Reza Aslan, the controversial religious scholar, thinker, and the author has a panache for offending people of all religions. In 2013, he had created a storm with his book The Zealot calling Jesus Christ a rabble-rouser, while raising questions about the authenticity of the Bible as it was written, “40 years after the death of Jesus Christ”. In fact, he questioned the very existence of Jesus Christ and prefers to call him the Jesus of Nazareth. According to Aslan, Jesus was born in the Israeli city of Nazareth and not Bethlehem (in Jerusalem) and that he was a Jew and not a Christian. All this had offended the Christian world and had resulted in a long drawn and heated debate on his book.
Four years down the line, Aslan has managed to upset another religious community. This time it is the Hindus in the United States who are miffed with Aslan’s show on CNN, Believers. The show’s trailer follows Aslan immersing himself in the rituals of several cults and religious sects. It premiered last Sunday (March 5, 2017). The first episode, shot in Varanasi showed Aslan probing the world of Aghori babas or the Aghora and their philosophy. During the 45-minute show, Aslan interacts with the Aghoras, had ash smeared on his face and almost got “beheaded” by an Aghori.
Why are Indians in the US losing cool over this?
In the aftermath of the Kansas shooting, the show has apparently added to the insecurities and fears of the Indian Hindu community in the USA. Several Hindus on the social media have accused Aslan of peddling stereotypes and promoting “Hinduphobia” at a time when Indian techies have been at the receiving end of hate crimes under the watch of Donald Trump. According to them, the episode shows Hinduism in poor light and Aslan should have desisted from showing a small sect of “violent” people to portray the religious beliefs of India. He has also earned brickbats for calling Varanasi the “City of the Dead”. A prominent Indian American Shalabh Kumar who is a huge supporter of the US President Donald Trump said, “This is a disgusting attack on Hinduism”. He accused Aslan of attacking Hindus for supporting Donald Trump.
— Shalabh Kumar (@iamshalabhkumar) March 5, 2017
— Shalabh Kumar (@iamshalabhkumar) March 5, 2017
Vamsee Juluri, a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco writes in a major publication:
What does Reza say about Aghoris?
Here’s how he described the Aghoris and their philosophy:
Hindus believe in reincarnation. Each birth is determined by the Karma you accumulate from your previous life. But it can also be affected by Hindu notions of purity. But there is a sect of Hinduism called the Aghoris, challenging the very fabric of the Indian society. Most Hindus are obsessed with maintaining ritual purity which means eating certain foods and touching certain things can defile you. This obsession with purity has created what we now know as caste – from Brahmin who are at the very top to what we now know as Dalits or the untouchables at the bottom. It’s the untouchables who do all the work that no one else wants to do. They are the people who clean the streets, pick up the garbage, deal with the sewage. Things that will defile a pious Hindu.
The Ahgor believes that God lives within you. So, if God lives within you, nothing can defile you. A very small movement, mostly of ascetics prove this believe by taking part is ostentatious displays of defilement.
- They will cover themselves in the ashes of dead.
- They will eat corpses.
- They will drink their own urine.
- They will sleep within the cremation ground.
That’s very difficult of everyday Indian of taking part of .
— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) March 6, 2017
Aslan moves on to bring to light how several upper caste people have also joined this Aghori philosophy after being disgusted with the caste system. He says they practice the Aghori ideals not by indulging in the graphic theatrics of the Aghori babas but by participating in socially relevant causes that involve touching the lepers, the sick and the untouchables — everything that is considered impure in Hinduism. He visits an orphanage and a medical facility founded on Aghori philosophy, treating leprosy patients. There he speaks to a second generation Aghori who is also a doctor to buttress his point. A much moved Aslan says: “You know what putting your faith into practice looks like, this is what it looks like.”
Does he show Hinduism in poor light?
Following criticism from the Hindu community, Aslan said he showed the episode to a Hindu advocacy group in the US, Hindu American Foundation and that they approve of his portrayal of the Aghoris. The fact of the matter is the episode has nothing to do with Hinduism as a religion. Its major focus was to humanize the Aghoris and to probe how the cult got metamorphosed into a social movement against the regressive caste system, the linchpin of the Hindu society. It could be seen as a critique of the Hindu society that normalised caste-based discrimination, the remnants of what can be seen till date.
But there was nothing remotely against the Hindu religion which is a vast subject to cover in a single episode. Do Indians abroad want to disassociate themselves from the realities of their society and only present a pretty face of their country’s rich and ancient tradition to the world? And are they too scared to view the evils in our society when shown by a foreigner?
Can Reza Aslan be blamed for trying to instigate hate crimes against Indians in the US?
Hindus in the US definitely need to decide who are they blaming – Reza Aslan for doing his job as a scholar of religion or Donald Trump for whipping up anti-immigrant sentiments? How can a documentary, a pure journalistic venture based on research can spark off hate-crimes? How can either CNN or Aslan be censured for its content while the very Head of the State mouths the worst kind of xenophobic filth on a daily basis. Isn’t it too far fetched a conspiracy theory to blame Aslan of carrying forward an agenda of revenge against the Hindu community, as stated by Trump lover Shalabh Kumar?
Kumar, who also happens to be the President of the Republican Hindu Coalition and often calls himself the conduit between Modi and Trump spared two customary tweets on the Kansas shooting that led to the killing of one Indian techie. For a person enjoying supreme access to the President of the United States, such a gesture is not only underwhelming but exposes their inefficacy as a pressure group. The least he could have done is reach out to Trump and got him to condemn this attack. Clearly, Hindus in the US – if they wish to act as a pressure group for their protection in the volatile conditions that they find themselves in, need to start speaking up against the right person instead of blaming non-actors like Aslan for their plight.