This article is the second in a series by Krishna Akhil on the efforts of companies to enable Hindu devotees to have access to ritual services via the internet. 

As entrepreneurs over the years began experimenting with ways to combine the internet, business, and religion, they generated investor interest in both the ‘puja by proxy’ and the ‘uber for pujari’ business models.

An early investor in a ‘puja by proxy’ company, K Ganesh said, “Here is a market that is both recession-proof and price inelastic. Unlike other sectors it is not cyclical because people resort to faith in good times and bad times. Also, nobody negotiates with God!”

Another investor, Nandini Guglani spoke of her investment, “religion is the most viral business in India and we are invested not just in terms of money but in getting the right product out, setting pricing to service standards, and connecting the dots between technology, resources, and facilities that enable believers to reach out to their faith”.  But, how exactly does one set ‘service standards’ for an entire religion?

Enter: The Professional Pujari

Now, all marketplaces face challenges when selling the credentials of their service providers. The nature of their chosen industry–the spiritual and religious services market–means that the unique selling point (USP) of these businesses involves a pitch around “linking the ancient and modern” [1]. So, in this case, these entrepreneurs use the educated, scientific, and standard service providing professional pujari as a way to generate trust amongst potential users. 

The pitch manifests itself in two ways: the pujaris are selected after extensive background checks, and, are professionals. Take the company Harivara, for example. “Harivara is an attempt to move the informal priest’s engagement and service delivery to the formal. In its full-blown form, Harivara will deliver to communities’ ritual-based services at the doorstep and professionalise religious services,says Lakshmi Narayan, a former tech-firm CEO who invested in Harivara, an Uber for pujari service.

The Harivara website | Source

The concern around ‘professionalising’ pujaris is in-sync with the larger ideology that investors share of needing to professionalise and organize services in India. In practical terms, this is done through vetting skill levels and by working with schools, or universities that offer ‘professional’ degrees. The end-goal is to inculcate a process-based approach that can be repeated without any error. 

The McDonaldization of Puja 

The sociologist George Ritzer introduced a framework of McDonaldization in 2018, where he defines a kind of standardization in services or industries, characterized by efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control [2].

Building on Ritzer’s idea, such efforts to ‘professionalise’ puja could also be seen as a McDonaldization of ritual services. This again is in line with larger efforts of Indian entrepreneurs attempting to ‘standardise’ various services – religious tech startups must, therefore, be seen in the same light as businesses like UrbanClap (for home services) or Uber and Ola (for mobility).

Efficiency in the religious tech context would translate to knowing the exact right way to perform a given puja. Calculability is estimated by both the number of pujas a pujari has performed and his customer rating. Predictability relates to the ‘standard’ quality of the pujaris one can expect to hire from such a service. When it comes to control, Uber for pujari firms ensure that the necessary puja items are private label and can be easily identified by the brand of the firm. This is similar to how Uber and Ola mandate that drivers affiliated to their platform put up stickers on their taxis for ‘easier identification’.    

What Maketh a Legitimate Pujari?

Post-liberalization in 2001, the UGC allowed three universities to offer “college-level courses in Jyotir Vigyan (astrology) and Purohitya (karmakanda or priestcraft)” [3]. While Vedic pathashalas (schools for training in the Vedas which are a prerequisite for becoming a priest) have existed for a long time, they were not allowed to offer formal degrees – this reform allowed them to tie-up with these universities to achieve a level of formalization. It is these acquired credentials of a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D., and their blending with religious sciences that establish the ‘legitimacy’ of the services being offered on the websites of the religious tech startups. Take a look at what the website for Shubhpuja has to say.

“shubhpuja.com is recognized for combining the power of science and technology with authentic ancient Vedic sciences including Astrology, Pujas, Numerology, Vastu and other healing practices. Our services are performed by highly specialized, educated and qualified professionals who are researching on combining ancient wisdom with modern time’s issues. Our highly customized mathematics and science based diagnosis and solutions differentiate us from all”[4].

So, the sciences are seen to be value-neutral and ‘good’ – this perception is then leveraged by websites like Shubhpuja to reinforce the ‘superiority’ of the services they offer. Recent comments by politicians from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also blend this messaging of religion, Hindu culture, and science. For example, in a gathering addressing medical professionals in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi argued that the Hindu God Ganesha (who has the head of an elephant and the body of a human) must have been created through plastic surgery. In the same gathering, he claimed that Karna, a key character in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, was born to his mother Kunti by way of genetic engineering, in an attempt to legitimate the legend’s fantastical birth scenes. These statements taken together with the marketing efforts of websites like Shubhpuja only serve to feed into and buttress this logic of Hinduism being backed up by science.

Kiran Bedi’s recent tweet in which she suggested that NASA scientists had recorded the sound of the sun chanting “Om” again leveraged this effective cocktail: the “naturalness” of the Sun and the professionally credentialled NASA scientists proved the “greatness” of Hindu culture.

Hinduism in Digital India

Source

So, we see that technological innovations are attempting to provide some legitimate structure to Hinduism. The logic is that a ‘professional’ puja–by the firm’s standards–will provide some comfort to devotees worried about scams and inauthentic rituals. However, while these companies provide some answers, they leave us with many questions too.

What directions will this interplay of industry and technology take religion to? Will it really lead to a reduction in the number of ‘scams’ associated with religion? How will the ‘well-rated’ pujari affect the long-standing relationship of a ‘family pandit’? Could people that were denied access to physical temple spaces now gain access through a website? Now that ordering a puja is just a click away, could it shift Hinduism further into the transactional territory of rituals? How will these services address the concerns of the protests that have emerged against making all ritual services available via a click?

Seen as a contemporary feature of Hinduism in the age of the internet, these services, that are aimed at assuaging the anxieties of diaspora, both within India and outside of it are only likely to continue evolving. For example, efforts are even underway to further personalize Hinduism through experiments with Virtual Reality, that will bring the temple into one’s pocket! Why might this continue, though? As Nanda argued presciently, “[…] many of the newly minted English-speaking and computer-savvy priests, astrologers, vastu shastris, and yoga teachers who service the middle classes’ insatiable appetite for religious ritual, are products of this nexus between the state, the corporate sector, and the temples,” [5].

Krishna Akhil is a lapsed engineer and an aspiring anthropologist. His interests lie at the intersection of technology and society.

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Featured image courtesy: Jorge Royan | CC BY-SA 3.0

[1] USP: What is different about this particular business vis-à-vis the alternatives that already exist.

[2] Ritzer, G. (2018). The McDonaldization of Society. SAGE. Print.

[3] Nanda, M. (2009). The God Market: How Globalization is Making India More Hindu. Noida: Random House India. Print.

[4] “About Shubhpuja”. Shubhpuja.com. Accessed 05 May 2019. [Available at: http://shubhpuja.com/]

[5] Nanda, M. (2009). The God Market: How Globalization is Making India More Hindu. Noida: Random House India. Print.

 

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