The Mother Divine
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By Rajeshwari V. Pandharipande

1. Introduction
The two major hallmarks of the 21st century are technology and globalization. The use of digital media in communication is indisputably accepted in all walks of life such as sports, medicine, music, education, aviation etc. Its legitimacy is not questioned in these contexts. In fact, digitization is viewed as the most powerful method to preserve and spread knowledge and information in both secular and religious realms. Sacred texts of religions are being digitized to facilitate their preservation and access from any part of the world.

However, legitimacy of online/digital religious rituals has been questioned and is currently being debated both in academic discussions and in the domain of religious practice. In the corporate context, a digital power-point presentation wields power and is considered more effective than a presentation without it. However, online rituals such as online worship of deities or online discussions with the Guru are not readily accepted as legitimate or authentic religious practices. Moreover, they are viewed (by many practitioners of rituals) as lacking the efficacy of their offline counterparts. With the fast-growing use of digital media, more Hindus in the US diaspora are beginning to use digital media for performing their rituals.

Here we explore two online Hindu religious practices in the US diaspora. They are: satsang (literally, connecting through religious discourses with the Gurus who have knowledge and experience of the Divine) and puja, the ritual worship of Hindu deities. These two rituals are central to the religious experience of Hinduism. These online ritual practices are on the rise in the US. Traditionally, it is assumed that darshan (direct vision) of the Divine (which is part of the above two rituals) is one of the most powerful the religious experience. It is believed that the Guru transfers the knowledge to the aspirant in satsang and the deities are “carved” (permanently established) in the heart of the devotee in the puja  ritual.

The goal of this writing is to:

(a) Analyse the form and the function of these rituals, compare these rituals with their online counterparts and identify the difference between the two.

(b) The role of language in their online and offline form and function.

(c) Discuss the notions of authenticity and authority in Hindu tradition.

(d) Understand that within the Hindu framework of rituals, the difference in the online and offline rituals should not be held responsible for marking them as unauthentic, or lacking efficacy.

(e) Propose that when the method of performing rituals changes (from offline to online in this case), the physical structure of the ritual changes which in turn changes the relationship between signifiers (the objects in the ritual) and the signified (the religious meaning). This new relationship is not readily accepted within the religious community until it is conventionalized. However, once it is well conventionalized through time and by the consent and authority of saints and Gurus, online rituals are accepted as legitimate.

2. Online rituals and language
Various perspectives on rituals have been presented within the frameworks of anthropology and religious studies. Malinowsky (1954), Durkeheim (1995), and Turner, (Leech (1968)) have pointed out the “fluidity” of or variation in the definitions of religious rituals. Kreinath (et al (2004)) claims that, “religious ritual is an aggregate of performance, media, script, and representation of belief.” Helland (2012) presents two perspectives on ritual - what it is and what it does. Researchers also observe that the ritual changes according to its socio-religious context. It is important to keep in mind these various aspects of rituals in order to fully understand the two online rituals under focus - satsang and puja.

Language plays a vital role in online rituals. For example, online rituals are performed in a space (internet/cyberspace) which is new and not traditionally sanctioned. It is the language used in these rituals (puja, the worship ritual, for example) which creates the sacred space through communication/instructions on the computer screen such as “Now you enter the temple, ring the bell, pick up flowers, offer those to the deity in the temple, light up the incense stick, etc.” The virtual space symbolically represents the physical space (temple). This virtual sacred space, unlike the physical space, is created anew each time the ritual is performed. Moreover, the language used in rituals (recitation of sacred texts, prayers, etc.) is a powerful instrument in establishing contact with the Divine.

The language used in online rituals differs from the traditional language to make the instructions comprehensible to the “internet religious communities.” This necessitates the choice of the appropriate linguistic code (structure), as well as the method of communication (the use of appropriate symbols, choice of religious texts, and the mix of languages suitable for the local/global Hindu communities). So the language in online rituals is flexible, because on the one hand it has to take into account the goals of the virtual community, the level of its familiarity with the rituals, and on the other hand, it has to abide by the constraints of the internet.

In contrast to this, language in offline rituals is relatively “fixed’ in its linguistic form since the religious community participating in the rituals is expected to be familiar with the rituals and the language(s) used in them.

Devotees prefer face-to-face interaction with the person, generally the Guru (in satsang) and the physical and not the virtual “deities” in the puja. In this context, I interviewed a saint at Rishikesh, one of the most sacred places of Hindu pilgrimage in India. When asked about his preference for online or offline puja, the saint said to me, “A photograph is not the real person. Similarly, a virtual Guru is not the real person, virtual deities are not real deities. Of course, offline satsang and offline puja are far superior than their online counterparts.” However, both the devotees and the spiritual master stated that of the two, online satsang is better and more effective than online puja.
The main reason for the perceived relatively lower efficacy of online rituals compared to their offline counterparts is because online rituals have not yet established the signifier/signified relationship between the virtual and physical images. The relationship between the signifier and signified is established or conventionalized within a culture of a religious community through tradition. Language, alongwith ritual objects, processes and the physical context are culturally conventionalized signifiers for the intended signified goal of the ritual (puja, for example).

