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.
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.