Religious scholar and television host Reza Aslan is facing backlash after he ate part of a cooked human brain with a Hindu sect as part of his new CNN show.
Aslan, 44, is accused of mocking Hinduism — a religion approximately a billion people worldwide practice — after featuring a fringe, cannibalistic sect of the faith on his new show, Believer, a six-episode “spiritual adventures series” in which he explores the “world’s most fascinating faith-based groups.”
“Want to know what a dead guy’s brain tastes like? Charcoal,” Aslan wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday. “It was burnt to a crisp! #Believer.”
In a recently aired episode, Aslan sat with the Aghoris of India. The small sect worships Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction, and have been known to eat feces, drink out of human skulls, eat human flesh and smear themselves with the ashes of corpses, CNN reports. The secretive sect is generally opposed by mainstream Hindus.
Aslan took part in the extreme rituals, having the ashes smeared on his face and eating the human brain tissue. He noted that the Aghoris are a “small movement,” adding that they take part in “ostentatious displays of defilement.”
Many have since condemned the journalist, accusing him of using a fringe group to represent the entire Hindu faith. Critics include U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu member of Congress, and Hindu Trump advisor Shalabh Kumar.
“CNN story on Hindu rites and cannibalism is completely baseless,” officials with the U.S. India Political Action Committee said in a statement.
“Most Hindus are vegetarians and uphold non-violence,” Sanjay Puri, chairman of the committee, also said. “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.
“In a charged environment a show like this can create a perception about Indian Americans which could make them more vulnerable to further attacks.”
However, in a statement posted on Facebook, Aslan declared that he made it clear “on camera and in voice-over” that the Aghoris are an “extreme Hindu sect” and “are not representative of Hinduism.”
A clip from the episode demonstrates the unease Aslan felt after a member of the tribe threatened to “cut off [his] head if you keep talking so much.”
In an aside with his director, Ben Seklow, Aslan’s heard saying that “This may have been a mistake. Maybe, like, somebody distracts him and I just leave.”
Seklow declined to walk away at that moment, instead replying, “Let’s see where it goes.”
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On Wednesday, Aslan took a light-hearted approach to the backlash, tweeting an article titled “Why CNN’s Reza Aslan Shouldn’t Eat Human Brains.”
Aslan wrote: “You work all your life for a headline like this.”
In an upcoming episode of Believer, Aslan speaks with a “doomsday prophet” in Hawaii.
Believer airs at 10 p.m. (ET) Sundays on CNN. CNN officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment from PEOPLE.