In the first episode of CNN’s new series Believer, presenter Reza Aslan met with the Aghori, a nomadic religious sect based in India. The Aghori worship the Hindu deity Shiva, but reject many of the tenets of Hinduism and practice a range of unusual ceremonies, including cannibalism.
While staying with the Aghori, Aslan drank alcohol from a human skull, and ate a cooked piece of brain. He later wrote on Facebook: “Want to know what a dead guy’s brain tastes like? Charcoal. It was burnt to a crisp!”
Critics have attacked the programme, claiming its focus on the Aghori sect misrepresents Hinduism as a whole.
A statement from Washington lobby group US India Political Action Committees (USINPAC) said: “With multiple reports of hate-fueled attacks against people of Indian origin from across the U.S., the show characterizes Hinduism as cannibalistic, which is a bizarre way of looking at the third largest religion in the world.”
Vamsee Juluri, a media studies professor from the University of California, has also attacked the show as “racist” in a article for The Huffington Post.
“It is unbelievably callous and 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,” Juluri wrote.
US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has called the episode “sensationalist and absurd”.
On Twitter, Gabbard said: “CNN didn’t just throw a harsh light on a sect of wandering ascetics to create shocking visuals—as if touring a zoo—but repeated false stereotypes about caste, karma and reincarnation that Hindus have been combating tirelessly.”
In a press release, CNN praised the new show’s viewing figures, pointing to its place as the as the top-rated programme among in its time-slot among 18 to 34-year-olds.
Aslan is the author of three books on religion, and teaches Creative Writing at the University of California. Although he has given no formal statement on the latest controversy, he has retweeted a comment from Believer’s producer Ben Selkow, defending the programme. “The episode is a celebration of the modern Aghor and look at casteism,” Selkow wrote, adding: “Peace.”