Mar 12, 2017

CNN film on obscure sect angers some Hindus in US

Times of India
Chidanand Rajghatta
March 7, 2017

WASHINGTON: With their matted locks, naked ash-caked bodies, and bizarre rituals that purportedly includes cannibalism, the secretive and mystical Aghori mendicants constitute a miniscule fraction of professed Hindus in India, barely even known within the country.

Bumped into prime time by CNN to ostensibly showcase the 'world's most fascinating faith-based groups,' a documentary on the mystical sect that opened the series on Spiritually Curious Believer with host Reza Aslan has aghast many Indian community leaders and Hindu organisations in the US. They say it comes at a dangerous time for immigrants when they are already unfairly caricatured and misrepresented.

"It is unbelievably reckless of CNN to be pushing sensational and grotesque images of bearded brown men and their morbid and deathly religion at a time when the United States is living through a period of unprecedented concern and fear," Vamsee Juluri, a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco, wrote in a commentary as outrage swept through the Hindu Indian community in US over the documentary.

Accusing the network of perpetuating a 'very racist, colonial era discourse of dehumanization and even demonization,' Juluri said it was callous on part of CNN and Reza Aslan, who is an Iranian-American religious studies scholar, to be 'oblivious to the kind of discomfort and even danger that images like this could create for South Asians, Sikhs, Muslims and other brown people in America.' Several immigrants from India have been attacked in recent weeks in the US, and civil liberties groups have reported a spike in hate crimes.

Calling for all Hindus worldwide to boycott CNN, which he called 'Clinton News Network,' Shalabh Kumar, the Indian-American businessman-supporter of President Trump, characterized the program as 'disgusting attack on Hindus for supporting @POTUS.'

On his part, Aslan maintained that the show was about the Aghori and not Hinduism. But that did not mollify Hindu commentators, including members of the Hindu-American Foundation (HAF) who had an opportunity to preview the film, and who pointed out that it devoted 'copious footage to highlighting stereotypical and sensationalized presentations of Hinduism.'

But after the producers indicated they intended to proceed with the screening despite anticipating protests from the Hindu community leaders, the HAF apparently advised its members to watch the documentary and respond civilly and appropriately, an approach that agitated the more hardline members of the community.

In fact, in its interaction with Aslan, the HAF asked him if there would be an episode of Believer showcasing Aslan's own faith, Islam. Aslan's response: the producers originally intended to shoot an episode featuring the Ashura festival in Pakistan. Everything was scripted, scouted, and ready to go. But no one would insure the production to shoot — at least at a price that didn't break the show's budget. The episode was abandoned.

If and when there's a second series of Believer, Aslan assured them that Islam would definitely be included.

But it was not just Hindu-Indians who panned the documentary; at least one TV critic also lit into it from a professional perspective. "Many of the groups and leaders featured here are so fringe that their bizarre philosophies and theatrics distract from Aslan's main mission- to demystify lesser understood faiths and find a commonality that makes us all believers in something," wrote LA Times reviewer Lorraine Ali.

"The research and scene-setting- in this installment, where Aslan explains the caste system, its relation to the Hindu religion and interviews scholars and people on the street- is when the show is at its best. But when it leads to him hanging out in a meditation den, lit like a rave, with an attention-seeking guru who drinks honey out of human skulls, the journey is more about sensationalism than true discovery,'' she added.

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