Reza Aslan’s new series called Believer has caught people’s imagination for all the wrong reasons. First it was the Hindu American Foundation raising their disapproval of the way Aghoris, a sect of Hinduism, were portrayed in one of the programmes. There is absolutely no point in arguing about their concerns as there is hardly anything in the episode that can be called as ‘controversial’. Second are those people who have found factual discrepancies that range from identifying certain idols with inaccurate names to even making certain obvious gaffes. ( Calling Varanai as the ‘mound of the dead’ is one of them ). While the first set of objections gives a sense of an unabashed ideological bias, the second one does indeed have merit. At the same time, one needs to be wary in falling in the trap of calling it low on intellectualism and high on drama.
CNN, the channel on which this programme is being aired, has dubbed it as a ‘spiritual adventure series’. Without absolving Aslan of his objective blunders, I would like to make a case of how the spiritual quotient in his episode is more important to make sense of rather than certain facts of a religion. Aslan has been a scholar of Global religions for many years now. Having said that, his core fields of research and interest have been Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Even in studying these religions, his emphasis on the spiritual aspect of modern day religions surmounts all other concerns. In this background, it becomes essential to make sense of of this transcendental phenomenon that he is alluding to rather than pointing out the obvious factual anamolies. In fact, if one takes a look at the first three episodes which includes the one on doomsday cult in Hawai and the practise of Voduo in Haiti, it becomes all the more clear that he is interested in bringing out the fringe elements of mainstream religions that work on a profound sense of spiritual bonding. As he says it in a particular context on the episode of Aghoris, more than the quintessential traditional ‘practices’ it is religion as an ‘identity’ and what sense one makes of it in the present that is of crucial significance.
This gets amply clear with the title of the programme itself which is ‘Believer’ and not ‘Faith’ or ‘Religion’. Aslan has maintained a scholarly stand on there being a fundamental difference between these two sets of terms. Religion for him is a set of metaphors, a signpost that helps you to realise the profoundness of a transcendental feeling. Faith on the other hand is that enigmatic, indescribable, ineffable force that grips you and brings true meaning to your life. This then is your identity, he says, which gets consciously shaped keeping in mind your society, culture and a whole host of other factors. All of this gets neatly captured in the episode on Aghoris where efforts are being taken to situate them in their immediate surrounding and not engage them in isolation. Indeed, Aghoris derive so much of their history and culture when seen in consonance with the Ganga, the Ghats, the Doms who do the ‘ polluting’ work of cremation and the entire city of Varanasi which acts as a vital character in shaping the lives of the Aghoris.
Another related motive of highlighting these sects is to not show their differences with the modern world but in fact how similar they are with all other ‘normal’ people. What Aslan scores high on is in showing how difficult it is to disentangle the supposed divide of normalcy and eccentricity. Even with the theatrics and drama, the ultimate goals of a caste free society, of everyone being equal are things that even non-religious people agree with. In fact, the practical work of the slightly less dramatic Aghoris in terms of curing leprosy patients, opening orphanages and spreading their message through education have been wildly applauded for years now. By focusing on the popular perceptions of they living a secluded,esoteric life he is seen making efforts to understand them through more accessible means by the end. The idea that we remain inherently strong by being a part of an imaginary, spiritual commune is underscored to the hilt.
Audiences watching these people for the first time may perceive them as perfect aliens. But by the end of the episode, one not only develops this sense of being similar but it also enthuses one to get out of our comfort zones and come to terms with this diversity. Amidst a drive of homogenising modernity, to acknowledge the language of difference will act as a marker of something that binds us together. Factual errors can certainly be dampening.
But if the real purpose of their worldview is shown in an unvarnished manner, the challenge of accepting them for who they are becomes all the more important for all right thinking individuals. Nobody at the end recollects facts. It is that urge for a more humane engagement which remains the larger endeavour. Reza Aslan certainly does justice to that.