“Lisa, I don’t need this. I swear to God, I do not need this right now, OK?” — My Cousin Vinny
I’m shocked and disgusted at Reza Aslan’s new series, Believer, on CNN. In his premiere episode, he portrays the Aghori, a small sect of Hinduism, as human- and feces-eating crazies. The theatrics are over-the-top and sensationalized in an obvious attempt to drive ratings for this failing network. Sad!
If that sounded like Donald Trump, well, yes, that’s the point. Immigration, as a political issue, had largely faded from view until Trump made it one of the central issues of his campaign¹, from birtherism to calling Mexicans rapists to banning Muslims. And now, anti-immigrant fervor in the United States is at a peak. Three Indians have been shot and killed in the last few weeks. And of course the ultimate irony is that they were mistaken for Muslims. So, for a Muslim to depict Hindus the way he does in his series is particularly irresponsible.
Now comes the counterargument that Aslan filmed this series before any of these shootings happened. And that’s where CNN has to take the blame. Oftentimes, shows are canceled or postponed due to what’s going on at the time. It is the height — or depth — of journalistic irresponsibility to air this right now.
Remember face value and place value from math class? A 5 is a 5. You can have 5 apples. Well, let’s use mangoes since I’m writing about my people. You can have 5 mangoes. That’s the face value of 5.
But if the 5 moves from the ones column to the tens column, it’s now 50. The 5 is worth more depending upon where it sits. That’s place value.
And when it comes to the charged topics of religion, politics, and sex, and you’re running on an international network, place value trumps face value. (Pun intended.)
As a comedian, I know this. This is why we have the idea of “Too soon?” Making a joke about an airplane on September 12, 2001, reads entirely different from making the same joke on September 10, 2001. This is not a hard concept to grasp and I’d question writing four paragraphs about it but it’s clearly a lesson that CNN and Aslan do not seem to have learned.
Let’s start with face value. In this age of alternative facts, there are still some (hopefully most) of us who believe in the difference between fact and opinion.
If I ever end up on Jeopardy! and Hinduism is one of the categories, I’ll be shaking in my boots. Well, in my curly-toed shoes. It’s not one of the subjects I know cold like, “The Beatles” or “American Music Post-1955” or “American Cinema Post-1980” or “American Politics Post-1939.” But even I know that Aslan gets these facts wrong:
- Varanasi is not referred to as the City of the Dead. (Detroit is.)
- Aslan makes it seem that Hindus do not believe that God is within everything. In fact, we are not only theistic (believing God is above everything) nor only pantheistic (God is within everything) but actually panentheistic (that God is both above AND inside everything).
- Hindus do not “dump” bodies in the Ganges River. We “immerse” them. “Immerse” is a much more spiritual and respectful term when referring to the deceased. (A “dump” is what Aslan takes all over the truth.)
- Justin Timberlake does a better job of explaining Karma than Reza Aslan does. JT gets that “what goes around comes around.” Aslan gets the entire concept of Karma wrong. You are not doomed by birthright. Aslan claims that only Brahmins, those of us who are at the top of the pyramid², can break the cycle of rebirth. That is not true. By doing good things in life, anyone can attain salvation or, as Hindus call it, Moksha. (Our Moksha brings all the boys to the yard.)
- The Caste System is not part of Hinduism.
With this last one, to borrow a metaphor from Christianity, Hindus have our own cross to bear. We need to do far more to break down the caste system. (Although, if I ever do start a Hollywood agency for Indians, I’m calling it The Cast System).
But how would you like it if we focused on only the negative aspects of what you believe? Nothing is perfect and nobody is universally loved. I’ve actually heard people say they don’t think Chris Rock is funny. You don’t think CHRIS ROCK is funny? As another example, I was at a wedding reception. We were all throwing down on the floor when “Billie Jean” came on. I kid you not, this woman walks off going, “I hate this song.” You hate BILLIE JEAN? You may as well just have said that you hate ice cream and happiness, too. OK, if it’s humanly possible for some people to dislike Chris Rock and Billie Jean, then truly nothing is sacred.
So, anything can be desecrated. What if I were to screen a documentary on American history that went like this? “Yeah, so, in the beginning, all the European invaders killed off all the Native Americans and then enslaved Africans and then declared that all men are created equal but discriminated against women and all people of color and made the Chinese and Indians build railroads and threw the Japanese in internment camps while they dropped atomic bombs on their homeland and incinerated thousands of people and that’s the entire story of America nothing else to see here good night thank you for coming drive safely.” I would assume Americans, including myself, would be horribly offended. Yes, there is some truth to all of these claims, but what about the crazy amount of good that America has done for its people and for the world? Aslan paints Hindus as believing in the caste system except for a select few good apples (mangoes) who have shunned that and are doing good work. C’mon, dude. That’s just blatantly untrue.
Moreover, it’s the way the story is told. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video must be worth a million. And what people will remember isn’t Aslan’s ephemeral thoughts about Hinduism’s being a beautiful religion but rather the footage of the Aghori’s man dancing, peeing, and eating his own feces.
