Puja in the time of pandemic

Print edition : September 11, 2020

Sanitising after a prayer session at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, also known as the Neasden Temple, in London on July 3. Ram Navami pujas were live-streamed by BAPS Swaminarayan temples in all continents of the world during the lockdown. Photo: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP

The Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai, which was among the three historic temples chosen by the Tamil Nadu government for live-streaming of worship during the COVID-induced lockdown. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

Pope Francis speaking during a live-streamed weekly private audience from the library of the apostolic palace on August 19. Photo: AFP

Monks Ajahn Kongrit (right), Tan Jalito (left) and Tan Narindo (centre) discuss the logistics of live-streaming the Moon Day puja and precept ceremony to their community from Amvrati Buddhist Temple in Great Gaddesden, England, on June 28. Photo: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP

Devotional Hinduisim has been quick to use technology in its pursuit of spirituality, with worshippers staying safe at home while performing their rituals in sync with a global community of devotees. To see these practices as being separate from the political project of consolidating the nation on religious lines would be a mistake.

Once the coronavirus recedes into history, we will remember the pandemic of 2020 as ushering in a new era of digital darshans of virtual gods that stream in through Microsoft Windows more readily than through the temple doors.

The beginning of the lockdown in March across most of the world coincided with important days on the ritual calendar of nearly all faiths, and all of them turned to the Internet for worship. Catholics got to see and hear, in real time, Pope Francis deliver his Easter sermon in the deserted St. Peter’s Square; Muslims joined in Ramzan prayers streamed from mosques; Jews participated in Passover seders over Zoom; while Hindus got to participate remotely in Ram Navami celebrations, complete with bhajans and aartis. Virtual darshans and aartis became a daily affair for many, as did the daily masses and calls to prayer from countless churches and mosques. Online scripture-reading groups sprung up and, sadly, online funeral services thrived.

God and the Internet

Digital darshans and online pujas have been an integral part of the story of the Internet in India: political as well as devotional Hinduism found a home on the Internet from the moment it made its public debut. The Internet first became available to the wider public outside of select academic institutions in India on August 15, 1995. The first political Hindu website, Global Hindu Electronic Network (GHEN) was up and running by 1996, and the first (and still running) commercial puja-ordering website, Sarnam.com, has been in business since 1999. As the Internet evolved and deepened its reach, it carried hard Hindutva trolls as well as soft Hindu gods, godmen, and gurus into the deeper reaches of the public sphere.

Even before the pandemic, Hindus living in India or abroad could have pujas performed remotely for a fee, worship their chosen gods digitally on their smartphones or watch live webcasts of pujas in historic temples like Somnath, Kashi Vishwanath, Sai Baba’s shrine in Shirdi and the Hare Krishna temples in Delhi and Mayapuri in West Bengal. Devotional Hinduism was already flourishing online in the BC (Before the Coronavirus) times.

The nearly two-months-long virus-induced lockdown, however, has brought about a noticeable jump in the number of temples that live-stream and offer online pujas—a trend facilitated by temple management boards, promoted by State governments and powered by e-commerce platforms that specialise in the lucrative puja/spirituality segment. The lockdown also created ideal conditions for the emergence of pandits-on-Skype who can conduct rituals without having to visit the yajmans’ homes.

If the trend continues, reaching for your laptop or your smartphone will become as “natural” for offering pujas as it already is for hailing a cab or ordering groceries. If the trend continues, the digital “haves” will get their religion delivered at home, or book VIP darshans online, rather than suffer the unwashed masses flocking at the houses of worship. It is not that temples will become irrelevant, but they will become optional.

Digital Ram Navami

Hindu deities are known to step out of the garbha griha of their temples on special occasions and make themselves available for darshan to the worshippers thronging the streets. It was, therefore’ perfectly in keeping with tradition that when the virus kept worshippers away, deities would leave the shuttered temples and go to them—riding not on the rathas pulled by the devotees, but on the 4G networks!