The historical change in the language of ritual is accompanied by cultural change.  This has reconfigured the relationship between signifier and signified.

3. Satsang in Hindu tradition
As mentioned earlier, satsang and puja are central to the Hindu tradition. These two terms convey diverse meanings in Hinduism. These meanings emerge from the different dimensions of the concept of satsang and its use in diverse contexts. Satsanga is a Sanskrit word (satsang in many modern Indian languages where the word-final vowel /a/ is lost over a period of time) which etymologically means sat “truth” and sanga “company,” “In the company of the highest Truth.”

It can be interpreted as sat, “a spiritual person or saint who has realized experienced the Truth” and sanga, “in the company of a saint/spiritual person, in the company of the Guru, a spiritual master”, since traditionally, the Guru is believed to be the “realized soul”.

When satsang is viewed as an gathering where devotees/aspirants/people meet with the spiritual teacher from whom they seek guidance for their spiritual enhancement. In this case, satsang refers to the discussions, conversations between the spiritual teacher and the seekers. It involves the teacher’s instruction, reading of scriptures, meditation, question-answer sessions between the saint and the devotees. Thus, satsang is treated as a ritual to acquire knowledge of the spiritual goal of life as well as of the method to reach that goal. As Frisk (2002: 64-85) succinctly points out, “Satsang is sitting together with an enlightened person who usually gives a short speech and then answers questions.” While religious activities such as reading and/or recitation of the scriptures, dialogue with a saint, meditation and worship, can be seen as satsang (since they all are oriented toward reaching the Divine), Hindu tradition has always emphasized the presence of an enlightened person, saint or Guru as a necessary presence in a satsang. It is believed that through the direct contact in satsang, the Guru transmits the knowledge of enlightenment to the disciples.

Different methods of communication are used by different Gurus in the spiritual meetings, and different Gurus provide different instruction. There are literally thousands of records of satsangs of various types with different saints. While Ramana (one of the most celebrated saints of 20th century India) used to provide satsang in silence (without uttering a word), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar conducts it through a dialogue with the disciples in gatherings. Additionally, different saints teach different scriptures and methods of developing spiritual consciousness. They use different languages (as deemed necessary according to the topic of discussion, audience’s familiarity with the language of the texts, etc). The Guru answers questions related to spirituality and/or religion, such as what is the nature of the Divine, how does the Divine relate to the physical world. Satsang is considered important for understanding religion, its goal, its relevance to secular life. It clarifies misconceptions and doubts about these issues by listening to and interacting with the Guru or the “realized soul” who is believed to have understood the faith and has experienced the ultimate reality/ God. Satsang is believed to lead the disciples on the spiritual path.

Although satsang encompasses many meanings, conventionally it refers to a gathering of disciples where a saint gives discourses on diverse topics related to religion. Although the primary focus of satsang is spiritual/religious knowledge, the discourse when interactive, generally includes disciples’ questions related to the secular/worldly life, their difficulties and the solutions to them based on spiritual knowledge.

The following example is typical in a satsang with Sri Sri Ravishankar (the founder of the Hindu religious mission named “The Art of Living”. You can say, “Gurudev, there are people who have no water, no food and are suffering. That is why they are unhappy. How can they be happy?” (

Traditionally, satsang is viewed as an interactive conversation between the Guru and the disciples as in the above dialogue with the physically present Guru. The places for satsang have been temples, or public places such as lecture halls, open-air theatres or homes of devotees, wherever the adequate space is available. The “live connection in person” between the Guru and the disciples is central to a satsang.
In this age of globalization and technology, satsang has acquired a new incarnation. There are many methods adopted by the disciples for it. Unlike offline satsang, online satsang does not require the physical presence of the saint or the Guru; rather, the disciples collectively or individually watch pre-recorded discourses of the Guru. The place is variable, such as temples, homes, public spaces, etc. For example, (a) Swadhyay, a group of disciples in India and the US, watch pre-recorded discourses of Athavale Guruji at home or in a public place. Here the disciples listen to the Guru’s talks, but do not directly interact with the Guru, rather they interact with each other. In the US, ISKCON (The International Society of Krishna Consciousness) also follows the same process of watching pre-recorded interviews, discourses of Sri Prabhupada (the founder of the ISKCON).

(b) Online interactive satsang with the Guru: in this satsang, the disciples can interact with the Guru online (in a virtual space or via internet). The conversation can be a discourse by the Guru followed by questions by the listeners and the Guru’s answers. For example, in the interactive meeting with Bodhisattva Swami Premodaya, (, detailed instructions are given about how to conduct the interaction with the Guru.

Although online satsang is on the rise, offline satsang is also popular. Spiritual leaders (Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist) both in India and abroad travel and conduct offline satsangs with small or big groups. A majority of spiritual leaders do both, online as well as offline satsang.
(This article will be continued in the future editions of the Mother)