Several years ago, wandering through Varanasi late at night, I came across a group of ash-smeared sadhus sitting around a bonfire near the banks of River Ganga. I had gone there after spending several months at a Buddhist monastery in Pokhara, Nepal.
One of the sadhus beckoned me to join them, patting the spot beside him. They were passing around a chillum, a clay pipe, packed with a potent mixture of charas (hand-rubbed hashish) and tobacco. They sang a folk tune, accompanied by percussive tapping on a tabla. The smoking, singing, and drumming under the stars made for a heady brew. I pulled out a bottle of whiskey from my backpack and offered it to my companions. Each took a swig and passed it on—it was out after one round of the circle. Soon I was singing and jumping animatedly around the fire along with a couple of clapping sadhus.
Over the next few weeks I attended a number of similar gatherings at locations around Varanasi. It was a radical and refreshing departure from the austere and sedate environs of the Buddhist monastery and most of the ashrams I had stayed at over the course of my extended pilgrimage.
One evening, a group of tourists from Delhi passing by, stopped and walked toward us. On seeing the intoxicated revelry, one of them, in a fit of moral outrage, ordered us to put our chillums away or he would call the police. The threat did not go down well with the holy men. Tolaram, a tall sadhu clad in black with red-rimmed eyes and a mop of wild dreadlocks, rose up and let loose a stream of invectives in Hindi which effectively meant this: Get lost or I’ll stuff a chillum up a very painful place. The other sadhus scooped handfuls of red-hot coal and flung them at the tourists. The bunch scurried away—never to be seen again. All of us laughed uproariously at the spectacle.
My friends were members of Aghor, a sect of renegades who proudly reject the trappings of social propriety, sectarian labels and the world of appearances. Their secretive lifestyle, which includes ritual consecration and consumption of human flesh, and even sexual rites amidst burning pyres, is designed to shock the perceptual framework so as to break the barriers between what is considered sacred and profane, the holy and unholy—all rigid dichotomies that dominate the bourgeois middle class.
In Tolaram’s view, most Hindus worshipped Shiva and Kali as a cultivated social requirement, but what the deities actually demand from their followers is not acceptable to the vast majority. Aghors are the only ones willing to please Kali, by “ripping the veil off reality and jumping straight into the abyss,” with no thought to self-preservation or the laws that govern polite society.
The Aghors I fell in with emphatically rejected Vedic notions of ritual purity, scriptural dogma, and priestly mediation between the world of the mundane, the so-called impure and the divine. They seek to cultivate a state of consciousness, known as Aghor, in which one transmutes and ultimately transcends base sensations like fear, hatred, disgust or discrimination. On attaining this state one does not view the world in dualistic terms of good and evil, sacred and profane, pure and impure—instead relating to all of manifested reality as attributes of the Great Mother, MA.
Given all this, I was not surprised at the outrage from sections of the Hindu-American community (and their self-appointed representatives) following the debut of Believer, a CNN mini-series on the fringe and fascinating religious sects around the world. The show’s inaugural episode was filmed in Varanasi, and half of it is devoted to Iranian-American religious scholar Reza Aslan being immersed with a group of Aghors engaging in various shocking acts, including eating cooked human brains and ingesting faeces.
It is clear quite quickly that the show’s producers are out to find sensational, or at the very least dramatic, footage, and the sadhus are only too happy to oblige, prone as they are to playing to the gallery. One of them can be heard yelling at Aslan to “shut the f**k up or he would cut his head off.” During my stay with Aghors, I had heard them say much worse things to middle class Indian and western tourists, often in jest and feigned anger, embellished with flailing arms and a fiery gaze for greater effect.
Since the first snatches of the episode came out, Aslan has been accused of everything from Hindu-phobia and bigotry to being an agent of “Abrahamic crusaders” attempting to undermine Hinduism. His critics feel that by depicting the Aghors, Aslan has somehow emasculated Hinduism.
The Hindus most offended by the CNN segment are exemplars of the class who like to portray a homogenous, sanitised and sparkly version of their faith. They either forget or paper over the fact that the Aghors, Naths, and other heterodox tantric sects pay scant regard to the institutionalised hierarchies and lifestyles propagated by bourgeois Hindus, the ones most offended by unconventional approaches to the divine.
When I asked Tolaram about his opinion on Hindu canonical texts, he related the story of a priest from the hallowed Kashi Vishwanath temple who had once gifted him a copy of the Bhagwad Gita. Not knowing Sanskrit, and not being remotely interested, he used the dry pages to kindle his bonfire. When I remarked that he may have been incarcerated as a blasphemer for his actions in some Islamic states (and possibly in the prevailing climate in India), he turned his eyes skywards saying, “1-2-3-All-India-Free” and guffawed loudly, presumably at the rank idiocy of the world of men.
As Debashish Banerji, a scholar of religion at the California Institute of Integral Studies, observes, “With the expansion of the middle class in India and its mass mobilisation, along with the upper classes by the right-wing ruling party, modern Hinduism has developed into an identity construct, a national orthodoxy of social and religious norms. This threatens to erase the unauthorised culture of spiritual seeking, with innumerable variant and hybrid methods, customs, practices and social attitudes, that forms the millennia old history of religion in India.”
