Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Visiting the Cyber-Temple: Ongoing Hindu Negotiations with Virtual Puja

In an increasingly fast-paced world, followers of different faiths are turning to technology to facilitate otherwise “inconvenient” aspects of their faith. One such instance of this is the development of Hindu puja-purchasing websites, such as EParthana.com. Puja (or pooja, as it is sometimes referred to) is an important Hindu ritual in which devotees present offerings such as water, flowers, or food, to a specific deity in order to receive their blessing. Parthana, as the website is named after, refers to the Sanskirt hymn sung at the end of a daily sakha. The website offers remote Hindu followers the possibility to purchase an archana (blessing) to be performed at a specific temple by an EParthana employee, who will then mail the prasadam (blessed offering) to the customer. Additionally, website visitors can perform virtual puja, in which a graphic depiction of a specific Hindu deity is displayed, accompanied by an appropriate musical mantra, and with which users can interact--offering digital flowers, incense, bells, and food to the image in a virtual act of puja. In fact, the site encourages users to use this multimedia experience as a means to practice their daily puja.

Such new media variations of traditional worships have received mixed critiques by scholars. In his article "Internet Threats to Hindu Authority," Heinz Scheifinger argues that such puja-ordering sites pose a threat to the authorities of traditional temple priests and administration. On the contrary, in another article entitled "Hinduism and Cyberspace," he states that he does not find acts of online puja to be problematic or sacreligious because "by virtue of the very fact that the puja ritual (like any other ritual) is a symbolic act, its performance only requires signifiers to represent the actual props conventionally used because these props are themselves symbolic signifiers." His only suggestion is that "the practitioner approaches worship sincerely and in the right frame of mind." In this sense, new technology is negotiated not so much in terms of physical space or issues, but in terms of mental approach. Worship is considered valid so long as it is approached with an honest heart; physicality is no longer essential to access the divine. In the book Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet (a rather unfortunate book title), Douglas Cowan compares the online-puja movement to virtual Catholic mass in its inferiority--the sensuousness of the traditional ritual is gone, and certain critical ritualistic elements such as cleaning the deities cannot be authentically replicated online.

In my research, I struggled to find any arguments by Hindus (or at least, not any in English) in support of these virtual worship acts. It is unclear how popular such websites are and what tends to be the attitude of Hindus toward these sites. Clearly the communication used by Hindus to defend or refute the sanctity of such acts--and the importance of traditional authority within the faith--will determine whether this becomes an acceptable religious use of technology or a condemned one.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fundamentalism and Reality Television

In her article “A Framework for Understanding Fundamentalism,” (from Quoting God) Rebecca Moore discusses how fundamentalists, while often assumed to be “antitechnological or antimodern,” actually embrace technology and communication media in many ways. Moore defines fundamentalism as a way to classify a range of movements that oppose the beliefs and principles of the contemporary world. The cable network TLC provides an excellent example of a fundamentalist group with its new series “Sister Wives.” The show features a fundamentalist Mormon family, the Browns. TLC’s website provides a short summary of the new series: “Sister Wives introduces you to Kody Brown — along with his three wives: Meri, Janelle and Christine and their combined 13 children — and takes a look at how they attempt to navigate life as a "normal" family in a society that shuns their lifestyle. Sister Wives gives you an open look into a man trying to juggle three wives while trying to keep it a secret from the rest of the world.” The Browns are a perfect example of a group who is embracing modernity in attempt to introduce their beliefs to the rest of the world. They are, as Moore writes, “using mass media and the latest technologies in order to realize their vision of a future based on God-given truths.” The Browns certainly devote significant effort to explaining how well their “lifestyle” works. Kody Brown makes sure to spread the message that his love for a new wife does not replace the love for an old wife, making statements such as “love should be multiplied, not divided.” In spite of the Brown’s brave effort to shed light on polygamy, the show has recently caused a Utah investigation. This raises several interesting questions about the relationship between fundamentalism and the media. As this case illustrates, fundamentalists must weigh the benefits of using media to shed light on their beliefs against the risks of exposing too much to a world that for the most part does not understand. This show also raises questions about religious coverage in the age of reality television. Unlike news articles or even television news reports, reality television has the ability to follow the story line of one small group of people, in this case the Browns, who can explain their viewpoints thoroughly and whose daily lives are captured in a more personal setting. Perhaps most importantly, reality television allows viewers to develop deeper understanding of its characters. “Sister Wives” has the potential to unveil a plethora of new questions about the relationship between media and fundamentalism. The Browns have already demonstrated their want to embrace mass media, but now the question is whether this method will work for them.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mediating Meditation: Buddhist Teachings Online

According to the Access to Insight website, “many of today’s popular spiritual teachings borrow liberally from the Buddha, though only rarely do they place the Buddha’s words in their true context.” With the increasing infiltration of Buddhist-inspired wisdom and meditations gaining popularity in the Western world, religious teachers have sought to promote greater textual awareness of the Tipikata, or Pali canon, which is believed by practitioners of Theravada Buddhisim to contain the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings. As Westerners seek to understand these teachings, technology is able to provide a means by which to connect the modern world to such ancient texts.

As described in When Religion Meets New Media (Campbell, 2010), “looking at the history and tradition of a religious community becomes a vital starting point for understanding present engagement with media and possibly even helping to predict future appropriation or reactions” (p. 65). As referenced by Access to Insight, the Buddha himself warned of seeking truth in “fragmentary teachings of dubious accuracy,” when he talks to his stepmother of discerning which teachings are true in order to proclaim: “This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction” (from “Gotami Sutta: To Gotami”). To alleviate this difficulty, Access to Insight offers over 1,000 translations of suttas/sutras, the canonical texts of Theravada. More recently, as of January 2010, Access to Insight launched an iPhone application, which provides free access to all such texts, as well as bookmarking, search, and audio features. In Ostrowski’s 2006 study “Buddha Browsing: American Buddhism and the Internet,” most surveyed respondents reported that they enjoyed the “convenience of obtaining large amounts of information and having access to resources without the requirement of traveling a physical distance” (p. 98).

In many ways, the Internet’s mass distribution of such scriptures is in direct alignment with Buddhism’s emphasis upon personal study of the Tipitaka—not because it is considered flawless, as the Bible is regarded in many Christian traditions, but because the Buddha’s teachings are meant to be self-evaluated in terms of their application in one’s own life. As Access to Insight says, “the truest test of these teachings, of course, is whether they yield the promised results in the crucible of your own heart. The Buddha presents the challenge; the rest is up to you.” If a majority (52%) of surveyed Buddhist practitioners reported that they used the Internet to seek dharma teachings (Ostrowski, p. 98), then there is good reason to believe that all is happening much like the Buddha intended: individuals outside of cloistered monasteries are gaining access to these critical texts and testing them out for themselves by integrating such text-based meditation into their highly mobile lives through the use of such Internet and phone-based technologies.