In the premiere episode, Aslan meets an Aghori guru on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India. The Aghori are a Hindu sect that abhors the caste system and engages in extreme theatrics to prove that nothing, and no one, is untouchable. The guru forces Aslan to bathe in the filthy river, allow his face to be smeared with human ashes, and eat human brain matter. Aslan grows increasingly squeamish, but he plays along—until the guru starts drinking his own urine.
Later, Aslan meets more moderate, modernized Aghori. To show that no one is untouchable, they run a clinic for lepers. Aslan approves, saying: “You want to know what putting your faith into practice looks like? This is what it looks like.”
Aslan’s use of this template—moving from the extreme to the moderate—is an intentional pedagogical strategy inspired by his experience as a high school teacher. “As every high school teacher will tell you, 90 percent of that is dancing around like a monkey in order to get the students’ attention—and then, when they least expect it, teaching them something so they’re able to absorb it,” he told me.
“We began the journey into Aghorism with that feral cannibal because I want the audience to look at him and say, ‘That guy has nothing to do with me at all. He is completely other,’” Aslan continued. “And then, when you see other ways in which that exact same faith is being preached by other Aghoris, you start to recognize that the foundation of that faith, many people would agree with. So, it’s to move you from a place of discomfort and exoticism to a place where you’re familiar.”
Unfortunately, many people can’t move past the exoticism. Although Aslan said critics were responding to ads for the Aghori episode (which he admits were “deliberately sensational, because that’s what ads are”), many lambasted the premiere itself. The show is “shock religion porn,” said Suhag Shukla, the leader of the Hindu American Foundation. It privileges “sensationalism over scholarship,” said Ro Khanna, a Hindu Democratic congressman from California. It will “have a wider Hinduphobic societal impact,” said Ajay Shah, convener of American Hindus Against Defamation. It “can create a perception about Indian Americans which could make them more vulnerable to further attacks,” said Sanjay Puri, the chairman of the U.S. India Political Action Committee.
These critics know these are tense times for Indian-Americans, who are already fearful following three violent attacks, including the apparently hate-fueled shooting in Kansas City that left one Indian immigrant dead and another wounded. This is why Believer may have come at the worst possible time.
Aslan takes the opposite view. His show is meant to highlight the “connectivity” between people of all faiths, he told me. “I honestly can’t think of a more important lesson, especially today in Trump’s America when so much of our political rhetoric coming from the very highest offices in this country is about division and fear and ‘otherization,’” he added.