DOI link for Ritual
DOI link for Ritual
At the heart of any consideration of religious ritual practice online is the extent to which a ritual in its online manifestation has undergone an alteration from the corresponding ritual carried out in its traditional context. Such an assessment is necessary in order to approach important sociological questions regarding whether and in what ways the Internet is aﬀecting both religious practices and religious experiences. In addition, it is necessary to investigate issues concerning the validity or eﬃcacy of rituals that are undertaken via the Internet. If a ritual appears to be transformed online but it is still deemed to be acceptable, then it suggests that the ritual itself has not changed signiﬁcantly and that there are unlikely to be fundamental changes in the religious experience that it gives rise to. In light of this, I adopt a comparative approach in the following discussion
of Hindu worship online – an especially important topic since, as Christopher Helland notes, “many members of the Hindu tradition have embraced the Internet … as a valuable (and viable) tool for doing their religion” (Helland 2010: 148). In my investigation, I will focus upon the puja ritual. Puja means worship and it involves making a number of oﬀerings to a deity. These rites are variable but each sequence of procedures constitutes a ritual which is commonly referred to as a puja. Therefore, in my discussion, puja will refer to Hindu worship in general, while “a puja” or “the puja”will refer speciﬁcally to a ritual that consists of a number of acts. Details regarding such rituals will be introduced shortly. Prior to this, a brief note regarding the nature of ritual is required. As Stephen
Jacobs (2007) points out, deﬁning ritual is extremely problematic, and consequently there is no agreement upon what constitutes ritual activity. However, Ronald Grimes’s observation that “All ritual… is addressed to human participants and uses a technique which attempts to re-structure and integrate the minds and emotions of the actors” (Grimes 1990: 196 in O’Leary 2004: 56) is a useful benchmark that can be used in order to diﬀerentiate between ritual and nonritual activity, albeit with an important caveat in the case of Hinduism. Unlike in other religious traditions, in Hindu worship the presence of others is unimportant (see Gupta 2002: 37) and so there is no attempt to integrate the minds of the various individuals who are participating in the ritual. There can be little doubt, however, that the performance of a puja is an
attempt to restructure the mind and emotions of its practitioner and few, if any, would argue that a puja is not a ritual. Therefore, in my discussion, and in line
with other authorities (e.g. Eck 1985), a traditional puja carried out in the oﬄine context will simply be accepted as being a ritual. Furthermore, for the purposes of comparison with an online puja, I will assume that a puja conducted in a physical environment is successful in bringing about the restructuring of the minds and emotions of devotees and that this restructuring constitutes a religious experience.
Although it encompasses a diverse array of beliefs and practices, Hinduism has a number of “prototypical” features (Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi 1997: 301) – one of which is puja. A puja is a ritual performed regularly by millions of Hindus in which an image or murti believed to be the embodied form of a god or goddess is worshipped. During a traditional puja, which can be undertaken in temples and at shrines (including those within the home), a devotee is able to interact with the deity by way of the murti. Simple or elaborate oﬀerings are made (sometimes mediated by pujaris or priests), which can include ﬂowers and food. Consequently, depending upon the scale of the ritual, a worshipper’s senses are stimulated to diﬀerent degrees. In a complex puja, the clashing of cymbals, the beating of drums, and the
blowing of conch shells can all be heard. Edible prasad or consecrated food satisﬁes the sense of taste, while incense stimulates a devotee’s sense of smell. Incense is likely to be used even in a simple form of the ritual, but the key feature that links the most elaborate temple ritual and the most basic one undertaken at a wayside shrine or in the home is that of darshan. A prototypical feature of Hinduism in its own right, darshan is an integral part of puja. It involves a devotee gazing into the eyes of the murti and, at the same time, being seen by the deity. As Gwilym Beckerlegge puts it: “an exchange takes place through the eyes, and devotees may feel that they have been granted a vision of the deity or have experienced the divine, favored glance” (Beckerlegge 2001: 62). The facility to perform a puja via the Internet has been available for more than
a decade. Various websites, whether associated with or unconnected to Hindu temples, oﬀer an image of a deity, and typically, while devotees gaze at this image (often from the comfort of their own homes), they can use a mouse or other navigation device in order to set in motion animated versions of some of the processes that are carried out in a traditional puja. Thus, for example, clicking upon the relevant icon will result in the appearance of ﬂowers, which settle in front of the deity’s image. In addition, the website may oﬀer religious music or sacred chanting to accompany the image of the deity on the screen. An individual who conducts the ritual in this way is performing an online puja, a term not to be confused with the ordering of a puja online, which results in worship being carried out on a devotee’s behalf at a physical temple. An example of an opportunity to conduct an online puja can be found on
the oﬃcial website of the Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, an important Indian pilgrimage city roughly halfway between Delhi and Kolkata. Vishwanath is a name used to refer to the god Shiva in Varanasi, and this temple is the preeminent
one to Shiva in this city, which is especially associated with the worship of this pan-Indian deity. It is also one of the most important Hindu temples in India. The image made available for online puja on the Vishwanath temple’s website (see www.shrikashivishwanath.org/en/online/epooja.aspx) is that of the lingam, the symbol of Shiva, which is housed in the temple’s inner sanctum and which is the focus of conventional oﬄine devotional activity for Vishwanath. Although the lingam is a non-anthropomorphic symbol of the deity, which means that it does not feature human-like eyes, it can still facilitate the process of darshan. Indeed, according to the Temple Trust, darshan of the lingam “confers liberation from the bondages of maya [illusion] and the inexorable entanglements of the world. A simple glimpse of the [lingam] is a soul-cleansing experience that transforms life and puts it on the path of knowledge and bhakti [devotion]” (Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir n.d.). A Hindu devotee, or even a curious non-Hindu – unlike in the case of worship
directed toward the physical lingam situated within the temple, which is usually oﬀ limits to non-Hindus – can freely perform an online puja to Vishwanath. While gazing upon the image of the lingam, an individual can begin the online puja by clicking on the ﬁrst button visible on the screen above this symbol of the god, which sets oﬀ the chanting of Om Namah Shivaya – a mantra, or sacred phrase, in praise of Shiva. Clicking on further buttons gives rise to a number of animated actions such as the pouring of milk over the lingam and the sprinkling of leaves associated with the worship of Shiva upon this deity’s symbol. In each case, hands appear on the screen which carry out these processes. The appearance on the screen of smoking incense, which sways from side to side in front of the lingam, completes the practical processes that constitute the online puja to Vishwanath.
While during a puja to Vishwanath in the physical temple’s inner sanctum corresponding acts of worship to those that are simulated online will also occur, there is clearly a vast diﬀerence between the online puja and one carried out within the temple. For example, the former constitutes a solitary exercise with little sense stimulation, while bustle, noise and smells will accompany the latter. Some of the stark diﬀerences between online worship and Hindu worship performed in a traditional setting are mentioned by Brenda Brasher, who at the outset of Give Me That Online Religion (2004; ﬁrst published in 2001) brieﬂy compares puja undertaken at a physical temple with that carried out via the Internet. She points to the fact that in the latter case, there is no journey to or waiting time at the physical site, that there is no interaction with fellow devotees, and that online puja can be carried out at one’s own convenience (Brasher 2004: 4-5). She further highlights that, online, full stimulation of the human sensorium no longer occurs. For example, the odor of ﬂowers and fruits is absent. Because of this, she concludes that undertaking online puja is a “profoundly diﬀerent religious experience” (Brasher 2004: 4) to performing puja in the traditional oﬄine context.