CNN risks alienation of Hindu Americans and world Hindus
by Achintyachintaka on 12 Apr 2017 14 Comments

On behalf of the Hindu American community and Hindus around the world, I believe that a personal apology and public denouncement by CNN is long overdue for Reza Aslan’s recent episode, “Believer with Reza Aslan,” which grossly misrepresents one of the world’s greatest, oldest, and most peaceful religions, not to mention one that is steeped in more science than any of the mainstream rival philosophies.


The so-called documentary is a stunt the CNN network pulled at a very ominous moment in the history of the US, with equally ominous content. It demonstrated extreme emotional and cultural insensitivity and lack of sensibility. Overall, it displayed poor judgment on the part of CNN to air this show, which was hardly newsworthy if its intent was to create any objective educational presentation while purporting to glorify some hi-falutin’ philosophy of Hinduism.


The episode can have very little positive impact in promoting true and fair understanding of Hindus and their beliefs or way of life; on the contrary, it will have more negative consequences among the wider American audience.


The two million Hindus residing in the US and one billion all around the world all cremate their dead. It is a sacred last rite in the life of a Hindu. 


In presenting cremation as a vile and dirty act, as Aslan has done, all the while ignoring the fact that the ashes are sterile immediately upon removal from the funeral pyre, he and CNN showed an utter lack of scientific understanding of cremation. Besides, the Aghori sect that Reza chose to dramatize in his presentation does not count for even 100,000 in the 1.2 billion-strong population of Hindus. In all, the episode makes a mockery of Hinduism and Hindus and instigates disrespect for one of the oldest and most profound philosophies and its mainstream practitioners across the globe.


There are offshoots or cults under the rubric of many religions that are not considered even as sects or even as associated with the religions they claim affiliation with. Would mainstream Christians acknowledge that the evangelical tongue-talkers and snake charmers of the American South, or the animal (and, sometimes even human) sacrificing Satanic or “vampire” cults that claim origin in Christian/Biblical traditions, represent Christianity?


Would mainstream Muslims accept the jihadi terrorists that have become a threat around the world through organisations like ISIS and Al Qaeda, represent the peace-loving Muslims that make up the majority of the population of practitioners?


Similarly, the Aghori tribe is not, and has never been, accepted by mainstream or traditional Hinduism; in fact, mainstream society has no access or interaction with them or their high priests, and little if any knowledge of their religious doctrines. True, they cannot be called non-Hindu as they worship Hindu gods and meditate in Hindu cremation grounds, and pre-date the arrival of non-Hindu faiths on the Indian mainland.


However, they should not be represented, as the Aslan show on CNN does, as representing Hindus or Hinduism. There are many curiosities for cultural anthropologists to explore all over the world, that live and interact with mainstream religious populations that accept and tolerate these cults, but to represent them as the mainstream religion is a travesty that CNN is perpetrating.


We know that persons like Reza Aslan will not risk a fatwa from hostile fellow “believers” by mocking their beliefs publicly in any media, but will rather hide behind “freedom of speech” and First Amendment rights when confronted with the impropriety and inaccuracies of facts, and their calculated distortions, deliberately expressed to offend other cultures – as he has done in this instance to target the peace promoting and scientifically based religion of Hinduism.


The episode even begins with intent to create disgust about the sacred act expected of every Hindu son [child] to serenely perform the funeral of his parents. To ridicule cremation in the manner in which the CNN show did, offends millions of Hindus. Many may have recently performed this ritual for their loved ones.


Reza Aslan represents a culture that buries its dead. Rather than promoting the beautiful culture and tradition of a more ancient tradition as one who is truly interested in learning objectively, he displays lack of empathy, lack of cross-cultural understanding, and bigotry, implicitly comparing one peoples’ funeral traditions to another’s as if the one he represents is “correct” and the other is “unhygienic.” All Hindus are civilized enough not to compare and contrast the disposal of the last remains of loved ones. They have learned how dignity is to be maintained by not making any negative comments about this necessary process variously executed by different cultures.


One can, however, imagine the process of decomposition that human bodies are subjected to when interred, even if embalmed. Those uneducated about this process would want to present cremation as dirty, and the disposal of sterile ashes into a large body of water as unhygienic and disgusting. A Hindu journalist could retaliate, but will not out of common decency. He could present visually disgusting and aversive sights showing the various stages through which dead bodies go through when disposed of in such fashion by so called civilised cultures, not to speak of showing how a devotee of a mummified Catholic Saint bit off a toe from a 500 year old preserved body, when exhumed in Goa, India.


