Author: Jeffery D. Long
Date: March 28, 2017
Celebrity religion scholar Reza Aslan recently debuted his CNN series, ‘Believer’ with an episode focused on a fascinating group of Hindu yogis known as the Aghoris. With a name which means “Fearless,” the Aghoris are worshipers of the deity Śiva and are known for their unconventional practices, which include meditating in cremation grounds and eating substances regarded in mainstream Hindu society as impure. All of this is done in the name of the philosophical ideal of non-duality: that divinity is present everywhere, even in places that “polite” society shuns.
An episode on the Aghoris, and on CNN no less, would have been a most welcome development. As a professor and scholar of Indian traditions, I was hoping it might even be something I could show to my students for educational purposes. Like many of my colleagues, I was horrified to find a piece riddled with factual errors and full of exoticization and sensationalism.
Finding this sentiment to be widely shared among experts in my field, I contacted a few of my colleagues and we crafted the following letter to Jeffrey Zucker, President of CNN, which was delivered to him this week:
March 24, 2017
Mr. Jeffrey Zucker
Dear Mr. Zucker,
We write this letter collectively as a group of scholars from a variety of academic disciplines to express serious concern with the first episode of the CNN Original series entitled Believer. Set in Varanasi, the debut features host Reza Aslan, widely described as a scholar of religion, roaming along the Ganga, interacting with self-proclaimed religious gurus, and participating in what can only be described as decontextualized shock-value rituals.
Setting aside the overtly sensationalist nature of the show and its promotional materials, what is most concerning to us as scholars are the factual errors and misinformation Aslan proffers about Hinduism throughout the episode. We understand that Believer does not aim to be an instructional film or documentary. However, a nonfiction program being broadcast on a globally renowned news network such as CNN is likely to be taken as presenting authoritative knowledge. It therefore demands far more in the way of fact-checking, depth, and, we daresay, consultation with actual experts on the traditions it covers.
Just a sampling of the misinformation includes:
• the number of cremation grounds in Varanasi being grossly overstated — Aslan claims 87, when in fact there are only two active cremation grounds
• Aslan translates the Hindi word “ghat” as “cremation ground” — it actually means “flight of steps leading down to a river”
• basic Hindu concepts explained incorrectly — Aslan’s description of karma and its inter-relatedness to reincarnation and the “caste system” reflects neither a Hindu understanding nor academic consensus
• in some cases, scenes have clearly been staged in order to match the narration
• deities Aslan talks about on camera are not the ones shown in the background
These are only a few of the many errors that can be found throughout the episode.
In addition to its many factual errors, the episode is deeply insensitive to a variety of issues to which responsible scholars of South Asian religions are trained to be attentive. There is a strong air of orientalism–the deliberate exoticization of the Other in order, on some level, to control the Other–and neocolonialism about the entire presentation. We also share concerns which have been raised in the wider Hindu community that, in an era of growing violence against persons regarded as ‘Other,’ this episode could serve to fuel bigoted and racist attitudes and behaviors.
As educators, we know too well the knowledge gap on Hinduism amongst the American public. It is our view that the Believer episode on Hinduism has only served to compound religious illiteracy. It has, in fact, required some of us to do “damage control” with our students in order to correct the many misconceptions about Hindu traditions that can arise from a viewing of this episode. We are thus deeply concerned about the damaging effects that could arise from further airing of this episode. Some of us are willing to serve as consultants should a revised version of this episode, or future programming on Hinduism, be contemplated.
1. Loriliai Biernacki, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Director of Graduate Studies, Religious Studies — University of Colorado Boulder
2. Christopher Chapple, Ph.D., Doshi Professor of Indic and Comparative Theology, and Director, Master of Arts in Yoga Studies, Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts — Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles
3. Abhishek Ghosh, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Religious Studies and Liberal Studies — Grand Valley State University, Allendale, MI
4. Marcy Goldstein, Ph.D. Adjunct Lecturer, Department of Religious Studies, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences — The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
5. Pankaj Jain, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy & Religion, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences — University of North Texas, Dallas, TX
6. Ramdas Lamb, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Religion — University of Hawai’i, Manoa, HI
7. Jeffery D. Long, Ph.D., Professor of Religion and Asian Studies — Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, PA
8. Vasudha Narayanan, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Religion, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences — University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
9. Andrew Nicholson, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Asian & Asian American Studies — Stony Brook University, NY
10. Anantanand Rambachan, Ph.D., Professor of Religion — St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN
11. Nalini Rao, Ph.D., Professor of World Art — Soka University, Aliso Viejo, CA
12. Rita D. Sherma, Ph.D., Director and Associate Professor, The Mira and Ajay Shingal Center for Dharma Studies; Chair, Hindu Studies; Core Doctoral Faculty–Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley
13. Deepak Shimkhada, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor of Hindu Studies — Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, CA
14. Lavanya Vemsani, Ph.D., Professor of History, Department of Social Sciences — Shawnee State University, Portsmouth, OH
15. Richard Fox Young, Ph.D, Associate Professor, History of Religions–Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ
- Professor of Religion and Asian Studies, Elizabethtown College