Dear CNN CEO and Producers of Believer,

The first episode of your new series, Believer, blatantly misrepresents Hinduism. Given the prevailing vituperative atmosphere in the country, in which three Indians have been shot in just the last week, the episode may promote Hinduphobia. Despite your best intentions, this may prompt a misinformed viewer of your show to perpetuate violence against Indians. Before any such tragedy takes place, we request you, as those in charge of the show, to take remedial action. We suggest one below.

Last Sunday’s episode had many egregious errors. Errors ranged from incorrectly depicting India’s so-called caste system, to calling Varanasi, which is the spiritual capital of India, the city of the dead. Although Hinduism has inspired the likes of the Beatles, Julia Roberts, and Steve Jobs, unfortunately, the show has presented a reductionistic and stereotypical caricature of Hinduism. While the errors are many, we list a few.

Also Read: An Introduction to Aghoris and their way of life by an Aghori

The show presents Hinduism through the lens of the obscure, uncommon, and fringe Aghori practices. Moreover, it treats Aghorism shoddily, without consulting experts or providing the right perspective and context. While Aghoris are highly respected by mainstream Hindus, they are also the least understood since they follow a non-traditional spiritual path. Hinduism is multifaceted and cannot be adequately represented by one practice or one sect. Clipped opinions of one or two individuals are presented as voice of Hinduism, effectively distorting it.

Further, the show implicitly reduces Hinduism to the stereotypical, repressive “caste” system. Fundamental tenets of Hinduism do not divide the society into a hierarchy of “castes”, nor are dalits and untouchables defined. The show suggests that caste discrimination/untouchability is widely prevalent in mainstream schools and other institutions across India. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Even more misleading is that a small, remote sect is leading some type of reforms. (See appendix at the end for more on caste and the notion of God within beings.)

Also Read: Sacred Secrets of the Aghori Sampradaya

Further, the show incorrectly portrays Karma and Reincarnation philosophies. Neither is Karma fatalistic, nor does it force birth within a specific group of the society. Neither are those in “lower castes” farther away from moksha, nor are “brahmins” any closer. The cremator in the show is wrongly depicted as inescapably trapped in the profession. If you listen carefully, he laments in Hindi that were he educated, his lot would be better!

The show portrays that in India 53% of dalit women are assaulted, 23% are raped, and dalits (those belonging to “lower castes”) are deprived of opportunities. These are extraordinary claims, backed by no evidence. In fact, India’s current and highly popular Primer Minister, Mr. Modi, comes from a “lower caste” as per the pyramid shown in the show. This portrayal is dangerous and condemns an entire civilization. Worse it can evoke contempt for Hinduism, leading to xenophobia.

Also Read: Unraveling the Mystique Behind the Aghoris

Troublingly, CNN resorts to potentially unethical behavior in the show. Whereas Reza Aslan admits that he went to India seeking Aghoris, the show portrays that he chanced upon them. In another example, Reza Aslan verbally consents to becoming a disciple of one of the individuals shown as Aghori, without intending to be one.

Potential Fallout

The misrepresentation described above could have detrimental consequences. At a time when media’s credibility is at an ebb, this episode will erode it further. The show is already creating an impression in India that the US is an irresponsible global citizen. In the US, it could instigate bullying of Indian children, create differences among employees at work places, and antagonize neighbors in communities. Worse, the show may incite violence against Indians. Indians are already disconnecting from CNN. 

Remedial Action

CNN is a respected global brand. It behooves upon CNN to report accurately. Hence, in the forthcoming episode of the series, we urge CNN to inform viewers that while Reza Aslan presented events he encountered in Varanasi, the episode was not representative of Hinduism, Aghoris, Varanasi, Indian schooling, or India in general. We believe that doing so will help CNN remain the most trusted name in news.

We welcome CNN’s efforts to inform viewers about Hinduism. We would be happy to connect CNN with Hinduism experts to help make an accurate portrayal. 

Should you have questions, please contact us. We look forward to CNN’s correction in the next episode.

Sincerely,

Gagan Gupta

Vidya Kumaravel

Appendix

Caste System

Great Britain’s Lord Herbert Hope Risley “created” India’s “caste” system in 1881 when conducting the first census of India. He incorrectly interpreted what was a taxonomy of non-binding roles of different individuals in the society, as a birth-based hierarchical “caste” structure. The word “Caste” is derived from the Portuguese word “casta” meaning race. Indian taxonomy has only jaati and varna. Jaati is a community of people involved in a certain profession and varna refers to the occupation of a person. These were created to facilitate proper functioning of the society, not divide it. Varna is not decided by birth, and there is no hierarchy pyramid as was shown in the episode. Vedic religious rituals in ancient India required all Varnas to participate, including all sections of the depicted pyramid.

Also Read : Indian caste system is a western construct, says scholar at ICHR lecture: Indian Express

Unfortunately, individual incidents of discrimination, not non-existent in any society, are routinely mapped to this “caste” structure. India aggressively combats discrimination, as you would discover if you were to study it.

Concept of God within every living being

Also Read: Caste System: The Biggest Conspiracy Against Hinduism

While the show raves about the Aghori philosophy of God within everyone, it also seems to suggest that this philosophy is alien to Hinduism. This is highly misleading because the core unifying thread among multitudes of diverse Hindu philosophies and practices is the oneness with God of every living being. The journey of every being is to realize this oneness.

Readers may also find this analysis informative: https://youtu.be/vB9JqlUiYUk

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