Take the celebration of Lord Rama’s birthday. This year’s Ram Navami fell on April 2, smack in the middle of the lockdown. Sporadic violations of stay-at-home orders notwithstanding—including the violation by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath who presided over the transfer of the Ram Lalla idol in Ayodhya—temple visits, pilgrimages, and other public festivities remained cancelled.

Cancelled, that is, only in the offline world. Ram Navami 2020 simply went electronic, first on television for practically everyone, and then on the Internet for the tech-savvy.

Just a week before Ram Navami, Doordarshan began broadcasting “Ramayana”, Ramanand Sagar’s TV serial that was first beamed in 1987-1988. The Doordarshan reruns have been a big hit, with some 42.6 million viewers tuning in for each episode. Even the younger Internet-reared generation who would not know Doordarshan from DoorDash seem to be drawn to the serial, if only for the memes that could be mined from it.

But the devotional fever that this serial caused over 30 years ago has been conspicuous by its absence now. This time around, the “Ramayana” serial was mostly a time-pass event, with hardly any reported incidents of TV sets being garlanded, conch shells blown or prasad being distributed.

The religious function that the TV screen served in the 1980s has passed on to the laptop and the smartphone. The gods broadcast on television have given way to online avatars. A case in point: Ram Navami pujas live-streamed by the BAPS Swaminarayan temples in all continents of the world during the lockdown. BAPS Swaminarayan is a Gujrat-based Vaishnava sect gone global with its trademark temples which hybridise traditional north Indian shikhar-style pinnacles with Disney-style theme parks and five-star-hotel-style ambience. April 2 marked not just Ram Navami, but also the birthday of Swami Sahajanand, an 18th century saint whom the Swaminaryans worship as the supreme God.

The techno-savvy Swaminarayan temples were ready to meet the challenge of putting together a grand online celebration under the lockdown. The majestic BAPS temples in London and New Jersey live-streamed, all through the day, kathas, discourses, pujas complete with all the traditional rituals of swaying the baby gods in cradles, bathing the murtis with panchamrit, followed by aartis. Hindu communities in North America, the United Kingdom and Europe got to celebrate the twin birthdays without leaving their homes—Bhagwan Ram got his puja in the morning hours, the evening festivities were reserved for Bhagwan Swaminaryan, with a break in between for “clapping for the [coronavirus] carers”. Many more maha-pujas for “health, harmony and recovery” and “prayers for humanity” continued to be webcast from Nairobi, Abu Dhabi, London, New Jersey and Toronto. (While heavy on online services in the rest of the world, in India the organisation concentrated on offline social services.)

The pictures of these pujas posted at www.baps.org offer an insight into why the Ramayana serial was no match for the webcast pujas. One set of pictures are snapshots of the temple webcast and show the temple swamis—all men, and all dressed in identical saffron robes, singing bhajans and worshipping the images of Swaminarayan in the temples’ ornate interior chambers. The other set of pictures are selfies shot by the devotees − mostly nuclear families, with a handful of multigenerational families—carrying on the worship in their living rooms or puja rooms.

The worshippers' selfies reveal an interesting synergy between online and offline bhakti which, if one were to make a prediction, will be the future face of Hindu religiosity in the age of the Internet. The vast majority of these pictures show the laptop—with the webcast clearly visible on the screen—sharing space with the gods’ idols in family shrines: it is almost as if the laptop has become an essential ingredient of the puja samagri (paraphernalia of worship). In many cases, the webcast is projected onto a wall-mounted screen which dominates the shrine, looking down on the murtis. In other instances, the worshippers gaze not at the god’s image as they pray, but at the smartphones in their hands. In yet other selfies, we find devotees doing rituals with one eye on the laptop screen so that they can follow the postures and mudras of the temple swamis conducting the puja miles away. In a handful of cases, it is the screen image of Swaminaryan that is the object of puja.

