Due to Hindus having a wide spectrum of views, diversity and strong beliefs in pluralism, it is not often that Hindus are unified in being deeply offended. However, CNN’s new series ‘Believer’ produced by Reza Aslan checks the box in offending a lot of everyday practicing Hindus.
What are some of the reasons Hindus are offended with the show’s extended trailer?
Well, the trailer of CNN’s Believer says Varanasi (Benares/Kashi) is ‘one large crematorium’ and ‘city of the dead’. Reza Aslan and the trailer go on to state that “Varanasi has 87 ghats, each of which burns up to 100 bodies a day.”, and adds that “ghats mean pyre.” The tragedy is that many unaware of Varanasi and Hinduism would digest these gross falsehoods (or to CNN maybe its ‘Alternative facts’), feeling a twinge of guilt and self-loathing while watching shows like ‘Believers’. In reality, most of the ghats in Varanasi are meant for bathing and puja, while only 2 ghats – Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghats are dedicated to cremation. Ghats are riverfront steps, not pyres.
Let’s backtrack and explain what Varanasi is; the city represents one of the holiest & most sacred places in Hinduism and across Dharmic philosophy. It is often referred to as the ‘city of light’ or ‘city of ghats’. Varanasi is also referred to as one of the oldest living and being the spiritual capital of the World.
No @CNN , Varanasi isn’t the city of the dead, it’s alive and the city of moksha. Please stop your Hinduphobia and hatemonering.
— Shantanu Ghosh (@docile_atom) March 4, 2017
— Rajiv Malhotra (@RajivMessage) March 4, 2017
— shilpi tewari (@shilpitewari) March 4, 2017
— Amrita Bhinder (@amritabhinder) March 5, 2017
Sure, no one is denying that pollution is a real concern in Varanasi, as it is in most of India. But what sort of religious scholar or pluralistic mind puts ‘death and pollution’ as the defining feature of a city that welcomes millions every year, including non-Hindus who come there seeking spiritual knowledge? Imagine headlining a show with ‘intent to make people aware of other faiths’ suggest such a derogatory name for Vatican or Mecca, the religious capitals for Catholics and Muslims. Don’t think CNN would have forgotten to do it’s homework and make such a mistake.
The biggest challenge for scholars that practice Abrahamic faiths when discussing Dharmic faiths (Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism) is the enormous difference in fundamental philosophy embedded in the deep base that is ever evolving and plural. Therefore, although Dharmic faiths have been classified as ‘religion’ by western academics, they are really spiritual philosophy frameworks that represent a ‘way of life’. Reza Aslan being an Iranian-American scholar in religious studies and a practicing Muslim, would look at Hinduism from a different lens than someone who is agnostic or believes in spirituality vs. religion as a bases of thinking.
Even if we set aside distortion of facts like CNN has done, would any show on Vatican start off with talking about pedophilia and the sex abuse scandal which has rocked the Catholic church for over a decade now, or show Mecca by highlighting how the holy Muslim land still follows medieval sharia justice & prohibits practice of any religion other than Islam?
Such monumental ignorance & denigration of Hindu Dharma in Western media, both left-liberal and right-wing outlets, is nothing new for the discerning Hindu. When Hinduphobic scholars like Wendy Doniger dominate academic Hindu studies with their Freudian psycho-sexual approach, popular culture celebrates films like ‘Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom‘ which showed Amrish Puri as a murderous Hindu priest of a Kali-worshipping cult, and Sri Ganesha figures on underwear being sold on Amazon, the ‘Believers’ show doesn’t come as a surprise. This analysis exposes the acute Hinduphobia problem that major international news outlets suffer from.
Incidentally, this is not the first time Reza Aslan has faced mass criticism. There are a large amount of tweets across social media referring to Reza Aslan as an islamist apologist that has argued ‘there is no need to fight jihadis like Al-Qaeda, rather the world should engage “moderate Islamic” political forces’.
Here is a critical review of this upcoming show and why it fails to achieve its stated goal of “showing the shared similarities at the heart of the world’s various religions.” It seems that after the opening episode on ‘Hinduism’, Reza Aslan will cover religious communities involved with ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, voodoo in Haiti, an apocalyptic doomsday cult in Hawaii, Santa Muerte in Mexico and Scientology in the States. Notice how the 6-part series clubs Hindu Dharma with outlandish cults and neatly sidesteps the ‘mainstream’ Abrahamic religions i.e Islam and Christianity.
The good thing is that Hindus are not taking such stereotyping and distortion lying down anymore. The trailer has set off a lively debate on Facebook and Twitter, with many Hindus and even Westerners rebutting the negative & false portrayal of Varanasi. Many Hindus have also argued why they are never included in public coverage, showing ongoing systematic hinduphobic across media and public discourse around Hinduism.
But there were some who found in the video a good opportunity to indulge in some Hindu-bashing or ‘Hinduphobia’, or who thought the video provided a good introduction to Hindu Dharma, despite what the Hindus themselves had to say about it in the comments section!
Thousands of Hindus around the World, including Americans also took to Twitter to directly notify CNN and Reza Aslan of their misrepresentation or ‘alternative facts’ of Hindu culture, but so far there has been no public apology by either party. Below are some more examples:
— Emma Clark (@seremdipitous) March 5, 2017
Well, controversial academic Reza Aslan is the driving force behind it, so not unsurprising to expect a healthy dose of Hinduphobia. https://t.co/GyMX5ztcnI
— Abhinav Agarwal (@AbhinavAgarwal) February 24, 2017
Hey Reza & CNN, Varanasi is definitely not known as the city of the dead. Get yours factoids straight & don’t spread your pseudo-knowledge https://t.co/wIDxiv8LBn
— Fantasy Book Critic (@FantasyBookCrit) March 4, 2017
No Indian knows Kashi as city of dead. This MC Reza and MMC CNN rewriting India for Indians https://t.co/X9rcmzHI83
— Yellow (@PeeliHaldi) March 4, 2017
— Gita S. Kapoor (@GitaSKapoor) March 5, 2017
— Rajesh Kumar Singh (@neelnabh) March 4, 2017
— Sarveshi Shukla (@Sarveshi) March 4, 2017