Casual cannibalism is a pretty hard line for most people, but not Reza Aslan, apparently. The journalist, TV personality, and host of CNN's latest globe-trotting documentary show Believer has come under fire for participating in and plugging cannibalism on his show, as well as misrepresenting and mocking Hinduism, humanity's third largest religion, practiced by approximately 1 billion people around the world.
The latest episode in question focused on India's Aghoris, a small fringe sect of cannibals who participate in practices that wildly contradict much of mainstream Hinduism. The Aghori are known for drinking out of human skulls as well as eating poop and cooked human flesh. Aslan turned that into the premiere episode of his show, and the whole thing is not exactly what anyone can call a good look for him. Here's the interaction from a minute-long teaser clip CNN posted to its site:
"Why are people on that side of the river so afraid of the Aghori," Aslan asks an Aghori ascetic, through a translator, as they sit around a fire. Their faces are both covered in the cremated ashes of dead people.
"Should we eat the living?" the Aghori replies. "Shall I show you by eating my own flesh? Then call me an Aghori."
"Why do --"
"I will cut your head off if you keep talking so much!" the guru yells at him, followed by a couple cuts and camera movements that make it feel painfully like an Arrested Development episode.
"I feel like this may have been a mistake," Aslan says to his camera crew. "Maybe just, like, someone distracts him, and I just leave. We can be polite. I can be very polite about it."
"Let's see where it goes," Ben Seklow, his director, replies.
Later in the episode, the guru hands Aslan a bit of human brains, saying "Look, I am eating." The Aghori pops the brains into his own mouth. "Eat," he says.
Aslan looks at the brains, clearly disgusted. After hesitating, he pops it into his mouth and swallows.
When Aslan later promoted the episode on his Facebook, he posted this status update to his 200,000-plus fans:
"Want to know what a dead guy's brain tastes like? Charcoal," he wrote. "It was burnt to a crisp! #Believer"
Which...he probably regrets posting at this point. Aslan himself admitted to the Huffington Post that the whole experience scared him shitless. But it seems like he wasn't prepared for the backlash that would follow, including cries of Hinduphobia and criticism the right and the left. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard -- the first Hindu practitioner ever elected to Congress -- put him and CNN on blast on Twitter for "repeated false stereotypes about caste, karma and reincarnation that Hindus have been combating tirelessly."
Aslan's tweeted this response to the criticism: "This is a show about the Aghori not Hinduism."
Aslan, a Muslim Iranian-American himself, has written several books on religion and is a professor of creative writing at University of California Riverside. He's worked as an HBO consultant, made scores of media appearances, and is one of the biggest talking heads in America focused on religions around the world. His website proudly touts his wealth of experience as a scholar:
"Whether you are an educational institution, professional association, and conference organizer," it promises. "Reza Aslan can craft an informative, empowering and valuable message suit with his expertise."
That expertise will now include eating human brains on national TV and facing this backlash. Here's video of the moment, if you are inclined to watch it.