American Hindu organizations are demanding a public apology from CNN for its new show “Believer” following weekend protests that criticized the show’s unfair and inaccurate portrayal of Hinduism. The show, hosted by religious scholar Reza Aslan, comes at a time when America is witnessing increased xenophobia and racism towards immigrants, people of color, and practitioners of minority religions such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism. Aslan has made a name for himself by calling out Islamophobia on news programs. He eloquently criticizes those who characterize Muslims as members of a monolithic cult set on destroying Western civilization, and rightly demands that non-Muslims acknowledge the nuance and diversity within Muslim thought. He describes his own religious views as aligning with Sufism, a mystical sect within Islam that has some philosophical similarities to Hinduism.
For all these reasons, and as an immigrant, a person of color, and a Hindu myself, I was hopeful that Aslan’s new series would provide Americans with a much-needed education about my religion. This is particularly important given recent hate crime-related shootings against Hindus and Sikhs in Kansas, Washington, and South Carolina.
Yet, like many other Hindus, I was shocked by the way my faith was depicted in the debut episode of “Believer,” which aired March 5. The episode began with an exposition on Hinduism in the holy city of Varanasi, a place Hindus hold dear as the gateway to liberation. However, it quickly focused in on the Aghori sect of Hinduism, repeatedly referring to Aghoris as “cannibals” and showcasing sensationalist stunts by an Aghori holy man, playing into stereotypes of Hinduism as a violent, ritualistic cult. Even more troubling than the show’s exaggerated antics, however, was its reliance on a colonial gaze. This is particularly surprising given that the show airs on a respected mainstream network, and given Aslan’s efforts to cultivate respect for his own misunderstood faith.
Sadly, such mischaracterizations of Hinduism are not new. British colonizers mastered the art of portraying Hinduism as an unjust, backward faith, to help justify their brutal conquest of India’s 100 million inhabitants and their seizure of its substantial riches. Indeed, the modern study of Indology, or South Asian studies, originated at the behest of the British Crown, which sent out anthropologists to “study” the Indian people. Most of these “anthropologists” were Christian clergy or missionaries, and the disdain they had for native Hindus is evident in early essays on caste in India. For instance, in one of the earliest ethnographic essays published in 1872, Rev. M.A. Sherring called caste “a monstrous engine of pride, dissension, and shame, which could only have been invented in an utterly diseased condition of human society.”
Similarly, the “Believer” episode on Hinduism portrays caste as a rigidly enforced social structure built on shame and pride, enshrined in ancient Hindu laws. In reality, India’s modern hierarchical caste system is the legacy of 200 years of colonial rule. It is a distortion of the indigenous jati-varna system, a dynamic and fluid system which created communities based on occupation that shared social capital with their members, and which the British coopted to divide and conquer native Indians. The episode’s characterization of caste is at best simplistic and inaccurate, and at worst, a modern-day echo of colonialism.
The episode centers on the host’s spiritual quest in Varanasi. Aslan encounters the sensationalist theatrics of an Aghori on the isolated banks of the Ganges, which are later juxtaposed by discussion of Aghoris who live in the modern city, who are presented as the reformists of Hindu society. This focus on extremes within a small sect of Hinduism is reminiscent of the characteristic colonial device of sowing division among the oppressed.
Meanwhile, the episode ignores Hinduism’s profound engagement with social problems. This is a core tenet of Hinduism, evident in the twin sources of knowledge in the faith tradition: shrutis (authoritative texts) and smritis (interpretations of the texts’ teachings in the context of modern times). Yet “Believer” omits this critical element of the faith. It overlooks major movements in Hinduism that rallied against social problems, such as the Bhakti movement, which championed egalitarianism in medieval times.
Over the years, Aslan has defended Islam against unfair and prejudiced characterization by the American right, atheists, and Islamic apostates. He rightly pushes back against the constant overgeneralization of Islam as an extremist ideology of jihadists and Islamists.
Yet based on the first episode, “Believer” seems to paint other religions with the same broad brush that Aslan rebukes others for using when portraying his own faith. The new series was advertised as an attempt to find commonalities among various religions. Instead, the episode on Hinduism spotlights practices that most adherents of the religion explicitly dismiss.
What America needs is not further mischaracterizations of minority religions. It is frustrating and sad that someone who battles bias against his own religion would approach other religions with such prejudice. And it is all the more disheartening that in painting a distorted picture of Hinduism, Aslan picks up the insidious paintbrush of colonialism. In this tense political climate and era of hate crimes, people of all faiths would benefit from a more accurate, fair, and nuanced portrayal of their religions. I had hoped Aslan would extend that courtesy to religions beyond his own.