Editor Henry M. Alden treated the readers of the incredibly popular Harper’s New Monthly Magazine to a visit to the Indian city of Benares in May 1869. Alden compiled a number of extant descriptions of this “Sacred City of the Hindus.” For example, he extracted a lengthy “graphic description of the city as it now appears” from Englishman C. W. Dilke:
You walk preceded by your guide, who warns the people, so they may stand aside and not be defiled by your touch, for that is the real secret of the apparent respect paid to you in Benares . . . The scene in the passages is the most Indian in India. The gaudy dresses of the Hindu princes spending a week in purification at the holy place, the frescoed fronts of the shops and houses, the deafening beating of the tom-toms, and above all the smoke and sickening smell from the ‘burning ghats’ that meet you, mingled with a sweeter smell of burning spices, as you work your way through the vast crowds of pilgrims who are pouring up from the river’s bank, all alike are strange to the English traveler and fill his mind with that indescribable awe which every where accompanies the sight of scenes and ceremonies that we do not understand.
Dilke goes on to describe the scene “on the ghats, rows of fires, each with a smoldering body; on the river, boatloads of pilgrims and fakeers, praying while they float; under the houses, lines of prostrate bodies” of sick people he claims will be suffocated with sacred Ganges mud, “while prowling about are the wolf-like fanatics who feed on putrid flesh.” Along with a number of other similar accounts, Alden’s article included large engravings of temples and ghats along the Ganges.
Dilke’s description deploys a number of images that typified European and American representations of India. It was a land of anxiety over caste and caste pollution, hence the fear of touching an Englishman. It was also a land of filth, sickness, and death. And fakirs or other “holy men” always made an appearance to complete the Indian tableaux. Their bizarre practices and ascetic lifestyle represented the sanguinary superstitions, morbid rituals, and general indolence and Hindu religion. Benares, the “sacred city,” with its pilgrims, fakirs, and ghats along the Ganges became a particularly common example of this European rendering of Hindus.
Reza Aslan recently brought viewers of CNN on similar journey to the same city. “I came to Varanasi India to do a show about Hinduism, about karma, reincarnation, the caste system, and a little known Hindu sect called the Aghori. That’s when things got out of hand,” he narrates in the opening minute of his new show, Believer. The narration is accompanied by shots of Aslan riding down the Ganges on the bow of a boat, saffron robed Hindu holy men, fires burning on the ghats, cows, and ascetics covered in ashes. While the city’s name has changed from Benares to Varanasi, its image in American media has endured.
Aslan’s new show is a kind of Anthony Bourdain, but for religion. Each week our fearless host embeds with a different religious community. It’s spiritual adventure television. In the debut episode, Aslan visits Varanasi to spend time among the Aghori, a small sect of ascetics that attempt to dismantle distinctions between pure and impure by engaging in rituals of defilement. In the episode, Aslan arrives on the bank of the Ganges in a boat, wearing a bright orange robe and accompanied by his local guide in jeans and a button-down shirt. He meets a small group of Aghori around a fire. After making him bathe in the Ganges, the Aghori guru promises to teach Aslan the ways of the Aghori. They offer Aslan human brains and charred human remains to eat. They cover him in ashes from the cremation ground. The segment ends when one Aghori threatens to decapitate Aslan if he doesn’t stop asking questions and then begins drinking his own urine and throwing it at Aslan and his film crew. Aslan quips as he dashes away, “I’m pretty sure that’s not the Aghori I’m looking for.” While the episode shifts focus later to a group of middle-class Aghori that use the rejection of purity distinctions to fight against caste discrimination and pursue social justice, it is the exotic images of the ascetics on the riverbank that dominated the advertising for the show and the reaction to it afterward.
Indeed, the major difference between the Harper’s and CNN representations of Varanasi is that, unlike in 1869, in 2017 a community of Hindu Americans live in the United States and they can speak out and criticize the exotic representation of Hindus. Both before and after the episode aired, groups such as the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) publicly denounced the show as inaccurate, stereotypical, and harmful. HAF co-founder Aseem Shukla called the show “religion porn.” A group of Hindu American groups united under the title of the Coalition for Religious Literacy wrote an open letter to CNN’s executives. They accused the show of Hinduphobia and pointed to the recent shooting of two Indian American men in Kansas as evidence of how dangerous Aslan’s stereotypes of the Hindu Other can be. Hindu Americans have argued that the ashen face of the Aghori guru does not represent them.
Ironically, Aslan believes his show can help end hate crimes like the one in Kansas. As he told Fast Company, he thinks the show will bring an antidote to fear of the Other.
For me, I’ve always wanted to be the person who helps people understand those who may not share their views, or their ideas, or their skin color, or their religion. I want to be the interpreter of religion for people—the one who helps you break through the external shell of a particular religion to show you how familiar and similar it is to your own beliefs, whether or not you yourself are religious. I try to do this with my books; I try to do this with my media commentary. And this TV show is basically another version of that. What I’m trying to do by introducing you to the religious group that may seem different and scary is to show you that underneath it all, there is a connection that you have with these people, even if you don’t believe it. So that’s been my goal.
Aslan thinks the connections across religious differences are deep and real. He has described how, as he started studying religion, he “quickly discovered what everyone who studies religion discovers: Underneath the externalities of these religious traditions, they’re all saying the same thing.” But notice the sleight of hand Aslan must use in the episode to reveal to the audience that they are climbing the same religious mountain as the Aghori. Aslan has to go to an ashram of middle-class reforming social justice Aghori in order to claim that all religion is about doing good and that we are all the same. So, while the audience can identify with the middle-class Aghori, the flesh-eating ascetic is left on the sands of the Ganges, still an exotic Other outside Aslan’s perennialist religion. It is not that we, the American viewers, all have something in common with all of the Aghori. Rather, there are some modern Aghori that look a lot like us and share a modern notion of social justice spirituality. Perennialism has its limits.
Aslan’s “all religion is the same and it’s all about being a good person” claims would be fine if he positioned himself as a spiritual guide or religious teacher, but Aslan insists that he is a scholar of religion. The opening credits say so four times. But such claims are not scholarship. In his “Theses on Method,” scholar of religion Bruce Lincoln summed up the religious scholar’s job well:
When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one’s interest in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between “truths”, “truth-claims”, and “regimes of truth”, one has ceased to function as historian or scholar. In that moment, a variety of roles are available: some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of import goods). None, however, should be confused with scholarship.
Aslan permits the reforming Aghori to define their own terms, his “all religions are the same” approach ignores the temporal and contingent, and so he has ceased to function as a scholar. It’s up to viewers to decide which of the other roles suites him best. Moreover, these same things that get in the way of his role as scholar are also the cause of his troubles with his Hindu critics. By saying that he knows what Hinduism (and religion) is really about he abnegates his role as scholar and offends Hindus who have their own ideas about Hinduism’s truths.
As I have recently written, Americans have argued about representations of religion in India since the late eighteenth century. Aslan’s episode and the Hindu backlash is just the latest example in this long history. Each of these battles over representation reveals little about religion in India. Instead, they reveal more about the concerns of those involved and the questions at stake in their historical moment. The dispute between Aslan and American Hindus illustrates the popularity of progressive perennial do-gooder spirituality that effaces religious difference, the desire to assert firm religious identities when faced with that spirituality, and the real fears and dangers experienced by racial and religious minorities in our current social and political moment. The job of the scholar, then, is to step back and analyze these political, social, and cultural forces. But that might not make great TV.