What are these laptops doing in puja rooms? Many things all at once: they are virtual temples, virtual kirtan mandalis, virtual pujaris and even virtual family elders teaching the ways of worship to younger generations. By logging in at the same time, geographically dispersed and socially distanced worshippers create a sense of community with a distinctive identity, and by mirroring the pujaris’ words and gestures online, they become a link in the chain of tradition.

These pictures reveal a new model of hybrid puja in which the real and the virtual, the offline and the online, begin to shape each other. In this new way of worship, the murtis in the family shrines are real, material objects that you can touch, wash and dress, but the consecrated murti is present only as an image on the screen. Likewise, the flowers and the incense are real, but the priests leading the ceremonies are present only virtually. The how-why-when of rituals remain pretty much unchanged, but they have now found a novel mode of transmission that defies all limits of space and time and can create communities of worshippers across cities, nations and continents.

This hybrid puja style went viral in India as well, thanks to the intervention of the state, temple regulatory bodies and the e-commerce platforms that have sprung up to exploit India’s immense god market, estimated to be worth around 40 billion dollars.

Most Hindu temples in India prohibit photography from inside the garbha griha and routinely display stern “No Cameras Allowed” notices on their premises. Who would have thought that these same temples would so readily embrace webcams gazing down on the gods’ murtis 24X7? Except for Sabarimala, whose tantris defended the tradition of keeping cameras out, most temples wasted no time in jumping on the online bandwagon.

The southern States took the lead. Tamil Nadu’s historic temples—the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai, the Kapaleeswarar temple in Chennai and the Mariamman temple in Samayapuram − were chosen by the State’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department to begin live-streaming their pujas during the lockdown. This intervention came just in time for a series of popular rituals in April and May, including the wedding ceremony of the god Siva as Sundareshwar and the goddess Meenakshi in the Madurai temple and the panchprakram festival for the health-giving goddess Mariamma in Samayapuram, both of which were webcast live and apparently watched by 5,00,000 devotees around the world.

Karnataka and Telangana followed suit, combining live-streaming with online pujas in their well-known temples. Out of thousands of temples that dot Karnataka, the State government opened 50 major temples for live-streaming and even promised to instal webcams in the temples that needed them. In addition, the State contracted with Pure Prayer, a spirituality e-commerce website of the Mysore-based Cycle Pure Agarbathies, which offers everything from “astrology, online temple puja bookings, parihara pujas, purohit bookings, customised Yatra packages to various Spiritual and Holy places (Kshetras) across India”. Using this app, devotees can book online pujas of their choice, in the temples of their choice, for a fee. Temple priests will perform the pujas in the name of the devotee and the prasad and holy water will be couriered to the devotees. The idea is to keep people praying, the priests employed and the temples in business.

Telangana also turned to the Internet to offer book-a-puja services but did not outsource these to a private site. Devotees are invited to the State government portal for civic services (ts.meeseva.telangana.gov.in) to book pujas and pay online for the services.

The state, however, is not the only ramp connecting temples to the Internet highway. Individual temples and godmen make their own independent arrangements with e-commerce platforms. Even individual temple priests can enter into service contracts with puja-ordering websites. Enterprising pujaris do not even have to be associated with any temple to get a piece of the online spirituality business; all they have to do is to register on the many pandit-booking sites that match the appropriate puja/havan/astrology expert with clients. Truly enterprising pandits do not even need a pandit-booking site; all they need is a big enough client list and a good internet connection to get into business on their own.

