As everyone knows, today the Internet is the principle mode of local and international communication, especially for younger generations. It has been with us for about 20 years now, yet in such a short time it has had a profound impact on nearly all individuals, organizations, governments, businesses and institutions. ISKCON, of course, is no exception.
Recently I was reading Religion Online- Finding Faith on the Internet, a series of essays edited by Canadian academics Lorne Dawson and Douglas Cowan. One essay by Elena Larson records that “25% of Internet users have gotten religious or spiritual information online at one point or another”. (The percentage is higher for those users aged 30 and under). Other essays discuss issues such as whether ancient traditions are trivialized or strengthened by ‘cyber-rites’ and other online religious activities.
The seriousness of the topic should not be underestimated. The success of social networking sites such as Facebook is surely a sign of the role the Internet will play in the future of many religious organizations. After all, spending hours on the Internet everyday does, of course, include many members of ISKCON’s youth peer groups such as the Gurkulis and Pandava Sena.
In a recent interview I helped conduct about ISKCON, Professor Kim Knott of Leeds University in the UK stated that the “electronic presence can be very, very important for [devotees].” Indeed, this area is critical to ISKCON’s future given that there are few Temples compared to the amount of general interest in Krishna Consciousness.
In another interview I helped conduct, Ranchor Prime prabhu from London noted “the circumstances of the world today are so different from what they were when all the major religious traditions were incubated”. Therefore, potentially the Internet and other technologies will affect religious groups more than anything else. For instance, today many religions are relatively free from political and geographical limitations like never before in their histories. It could well be that the future of faith itself will be understood increasingly less by buildings, festival attendance and other functions but more by its online presence.
ISKCON has especially developed a strong relationship with the Internet because of the emphasis on darshan in front of our beautiful shrines, the vibrancy and color of our festivals, profound philosophy, emphasis on sound vibration, there are many who have a connection with Krishna who are not close to the institution, the belief that nearly anything can be ‘used in Krishna’s service’ and our large youth following.
Despite the fact that we aim to represent an ancient spiritual tradition, devotees are not shy when it comes to using the Internet. For example, websites such as www.Mayapur.tv provide live web cams to wide range of Temple activities around the world, simultaneously. That site, for the first time, in 2010 provided full live coverage of the huge Janmashtami festival at Bhaktivedanta Manor. Even some people living locally to the Manor chose to experience the festival through the Internet rather than driving through the festival traffic and negotiating the darshan queuing system.
Inspired by websites such as http://secondlife.com, I have learned that there are devotees who are exploring the idea of creating completely virtual Temples online- – that is, Temples that do not exist elsewhere that can be explored by members via a representation of oneself in the form of a three-dimensional model, called an Avatar. (This sense of the word was first coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, who co-opted it from the Sanskrit, which he felt was a concept similar to that of an incarnation).
Once developed these online communities will be able to visit the Temple room, view beautiful deities, listen to devotional music, listen to lectures and even browse through simulated Temple gardens.
Despite the fact that technology offers exciting new opportunities it does bring serious challenges regarding how to quantify, define and monitor our membership whilst preaching and maintaining an ancient tradition in a modern world, and using modern methods.
In the absence of the older generations of Hindus who support Temples for cultural and traditional reasons, the future of some of our larger Temples in the West may well have to deal with declining attendance. This may lead to the majority of donations made online, in exchange for enhanced online facilities.
It might be argued that some cultural activities such as the sixteen samskaras can never be replaced by online equivalents, but other activities may be more border-line. One example is seeking online astrological guidance for the most auspicious time to have a ceremony instead of consulting a local guru or Brahmin, as would be the tradition.
Now, if a devotee chooses to witness the arati ceremony of his favorite deity through his computer screen, can he receive the same spiritual benefits and ‘blessings’ as if he were physically present? Would it be worth any more if he were able to interact with the images on his computer, as people do when playing on a home video game console such as Wii?
Vaishnava philosophy accepts the omnipresence of God in the form of Ksirodakasayi Vishnu, who, as the Supersoul in everyone’s heart is aware of the sincerity of the individual souls. It could be argued, therefore, that the physical attendance of religious events is not of primary importance.
That brings in the question of whether an individual can form a genuine relationship with Krishna without committing their physical body to any activity. There is some room for this in Vaishnava philosophy. For example, influenced by the 1999 Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix, In Maya- The World as Virtual Reality Sadaputa das compares the Vedic view of this observable universe to an advanced virtual reality program. In his book, virtual reality is used as a metaphor for our situation as conscious beings. The basic theme is that what we can imagine doing in a virtual reality computer system may actually be happening in nature on a vastly greater scale. Given that the Vedic understanding of the experienced world via our bodily senses is temporary and illusionary, the comparison made by Sadaputa das is highly justifiable. Using the Vedic philosophy, then, one could argue that online activities are no less valid than anything else in this material world.
In my own experience, there are a range of opinions on these issues but there is an increasing openness to the Internet from both conservative and liberal-minded devotees. Yet Vaishnavism, of which ISKCON is part, is clearly a culture as well as a philosophy.
This culture includes a high level of etiquette, family values, working together in a community and other important forms of human interaction. Visiting a Temple physically includes an holistic experience. For example; taking off your shoes before entering, smelling the incense, ringing the bell to alert the deity of one’s presence, bowing down, eating prasadam, meeting the devotees and performing physical devotional service. Significantly, darshan is a Sanskrit term meaning sight and in the context of visiting a Temple it means not seeing God but being seen by God.
It is impossible to imitate such experiences online (at least with current technology) and there are no restrictions in place to prevent the participant from polluting his ‘home pilgrimage’ with detrimental activities such as eating and dressing inappropriately in front of the computer screen (to say the least), thus vastly reducing or even reversing the spiritual benefits.
Even in terms of “online dating” and the like, eventually there has to be a physical meeting of the people. Similarly, clearly spiritual life cannot take place solely on the Internet.
But the pitfalls of expressing faith through the Internet is not necessary a valid reason for us to turn away and embrace only traditional methods of devotion. The actual dynamism of being the Hare Krishna movement is that it has to move and that includes moving with the times and adapting accordingly.
Our challenge is how to fully explore the potential of the Internet but also be ready to draw or recommend boundaries for our youth in order to keep a healthy and practical balance between the physical and cyber worlds. Despite our ethos of living a simple and more natural way of life along with the running of farms without the use of machinery, we will unreservedly use all the technology at our disposal for the highest and most urgent purpose – to expand the mission of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
Aug 06, 2022
Brahmatirtha das Director, Bhaktivedanta Institute for Higher Studies