The Mother Divine
Change Font Size 

By Rajeshwari V. Pandharipande 

The difference between online and offline puja

The following discussion points out the differences between online and offline puja: (a) The major difference between the two is that, at present, only a limited number of pujas can be performed online. For example, temple-worship can be conducted online while the worship ritual which is performed at home with relatives, friends, etc. cannot be performed online since the participants vary and the household rituals vary according to the family traditions. In other words, “institutionalized worship” according to the traditions sanctioned by the scriptures are currently conducted online. Therefore, the relatively more conventionalized rituals alone are performed on-line. Moreover, certain rituals such as weddings, naming ceremonies of the child, house-warmings, funerals among other, cannot be performed on-line because these rituals require actual presence of the participants in the puja;

(b) As the online puja is on the rise, there is “standardization” of puja which does not admit variation of language, worship material and the steps in the ritual. In reality, offline worship ritual allows a great deal of flexibility in choosing languages, types of flowers, sweets (for offering to the deity). The pattern of language use is “standardized’ in online puja while offline puja is flexible in the patterns of language use. The exception to this is the recitation of scriptures where the language of the scriptures cannot be changed. Thus, the online puja does not admit dialectal variation in the performance of worship. In other words, one can claim that the online puja creates linguistic hegemony (embedded in the overall structure of the worship ritual). Just as there is standardization of ingredients in the online puja, there is linguistic standardization as well which does not allow innovation, and individual modification in linguistic form as well as patterns of language use;

(c) Online puja is accessible to all, regardless of their caste, religion, age, language and the type of the temple. In this sense, on-line puja is more liberal compared to its off-line counterpart. In contrast to this, not all temples in India allow entry to the non-Hindus. (for example, Padmanabha temple Trivendram in Kerala, Vishvanath temple in Varanasi);

(d) The offline puja is not free from time restrictions. There are fixed days and times for pujas. The auspicious time is an important belief in Hinduism. On the other hand, online puja can be performed at any time according to the convenience of the performer of the ritual. However, many Hindus in the US (three out of eight whom I interviewed), try to perform their pujas at the same time as they are performed in India;

(e) Commodification of ritual is seen in online puja. The websites advertise the cost of performing online puja, the “economy packages” for the puja. Additionally, one cannot proceed to perform puja unless a certain amount is paid upfront by giving a credit card number. While in offline puja, devotees do offer some money to the temple, minister etc., it is voluntary, and a worshipper can choose not to give any money as well! In many temples, the money is for the priest for his services and for the maintenance of the temple. However, generally, no one is denied access to worship in the temple on the basis of their donation (or lack of it). Some websites do allow puja without payment. However, it is becoming more common for the online worshippers to pay for the puja. This shows that while online puja is more democratic as it is accessible to all, it also creates a divide between those who can pay and those who cannot. This is a good example of how religion is being influenced by the market economy;

(f) Online puja does not take place in the same atmosphere as offline puja. The smell of incense, the food and other offerings of fruit and flower, etc., people’s movements back and forth in preparation of the ritual, the mixing of the sounds of chants, temple bells, bhajans sung by the priest and the participants, the visual scene of the colourful clothes, the flowers, Turmeric, sindoor, etc. create an ambiance conducive for the ritual and the mindset oriented toward the worship ritual. A majority of people (9 out of 10) said that the ambiance is important for the success of the puja. The ambiance is missing in online puja. If the goal of the worship ritual is to transform the mind, then, it is important to note the difference between the two. The presence and absence of the ambiance in the offline and online puja respectively, raises a
question: on the one hand, we can say, online ritual is inadequate in providing the ambiance, on the other hand, we can ask, whether the ambiance is a necessary ingredient to achieve the goal of puja. Scheifinger (2012:126) points out that not all pros are necessarily present in offline puja and , “indeed in Hinduism, acceptance of the idea that a puja ritual is symbolic is made explicit through the existence of a type of puja in which “the physical form(of the deity) is carefully mentally reconstructed with such rituals as libations and flower offerings being exactly performed in the in the virtual reality inside the head”(Smith 2003:144). Any abbreviation associated with the practicing of online puja is also unproblematic. It does not interfere with the ritual’s efficacy because ritual abbreviation and simplification are ubiquitous procedures that are allowed by the (Hindu sacred) texts themselves”. In this context, it is important to ask why some devotees and saints, priests (with whom I had conversations) do not accept this view about the legitimacy of online rituals as they claim that there is a difference between face-to-face satsang and puja of the murtis (Deities) in the temple and their online counterparts. Their view is that the media mediated connection is the same as the connection with the photograph. Just as seeing a photograph is not meeting the person, seeing the virtual image of the guru in satsang and seeing deity’s virtual picture in puja are not equivalent to their respective offline encounters with the Guru and the deities.