A case in point is VR Devotees, an online spirituality services provider that has emerged as a major player in the spirituality business. The calling card of VR Devotees is “VR”, or virtual reality, a simulation of the physical reality in three dimensions using special headsets that evolved largely in the video-gaming industry. But even without the VR headset, the website offers high-quality, wide-angle images that are vivid and immersive. Backed by rich venture capitalists and in alliance with Airtel, this Bengaluru-based company has reported quantum leaps in its business during the COVID months. In a phone conversation, Ashwin Garg, one of the co-founders of the company, reported that before COVID, the start-up had to reach out to temples and plead with them to go online, but now the temples were chasing the company. There are some 300-odd temples and ashrams from all parts of India live-streaming rituals from their inner sanctums on the VR Devotees platform. The traffic to its app reportedly grew by 50 per cent during the lockdown, with the majority of the clients coming from within India. The live-streaming, incidentally, is really a freebie meant to hook the viewers for paid services which, eventually, will include all things spiritual, from online pujas, spiritual tourism and puja supplies. VR Devotees aims to become the Amazon of the spirituality business in India. Then, of course, there are freelance pujaris. No one knows the scale of this unorganised sector of India’s spirituality market, but media reports suggest that priests who used to visit their clients’ homes to conduct pujas and homas are now providing the same services through Skype, WhatsApp or Zoom. Both the priests and their clients stay put in their homes, as the former guide the latter through the ritual. These pujas-on-Skype are apparently in high demand and will, given the convenience, probably outlast the pandemic.

While freelance pujaris appear to have expanded their businesses, the “traditional” online order-a-puja services ran into logistical problems during the lockdown. Ordering a puja from websites like Sarnam.com, epuja.com, eprarthana.com, Rudraksh-ratna.com or any of the hundreds of similar websites is no different from ordering an item from Amazon.com. The devotee picks a particular puja, or a havan, to be performed in the temple of his/her choice, on a particular day and for a particular purpose which can range from seeking relief from disease, looking for a job or a mate, placating the navagraha (nine planets) and such. The puja is put in the “shopping cart” and payment is made electronically. The order is sent to the local representatives of the websites who have some working connections with the temple pujaris. The pujari then does a puja in the name of the devotee/customer who then receives non-perishable parts of the prasad as proof of the puja. Some websites also offer online video connections at the time of the puja. Everyone involved, naturally, gets a cut; what the devotees used to put in the temple “hundi” now gets dispersed among individual operatives in this complex supply chain.

This business model ran into logistical problems during the lockdown, as the local connections between the representatives and the pujaris became difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. But once temples open, there is every reason to expect that online puja orders will pick up again, and perhaps even grow in volume.

New technology, old-time religion

The Internet is often presented as evidence for Hinduism’s elective affinity with the modern world. One often hears the argument that there is a natural fit—a “marriage made in heaven,” as Vinay Lal, a University of California historian put it—between Hinduism and the Internet. It is argued that only a pluralistic and decentred religion like Hinduism with its 330 million gods and goddesses and with no central governing authority can match the anarchy, the playfulness and the openness of the World Wide Web.

If nothing else, the pandemic has demolished this bit of Hindu exceptionalism. It is true that being image-centred and ritualistic, Hindu pujas can exploit the visual and audio capabilities of the Internet in ways that the spartan sermons of, say, a Protestant church or a mosque cannot. But that said, all religions, without exception, proved themselves to be equally adept at using online technologies to keep the flock together during the COVID crisis—even the ultra-orthodox Jews, who traditionally shun the Internet, found ways to use it.

There are nevertheless economic and political aspects of the way in which Hindus use the Internet for devotional purposes that set them apart.

It is, above all, the absence of any sign of unease with the spirit of capitalism pervading online worship that stands out as a truly distinctive feature of Hinduism. The devout appear to have no qualms about having rituals sacred to them conducted through a thoroughly profane, for-profit, mode of buying and selling. Can you really put a prayer in a “shopping cart”? Is not the distinguishing mark of a religious experience its solemnity, a feeling of sacredness which comes from being set free, even momentarily, from everyday monetary exchanges?

