Critics blast CNN's Believer host Reza Aslan for showcasing 'religious' cannibals in India

Reza Aslan in his profile photo on Twitter.
Reza Aslan in his profile photo on Twitter. PHOTO: TWITTER

WASHINGTON  (Washington Post) - Religion scholar Reza Aslan ate cooked human brain tissue with a group of cannibals in India during the premiere of the new CNN show Believer on Sunday (Mar 5, 2017), a documentary series about spirituality around the globe.

The outcry was immediate. Aslan, a Muslim who teaches creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, was accused of "Hinduphobia" and of mischaracterising Hindus.

"With multiple reports of hate-fuelled attacks against people of Indian origin from across the US, the show characterises Hinduism as cannibalistic, which is a bizarre way of looking at the third largest religion in the world," lobbyist group US India Political Action Committees said in a statement, according to the Times of India.

In the episode, Aslan meets up with a sect of Indian religious nomads outside the of Varanasi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The Aghori, as they are known, reject the Hindu caste system and the notion of untouchables, and espouse that the distinction between purity and pollution is essentially meaningless.

In the Aghori view, nothing can taint the human body, Aslan said."Kind of a profound thought. Also: A little bit gross," said Aslan, whose bestselling books on religion include Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Aghori convince Aslan to bathe in the Ganges, a river that Hindus considers sacred. An Aghori guru smears the ashes of cremated humans on his face. And, at the Aghori's invitation, Aslan drinks alcohol from a human skull and eats what was purported to be a bit of human brain.

"Want to know what a dead guy's brain tastes like? Charcoal," Aslan wrote on Facebook. "It was burnt to a crisp!" At one point, the interview soured and one cannibal threatened Aslan: "I will cut off your head if you keep talking so much."

Aslan, in turn, said to his director that: "I feel like this may have been a mistake."

And when the guru began to eat his own waste and hurl it at Aslan and his camera crew, the CNN host scurried away.

"Pretty sure that was not the Aghori I was looking for," he said.

Aslan also interviewed several non-cannibal Aghori practitioners, including those who ran an orphanage and a group of volunteers who cared for people with leprosy. Still, some critics felt the focus on the flesh-eating Aghori inappropriate and done for the shock value.

"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," wrote Vamsee Juluri, a media studies professor at the University of San Francisco, in article at the Huffington Post.

(Cannibalism, while not formally outlawed in the United States, may lead to charges for desecration of corpses. Eating human brains has also been linked to prion disease.)

Some viewers turned to Twitter to express their anger at the program. One of the loudest voices on the social media platform belonged to wealthy Indian-American industrialist Shalabh Kumar, who made significant contributions to President Donald Trump's campaign and has angled to become a US ambassador to India. Kumar seemed to perceive the episode as an attack on Hindu Americans who voted for the president.

"Disgusting attack on Hindus for supporting @POTUS," Kumar tweeted.

Invoking the "Clinton News Network" - a label that Trump helped popularise - Kumar wrote in a follow-up tweet that the network had no respect for members of the religion. He called for Hindus to boycott CNN.