Linking Ancient and Modern, A Worldwide Web of Worship

T.K. Jayaraaman waits at Sri Rangam temple in southern India, where he arranges for a Hindu priest to perform devotional rituals purchased by customers of an Internet firm in Chennai.
T.K. Jayaraaman waits at Sri Rangam temple in southern India, where he arranges for a Hindu priest to perform devotional rituals purchased by customers of an Internet firm in Chennai. (Kevin Sullivan - The Washington Post)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 14, 2007

TIRUCHIRAPALLI, India -- Balaji, a Hindu priest, stood before the reclining god and offered a plate of coconut and bananas. His chest bare and his face adorned with red and yellow sacred paste, he set the food at the foot of a statue that Hindus regard as an embodiment of the powerful god Vishnu.

Following ancient tradition deep inside one of India's oldest and holiest temples, he chanted Vishnu's names 108 times to beseech health, wealth and good fortune -- not for himself, but for an Indian emigrant living in London who had purchased the prayer with her credit card on a Hindu Web site.

"If you wish to make an offering, the god will accept it -- even if it's on the Internet," said Balaji, standing barefoot in the hot sand of the South Indian temple compound.

The Internet has become a hub of religious worship for millions of people around the world. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs and people of other faiths turn regularly to Web sites to pray, meditate and gather in "virtual" houses of worship graphically designed to look like the real thing. Some sites offer rites from baptism to confession to conversion to Judaism.

For many cyber-worshipers, online religious life conducted at home or in an Internet cafe has replaced attendance at traditional churches, temples, mosques and synagogues. Some are coming to religion for the first time, in a setting they find as comfortable as their grandparents found a church pew, while millions of people reared on churchgoing are discovering new ways to worship.

"The first wave of religion online, in the 1990s, was mainly for nerds and young people and techies," said Morten Hojsgaard, a Danish author who has written extensively about online religion. "But now it really is a mirror of society at large. This is providing a new forum for religious seekers."

Hojsgaard said the number of Web pages dealing with God, religion and churches increased from 14 million in 1999 to 200 million in 2004. Religion now nearly rivals sex as a topic on the Internet: A search for "sex" on Google returns about 408 million hits, while a search for "God" yields 396 million.

The boom in online religion comes at a time when people, especially the young, are questioning traditional institutions, Hojsgaard said. Many are interested in religion, but they want the freedom to fashion a personalized style of worship. "Old mechanisms of religious authority are changing," Hojsgaard said. "There is more emphasis on individualism. We want to decide for ourselves."

India, with more than 1.1 billion people and a passion for technology, has become a leader in the practice of religion online, through a very large number of often very small Web sites, a pattern that reflects the decentralization of much of religious life here. Hindus sitting in the United States or Europe watch streaming live video of morning prayers from temples in their home towns. Sikhs listen to podcasts of prayers from Kashmir. Muslims download schedules of prayer times and recordings of sung verses from the Koran.

Members of India's fast-growing middle class have embraced the Internet in ways that startle their parents, many of whom were raised in villages that still barely have telephone service. At many Hindu temples, a priest's typical day includes pre-dawn prayers for a sacred cow or elephant, and time set aside to read e-mails asking for blessings.

Shopping for Prayers

On a cold and rainy January day, Kumudini Kumararajah logged on to her computer in London and started shopping for prayers.

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