large. In doing so, I draw primarily from references in the book, ‘Invading the Sacred’, which addresses these issues at length.

Psychological Risk: The deleterious effects of such documentaries could greatly bias the impressionable minds of young school-going children, against their Hindu classmates. This could take the form of ridicule, bullying, social isolation, or looking upon them as outsiders. Effectively, the Hindus, now, could potentially be perceived as the ‘inscrutable other’, much like Aslan’s has portrayed.

Quote: “Indian-American, and especially Hindu-American children are often the target of cultural and racial bias in the classroom. By and large the civilizational achievements of India in science and technology in its long history, or its contributions to modern American lifestyles like yoga, vegetarianism, non-violent political protest and the like are largely ignored in the classroom setting. In other words, the positive contributions of India and its cultures are made invisible. (For the Chinese, after years of effort this is changing). When academically licensed misportrayal of the oppressiveness, weirdness and dangerousness of Indian culture and religions is added to this mix, it has a powerful impact on Hindu-American children, many of who try to hide their religious identity.” (Invading the Sacred: Pgs. 26, 27 (E-book Version))

We can speculate that derogatory mainstream portrayals of Hinduism, quite different from what they have seen or experienced firsthand, would at the very least be confusing, and ultimately damaging to the self-esteem of such children. In the author’s personal experience, many Hindus are reluctant to identify themselves as such publicly, even when they are practicing Hindus—we conjecture that this may result from unconsciously accepting the negative portrayals of their religion. We find that this subject has not been studied much—however, the one study* that we found supports this possibility. Such articles in ‘Encarta’ also get used by various religious fundamentalists and hate groups to label Hinduism a ‘cult’ —the Encarta article serves as a good ‘objective’ reference to make their point. The interested reader can do a web search on ‘Hinduism cult Encarta’ to find examples. Inaccurate, negative mainstream portrayals of a religion can ultimately only prove harmful to the community.”
*Yvette Claire Rosser, “Stereotypes in Schooling: Negative Pressures in the American Educational System,” (ITS: Pg. 39)

The Substantial Risk to Life:

On a channel rightly observant of and sensitive to the dangers arising from Islamophobia, rather duplicitous standards are implemented when not only is the same courtesy withdrawn from Hindus, but worse, the narrative is decidedly Hinduphobic. Let us not forget, in the past month we have witnessed several hate-crimes taking place in the US, against Hindus, wherein four Indian Americans were tragically killed. Research into the subject and endless lessons in History have shown what reckless stereotyping of any group leads to. Does CNN truly wish to shoulder the responsibility of additional violence being meted against the Hindu community on account of Aslan’s rancorous portrayal?

Quote: “Furthermore, as numerous American historians point out, the control of ‘others’ depictions… has led to their ethnic cleansing, incarceration, enslavement, invasions and genocides. Native Americans, Blacks, Jews, Gypsies, Cubans, Mexicans, Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Vietnamese and now Iraqis have suffered brutalities that were legitimized by depictions of them as primitive/exotic, irrational, heathen, savage and dangerous and as lacking in human values.”(ITS: Pg. 27)

“…historically, pogroms, incarceration, slavery, oppression, and genocides of ethnic peoples— such as of Native Americans, Blacks, Jews, Gypsies, Cubans, Mexicans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Chinese, and Japanese—have often followed depictions of them by White Americans, first as primitive/exotic, then as dangerous ‘savages’ threatening civilization or ‘our way of life’, and finally as lacking in human values and therefore unworthy in ‘civilized’ society.” (ITS: Pg. 38)

“Dehumanizing and exoticized images of Hinduism—no matter how ludicrous and fringe they may seem on the surface—must not be taken lightly. History shows that pogroms and genocides have followed similar patterns of cultural denigration” (ITS: Pg. 81)

Update 3/6/17: In a bout of poor judgment and lapse of good conscience, since CNN did authorize to broadcast this episode, the viewer is encouraged to employ acute skepticism, and consult individuals who have the lived experience of the culture being scrutinized; or in the particular case of Hindus, openly maligned.

No doubt, irreparable harm has already been caused to the Hindu community; including potential lives put at risk, nothing can change that. The only decent and respectable form of damage control- prāyaschitta, if you will- would be for CNN and Aslan to issue a heartfelt, unconditional apology to the aggrieved community in an official capacity. In parallel, Hindus, and every other rational member regardless of their religious / cultural affiliation must come together and speak out against Aslan’s unconcealed Hinduphobia, using every available means at their disposal- legal or otherwise, to counter. This must not go uncontested.

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.
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Prashant is a student of traditional Advaita Vedānta. In addition to his adhyātmika pursuits, he is also strongly committed in upholding the Dhārmika tradition.