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.

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