‘Virtual’ religion raises interesting questions

If you are like me, then you use the Internet for some very useful, if somewhat banal, things. For example, I check movie reviews and times, get news, keep in touch with friends, and conduct research — Wikipedia for background information only, thank you very much. When I want to laugh, there’s the well-known pantheon of YouTube, CampusHumor and random stuff that gets sent around. So, you can imagine my surprise when, as I surfed the Net for news, I happened upon an article about saranam.com, a virtual portal for ordering prayers at Hindu temples.

Founded by Mahesh Mohanan, the Web site provides, for a fee, prayers in any shrine in India. Mohanan thought of the idea when making post-nuptial pilgrimages to shrines became an arduous experience. Essentially, people log on and place an order, and a priest performs a ritual in their stead. According to Mohanan: “We have a network of priests; we call them franchisees. They go out and perform the ceremony.” This seems to solve many problems at once. Those who live too far away from a temple can have easier access to it, while simultaneously those who are too busy to go to a temple nearby can have a hassle-free way of fulfilling religious obligations.

An enterprising mind can see how this principle could be expanded even further. For those who live far from Israel but would like to place a note in the Western Wall, a Web portal could provide that service as well. People could ask for blessings or prayers from holy people or clergy through a similar site. Could the Eucharist be administered by Internet proxy?

The concept of Internet-administered religion merits further scrutiny. An easy critique that can be leveled at Mohanan’s venture would be that he is allowing for religion to be conducted without thought or reverence. The very convenience of the Internet service seems to contradict the nature of prayer or religious ritual. If you can just pay someone to pray for you, or to conduct religious rituals on your behalf, especially from the ease of your desk chair, are you really invested in the process? Clearly no one is going to shut down saranam.com, but the question of whether it indicates unhealthy trends in society remains.

To be fair, saying a prayer or going to a local church is far different from visiting a unique temple. Traveling to the temples is basically one of the few remaining types of pilgrimage. Still, in an age of high productivity, people often find the demands of work, family and life at odds with the temporal commitment it takes to fulfill religious obligations. One can’t blame Mohanan for trying to make religion more accessible and facilitate practice. The balance of religion with daily life requires dedication, but shouldn’t categorically exclude ingenious uses of technology.

Community life holds particular benefits for creative uses of technology. Church groups are among the most fervent advocates of Internet neutrality. As a member of the Baha’i faith, a numerically small but very widespread religion, I use the Internet to keep in touch with youth from all parts of the globe whom I have met through religious activities — people from places including Australia, Nepal, the United Kingdom and South Africa. Online newsletters can keep a local community connected; e-mails, blogs and friend networks can bind national and international communities together. Surely, technologically adept religionists can find more applications.

Exploring these options requires an open, outward-looking mind. While some might wring their hands and wonder what the world is coming to, I for one would say it’s better to have people invested in the religious processes in some respect than in no respect at all. So, rather than decry plummeting piety, people should applaud Mohanan’s ingenuity. Furthermore, those that are fervently committed to Hinduism probably have many outlets of their devotion, not just visiting temples. Additionally, who is fit to judge another person’s religious decisions? In the end, our relationships with whatever belief we may hold is our own, and so our practice should be as well.

Dariush Nothaft is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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