Hinduism Digital Hinduism
by
Juli Gittinger
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0178

Introduction

Anthony Giddens has described globalization as an “intensification” and “compression” of time and space—nowhere is this more evident than on the Internet. Online, one experiences any number of cultural expressions from around the globe, blurring the boundaries between countries, cultures, and people. Additionally, there is a simultaneity that creates communities (very much in Benedict Anderson’s vein of “imagined community”) through shared views, discussions, and experiences. That religion has become part of online experiences should not be surprising; the digital medium offers ways to augment offline practices or, in some cases, replace them altogether. Hinduism has a particularly fascinating relationship with the Internet, largely because of its emphasis on iconography and how those images function in the digital sphere. Hindu philosophies can be monist or dualistic, their practices can be ritually scripted and formal, or they can be personal, embodied, or performative. It is perhaps this diversity and inherent flexibility which makes it amenable to digital media. The earliest Hindu websites were either informational portals (such as Hindunet.org, started in 1996), or Hindu nationalist websites. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) registered their domain name in 1995, although they, along with other nationalist organizations, did not have much traffic or regularly promote their websites until around 1999. The virtual puja or e-ritual websites seem to have appeared around 2000 at the earliest, likely developing as functionality of the web developed, allowing for video and flash animation. While Hindunet.org looks much like it did fifteen years ago, Hindu nationalist websites have updated regularly, integrating the newest features of the digital sphere including social media and sophisticated graphics. Nationalist organizations are highly invested in regulating a particular discourse of Hinduism, and recognize that the electronic public sphere is a crucial arena. The issues that are central to any conversation about Hinduism as a world religion—authenticity, representation, identity, practice—are also central to digital Hinduism. Debates regarding the validity of online ritual, for example, relate to ideas of authenticity and how we understand Hinduism to function at the ontological level. There is significant scholarship on the role of digital media in South Asia, with particular regard to diaspora, cultural marketing, digital divides, and transnationalism. Digital media and South Asian religions (including Sikhism and Buddhism), however, are often not part of these conversations. There is a distinct lack of attention to Hinduism in scholarship about religion online, with analyses of piety, representation, global reach, and rituals being largely devoted to online Christianity and (to a lesser extent) Islam. At the present time even edited volumes addressing digital Hinduism are few.

General Overviews

Earliest research in digital Hinduism begins to draw from the foundational scholarship in the 1990s, which focused largely on the novelty of the medium and on the perceived boundaries between “real” and “virtual.” Understanding that the online world is the “real world” now, and that virtual communities are just as real as face-to-face relationships (much of this discussion relied upon Benedict Anderson’s ideas of “imagined community”), scholarship in the field of religion and media shifted toward more specific discourses of methodology, authority, and religious praxis. Articles in Lal 2013, Scheifinger 2008a, Scheifinger 2008b, and Scheifinger 2012 lay some groundwork for thinking about Hinduism in digital spaces. Jacobs 2012 takes a more historical approach, looking at modern technology as a product of a longer narrative of media and exploring how Hinduism has used these configurations. Kurien 2007 raises questions as to what iteration of Hinduism we find most prominently among diaspora, even on the Internet. These early investigations draw from the understanding of Hinduism as inherently polyvalent, flexible, and diverse. Thus, the potential for new expressions and practices in digital spaces is a worthwhile area of inquiry. More recent contributions have emerged since the late 2010s, notably two edited volumes on digital Hinduism, Balaji 2018 and Jayachandran 2020.

  • Balaji, Murali, ed. Digital Hinduism: Dharma and Discourse in the Age of New Media. New York: Lexington Books, 2018.

    This book contains chapters by many key scholars in the field of digital Hinduism, with the majority of essays focusing on the construction of Hindu identity and/or community online, online practices, and digital diasporas.

  • Jacobs, Stephen. “Communicating Hinduism in a Changing Media Context.” Religion Compass 6.2 (2012): 136–151.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2011.00333.x

    How has Hinduism utilized various media to effectively communicate the religion? This article traces the changing media from print, to film and television, to the digital age, and looks at the presentation of mythology and history in these formats. New media, the author argues, is informed by preceding media forms, and thus digital arenas of communication reflect a sedimented process. Particular attention is given to online ritual space.

  • Jayachandran, Jesna. “New Media and Spiritualism in India: Understanding Online Spiritualism in Convergence Cultures.” In Digital Hinduism. Edited by Xenia Zeiler, 207–229. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2020.

    This chapter explores the online dimensions of an emerging spiritualism that draws from Hindu religion and culture. This new spiritualism is argued to be a complex intersection of online participation, politics, and media markets. The author examines one website in particular, Speaking Tree, to analyze the convergence of culture and technology.

  • Kurien, Prema. “Re-visioning Indian History: Internet Hinduism.” In A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of American Hinduism. 163–183. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

    A chapter in Kurien’s book specifically addresses Hinduism online, notably how the historical and discursive influences of political Hinduism are evident on Hindu websites, many of which bear a very “Vedic” iteration of Hindu tradition. She also notes that members of online forums often discuss Hindu identity in relation to colonialism and orientalism.

  • Lal, Vinay. “When Hinduism Meets the Internet.” Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinal Lal (26 January 2013).

    Lal has frequently written about Indians and online spaces, and this article offers some thoughtful insights into the intersection of Hinduism and the Internet.

  • Scheifinger, Heinz. “Hinduism and Cyberspace.” Religion 38.3 (September 2008a): 233–249.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.religion.2008.01.008

    Scheifinger makes the argument that Hinduism is especially suited for digital spaces, being inherently flexible and sensory-rich. This understanding of the relationship between Internet and Hinduism as something non-conflictive becomes central to most discussions of Hinduism and technology in general.

  • Scheifinger, Heinz. “Researching Religion on the WWW: Identifying an Object of Study for Hinduism.” Methodological Innovations Online 2.3 (2008b): 30–49.

    DOI: 10.4256/mio.2008.0004

    This article identifies methodological approaches that may be applied in studying religion online. He argues that the changeable and dynamic nature of the web, however, makes researchers reluctant to consider it a space for viable long-term research. Hinduism is used to demonstrate various methodologies for online research.

  • Scheifinger, Heinz. “Hinduism and Hyper-Reality.” In Handbook of Hyper-Real Religions. Edited by Adam Possamai, 299–318. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004226944_017

    This chapter uses Baudrillard’s work to consider Hinduism as having qualities of the “hyper-real.” Scheifinger discusses these qualities in offline and online spaces, arguing that cyberspace gives rise to the hyper-real, which is evident when the symbolic becomes the real, that is, in the digital presentation of deities.

  • Zeiler, Xenia, ed. Digital Hinduism. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2020.

    This collection of chapters (many noted individually by topic here) covers a wide range of subtopics under the umbrella of Hinduism online, from marketing to social media. Zeiler has compiled chapters from notable scholars in the field of digital Hinduism and organized the themes into belonging/identity, authority/appropriation, contestation, and critical reflection.

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