Educated media managers of CNN do not need to be reminded of the origins of the nursery rhyme “ring around the Rosie…. ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” Since CNN evidently gave no thought to the implications of airing Reza Aslan’s episode that promulgates stereotypes, misinformation, and bigotry, which reflects badly on CNN, allow me to remind the readers of its origins.


CNN and Reza Aslan may not be aware that during the epidemic of plague in England, mass cremation of bodies was undertaken to prevent further spread of the disease. That is what led to the composition of this children’s poem. 


Ignoring history, Aslan in his ill-informed episode conveniently ignored a fact or did not want to mention that only two of the forty-eight “ghats” on the Ganges in Varanasi are earmarked for crematoria (Manikaran and Harishchandra). He gave the impression that all “Ghats” on river Ganga are like what he presented. What a sinister thinking. To describe and create an impression that one of the most ancient holy cities of Hindus, Varanasi, is a gigantic crematorium or city for the dead is an act of hate towards a different, “other” civilization.


It must by now be obvious to everyone that one of the greatest concerns I am attempting to convey to readers and through my suggestion for public apology is to take corrective action as soon as possible before the show leads to some preventable but irreversible horrible consequences. Although President Trump’s travel ban and guarding of borders is not directed at Indians, a majority of who are Hindus or Sikhs, there have been documented and publicly reported increases in hate crime towards Hindus and Sikhs as a result of his Executive Order. CNN’s airing such a show at such an inopportune moment serves only to pour more fuel onto the fire. 


As socially responsible media, a leader of one of the most unbiased and largest news networks, CNN needed to be aware of the consequences of broadcasting of a xenophobic show referring to some Hindus as cannibals. Sanjay Gupta, MD, practicing Indian neurosurgeon in Atlanta, is CNN’s leading medical expert and a Hindu who would have informed the CNN management that there is no cannibalism among the Hindus, absolutely zero.


Aslan, and by proxy CNN, have created a disgusting picture of an average Hindu for those who know very little about Hindus and their way of life. This is a deliberate act of hostility towards the so-called “non-believers,” and CNN network provided him the platform to spread such hate for mass distribution.


His purporting to really understand Hinduism is disingenuous, and I hope CNN does not gloat over Reza Aslan and his not-so-concealed sadistic attitude towards Hindus. He repeats, “I cannot wrap my head around” how reincarnation with consequences for “sins” during this life can lead to negative experience in the next life.


Perhaps he should stick with promoting religions he claims to understand, with their beliefs about eternal burning in hell for those who have not accepted his Prophet or the Christian God, or the claim of being gifted upon death with multiple partners in the afterlife for dying while committing jihad. It would be interesting to see how Aslan wraps his head around such concepts.


This writer implores readers to denounce Reza Aslan, demand that CNN distance itself from his shameful and derogatory portrayal of a religion and culture of which he so obviously knows nothing, and has no desire to even understand with the least due diligence.


Hindus are now not only a highly industrious minority in the United States of America, but in the entire Western world; they make up a hugely productive and successful population, and add much rich positivity to the world we live in. They can be potentially subjects of great admiration and recognition, as in the case of Dr. Murthy being appointed as a surgeon general of the United States, but could also easily become objects of paranoid projections if their image is not projected positively for the larger majority in any Western country.


It is for the younger generation of Hindus all over the world to become conscious of how to project a positive image in the world media, consistently uphold the respect and recognition for their present and future true achievements and accomplishments. To do this without large funds is a challenge our younger generation will need to accept.


For now, it would suffice to contemplate how Hindu intellectuals have to formally object to such negative depiction of their culture in the world media, creating an aversive image of Hindus in the world view. This is how hate germinates, and if not curbed, becomes magnified into hate crimes and even larger violence towards maligned or marginalized sections of society.


Western castigation of the caste system is oblivious to its original spirit of inclusiveness with simultaneous respect for different identities of subsections of populations, so as to help them coexist peacefully while maintaining their identity and subculture. It is more humane than holocausts, extrusions into reservations, colonies, segregations, lynching the unwanted if found in the town after the sunset, and such practices, which eliminate the unwanted from the larger society.


By brushing these historical facts under the carpet, Western society takes pride in flaunting “the absence of caste system” in the West, which is not really true if one takes a close look at the manner in which those who could have existed peacefully as different castes/groups in the West were totally annihilated. CNN has given Reza Aslan a free hand to throw hackneyed aspersions at Hindus publicly for their age-old caste system, with no opportunity for Hindus to present countering views. Concerned Hindu American communities need to approach CNN to start taking corrective action.  

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