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Krishna Prema’s Food for Thought 2024 #1 - New Technology for an old Religion -  Digitalization in Hinduism


The following text was originally written in german for the online interfaith platform rellion.ch (1): 


We inhabit a profoundly digitized society where video conferencing connects us globally, social media sustains friendships, and the implications of artificial intelligence on our lifestyle are gradually unfolding. Undoubtedly, digitalization is reshaping religious practices as well. How does this transformation influence Hindu communities? In what ways does it surface, and what are its repercussions? Is digitalization a boon or potentially a bane? To unravel these queries, I sought insights from those around me.


GODS HAVE THEIR OWN INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT


For Raju, a resident of Jaipur, India, visiting the temple holds great significance in his daily routine. At the heart of each temple visit lies the concept of "darshan," signifying the act of seeing or being seen. Devotees gather at the temple to catch a glimpse of their "ista-devata," their revered deity. However, for the young IT specialist now residing in Switzerland, this practice has become challenging. Unlike in Jaipur, Hindu temples are not as readily available on every street corner in his current location.


Thanks to digitalization, Raju has found a way to connect with his spirituality; he can now admire images of his beloved Govindaji (a form of Krishna) on Instagram every day. While the majority of users on platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and others aim to showcase themselves through elaborate selfies, numerous Hindu temples utilize these platforms to share the latest pictures of their deities. This practice allows devotees to catch a glimpse of their favorite deity each morning before embarking on their daily routines, providing them with inspiration for the day ahead. It's interesting to note that many Hindu gods now have their own Instagram accounts!


NETWORKED WITH OTHER BELIEVERS FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD


Sanjeeva's parents hail from Sri Lanka, but she herself was raised in St. Gallen and identifies strongly with her Swiss upbringing. Despite this, her cultural roots and religious beliefs remain integral to her identity. Eager to actively participate in ceremonies and celebrations, she expresses a desire to visit the Krishna temple in Zurich more frequently.


Fortunately, with the availability of our 24-hour online livestream, Sanjeeva is able to virtually attend temple events regularly. At times, she joins in as early as 4:30 in the morning, immersing herself in the Sanskrit prayers chanted by monks and temple residents, and witnessing the priests perform the arati, a Hindu religious service. This virtual connection allows her to stay connected with her cultural and spiritual practices despite the physical distance from the temple.


For Lea, a resident of Lucerne, delving into Hindu spirituality through her yoga journey has led to a profound appreciation for Sat-Sangas. These gatherings, where sacred scriptures are discussed in the presence of saints or experienced spiritual practitioners, hold immense significance in the yoga tradition. While in the past, spiritual seekers would embark on journeys lasting months to find a guru in India, individuals like Lea now engage in this pursuit from the comfort of their living rooms, using devices like their iPad.Social media platforms host numerous gurus who effortlessly share their teachings with a vast audience, reaching millions of seekers like Lea who seek spiritual guidance in the digital age.


I myself also make use of modern media and technologies. My website acts as a digital business card on which I publish my blog. I keep my notes on my 'reMarkable' and when I'm traveling, I really appreciate having my personal library of over 700 books at my fingertips in the form of my iPad. The various apps for sacred texts are another enrichment I wouldn't want to be without. Moreover, the ability to connect with fellow believers worldwide is a valuable aspect of my digital engagement. Participating in large online events provides me with the sense of truly being part of a global movement, enhancing my sense of community and connection with like-minded individuals across the globe.


INITIATION VIA ZOOM VIDEO CONFERENCE?


These are undoubtedly positive advancements. However, among Hindus, there is not a unanimous consensus on the extent to which digital tools truly provide added value. The question arises: can a virtual temple visit be deemed equivalent to a physical one? Is the impact on consciousness the same when listening to a YouTube video as opposed to attending a lecture in person? 


