How To React To CNN’s ‘Believer’ Series: Laugh It Off, And Pursue Real Power
There are two possible ways to deal with such subtle put-downs. In the short-term, one should dismiss it with humour and mild disdain for its lack of understanding of India and Hinduism.
But the real longer-term goal should be to understand the nature of power wielded by western media, and seek to acquire similar power on our own.
The big mistake we make when dealing with the western media’s enchantment with the gory aspects of some outlier Hindu sects is to react over-the-top. Reza Aslan’s show on CNN, titled Believer – trailers of which have already been released (see here) – is one such show that has got many Hindu groups riled.
The Indian aspect of the show focuses on Aghoris, a small Hindu Shaivite sect that embraces the unity of opposites, and hence denies that anything is pure or impure, clean or dirty. Among the sect’s practices mentioned in the show are the smearing of bodies with the ashes of the cremated, the use of human skulls for imbibing alcohol, and consumption of the flesh (often burnt) of the dead. The Aghori idea is also presented as the antitheses of Hindu caste discrimination in the show.
The critics, who include the Hindu American Foundation and AHAD (American Hindus Against Defamation), are right to point out that using fringe groups to define Hinduism in America risks painting the whole of Hinduism as weird and macabre, especially at a time when hate crimes against Hindus and Sikhs may be gaining traction among racists and bigots. They have always existed in America, but the Left-Liberal elite has chosen this moment to highlight bigoted acts in its battle with US President Donald Trump.
Aslan’s claim that his show is about Aghoris and not Hinduism is fine, but will not wash for his show makes assertions about the caste system in Hinduism and how the Aghoris have tried to transcend that in their own way by banishing the untouchability of even true filth and excrement.
The problem with the Hindu reaction is that it won’t work. To deny that the Aghoris exist makes no sense. They exist. To deny that the caste system has virulent aspects is another reality we can’t escape from. Trying to deny it would only make us look like defenders of caste inequities. To prove that Aslan and CNN have done this deliberately to malign Hinduism is tough, when the bias is subtle and within a reasonable band of incredulity.
The real problem is that we lose both ways: if we critique it harshly, the western media and its amplifiers in Indian English media will tom-tom it as another instance of intolerance and over-sensitivity. Not doing anything about the film will, on the other hand, accentuate the sense of self-loathing that we already have in abundance.
There are two possible ways to deal with such subtle put-downs. In the short-term, one should dismiss it with humour and mild disdain for its lack of understanding of India and Hinduism. But the real longer-term goal should be to understand the nature of power wielded by western media, and seek to acquire similar power on our own. It means abandoning our ambivalent attitude to power, including media power. It won’t happen in a day, but if you want to control the narrative, you need to be a power player in global media.
Some of the sensible responses on the Indic side are already visible. For example, many Indians pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere that the characterisation of Varanasi as “City of the Dead” is wrong for it is called the “City of Light.”
Another way to pooh-pooh the series is to point out something even more fundamental. The title Believer is entirely an Abrahamic conception of religion. Christianity and Islam are based on historical figures who then give you God’s final word, and a book to live your life by. These religions thus need belief, for without belief it is not possible to maintain their power over humans. Without a belief that Jesus was the son of God, or that Mohammed was the last Prophet, neither Christianity nor Islam would fly.
In contrast, Hinduism is less about believing and more about seeking. We are not believers in the Abrahamic sense of the term, but seekers of higher truths. While there are aspects of believing in many Hindu practices, the mere fact that no Hindu holy text has a defined author, and that every Hindu has the right to decide his own idea of god, including selecting an Ishta devta puts a lot of seeking into even our believing.
If Aslan wanted to write about believers in India, the ideal groups to look at would have been the Parsis, whose Zoroastrianism was the earliest religion to talk of one God, and possibly the Sikhs, who, after gradual separation from Hinduism, ultimately adopted the Abrahamic idea of a final guru and a final holy book, the Granth Sahib.
Aslan’s series makes such fundamental errors about Hinduism and Indic religions, even if the idea is to talk about the Aghoris.
It is best for us to laugh it off – at least for now – and not invest greater negative sentiment in Aslan’s series.
However, there is a larger lesson to learn from the fact that we can do nothing about how the west wants to play its Indian or Hindu narratives. This lesson is about the importance of power.
The Abrahamic religions and polity are about power, sometimes raw power, and at other times, more subtle forms of power, including media power. Thus, when the US media turned Left-Liberal, Christian power enabled the promotion of aggressive media organisations like Fox News to counter the Left-Lib biases. For every Left-Liberal institution in the Ivy League, there are equivalent educational institutions run by the Church and evangelical organisations. When the Left dominated economic discourse, businesses created rival institutions (Heritage, etc) to champion right-wing causes.
When it comes to propaganda against non-Abrahamic religions like Hinduism, however, American Left and Right combine forces, one in the name of freedom of speech, and the other in the name of freedom of religion.
Indic religions have traditionally been more ambivalent about power. Our gurus and philosophical traditions talk about dissolving the ego and seeking true knowledge, which means seeking control over our thoughts and actions. Power over oneself is seen as more important than power over others. Thus, though we innately seek temporal power over others, we feel guilty about it. Even the most ambitious of Indian politicians will pretend he does not seek power.
In his essay on “The Yogi and the Commissar” Arthur Koestler notes that the Commissar wants to change society from the outside, using all the power at his command, but the Yogi believes it is the individual who needs changing in order to fix society.
The truth is we need both forms of power – power over oneself, and economic and temporal power to do larger good for society.
We will be able to change the narrative about ourselves only when we acquire real power – military, institutional, social and economic. Till that time, the world will continue to play with our sentiments.
We need to be Yogi and Commissar in equal parts. We need to embrace Chanakya neeti, as emphasised in this sutra. The Chanakya sutra runs thus:
सुखस्य मूलं धर्मः। धर्मस्य मूलं अर्थः। अर्थस्य मूलं राज्यं। राज्यस्य मूलं इन्द्रिय जयः। इन्द्रियाजयस्य मूलं विनयः। विनयस्य मूलं वृद्धोपसेवा॥
Loosely translated, it means: Happiness comes from following Dharma. Dharma is rooted in economics (ie, wealth creation). Wealth results from good governance (or an enlightened ruler). And good governance is the result of inner restraint, which comes from humility. Humility itself emanates from serving the aged.
Barring the last bit about serving the aged, which can be taken as listening to the wise or wisdom, the rest of the sutra explains how the pursuit of wealth and power with humility is the key to worldly and spiritual happiness.
Isn’t it time we stopped pretending power is unimportant? For the next couple of decades, India and Indians must pursue power as the central objective of the state and the individual. Spirituality is something we can anyway practice as individuals.
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