Unbelievably Believer


Reza Aslan, sir, you do not know me, nor should you ever, but I have been following your work for a while. You come often on television, and whenever you do, I envy your well-accented English and how beautifully you handle questions, and always, and I mean always, I maintain a running count of how many times you declare “I am an expert on world religions”. Your shtick is that no religion should not be treated as a monolith, that we should consider nuance and the overlaying of culture and national identity on the practice of a religion before criticizing it, and that Islam, the subject you are most asked to comment on, is misinterpreted by evil men for their own ends, it is not a fault of the religion or of the concept of religion itself that global Islamic terrorism and ISIS and Al Qaeda exist, and most importantly, anyone who suggests anything else, is an Islamophobe, a bigot, and a Bill Maher.

I am writing to tell you, sir, that there is someone who has stolen your face and even your name, and doing a show on CNN called Believer, that “believer” with a “v” not a “b”. In the first episode, in case you have not seen the show, this impostor goes to India to understand the Aghori sect within Hinduism. Unlike you, though, you being a scholar of religion for twenty years, this man seems to have even his basic facts wrong, which, as any PhD knows (I am a PhD myself), is a no-no for our clan.

For instance, he mis-translates “Ghats” as “crematorium” where, in real, it means steps that go down to the water. Also, when he stands in front of a picture of Shiva, Parvati, Ganesh and Kartik, he seems unable to identify Kartik in the picture, and we know this because he does not refer to him while talking about Shiva’s family. Maybe he thought Kartik was photobombing this nice family picture, I don’t know. Given that he is doing a show on Aghoris, and claiming to be a religious scholar himself, he does not point out the distinction between the Left hand and the Right hand of the Aghori way, so fundamental to their teachings, and which would have helped a Western audience understand why some stay in “Ghats” and do apparently crazy things and others don’t. If he was who he claimed, he would also perhaps have tried to explain that Aghori doing taboo stuff stems from their radical skepticism, they believe that breaking the most accepted of rules is the only way up the plane of transcendence, and that human flesh is full of the “life-force” that pervades the universe and thus consuming it,  is imbibing life force.

Or as another scholar said in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, which if you think of it explains Aghori principles better than the show on CNN.

My ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us, binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force flow around you. Here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, yes, even between the land and the ship.

If he really was a scholar of religion, that man in the CNN show, he should also have known that no true Aghori would give him a gurumantra in exchange of a skull-full of cheap liquor,  that something as powerful as a true mantra can only be given after years of following the path. And if as nothing else, but as a PhD, this professed easy shortcut to supreme knowledge should have set off his BS meter in the way it does when we get an email assuring us of an accredited PhD, without submitting a dissertation, using purely our life experiences as a basis. As a man with common sense, not that a PhD necessarily implies that and I should know,  this impostor of you should have known that he is being made a fool of, in the way Japanese tourists are by the guide who sells them a post-card of Rani Mukherjee in Aiyya with “Sir, here is genuine Kamasutra queen of India, hundred dollars only please”.

Or maybe this impostor wanted to be duped, because it made for great optics, a naked Hindu man with his pubes out, peeing into his palm and throwing excreta, surrounded by the worst kind of filth imaginable, crystallizing in a moment of must-see TV, pretty much all the Western audience will remember about this program, perhaps because it affirms their worst stereotypes about Hinduism

What though absolutely convinced me that that man was not you, was that he was doing the exact opposite of what you advocate others do to religion. While you usually say “The religion is good, men interpret it badly, and that too a few people”, this man’s message was “The religion does something really bad (treats Dalits badly), men interpret it rightly, and some people, despite the religion, do the good thing, and thus redeem the religion.” And maybe I totally misunderstood, but I was not the only one, but how can a scholar, who talks about respecting religion, wear a saffron holy garb, with the air of someone going to a Halloween party and then say “Fuck let’s do it” before engaging in, what he would like us to believe, a serious effort to understand a religion by  immersing oneself in it, using the same tone of a college frat boy downing 10 shots in a minute. I am absolutely positive, that someone like you, who keeps on talking about respecting religion, would never even consider treating a world religion with such disdain, of making a mockery of traditions, that which while seeming strange and weird to the TV audience for whom this is targeted at, do have some significance for those who believe in it. Those people that were made fun of were not forcing anyone to adopt their practices, they were not pushing it down at the end of a gun or a bomb, yet that man in the documentary thought fit to essentially take one extreme example, and use that extreme example to mock a centuries-old belief system.

Now I would normally not have warned you sir about this person. After all, as the saying goes, who watches CNN, except in hospitals, airport waiting rooms, or when you have misplaced your remote? But the reason I had to let you know, sir, is because given the promos about the show, extensively shown, there is a high chance a few people just might see it. A few of them will love it too. because it will confirm all their biases about Hinduism, these people who have come and taken their jobs and their way of life, and they will recommend this on message boards, and then some others will see, and then some more. Nothing wrong here again still, except that thousands of Hindu children, who go to schools in the US, already facing ,some say, an elevated level of racism, will now have to put up with bullying of the sort “Hey take off your pants and do as Hindus do”, and “Hey does your dad eat human flesh?” because those two minutes in your program, the part that was on in all the promos, will get shared and shared extensively, and one may say that the reason that footage even exists is because of that purpose.

Now of course the person in that documentary (not you) would argue that his message was different, and “please see the end 5 minutes” but unfortunately the way the show is promoted and structured, the message conveyed at the end is blasted out of the water by what comes before it. It’s like the soft core porn movies I would see when I was a teenager, sir, where at the end there would be a message of “Porn is not good” after 86 minutes of assorted sexual situations designed to titillate. Under the guise of religious research and understanding, the show as it stands, is nothing but an attempt to gain eyeballs through sensationalism and mockery of one particular religion, one to which I belong.

I am absolutely certain that you are as shocked by this as I am, and will spare no effort in hunting this impostor down, and getting back your name and face.

Till next time we meet again on my TV screen.