The Mother Divine
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By Rajeshwari V. Pandharipande

Signifier and Signified: a changing equation

The question why a change in the medium of communication of religion is accepted or rejected needs a deeper discussion from the perspective of religious studies. The answer lies in the analysis of the process of conventionalization of the rituals and the change they undergo at different points in time and space. Religious rituals, their structural and functional complexity has been discussed in a large body of research (Helland 2012; Leach 1968; Malinowaski 1954; Turner 1969 among others). Despite their differences, scholars agree that religious ritual is a process to connect with the Divine and that the process /action is carried out through symbols which are conventionalized in the religious tradition. For example, in Hindu puja ritual, the symbols include the representation of the deities in murti/vigraha “statue” (literally, a concrete symbol of the abstract Divine). The religious offerings such as flowers incense, food, oil lamps, prayers, recitation of sacred texts, etc participate in the ritual activity. The ritual objects including the deities, individually and collectively, contribute toward establishing a connection with the Divine. The devotees believe that these symbols function as signifiers which signify the appropriate context, a process which leads to the connection with the Divine.

The major argument for the perceived relatively lower efficacy/validity of the online rituals compared to their offline counterparts is because the online rituals have not yet established the signifier/signified relationship between the virtual and physical images. The ritual meaning is conveyed or realized by the conventionalized relationship between the signifier and signified. For example, a particular statue of a deity, Shiva for example, is generally ritually established in the temple. The ritual installation of a statue in the temple is viewed as “pranapratistha” (literally, infusing life in the statue to make it “Divine”). The Hindu belief is that the rite/ritual brings the power/life of the deity into the statue/icon (for further discussion, see Bharne and Krusche (2012). Moreover, it is believed that worship should not be offered to the murti (the statue) in the temple unless the rite of “pranapratistha” has been performed. This rite is done by the priest with ritual chanting of the appropriate mantras (sacred verses believed to have the power/efficacy). In other words, the signifier (statue) functions as the signified (powerful deity) only if the rite has been performed. Similarly, for satsang to achieve its goal of transmission of knowledge through a dialogue between the Guru and disciples, it is important that the Guru is present in person. I argue that the relationship between the signifier and signified is established or conventionalized within a culture of a religious community through the tradition. Language is an integral part of the whole equation of the signifier and signified. That is language, along with ritual objects, process and the physical context are culturally conventionalized signifiers for the intended signified meaning/goal of the ritual (puja, for example).

Additionally, it is important to note that the above-mentioned objects, actions, language are authenticated in/by the tradition and therefore, in order to ensure efficacy of the ritual, each of these must be exactly “as prescribed” in the tradition. Thus every aspect of puja ritual, time, place, agent, language is irreplaceable. For example, the place of the puja must be clean, fresh flowers and fruit must be offered , the performer of puja must bathe before performing the ritual; and certain texts must be read for certain pujas (Hanuman Chalisa for the worship of the deity, Hanuman, Durga Saptashati for the puja of the goddess Durga,etc.).

The sequence of actions is also important. The oil lamp must be lit up before starting the ritual, the fruit and food must be offered after reciting scriptures). The major point I want to make here is that the signifier–signified relationship is conventionally established and therefore, when some of the signifiers are absent, the devotees do not perceive the puja to be authentic. For the worship ritual to function as the Signifier of the connection with the Divine, every part of it must be “as it is supposed to be” according to the conventions of the tradition. Since online puja does not have the ritually “consecrated” deities, many do not accept online puja to have the same efficacy as the offline puja. Scholars have agreed on the fact that the structure and function of the religious rituals is not frozen, rather, it is dynamic and it changes with the socio-religious context. According to de Saussure (Holdcroft 1991), the relationship between the signifier (the form of a sign) and the signified, (its meaning) is arbitrary or conventionally determined. In puja ritual, all of the physical objects, including the language and the murti (statue) are part of the larger signifier, puja ritual, which signifies the connection with the divine.

It is important to remember that Hinduism has gone through many changes in its history. In particular, the relationship between the signifier and signified has been changing through the passage of time. New languages were introduced in the rituals and new objects were introduced (apples, or other fruits in place of coconuts) and new spaces were accepted as appropriate for puja. In fact, the ancient ritual of fire sacrifices was not performed in any temples, rather, they were performed in the temporary structure built for the Vedic sacrifices which was ritually destroyed when the ritual was concluded. Another important change to note was that the Vedic Sanskrit was replaced by classical Sanskrit and later, by the regional Indian languages. In other words, the signifiers at the micro level were changed and new substitutes took over their ritual function of signification. It is also important to note that the “mediated communication/expression” of religious meaning is not new to Hinduism where the “concrete deities (with different forms )” were introduced in the system which symbolized/signified abstract meanings (for example, Vishnu as the sustainer of the world, Shiva as a destroyer, Goddess as feminine power, etc.). The puranas are full of symbols and deities which project a symbolic universe quite different (not necessarily unrelated) from its Vedic counterpart. Similarly, the ancient oral tradition of transmission of religion was supplemented by the written in the history of Hinduism where the written word became the signifier of the meaning like its “sound’ counterpart. Thus, when the process of offline puja is being replaced by its online counterpart, the simulated images of the actual objects function as signifiers and signify the ritual object at the micro level and puja at the macro level. Since the phenomenon of online puja is relatively recent, the relationship between the signifier and signified is not yet fully conventionalized. In contrast to this, on-line satsang is better accepted and has not met with resistance. In the secular context, televised lectures, conferences, meetings, concerts, have become quite routine and their legitimacy is acknowledged. The signifier-signified relationship between the digital image of the Guru (or the person who conducts satsang) has been conventionalized in the secular as well as religious domain over a long period of time. However, the relationship between the signifier (the ritual objects) and signified (the connection with the Divine) in puja is not yet conventionalized in the Hindu tradition. However, if history is any indication, the change in the method of conducting puja will be accepted as an authentic practice in Hinduism.

In conclusion, I would like to summarize the above discussion as follows: (a) Online satsang and on-line puja differ from their respective off-line counterparts because they both are performed through the mediation of technology; (b) The interaction between the participants and the Guru in satsang and between the devotees and the deities is mediated by the technology. Thus in both, the signifiers (Guru in person in satsang and statues of deities in puja) are replaced by their digital images in the online context. The referents (Guru in satsang and deities in puja) are the same as in their respective offline counterparts; (c) The discussion points out that the reason for “perceived” lack of authenticity of the on-line rituals is due to the fact that people/devotees do not accept the digital images as legitimate signifiers of the signified religious meaning. Interaction with “images’ is not equal to the interaction with the actual person (in satsang) and the deity ( in puja), d) Finally, I claim that every part of the ritual acts as a signifier for the signified religious meaning and that the relationship (signifier/signified) is established by the religious conventions.

The history of Hinduism shows that the conventions can change according to the social contexts and the new signifiers are introduced in the system to signify the same meaning (change in language of religious rituals). The new equation of signifier-signified is authenticated by the saints. Since the saints themselves conduct online satsang and thereby endorse the relationship between the new mediated virtual images and their ritual meaning. Finally, I would like to raise some questions in this context: (a) whether the change in the relationship between the signifier and signified changes the religious meaning; (b) how the change in the signifiers at the micro level (for example, the virtual image of flowers in the on-line puja) impacts the overall signification of the puja ritual at the macro level; and c) whether the virtual online puja can be accompanied by or mixed with its offline counterpart.