CNN show ‘Believer’ under fire for its depiction of Hinduism

Ro Khanna, Hindu American Foundation criticize the series, presented by Reza Aslan.

Image via YouTube

A CNN show on religions, billed as “spiritual adventure series” and hosted by University of California, Riverside Professor Reza Aslan, has come under fire for its depiction of Hinduism.

The show, Believer With Reza Aslan, which premiered on Sunday night, documents practices of six religious sects in different parts of the world. The featured groups are Israel’s ultra-orthodox Judaism, the Hindu sect Aghori in India, Haitian Vodou, Santa Muerte in Mexico, the American religious group Scientology, and an Hawaiian doomsday.

The mystical Aghori sect, which rejects caste system, is known for extreme rituals.

The Hindu American Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit, wrote on its website that the episode on Aghori devotes “copious footage to highlighting stereotypical and sensationalized presentations of Hinduism: simplistic description of karma; conflations of caste/varna/jati; and the pollution in Varanasi and of the Ganga.”

HAF criticized the show, aired at a time when religious literacy in the United States about Hinduism “is woefully inadequate.”

It added: “When the knowledge deficit is so stark, and minority communities are facing a rise in hate incidents across the US— a Hindu American was killed and Sikh American was shot in likely hate crimes in the past week — why would Aslan and CNN sensationalize the Aghoris as a primetime introduction to the faith of a billion Hindus, most of whom have never seen or met an Aghori?”

The group said its Director of Communications Mat McDermott had reached out to Aslan and “held a frank discussion outlining Hindu American concerns, the risks of exoticizing a religion of which few Americans have even passing knowledge, and to understand Aslan’s own motivations and perceptions of Hinduism.”

Among those criticized the show was Rep. Ro Khanna, who tweeted: “Aslan has free speech! But sad he has made a career of sensationalism over scholarship re: Christianity & Hinduism.”

Indian American journalist Asra Nomani tweeted: “I spent 2 years researching Tantra & within a day knew “aghori babas” Reza Asian [sic] profiles on @CNN were spiritual snakeoil salesmen of India.”

Some of the early reviews of the show were also not charitable.

“Believer” doesn’t offer as much enlightenment as its title and premise might suggest,” Lorraine Ali wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “The main problem here is that some of the chosen believers in the first few episodes are ultimately unbelievable.”

However, not all reviews were negative. “Every Episode Of Reza Aslan’s ‘Believer’ Will Piss Somebody Off (And It’s Awesome),” wrote Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, founding executive editor of HuffPost Religion, who interviewed Aslan.

Aslan, an Iranian American, is a professor of creative writing at UC, Riverdale. He is the author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam.

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