CNN has come under fire after the host of its new show, "Believer," ate what's presented to him as human brain tissue while visiting with a marginal Hindu sect in India (video below).
"Believer" premiered March 5 on CNN. In the debut episode, host Reza Aslan travels to India to spend time with the Aghori, a little-known Hindu sect that rejects India's caste system as well as the distinction between purity and pollution. Adherents also practice cannibalism.
In addition to consuming human brain tissue, Aslan is smeared with cremated human remains and drinks alcohol from a human skull. At one point, the group's leader threatens to decapitate Aslan if he continues asking questions.
"I will cut off your head if you keep talking so much," the man shouts.
Aslan then calls the show's director over and quietly suggests they leave.
"I feel like this may have been a mistake," Aslan says. "Maybe somebody distracts him and I just leave. I can be very polite about it."
The backlash from American Hindus who viewed the episode as a misrepresentation of their religion was swift. The U.S. India Political Action Committee issued a statement condemning CNN's depiction of their faith.
"With multiple reports of hate-fueled attacks against people of Indian origin from across the U.S., the show characterizes Hinduism as cannibalistic, which is a bizarre way of looking at the third largest religion in the world," the statement said, according to The Times of India.
The group's chairman, Sanjay Puri, said "Believer" reinforces dangerous misperceptions about Hinduism.
"We are very disappointed. This is an issue that is of deep concern to the Indian American community evidenced by the large number of calls/emails we have received," he said. "In a charged environment, a show like this can create a perception about Indian Americans which could make them more vulnerable to further attacks."
Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is the only Hindu in Congress, spoke out against the show on Twitter.
"While good people across our country are working hard to increase mutual understanding and respect between people of different religions, I am very disturbed that CNN is using its power and influence to increase people's misunderstanding and fear of Hinduism," she wrote, according to The Huffington Post.
Aslan, a Muslim who regularly speaks out against religious bigotry, defended the program on Twitter, writing: "This is a show about the Aghori not Hinduism."
"Keep watching. Things change," he wrote in a later tweet.
In a previous interview with The Huffington Post, Aslan said the purpose of the show was not to exploit different faiths and cultures, but rather to raise awareness and encourage understanding of them.
"Our hope is to introduce people to world views and faith communities that may seem a little strange and foreign and even frightening," he said. "But after watching me go through the experience of becoming part of these communities they may seem more relatable."