How does mainstream, presumably responsible news media, respond, when a society experiences rising xenophobia, and when certain minority groups have to fight stereotypical depictions and prejudice? If we were to take CNN's example, they proceed to bolster such prejudice further, by promoting them through a TV show.
In the first episode of CNN's recently telecast series "Believer", "religious scholar" Reza Aslan takes his audience to India. He begins by explaining that he has come to the ancient city of Varanasi "to do a show on Hinduism". However, instead of providing an overall understanding of a vast school of belief systems poorly understood in the West, as one would expect, he then proceeds to focus on a few (namely two) very specific aspects within Hinduism.
Aslan begins the episode with a very high level description of the caste system, thereby missing out on the nuances and complexity of the subject. He then presents a harrowing image of the plight of the systemically oppressed Dalits, or "untouchables". After explaining how obsessed Hindus are with ritual purity and pollution, he introduces his audience to Aghoris, a fringe sect of renegade ascetics, as an antithesis to a caste-based social order, as a radical movement that attempts to break down dogma. In the next three segments, spanning half an hour in total, we encounter three different groups of Aghoris: an Aghori spiritual leader called Lali Baba who takes Aslan to his oddly illuminated chamber adorned with a number of skulls that he uses as drinking vessels; an intoxicated monk (and his disciples) on a secluded bank of the Ganga who horrifies Aslan with utterly grotesque behaviour that includes cannibalism and consumption of bodily fluids; and then finally a less radical group of Aghoris, who do not indulge in taboo practices but focus instead on eradicating caste discrimination through social work.
Caste based discrimination and untouchability are certainly pertinent problems in contemporary Hindu society; although I was surprised to see a scholar like Aslan confuse the notions of Varna and caste, and not comment on how the caste system evolved to its present form (at their inception, Varnas were assigned based on one's quality and action, not lineage). It was also unclear from where Aslan gathered the impression that Hindus believe people belonging to "lower" castes are perpetually stuck in their "hellish" existence through cycles of birth, and have no hope of spiritual liberation from the vicious cycle of birth and death.
I was more puzzled, however, at the choice of his second topic. There have been numerous reform movements in India that do not accept caste based discrimination, starting from Buddhism and Jainism that emerged before the fifth century BCE. More recently, there have been several Bhakti (devotion) based movements through medieval India, and a plethora of reform movements in the last century, many of which denounce caste-oriented dogma. But instead of depicting better known and mainstream groups like the Ramakrishna Mission or the ISKCON, Aslan decided to present Aghoris, a fringe sect of radical ascetics, as an example of a reformist movement. Without going through the details of their spiritual beliefs and philosophy, without bothering to explain the secretive and extremely closed nature of some of these cults, and without interviewing an expert on the topic who would have helped provide better understanding and context, he then proceeded to show the most cringe-worthy rituals practiced by some of them.
The take home message, then, was the following: mainstream Hindu society is ridden with that vile social apartheid known as caste, and the people fighting against it are mainly a cult of renegade cannibals.
Of the thousands of images of Hinduism that CNN could have left their audience with, they chose to use, not those of temples, deities, devotees or colourful festivals, but a haunting image of an intoxicated man consuming human flesh. The audience was familiarized with the caste system in Hinduism, but not of its core beliefs of pluralism, of its meditation and mysticism, of its lack of obsession with sin, of its traditional openness about sexuality, or of its loftier ideas about the nature of reality and the universe. It was, as if, upon encountering a five thousand years old religious tradition, rich and replete with myriads of sects, beliefs, practices and schools of philosophy, the producers, by some strange coincidence, ended up choosing an aspect that would be deemed the most repulsive and vulgar by its audience.
The naive, over simplified, and patronizing manner in which the entire episode was narrated was deplorable, to say the least. Frames of people bathing in the Ganga were juxtaposed with corpses being cremated in the vicinity. The presentation reeked of old school Orientalism: often patronizing and insensitive, and at times, factually inaccurate. For instance, Aslan mistranslated the word "ghat" (meaning a flight of steps leading to a water body, usually a river) to a cremation ground. He referred to Varanasi, an ancient city with a spiritual significance comparable to Jerusalem and Mecca as the "city of the dead" and remarked that the meditation chamber of a monk looked like some "Hindu rave".
The fact that this show came from someone who claims to be a "scholar" of religion makes one doubt either the quality of erudition of the said scholar, or their intentions, or perhaps both. That he doesn't have a good understanding of Hinduism was demonstrated in a four minute CNN video titled "What Hindus really believe". Ironically, this scholar has been known for cautioning the world against making generalizations about a certain religion, and for actively fighting prejudices, and yet in this case we find him in a slightly different role. The equivalent of how Hinduism was depicted in the show, would be to air an episode purportedly "on Islam" with ten minutes on Saudi Arabia, and half an hour on ISIS. And if that was indeed done, ever, there would be outrage in the USA, and rightly so. In this case, however, there wasn't much.
Sir Winston Churchill once described Indians as "a beastly people with a beastly religion", capturing the prevailing sentiments of the West he was a part of. The CNN episode demonstrated that some people would like perceptions to remain that way in 2017.