Believer

I recently watched the first episode of new CNN series ‘Believer’, hosted by religious scholar Reza Aslan. If you’re not particularly active on Facebook and Twitter, you might be unaware of the intense controversy that has engulfed ‘Believer’ even before it was released. The outrage culture that prevails on social media, especially Twitter, ensured that for many merely the fact that Reza Aslan, an alleged ‘Hinduphobe’, is the narrator has been enough to brand the show as anti-Hindu.

I would go on to hazard that at least some of those whose ‘sensitivities’ have been hurt by the show have not really watched it. The reason I can say that pretty confidently is because their views on the show mostly revolve around the promo clips that were tweeted out by CNN and Aslan. If they had actually seen the episode, I think many of them would be less sure of Believer’s anti-Hinduness.

It’s not that I am guilt-free of doing this TV version of judging a book from its cover. I gormlessly retweeted the dozens of tweet threads that sprang up after the show was announced along with short promotional clips. The promotional clips are supposed to scandalise and shock you to arouse the viewer’s curiosity – that’s their very purpose. You just have to take a cursory look at movie trailers to comprehend what I’m talking about.reza-aslan-press

That being said, what about genuine grievances coming from those who have seen it? I totally understand that. There are plenty of reasons why a practicing Hindu might be put off by the show as I will enumerate later. While my knowledge or indeed intellect is not wide enough to encompass the wider implications the show may have on American Hindus in Donald Trump-led America as Tulsi Gabbard, an American Hindu politician, has pointed out in a series of tweets, I can and I will judge the show purely on its merit.

So here are some of my thoughts:

First, there is nothing anti-Hindu about ‘Believer’. Yes, Reza Aslan doesn’t have even a basic understanding of not just Hinduism but also about Varanasi, and he betrays his ignorance several times during the course of the episode. Zero marks for homework. Second, Azlan sees Hinduism through an Abrahamic point of view, and that’s understandable because Reza is an expert on Abrahamic faiths. But what he doesn’t realise is that Hinduism and indeed other Dharmic religions like Sikhism and Jainism as faith and a set of beliefs are entirely different from what he’s used to. I would think any self-professed scholar of religions would know that.

So while I do wish he’d done his research before the production, Aslan, to his credit, does try to be as fair as possible and for the most part succeeds. Both good and bad (read caste-system) aspects of Hinduism are highlighted and despite his superficial understanding, Reza Aslan comes across as a largely sympathetic, if not terribly sophisticated, ‘spiritual adventurer’.

Sorry, conspiracy theorists. Your concerns appear entirely without credit.

 

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Why God and Religion Can’t be Blamed (or Praised) for Activities, Good or Bad, Carried out in His Name

Disclaimer: Let me declare that I’m not an Islamic apologist. I’m a Hindu and a fairly proud one – despite the frequent shenanigans of the Hindutva fanatics. Also, I wholly agree that the gun-toting men who have taken the lives of so many innocents in countless appalling incidents of terrorism like the aircraft bombardments on the Twin Towers of World Trade Centre in New York, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Mumbai attacks in 2007 and now the Paris attacks… they all were Muslims, no matter what their co-religionists say.

I hope now I can freely express my thoughts on terrorism, God, religion, people and their relation without the fear of being branded an apologist. Maybe I’m still not safe from those appellations, but come to think of it, I do not care. Anyhow, the purpose I decided to write this post is not only to explain that associating the wicked acts of the followers of a particular religion with the doctrine of their religion and gods is plain wrong, but also why the inclination of the people to deny that the fundamentalists and literalists of their religion do not really belong to their religion is equally fallacious.

You know, most people do not understand what religion and God stand for. They presume that the people who commit horrific acts whilst extolling their God are inspired by the doctrine and teachings of their religion and that their God is making them do those things. This is a misconception that the sections of their holy book promote violence and destruction and inspire the followers to kill people of other faiths. As a result, all of those people who follow that religion should be condemned or imprisoned for their beliefs.

The thing is, bad people commit bad things because they are bad people, not because they are followers of a particular religion. As simple as that. Religion doesn’t have anything to do with them, and what they do are purely individualistic acts. Every religion and its teachings, even those of Buddhism and Jainism – widely considered to be the most non-violent and ‘friendly’ faiths in the world – can be twisted to endorse violence and misogyny. Everything depends on the practitioner, the individual, and how they interpret religion. An innocuous verse in a religious scripture lauding the virtues of “equality” of humanity can be construed to mean mass-murder by a hateful bigot. Each and every religion is susceptible to such interpretations. If you find that hard to believe, read up on the persecution of Rohingya Muslims by Burmese Buddhists.

It’s not just religion, any kind of ideology can be warped for one’s own preference and ambitions. Even Atheism, long glorified as a solution to religious hatred and violence, has been used to persecute and mass-murder people not very long ago. Those who think that the belief in God and religion begets ignorance, hatred and intolerance should be surprised to know that not believing in God can be equally bad. Just take a look at what Mao and Stalin did – both firm atheists. Belief in a supernatural entity or the lack of it does not make a person good or evil – their own goodness (or lack of it) does.

That said, another thing that I find almost equally erroneous is the regular disowning of the fundamentalists by the clerics and spiritual leaders of that religion. Though, I can totally understand this tendency of distancing yourself away from the people of your faith who besmirch its name, it is a wrong thing to do all the same. The point is, if you call yourself a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, or a Hindu, you are those things. It doesn’t matter how fervently your co-religionists claim that you are “not one of us.” Whether they like it or not, you, a zealot and an utter embarrassment to them, do share their faith. At the same time, every follower of a faith should not be blamed for things their co-religionists do. It’s not only an injustice, it is also counter-productive. It actually engenders more fundamentalism, rather than the other way around, as the people who are wrongfully blamed become, not surprisingly, insecure and hostile in the face of unfair accusations – something, I think, that is happening a lot with Islam and Muslims these days.

It is only the time-honoured philosophies of love, tolerance and respect through which we can make this world a better place to live – devoid of hostility, bigotry and violence.