This post was written by guest contributor Zach Chrisman. Chrisman is a master’s student in Religious Studies at the University of Denver specializing in critical theory. His research observes the intersection of affect theory, internet/digital studies, and religion. He is an assistant editor for both the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory and The New Polis. Regular readers may remember Chrisman from his popular paper “Digital Deities, Paper Pujas” at our Twitter Conference (DOsTC) earlier this year. In this article, he expands on the work that he presented in that paper. He can be found on Twitter @Zach_Chris.
For many religious traditions across the globe, a sense of homeland is crucial to identity formation and ritual practice. All sorts of people invest personal meaning into their local countryside and sanctuaries. However, what happens to these thick ties between person and place when opportunities arise in distant lands, or when threats force families to venture towards the unknown?
In today’s increasingly interconnected world, international migrant communities use technology to continue religious relationships with their homelands. For instance, members of the Hindu diaspora may visit online ritual sites to practice puja by proxy in the temples of their youth.
Pujas may be performed in one’s own living room by offering chants and food offerings to murtis, or images/sculptures/symbols of deities. However, temples back in India hold special nostalgic value for this meaningful practice. Sites such as epuja.co.in or saranam.com offer services to complete pujas and other rituals on behalf of the user in these ancient shrines.
Ganesh Puja in a house in Orissa, India. Wikimedia Commons.
The short, animated video embedded below (or accessible here) neatly explains how one site operates. A user first chooses a ritual. It might involve requests for basic needs and desires such as health, favor in court, fertility, wealth, and even cures for black magic. One may also select a temple or deity where the puja should be performed.
Practitioners in India then receive the puja order, complete the ritual, and send offering elements such as food back to the user. Some services even record a DVD of the service and send that back as well. Others allow the user to interact with the priests during the process via video chat.
Screencap of Epuja.co.in Homepage
The video also highlights the site’s target market: Hindus in India who are too busy for long temple lines or expat Hindus who live far away from a traditional ritual location. Epuja.co.in prominently displays a whopping list of 30 global languages on its desktop site, further revealing its commitment towards its diaspora market base.
However, other platforms allow any researcher to view website statistics. SimilarWeb.com and Alexa.com employ online tools to analyze sites without the use of code. The number of total site visits per month, user demographics by country, searches which led users to click on the site, country demographics, and traffic from other sites are a few useful metrics for reviewing site usage. All this information, although limited, is available through free demos of the programs. These may be accessed directly or through the simple creation of an online profile.
For example, SimilarWeb reports that nearly 70% of total desktop Saranam.com visits from June-August 2019 came from the small Caribbean island of Martinique. Since this time period covers the first half of the Atlantic hurricane season, perhaps these Hindu islanders used this puja site to seek divine protection from storms. Still, this search shows that a significant population of these users are indeed those who virtually visit the temples of their homeland from abroad.
Alexa.com focuses on keyword searches and how they drive traffic to and around the selected site. This provides the researcher with a portal into the mind of the online puja user by displaying various searches for temples, deities and rituals. It also features competing sites which help the researcher discover other pages with the same online ritual purpose.
Web traffic programs help identify international trends for online Hindu ritual sites. They serve as useful tools for analyzing how virtual institutions affect labor and religion in an increasingly globalized world.
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Gopal, Sangita. “Hindu Buying/Hindu Being: Hindutva Online and the Commodity Logic of Cultural Nationalism.” South Asian Review 24, no. 1 (2003): 161-179. doi:10.1080/02759527.2003.11978304.
Lal, Vinay. “The Politics of History on the Internet: Cyber-Diasporic Hinduism and the North American Hindu Diaspora.” Diaspora 8, no. 2 (1999): 137-172. doi:10.1353/dsp.1999.0000.
Mallapragada, Madhavi. “Desktop Deities: Hindu Temples, Online Cultures and the Politics of Remediation.” South Asian Popular Culture 8, no. 2 (2010): 109-121. doi:10.1080/14746681003797955.