Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Technology marries Religion, and India cheers

Have you noticed how neatly religion is wedded to technology in India? Like hot water and noodles, we've cleverly mixed the two to serve up God in an instant.
Take this advert for cell phone ringtones in the Hindustan Times this morning. "Devotional Special", it says, in a font that is inspired by the Sanskrit Devnagiri script. You can download mantras and chants on your cell phone for under 20 rupees, and when someone calls you, you can play them a little piece of the mantra. In the process, you dispense instant punya across the telecom network.
In addition to dispensing punya to people who call you, you can also earn punya for yourself. How? For 5 rupees, just download a religious wall paper as the background for your cell phone. The payoff? It lights up every time someone calls you, giving you small doses of darshan throughout the day. There's even a cartoon wall paper version of Lord Ram and his wife, for the young at heart. Or maybe it is meant for kids, to give them an early start in the lifelong process of acquiring merit.
I tell you, the gods must be pretty pleased with how well technology is working for them. And going by the number of prayers and chants I hear on people's phones these days, I'm sure the telecom companies are happy too.
But it's not just the mobile phone companies that have understood the marriage of technology and religion. Here's an advert on a popular website for online pujas. For $25 paid online, a priest will conduct a full-fledged puja on your behalf. All kinds of prayers and rituals are available, but what looks most popular is this one, a prayer to Kali that neutralizes any potential scheming enemies.

Astrologers have gone online as well. The simple road-side jyotish now has competition from "Ask Pandit" services, where for a fee paid online, you get horoscope consultation and religious advice via email. Advice is provided on everything under the sun, ranging from marriage, career, infertility and education. It is a tiered price structure, starting at $2 for a basic reading, and progressively becoming more expensive as you ask for more specific information. Oh and there's a shopping cart, where you can pay by credit card.

The big temples have understood technology too. The richest, Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, offers e-Darshan, a facility where you can buy tokens online so you don't have to queue up to see the Lord. The Tirupati website proudly explains that they're now using biometrics to regulate entry at the temple gates. Tirupati also has branded their other offerings - they have e-Seva, e-Hundi, e-Donation and e-Sales (whatever that is!). The website is a smoothly functioning e-Commerce centre, where you can engage with the Lord from the comfort of your home.

But if you really want to see technology working hand-in-hand with religion, you should go see Akshardham in Delhi. It's a sort of cross between a hi-tech Disneyland and a traditional temple. There is a boat ride though an artificial tunnel, a yagna-kund that is also a synchronised colourful fountain, an "audio-animatronics" show, and a giant movie screen that shows a special movie filmed in over 100 locations in India, with a cast of 45000 people.

Akshardham has welcomed technology, dreamt large dreams in technicolour using technology, and moulded technology with a confident hand to fit the special needs of its faithful. The scale and drama of Akshardham make me wish it were a metaphor for modern India - eager to accept new learning, but at the same time, vibrant and self-confident enough to convert it into something uniquely Indian. Do you think that will happen?

In any case, to me it looks like Technology is quite permanently wedded to Religion in India, and this is going to be a long and fruitful marriage. All I can say is - Jiyo mere dulha dulhan. May you prosper and produce interesting offspring!


Kat said...

Terrific information.... was stunned to learn of the e-services offered on the religious perspective.

Ringtones, wallpapers, pujas, darshans, cross between Disneyland and temple... phew.

technology & religion marrying and producing interesting e-offspring is okay... but feverishly praying to the God appearing in the monitor...... to never allow technology to extend and interfere with the nature's methodologies...!!!!

Anonymous said...

... was looking for an academic piece about the interface of religion and technology but landed at your blog. very perceptive and readable.. however, it leaves me with mixed feelings. you don't seem to take a clear position on, which for want of an appropriate term, i would call commercialization of religion.
i really don't have problems with people being religious. what irritates me is that this surge of faith has not done any good to us as a society.i find most of the religious persons cocooned in their petty world and criminally apathetic to what goes around them.what good a religion is if it does not make us kind and considerate about our fellow beings?


Deepa said...

Dear Naresh -

I think that in most Indian homes, moral/ethical education and the teaching of values is tightly linked to religious tales. I am not religious in the traditional sense of the word, but I am unwilling to dismiss the big role that religion plays in shaping our perceptions of good and bad, right and wrong.

This is separate from the issue of commercialisation. Downloading ringtones with om-namah-shivaya can't help the person who doesn't have the essence of shiva in his or her heart, and we all know that.

- Deepa