Sending out requests for prayers to be conducted on your behalf by someone else is not particularly Hindu. Jews do it, Christians do it, and they all do it for pretty much similar reasons—to seek God’s blessings for health, wealth, success, getting married, begetting children, and so on. Every year, Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, receives hundreds of thousands of prayer requests through emails and letters. These requests from distant strangers are printed out and placed in the crevices of the Wall, a time-honoured practice that is supposed to make the prayers come true. No money changes hands—the requests are honoured by charities, religious schools and foundations as their religious and civic duty. Or take Pope Francis’s click-to-pray app, which anyone can download from Google Play and join the Pope in prayer for such good things as peace and justice. No money changes hands. Even in the more capitalist-minded Protestant churches in the United States, some scammers aside, online prayer requests are taken care of by the virtual congregation. Again, no money changes hands. Believers do make donations as tithes and bequests, but money is kept out of the act of praying itself.

Online Hinduism has chosen to hybridise Internet-mediated commerce with the age-old idea of dakshina that is owed to the temple priest. The haggling panda may have been replaced by prices set by the MBAs (management school graduates) running the websites, or by the temple boards themselves, but the transactional nature of traditional pujas is alive and well online. The basic idea is that no puja is successful without the dakshina, and higher the dakshina, the greater the quality of care by the pujari and thus greater the chances of success. If there is a marriage made in heaven, it is not between Hinduism and the Internet per se, but between the transactional nature of Hindu puja and e-commerce.

For the beautiful people who had the luxury to work from home through the lockdown, the pay-to-pray option clears the path to secede from yet one more public space—the stone-and-brick temples. Why stand in lines, why suffer the sea of humanity at the temple doors, when you can have your prayer done for you while you sit at home? This, too, is not a new trajectory: Indian middle classes have responded to the constitutionally mandated equal access to public institutions to all castes and classes by simply withdrawing from them into private enclaves. What happened to public education, public health, public transportation may now be on the cards for public temples as well.

Contrary to some techno-utopians who see the Internet as a force for disruption of traditional religious authority, the picture that emerges from India is one of continuity and consolidation of traditions. True, the techies who manage the e-puja and live-streaming websites are forcing changes in the “no camera” or “no foreigner” policies of some temples. But the structural relations of money and authority between the pujari and the yajman have not really altered. Nor is there much sign of any innovations, either in rituals or in beliefs: the same age-old rituals, accompanied by the same incomprehensible Sanskrit mantras, are what you get when the pujas get live-streamed or when it is put in a shopping cart.

Indeed, online puja services have become a new vehicle for propagating age-old pseudo-sciences and superstitions. Online pujas come with all other auxiliary services, including above all, astrology. When the State government of Karnataka, for example, contracted with Pure Prayer during the lockdown, it was facilitating not just pujas but also janm-kundali and Rahu-Ketu pariharan services from “expert Vedic astrologers”, along with consultations with Vastu shastris.

The devotional and the political together

When the Ramayana was first telecast in 1987, the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation was brewing. The political Hinduism of the latter cashed in on the devotional Hinduism of the telecast and went on to demolish the Babri Masjid. The new medium of TV became a material force in HIndutva’s march to victory.

What of the new online media? Is there a connection today between the devotional Hinduism that is flourishing online and the political project of reimagining India as a Hindu nation? After all, India in 2020 is not the India of the 1990s. Hindutva has already captured the state, brought the institutions of civil society within its own sphere of influence, and laid claims to the site of the demolished masjid in Ayodhya. So, is the danger of devotional Hinduism feeding into political Hinduism a thing of the past?

It would be a mistake to think of devotional practices as irrelevant to, and separate from, the political project of consolidating a nation on religious lines. The whole point of Hindu nationalism is to make being Hindu synonymous with being a “real” Indian, and that requires suffusing every aspect of everyday life with Hindu myths, symbols and practices.

Online Hinduism is tailor-made for this project of creating and affirming Hindu identities across time and space—and therein lies its danger.

Meera Nanda is a writer who specialises in the history of modern science.

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