There are intriguing discussions surrounding these questions. One topic that has stirred our community is the possibility of a spiritual teacher initiating their students through Zoom video conferencing. In traditional practices, the initiation of a disciple involves an elaborate Vedic fire ceremony and the delivery of mantras, with the guru whispering sacred syllables into the disciple's left ear. Can this also be done via Zoom? Does the transmission of spiritual power then depend on the internet connection?


VIRTUAL PILGRIMAGES


Another noteworthy topic of discussion is the impact of virtual pilgrimages compared to physical ones. It's evident that direct, physical experiences tend to leave deeper impressions on consciousness than their virtual counterparts. When I am physically present at a temple or pilgrimage site, I can immerse myself in the sensory details – smelling the fragrance of incense sticks, feeling the delicate flower petals offered to the deities, engaging in conversations with fellow pilgrims, and savoring the delicious prasad distributed in the temple as a divine blessing.


Regrettably, these rich experiences are not fully replicated when I'm sitting on my sofa at home. A ceremony held under a banyan tree in India, for instance, imprints itself more profoundly on my consciousness than when I attempt to experience it in Zurich through the screen of my MacBook. The tangible and multisensory aspects of physical pilgrimages contribute to a more profound spiritual connection than their virtual counterparts.


At the same time, it must be said that the spiritual effect ultimately depends on the consciousness of the individual practitioner.I may find myself in a sacred Himalayan location on the banks of the Ganges, yet if my thoughts are preoccupied with work in Zurich, the spiritual experience may be diluted. Conversely, while engaged in work in Zurich, I have the capacity to maintain a conscious connection with the sacred Himalayan space. In a sense, the latter scenario represents a more profound form of meditation.


DANGERS OF DIGITALIZATION: NARCISSISM, ENVY AND CYBERCRIME


Even if we entertain the notion that digital expressions of religion could theoretically hold equal value, it's crucial to explore the potential downsides of this development. What negative consequences might arise? What challenges and concerns do we face?


For Kashvi from South India, it is clear: digital forms of her practice cannot replace the "real" practice of her religion. For example, she prefers to come to the temple in person rather than just watch the livestream. She feels that the digital world makes people comfortable and lazy. In addition, society is becoming increasingly impersonal, everyone is looking at their cell phone screen and forgetting that there are "real" people sitting next to them with whom they could also have a conversation.


I myself have always remained somewhat skeptical about the digital world. As great as the benefits are, so too are the dangers. For example, we see how social media is flooded with misinformation. It is difficult to understand what is true and what is not. In addition, many people use the internet to criticize and gossip about others. The whole selfie culture, self-presentation with the aim of gaining as many followers as possible, encourages narcissism and envy in people. Not to mention the many forms of abuse, such as cybercrime. And even if you have the best intentions, it's very easy to get distracted by your constant online presence.


PUTTING DIGITALIZATION AT THE SERVICE OF THE DIVINE


While some spiritualists are quick to reject everything and demonize modern technology, Hinduism has a very pragmatic approach. Srila Rupa Goswami, one of the great scholars of the Gaudiya Vaishnava Bhakti tradition, coined the term "yukta-vairagya", which means true detachment. Instead of rejecting everything in the world as an illusion, one should see things in this world in connection with the divine and place them at its service. It is therefore about an inner attitude of consciousness. A sharp kitchen knife can be dangerous, someone could use it to hurt another person. However, this does not mean that we no longer use sharp knives. No, we use them to cut vegetables. Similarly, digitalization and modern technology bring many dangers, but also great benefits.


In essence, digitalization marks an exciting progression within Hinduism, with its full potential in the fusion of spirituality and technology yet to be fully realized. The task at hand is to wield these new advancements intelligently, ensuring they are employed in a manner consistent with moral and ethical principles. This is where Hinduism, alongside other religions, can play a pivotal role in guiding the ethical utilization of emerging technologies. By marrying timeless spiritual wisdom with modern technological innovations, religions can offer invaluable guidance for navigating the complexities of the digital era responsibly and with integrity.


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