In what follows, I will summarize the above discussion and present scholars’ views on the Hindu rituals and attempt to provide some answers. The above discussion points out that there is a difference between on-line satsang and puja and their respective off-line counterparts. Also, there is a concern regarding authenticity of the on-line rituals i.e., the online rituals are not viewed by many Hindus (including the priests/saints) as legitimate religious rituals. Some scholars (Fuller 19192, Scheifinger 2012 among others) have claimed that the lack of presence of full paraphernalia in online rituals (compared to their off-line counterparts) should not be an issue. Scheifinger (2012:126) claims, “-the practice of darshan-the key feature of puja –can be successfully mediated via the Internet. While the other senses may not be simulated in the way that they are when conducting the puja in the offline setting, the importance of the sense of sight remains in an online puja in the online puja. In both cases, a devotee is able to see and be seen by the deity. Therefore, in this crucial respect, the puja is not altered radically in the online form.” Here Scheifinger (2012:126) makes a distinction between “core” and other features of puja and marks the darshan “seeing the Divine” as a “core” feature of puja and argues that online puja ritual is fine as long as “core” features are maintained while some others are not. Fuller (1992:246) confers with Scheifinger’s claim that abbreviations do not interfere with the legitimacy or efficacy of the rituals. Another issue concerning purity of the on-line puja ritual has been discussed by Karapanagioti (2010). She claims that many devotees’ objection that the cyberspace is not clean (since many computers are used for many “impure” secular activities such as work as well as for pornographic films) is not correct. Karapanagioti (quoted in Scheifinger (2012:125) suggests two strategies to keep impurities out of the computer- one, keeping the physical space around the computer clean and the other, approaching the ritual with pure heart which must overcome the impurity. Scheifinger (2012: 125) further claims that Hindu goddesses and gods are not affected by the perceived impurity and the environment may become impure by the presence of an impure person.
Another concern about the efficacy (or lack of it) was brought to my notice when I recently met with a saint and asked him about the legitimacy of online puja. He said, “online puja is not legitimate because the images of Gods are not “real vigrahas (legitimate deities)” because the idols acquire “sacred statues” only when consecrated in the temples by the priest or they are “authenticated by the saints.” In the online pujas, they are merely simulated images of the deities. They cannot have efficacy of the real deities.”

Lundby (2012:225-226), while discussing theoretical approaches to the study of digital religion, correctly points out the need for analyzing both -the religion and media studies approaches for understanding the underpinnings (the goals and processes) involved in the production of mediated religion. He notes, “However, none of the aspects of religious studies can prosper without further insight into how media and communication processes work in contemporary society. Religious studies could learn from media studies in order to undertake proper research into Religion and media. Similarly, media studies could approach religion in the same way as any symbolic field in the media. However, a deeper analysis requires greater understanding of religious traditions and their symbolic universe.” In the light of the above, I would like to argue that religion, Hinduism in this case, has gone through changes in the methods used for its expression. Oral tradition was the exclusive method of expression and transmission of Hinduism in the ancient time of the Vedas and continued till they were written down first in the in the 6th century BCE (Avari 20017:69-70). Moreover, the oral transmission later in the 18th century, was supplemented by print media. In contemporary India, oral transmission continues along with reading of the sacred texts such as the Vedas, Upanishads, the epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) and hundreds of other scriptures dedicated to many deities (local and pan Indian). At present, there is no question raised about the authenticity and efficacy of the written scriptures and their use in the satsang and/or puja ritual. Similarly, the change in the language used for satsang/puja is observed in the history of Hinduism. While Sanskrit enjoyed the status of the language of religion par excellence, (and continues to do so at present), other regional languages of India began to be used in religious rituals from the 13th century. The use of English as a language of Hinduism and its use in the satsang is well attested since the 19th century when saints such as Vivekananda used English for their communication. 20th century India and the US show the use of English for satsang. Additionally, it should be noted that while English is used in the
wedding/puja rituals in the US (Pandharipande 201O), its use in the puja rituals in India is not widespread. The important point to note here is that change in the media of communication of Hinduism is not a new, 21st century phenomenon. Therefore, digital media as a medium for communicating religion in general, and for satsang and puja in particular, should not be problematic. The history of Hinduism also shows that the changes were met with resistance and were gradually assimilated and accepted within the tradition.

The questions which must be asked in this context are: a) What is the mechanism of the conventionalization or acceptance of the changes in Hinduism? In other words, how is the change authenticated? b) Why is the change first rejected and then accepted? In my work on language change in the Hindu rituals in the US (Pandharipande: 2010.2015), I have claimed that the use of English for Hindu rituals is authenticated by the saints in Hinduism (in India and the US). Unlike Christianity, Hinduism does not have the institution of the church which authenticates or rejects changes. From time immemorial, changes in rituals and languages have been authenticated and thereafter conventionalized in Hinduism by the saints who are perceived as the highest authority. For example, Prabhupada, founder of the 20th century ISKCON (International Society of Krishna Consciousness first founded in the US) recognized reading of the English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita as a legitimate ritual at par with its reading in Sanskrit, the original language of the text. Similarly, in the 13th century, Jnaneshwar, a saint in Maharashtra, used Marathi for Hindu rituals. Therefore, I argue that if the saints approve the communication of religion through media, its use is authenticated. At present, most of the Hindu saints who visit the US do use the media for their satsang and thereby legitimize it. In contrast to this, at present, the saints are not using electronic media for performing puja. Therefore, the acceptance of media-mediated communication is better accepted by the devotees in satsang as opposed to puja.