And with that visual, let’s transition over into the place value of it all. Columnist Lindy West made a spectacularly good argument after Daniel Tosh defended his decision to make rape jokes. I, as a comedian, went into her piece ready to toe the comic line, but it was this that changed my mind:
And being an “equal opportunity offender” — as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah” — falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry — I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer. It’s really easy to believe that “nothing is sacred” when the sanctity of your body and your freedom are never legitimately threatened.
And so it is with Hinduism. Purely from a numbers perspective, we are such a small part of American society. Exploring the sect of Christianity that speaks in tongues isn’t the same thing. Jesus, I’m not even Christian and for most of my life I knew more about it than I did my own faith because it’s ubiquitous in America. So, while a little libel/slander is still not cool — don’t get me wrong — Christianity can take that punch here in the United States because there is so much information about it. Hinduism is “exotic” and “weird” and “wrong” and “primitive” and “pagan.” We are constantly “Otherized.” It’s this sort of knowledge asymmetry that makes our battle much harder.
People know shockingly little about religions, even their own. As David St. Hubbins said in This Is Spinal Tap, “I believe virtually everything I read. And I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn’t believe anything.” The entire movie is a mockumentary but, as comedy often does, this accurately describes how many people are.
Which is what makes me question the entire premise of this show. In this day and age of intolerance, what is to gained from this type of thing? This is the time for the media, which the Trump Administration has declared the opposition party, to fight back with diversity and inclusion. You don’t have to shove it down our throat like a lot of liberals do, but at the minimum, could you follow the Hippocratic Oath and first do no harm? I mean, so many Indians are doctors that we’ll support that.
And if you really feel the need to proceed anyway, then at least hire a team of folks so a person of that particular faith can tell that particular story. I get away with making Indian and Hindu jokes because I am Indian and I am Hindu. I have creative license to do that. (Sure, some people never like jokes but they’re not a comedian’s audience, anyway.) It’s the age-old argument: I can say something about my brother, and it’s cool, but if you say something about my brother, it’s not cool.
It is but natural to be fascinated by the fringe elements of society. Hence the endless parade on TV of shows about serial killers and mass murderers and cannibals and Nazis and sharks and UFOs and ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night. (Are sharks part of society? Well, you get it.) Hell, my favorite film ever is The Silence of The Lambs. (I left that off of my OKCupid profile.)
Speaking of movies, I even enjoyed Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. You know why? Movie industries around the world, including Hollywood and Bollywood, inaccurately portray things they do not understand. I know many Indians at the time were offended and exasperated by Indiana Jones (and maybe it felt even more like a betrayal as he has “Indian” in his name). But what about blackface or Mickey Rooney’s Asian man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? It was just our turn to be mocked. That was entertainment in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. And honestly, though it was religiously inaccurate, ripping somebody’s heart out just made Amrish Puri look like a total badass.
This is a different medium and a different era. This is an informational program on a news network in the ’10s. And my heart goes out (pun intended) to the kids who had to go to school the next day. I cannot even imagine the teasing and the outright bullying they must have experienced. What it leads to is a young Hindu’s distancing and perhaps even denouncing his or her own religion. I mean, a segment showing a dude’s eating human flesh around a fire and then dancing around and eating his own crap? That’s indefensible, especially for Reza Aslan, whose own religion has been so misinterpreted. This is brown-on-brown crime. And Aslan is the cannibal here.
Saying this is just great television is to ignorantly pass on learning the lesson of Trump. Trump was great television and the media’s obsession with him is precisely how he got elected.
The sad thing is that Aslan and CNN didn’t have to take this far. Religion, by definition, is odd. ANY belief system is crazy if you take a step back from it all. To note:
“You really believe in four-armed goddesses and elephant-headed sons and that humans are born again and again until they join the collective consciousness?”
“You really believe in not eating pigs just because they’re dirty and that drawing a cartoon of a prophet is a sin and that you’ll someday sleep with 72 virgins?”
“You really believe that a shepherd carpenter was conceived without intercourse and that he walked on water and that when you go to church you literally are eating his body and that in heaven you’ll be surrounded by angels and your dead pets?”
“You really believe that all of this is just coincidence and there is no God and nothing above us all and this all happened out of nowhere despite the fact that entropy says that things get more random over time and then so how the hell do you explain order arising out of chaos?”
The spiritual realm in general is fascinating enough on its own. And India and Hinduism specifically already provide enough great TV. India is a great and beautiful place where… well, just watch I AM INDIAN. (Shameless plug.) The point is that these are compelling enough topics and no matter how much demystifying you do, India and Hinduism will remain magical and mystical.
“Believe me.” — Donald Trump
¹Immigration, both legal and illegal, always affects every country, so I’m not arguing that it’s not an issue at all, but it had not been part of the zeitgeist in years until Trump came along.
²Had to throw it in there that I’m a Brahmin.
Rajiv Satyal is a standup comic and proud Hindu. He resides in Los Angeles.