Reza Aslan’s “Believer” – An exhibit of unconcealed Hinduphobia

Reza Aslan’s “Believer” – An exhibit of 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 been.

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.

In this article, I wish to address two areas: first, a general critique of the content, and second, the deleterious consequences such portrayals have on the Hindu community — especially the Hindu Diaspora.

Content Analysis: Here, we have chosen two excerpts for analysis from the episode hosted on the CNN website.

Excerpt 1: (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 Azlan would have viewers believe. Nor are their rituals “extreme” — which is a highly subjective if not negative way of characterizing the Aghori practices.

Among the various qualities deemed as favorable for spiritual growth, vairagya – 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 pluralistic Hindu society, which provides a favorable, nurturing environment for all its members to grow in their direction of spiritual/religious 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 reveals the disdainful slant from which Aslan approaches the subject. Surely a scholar with a PhD in “Sociology of Religions” should have the training needed 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 deliberate and a grievous error. However, considering it is one of those many expressions that have made their way into popular usage over time through the omissions and commissions of former Indologists, this can be conditionally sanctioned, provided Aslan had offered some clarification, elaboration. A falsity repeated a thousand times over does not make it credible. That aside, 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 Sanskrit 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 (Lord Krishna) based on the divisions of mental attributes and profession. We can only wonder why none of these liberating virtues of Hindu teachings find mention in the CNN feature. 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 to modern, Hinduphobic campaigns that Aslan/CNN have purchased and sold. 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 constructing inequality in Indian society. Moreover, who can blame them? Widening the chasm of social inequality was, after all, favorable to the successful “Divide and Rule” policy, instigated and carried out by the British. This legacy, alas, still lingers on in independent India, seventy years after the British quit India.

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’s biases are transparent. Everything else that follows this part of the commentary therefore 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. Hindus have always stressed on Pūrta Karmas – actions directed toward social service – which includes donating to the underprivileged, building wells in drought stricken areas, providing for the needy and so on — and yes, without any expectations of converting the poor and underserved to change their religion. The scriptures explicitly stress upon the Pancha Mahāyajñas – two of which include the Manuṣya Yajña and Bhūta Yajña. This includes serving not only all members of society, but all living beings, and by extension the environment, too. Either Aslan is ignorant about Hindus and Hinduism or this is an overt attempt at demonizing Hindus and Hinduism.

Video Excerpt 2: (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 word “cannibal” carries with it a strongly negative connotation in Western society and harks back to the times of the “untamed savage”. Calling the Aghoris a cannibalistic sect is a loose and incredibly irresponsible way of describing them. 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 they consume the blood and flesh of Jesus during Eucharist*
  2. Jesus, owing to the resurrection imagery, may well be likened to a “Zombie”

As Hindus, we would fervently hope that out of a sense of mutual respect, kinship, and fraternity, no such attempts are made to denigrate religious figures and symbolism of others, 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” – which continues to feed the derisive tone that Aslan/CNN are seemingly committed to adopt in their commentaries on Hindus and Hinduism. 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 — even being initiated in a ritual — only to vilify them on public television using unflattering expressions, is not only unprofessional and devoid of neutrality, but downright disrespectful and Hinduphobic.

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 – for it has never been the problem. My concern, and that of many Hindus who have voiced their disapproval of 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 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 seems to be very low, if indeed there is even such a bar.

Each topic discussed here could lend itself to scholarly analyses and published in several bulky volumes. This piece is not intended to comprehensively refute Aslan’s many omissions and commissions, but to show that they exist, and in no small number. The tenor and approach were not one of the curious observer nor were any genuine attempts made to look beneath the surface, to understand the deeper philosophical moorings of the Aghoris. 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 as a “bizarre” cult under the hostile light of television cameras.

The Cost of Hinduphobia:

Let us 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 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 “bizarre/uncivilized other”, much like Aslan has portrayed them.

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, and non-violent political protest 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 mis-portrayal 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 whom try to hide their religious identity.” (Invading the Sacred, p. 26, 27)

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,” (Invading the Sacred, p. 39)

The Substantial Risk to Life:

On a channel overtly observant of and sensitive to the dangers arising from Islamophobia, Hindus are not only made suspect, but worse, the narrative is decidedly Hinduphobic. Let us not forget that we have witnessed several hate-crimes in the US against Hindus. 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 portrayal of Hindus and Hinduism?

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.”(Invading the Sacred, p. 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.” (Invading the Sacred, p. 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” (Invading the Sacred, p. 81)

No doubt, irreparable harm has already been caused to the Hindu community including potential lives put at risk. Nothing that CNN and Aslan can now offer 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 Hindus. All people, regardless of their religious and cultural affiliation must come together and speak out against Aslan’s unconcealed Hinduphobia, using every available means at their disposal to counter such hateful propaganda. This must not go uncontested.


Prashant Parikh

Prashant is a student of traditional Advaita Vedānta. In addition to his adhyātmika pursuits, he is also strongly committed in upholding the Dhārmika tradition.