Aslan is no stranger to controversy. His last book, the bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus, miffed a whole bunch of conservative Christians who took to attacking him on Fox News.
The NRI Hindus I spoke to were especially offended by Aslan’s stated revulsion at the thought of taking a ritual dip in the Ganga. “This is one of the most polluted water bodies in the world,” he said. “There are millions of litres of untreated human waste. Yesterday I saw a guy take a shit directly into the water. It’s basically a giant toilet.” This may sound harsh and politically incorrect, but it is also the unvarnished and sad truth. Similar thoughts had crossed my mind during my maiden visit to Varanasi.
Admittedly, the inaugural episode of Believer is a mediocre example of documentary filmmaking and Aslan makes serious blunders, like calling Varanasi the “City of the Dead” (It is in fact the “City of Light”). Also, a television promo screaming “Cannibalism” was a cringe-worthy editorial decision by CNN.
Still, to this writer, reactions to the show were far more illuminating than the show itself. The rumpus revealed a lot about the diaspora and nationalist insecurities. Aslan’s observations on the caste system are fairly accurate and clearly too close to the bone for some people. There’s no denying that tasks like cremating the dead and manual scavenging are reserved for members of the Dalit community, those at the very lowest rung of the entrenched hierarchy, and have been so for millennia.
Indeed, caste is a social construct, but one which cannot be separated from religious or political beliefs of a billion-plus Hindus. In Aslan’s own words, “I define religion as an identity, not a set of beliefs and practices. That’s probably postulate number one for me. People tend to think that, ‘Oh religion is just something you believe in, right?’ Well, not for most people, actually. The vast majority of people who raise their hand and say, ‘I’m Jewish,’ ‘I’m Christian,’ or ‘I’m Muslim’ are making identity statements much more so than belief statements.” He added, “So, if religion is a matter of identity, then it encompasses every aspect of your life. It can’t be divorced from your politics or your social views or your economic views. It’s all wrapped up together as one.”
Reform and resistance against the rigidities of caste and gender are as old as Hinduism itself. Basava (1106–1167), a progenitor of the Lingayat or Virashaiva sect, was a prominent member of the Bhakti movement along with iconic social and spiritual reformers like Akka Mahadevi and Allama Prabhu. The Bhakti Movement called for a profound shift in the socio-cultural ethos of Karnataka with its vociferous opposition to the caste system, rejection of Brahminical supremacy, abhorrence to ritual sacrifice, and unmediated access to the divine through devotional worship to the One God Shiva. Social reform has continued into the 19th and 20th centuries with giants like Jyotirao Phule and Bhimrao Ambedkar leading the way.
Aslan seems to acknowledge this: “In almost every interview I did about the show I talked at length about the issue underlying the episode, including the fluidity of the caste system, the problems inherent amongst the untouchable class, and how devout Hindus of all stripes are working tirelessly to overcome both.”
Discussions on politically explosive issues, be it caste or nationalism, can turn violent quickly. In late February, a seminar on nationalism at Delhi University was set upon by a mob—members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to which prime minister Narendra Modi belongs. Scores of professors and students were trapped as the mob rained bricks and stones and as the police stood by as mute spectators.
The NRIs with their knickers in a twist about Aslan’s show somehow never speak out as vociferously against the egregious violations of free speech and human rights in their home country.
The allegation that Aslan’s Varanasi episode perpetuated negative stereotypes, potentially leading to hate crimes in the xenophobic climate in the US, has an ironic twist. The assailant who shot at two Indians recently, killing one, was under the impression that they were Muslims—he was emboldened by the Muslim travel ban enacted by Donald Trump, a ban endorsed by a number of right-wing Hindus, including Shalabh Kumar and the Republican Hindu Coalition, who berated CNN for airing the show.
As Sigal Samuel writes in the Atlantic:
“Reza Aslan’s new show has come at the best possible time and the worst possible time. Some say the show makes various religions seem less foreign, a corrective that Americans desperately need under Donald Trump. Others say the show exoticises religious minorities, a danger we can ill afford under, well, Donald Trump… Both views are right, to some degree. Oddly, the two contradictory effects spring from Aslan’s single stated goal: to show that all religions are, at their core, expressions of the same faith and the same existential questions. That makes Believer an interesting object lesson in the risks of trying to make religion relatable.”
In the second half of the segment, we see followers of Aghoreshwar Bhagwan Ramji tending to the vulnerable and disenfranchised, including lepers and orphans. In the Aghor tradition, a sadhaka who has gone through all the stages of Aghor and then returned to society for the benefit of others is called an Aghoreshwar—a concept similar to that of the Bodhisattva in Buddhism. Even though an Aghoreshwar remains above and beyond all social and material illusions, distinctions, and categories, they can still bring social reforms into effect. They work for the benefit of all sentient beings, especially those on the margins like underprivileged women and Dalits.
The outrage over Aslan’s was basically a tempest in a teapot which shed light on the chasm between the anodyne Hinduism propagated by sections of the Indian diaspora and the infinitely more complex and gritty reality on the ground. It’s time for myopic NRIs and votaries of Hindutva to embrace the teeming cauldron of contradictions that is India and engage with it on a visceral level, or risk being frozen in permanent stasis. I for one look forward to seeing the mini-series in its entirety. If the remaining episodes are as provocative as the first one, they should not be missed.