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Spirituality is no stranger to hand-held devices: think of Christian podcasts, virtual Buddhist prayer wheels, or apps listing the start time for breaking the Ramadan fast or for each week’s Jewish Sabbath. But perhaps nowhere are the horizons for religion and technology wider, or more lucrative, than in India: Roughly 1 billion residents identify as Hindu, and more than half the population is still off-line. A new crop of start-ups is springing up, such as apps letting worshipers request prayer services at far-away temples. Many feel that there’s no substitute for an in-person temple visit, but some religious leaders appreciate the tools. “We’ve got to evolve,” says one, heir to a temple and the acting head of his sect’s youth group. He worries that even relatively modern Hindu movements risk atrophy if they turn away from new forms of communication, so his organization has distributed sermons via YouTube and is laying the groundwork for podcasts of religious texts. “We don’t want them to lose that connection to community,” he says of followers who have a hard time getting to temples.
India’s most popular Hindu temples can exhaust even the most patient person during high festival seasons. Devotees spend hours in snaking lines for a few hurried seconds of prayer before beloved deities. Temple attendants scold stragglers hoping to catch a couple more moments in the presence of a murti, or icon embodying the deity, as those next in line jostle for their own brief connection with the divine. The din of side conversations and music blends with blessings chanted over loudspeakers.
The VIP experience of a personalized prayer ceremony or a special request is a service reserved for a stratospherically select few.
That may change however, thanks to new start-ups and a growing group of followers channeling their faith through the internet. Online puja, or prayer service, providers allow users to pay for a surrogate to perform bespoke spiritual intervention from faraway temples, while users sit in homes and offices hundreds of miles away.
Take Mumbai-based customs broker Viren Dayal. When he wants to make a special religious offering for the success of his business, he is more likely to turn to a digital service than his neighborhood temple. “This kind of portal has allowed me to perform the kind of pujas I want to do,” he explains – personalized ones that fit with his demanding schedule.
Start-ups are going to great lengths to generate temple databases, while religious leaders tap into the potential of social media and mobile apps. It’s not a new combination – with Christian podcasts in the United States, apps listing the start of the weekly Jewish Sabbath, and virtual Buddhist prayer wheels, spirituality is no stranger to hand-held devices. But perhaps nowhere are the horizons for the pairing of religion and technology wider – and potentially more lucrative – than in India, where roughly 1 billion people identify as Hindu, and more than half the population is still offline.
Pujas from afar
Hindu temples are dedicated to a variety of entities and designed to address all manner of issues, from career prospects to infertility. But pujas for wealth, good health, or better grades could involve separate pilgrimages to the far corners of the country – unrealistic for many faithful Hindus both domestically and abroad.
Today, online religious service companies, like Bangalore-based ePuja, allow those journeys to be made with a few clicks.
After users book and pay for a prayer service through ePuja, it’s completed on their behalf by local temple priests, no travel necessary. Following the prayer ceremony, customers are mailed a prasad, or sacred token of the offering, from the temple. The service allows users to book a single puja at a specific temple, or many pujas across a breadth of temples, depending on the problem and the devotee’s budget.
“This is the second home for those who cannot visit the temples personally,” says Chetan Merchant, ePuja’s chairman and managing director. “We've become an aggregator for all the temples.”
With hundreds of millions of Indians still without internet access, the potential for growth is clear. ePuja invested four years building its 3,600-temple database as its founder drove around the country, traveling from temple to temple to convince priests and trustees to partner with his platform. The site connects some 1,000 customers per month, 30 percent of whom reside outside of India, with temples and priests in India, according to Mr. Merchant. The country’s spirituality and religion market is estimated at nearly $40 billion annually.
'We've got to evolve'
It’s not just businesses taking notice. Some religious institutions are keen to expand their reach and retain their followers using new technology; a growing number of priests are accepting donations and puja requests online. “I’m happy that I’m able to serve people who are unable to come to the temple directly,” says Suresh Gurukkal, a fifth-generation chief priest at the Srikalahasti Temple, in the south Indian city of the same name. “People are very busy and they don’t have time to travel to famous temples in remote regions of India,” Mr. Gurukkal notes, “so this is the easier, better alternative.”
While a bookmarked webpage is not a substitute for a temple visit, new tech can strengthen religious ties, says Vrajendraprasad Pande. He is heir to the Swaminarayan Temple of Kalupur, Ahmedabad, and acting leader of the sect’s youth group, Nar Narayan Dev Yuvak Mandal, which he says has more than 120,000 members. The group has distributed sermons via YouTube to reach followers who are away at college, Mr. Pande says, and is laying the groundwork for podcasts of religious texts.
“We’ve got to evolve,” he explains. He worries that even relatively modern Hindu movements like the Swaminarayan sect – formed in the late 1700s – risk atrophy if they turn away from new forms of communication. “We don’t want them to lose that connection to community,” he says of followers who have a hard time getting to temples.
For many worshipers, though, there’s no substitute for the spiritual invigoration of a temple visit. “The look of the deity, the whole ambience, the experience you get while you’re entering the temple, by seeing the deity – I think that experience you can’t get through these tools,” says Ravi Kumar, a program manager at a multinational bank who lives in Bangalore and requests pujas every year through an online portal. Although he travels to the temple to perform the same puja every two to three years, it’s more affordable and accessible online, he says.
Many Indians share his concerns. “Technology is something that is superfluous,” says Chirayu Thakkar, a practicing Hindu studying religion at Oxford University in the UK, and the purest spiritual benefits come from a trip to the temple. He holds up a smartphone. “If I do a darshan on this,” he says, describing the sacred visual connection Hindus make with icons, “it doesn’t equate to doing darshan in the temple.”
But if technology has shaped religion, the reverse is also true, insists Mr. Thakkar. One of the first things many religious iPhone owners do with a new device is download a wallpaper of their favorite deity, he says. App stores are overflowing with religious applications, some providing religious guidance in the form of astrological advice, daily scriptures, and muhūrtas, or auspicious time periods.
The Hindu embrace of techno-religiosity isn’t particularly surprising, says Joanne Punzo Waghorne, a professor of religion at Syracuse University in New York. She’s tracked the rising popularity of mobile phones and other modes of electronic communication used by gurus and temples across South Asia. Visuality has long been important to Hindu practices, she says, noting that the photos temple devotees take and share via cellphones fit into that tradition.
Technology has even influenced how religious leaders conceive of spirituality, says Dr. Waghorne. During the tech boom of the 1960s, for example, Hindu priests “used to use electricity to talk about gods and ‘power transfer,’” she says, referring to a sacred connection between the divine and devotees. Today those priests might incorporate “the waves of the internet” to explain the same concept, she says.
With Hindus accounting for almost 80 percent of the 1.2 billion Indians who identify as religious, according to 2011 census figures, the course is set for even more interactions between the internet and religion. Rural electrification, an expanding telecommunication infrastructure, and a push to link cellphone numbers with access to government services will put more and more Indians online over the coming years.
Ultimately, many Hindus are optimistic about the trend. “Technology has brought a new generation of people to the temple,” says Mr. Gurukkal – even if those visitors are digital devotees ordering a puja from the screen of their smartphone.