RELIGION

Boom in firms offering virtual religious services for Hindus far from home

With internet coverage improving across India and millions of believers living overseas for education or employment, companies offering online pujas - Hindu religious services – are thriving

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 May, 2016, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 May, 2016, 10:00pm

Four Hindu priests sat cross-legged on the floor in front of silver trays of rice, flowers and vermilion powder, chanting in low baritones that reverberated off the bare walls of the old brick temple in Noida, India.

An iPhone propped on a chair captured the service – known as a puja – and beamed it via Skype to a home in San Francisco, where a middle-aged woman wearing a red bindi and a headscarf watched intently.

Every so often, the priests peered into the screen and instructed her to mimic a gesture or repeat an incantation.

In Hinduism, the dominant religion among India’s 1.2 billion people, there are elaborate pujas for virtually every life event – and now there are virtual pujas too, along with last rites and other religious ceremonies being sold over the internet.

This digital twist on a mystical, ancient faith is a growing part of India’s multibillion-dollar spirituality market. E-commerce sites have also popped up for Indian Muslims as well as minority Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists.

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Offering their services anywhere in the world, the companies are capitalising not only on improved internet connectivity throughout India but also on a growing diaspora as more citizens emigrate for higher education and employment, leaving behind their families and spiritual networks.

According to a 2011 census, 11.4 million Indian citizens lived overseas. Among the companies cashing in is www.shubhpuja.com.

The idea for selling religious services online came to Saumya Vardhan when she was living in London. A friend’s father died in New Delhi and his widow struggled to manage the extensive rituals of the traditional 13-day mourning period on her own.

Leaving her career as a management consultant, Vardhan moved back to India to start the company in 2013 with her father, Harsh Vardhan, a retired bureaucrat and aviation expert who practises Vedic astrology on the side.

The company now employs five priests, all with advanced degrees from Hindu religious institutions. It has equipped a decades-old temple in New Delhi’s Noida suburb with high-definition cameras and hard drives to record pujas for out-of-town clients.

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Each month, the priests conduct hundreds of pujas and consultations, mainly for Indian customers but also for a growing roster of Hindu clients in the US, Europe and East Asia.

“People want to keep traditions alive but no one has time to keep up, especially if you are far away from home,” Saumya Vardhan says.

The company offers 151 pujas covering much of the human experience – extramarital affairs, bad grades, business setbacks, criminal cases, distractedness, studying abroad, stomach problems and being unpopular. Prices start at US$10 and go up to nearly US$500 for the “full wedding” package.

The San Francisco client wanted to resolve problems in her romantic life. Her service was custom-designed, based on discussions with the priests and an astrological reading by Harsh Vardhan.

The priests began the ceremony by summoning Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god and remover of obstacles. It ended a little more than an hour later with an arti – a ceremonial offering to the gods of light from a fire – before each person in the room turned 360 degrees to mimic the earth’s rotation.

But can an online puja work as well as having the devotee in the room?

The most important thing in a puja is the vibrations
Priest Narayan Shastri

“The most important thing in a puja is the vibrations,” says Narayan Shastri, one of the dhoti-clad priests. “As long as she is following the actions with her own hand and saying the mantras, the sound travels the same whether it’s through the air or through a mobile phone.”

At least some customers report good results.

One, who grew up in New Delhi and now lives in California, turned to Shubhpuja more than a year ago when he felt he wasn’t advancing in his job. Ankit, who does not want his full name used so as to protect his privacy, says several telephone and Skype sessions convinced him that his rough career patch was due to a temporary planetary alignment.

He stuck with the job and soon received a promotion.

Though he was not very religious growing up, he says the professionalism of the priests reconnected him to the family pujas of his childhood. The day before a Skype session, he would receive a list of instructions: don’t eat meat, don’t drink alcohol, wear light colours and find a quiet place in your house to sit.

“Then you just log in at the appointed time and follow along,” he says. “It’s way more convenient, to be honest. It fits with our lifestyle.”

In a faith laden with complicated rituals and unscrupulous gurus, many of the new companies pride themselves on the transparency that comes with publishing a menu of services and a price list online.

Rahul Chotia was running a web development company in suburban Mumbai a few years ago when his father complained that priests in Gaya – a pilgrimage site in northern India – had taken advantage of him during a ritual for a deceased relative.

So Chotia travelled to Gaya, hired a few trusted priests and a technician to stream services over the internet and started gayapahunchao.com.

Five or 10 years ago, we couldn’t have done this
Rahul Chotia, website founder

“Five or 10 years ago, we couldn’t have done this,” says 30-year-old Chotia, who runs the company from his apartment. “But the 3G network is there across India now, so there is no problem at all.”

Even when Hindu priests are available in person, some Indians have come to prefer the online variety.

After her mother back in India was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, Babita Lakhanpal turned to Hindu priests near her home in the San Francisco Bay area, where she works for a semiconductor company. But she grew disillusioned when they charged her thousands of dollars and provided scant proof that the rituals had been performed.

She eventually hired the priests at Shubhpuja to conduct a month-long puja at the temple in Noida. It was performed entirely offline, but when it was over Lakhanpal received a parcel in the mail containing photos of the ceremony and holy food known as prasad.

She says she believes the puja brought her mother some relief, though she remains ill. Her brother in the Bay area has since done a Shubhpuja service over Skype in hopes of reducing the pain from a chronic eye ailment.

“Pujas give solace, and I believe in the powers of prayers,” Lakhanpal says.

That the company was based in India was an extra source of comfort.

“They have access to the best priests and they can use all the traditional materials,” she says. “And they know Sanskrit. It’s a feeling of authenticity.”