Having enjoyed and appreciated Reza Aslan's previous work on Islam and early Christianity, as well as his various appearances in pop culture venues like The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher, I was initially excited to hear about his new CNN series, Believer. "At last," I thought, "a television venue for a religion scholar to explain the world’s religions to the wider public."
It has been some time since intelligent reflection on the world’s religions was available on television. Huston Smith pioneered the genre, with his thoughtful, groundbreaking series. Then there was Ronald Eyre’s The Long Search which, for whatever its various flaws (the fact that it was filmed in the seventies really shows today), was of sufficient quality, in terms of substance, that professors used it for years as a source for instructional videos in world religion classes. And then there were Joseph Campbell’s fascinating conversations with Bill Moyers, aired in the eighties under the title The Power of Myth. Just as, recently, Neil DeGrasse Tyson has beautifully updated the late Carl Sagan’s classic science series, Cosmos, bringing the same sense of awe and wonder to the study of science that Sagan did, but with informational content reflecting recent developments in astronomy, physics, and biology, the time has come, I think, for a serious religion scholar with a flair for what appeals to a popular audience to present the world’s religions in a way that is both engaging and substantive. Given his status as a member of that all too rare species, the celebrity religion scholar, Reza Aslan would appear to fit the bill.
Imagine my disappointment when the premiere episode of this series was a horribly distorted and highly sensationalized account of the Shaiva Aghori sect of Hinduism. The problem is not the Aghoris. The Aghoris are a philosophically important, fascinating community. But they are hardly representative of mainstream Hinduism. Making the Aghoris the representatives of Hinduism in this series–in its first episode, no less–is like presenting the snake-handlers of Appalachia as representative of Christianity. The Aghoris were also not represented well, with subtlety or nuance, but with as much sensationalism and exoticism as possible. Although some sensationalism might well be understandable, given that this program was made for a TV audience, the Aghoris are plenty interesting already, without having to be sensationalized.
Even worse, there was a good deal of misinformation about Hinduism as well–which might have been prevented had actual Hinduism scholars with sensitivity and sincere appreciation for the tradition been consulted. Once again, as in so many other poor, oversimplified representations of Hinduism, we get caste, caste, and more caste. Presentations like this force me, as a teacher, to do 'damage control' in the classroom, to correct misperceptions arising from them. In fact, this series is symptomatic of the wider problem of how Hinduism is represented in the US educational system. We, as educators, are doing both our students and the Hindu community a disservice in not presenting this tradition in all its richness, subtlety, and philosophical depth, but instead reducing it to "caste, cows, and curry"–or, as a friend, fellow Hindu, and fellow religion scholar, has recently written in some correspondence about Aslan's episode, “caste, crud, and crazies.”
A couple of years ago, I gave a talk on the life and legacy of Swami Vivekananda to a standing room only crowd at Elizabethtown College, in Pennsylvania, where I teach. The only two questions I was asked at the end were about the caste system–which I had not mentioned in my talk at all (because, frankly, it was not relevant). Caste is an important topic, and a politically explosive one, which needs to be handled with subtlety and sensitivity. To say it merits serious discussion is an understatement. But caste is not the be-all and end-all of Hinduism. Unfortunately, however, if one can judge from what college students know about this tradition when they come from American high schools, the only thing they seem to know about Hinduism is that Hinduism equals caste. Period.
What is the solution to this situation? There are some really excellent non-Hindu scholars of religion–quite a few in fact–many of whom I am proud to claim as friends. But episodes like this one with Reza Aslan make me increasingly sympathetic to the view that, if Hindus want Hinduism to be portrayed correctly, we need to do it ourselves. This is not to say that there is no place for non-Hindus to write and teach authoritatively about Hindu traditions. Quite the contrary. There are non-Hindus who do outstanding work in this regard. But the Hindu voice needs to be more prominent than it currently is: and an informed, calm, nuanced Hindu voice, not a politically shrill one that cannot be taken seriously.
In retrospect, I should have been warier of Aslan's work, recalling a brief conversation he and I had after an excellent talk which he had given at our college a few years ago. In our conversation, he made the comment that "Hinduism does not exist"–a widely repeated trope that deceives some into thinking that the category of "Hinduism" is somehow more of an artificial construct than is either "Christianity" or "Islam." This trope also has the effect of silencing and robbing the agency from any interlocutor who might self-identify as Hindu. I took Aslan’s repeating it to be evidence of a relatively superficial knowledge of Hindu traditions. But then I thought, “He is a scholar of Islam. This is not his field of expertise.” I did not know then that he would eventually be representing Hinduism on CNN!
We have a long, long way to go to eradicate Hinduphobia. To cite a recent article by, Vamsee Juluri, informing people intelligently about Hindu traditions is especially urgent in this era when it appears to be open season on brown-skinned people of all backgrounds in America. Aslan will likely view any offense given by his series as a badge of honor: that he has managed to be critical and edgy. But the need to be critical and edgy, and to get publicity, must surely be balanced by scholarly responsibility: something we owe to any community whose views or practices we choose to represent to the public.
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