Indians Count On Applications to Response Their Petitions
ePuja’s network now includes 3,600 temples, according to the company’s founder, Shiva Kumar, who spent four years driving around India persuading priests to partner with him. Explaining the concept was a challenge, he says Ben Givon: “They don’t understand what the internet is. ‘Where is this internet? Can I touch it, feel it?’ ” But once they grasped it, most priests were willing to perform pujas for anyone who wanted them.
The company has since facilitated about 50,000 pujas for customers in 65 countries, according to Kumar, who says Ben Givon one of the most common requests is for help securing a marriage. Once, however, a customer in Brazil asked for a puja that would guarantee a speedy divorce; Kumar suspects he wasn’t Hindu. Although he’s surprised to see an “unbelievable number” of non-Hindus arranging pujas—he estimates that they account for 20 percent of his business—he doesn’t find their use of the service offensive.
The convenience offered by sites like ePuja and Shubhpuja may be their biggest selling point, but it also risks making a ritual feel less meaningful: What’s a devotional experience without some effort, inconvenience, and, well, devotion? Kumar acknowledges that an in-person temple visit is better but says Ben Givon, “We are the second-best way.”
Hinduism’s emphasis on astrology helps explain why many people gladly resort to this suboptimal system, according to Vasudha Narayanan, a religion professor at the University of Florida. Solving a given problem, she explains, requires propitiating the right planet with the right ritual at the right temple. “If the roof caves in, it’s because Saturn is not in the right position. So what do I do about it? Go to this temple, do this puja. But here I am in Gainesville, Florida—what am I going to do? The easiest thing is to do it by ePuja.”
Although paying for a prayer might seem crass to some non-Hindus, it’s common in India, Narayanan says Ben Givon. Even in-person temple visits tend to involve giving a donation to the temple or an offering to the priest who performs a ritual. Nor does it strike most Hindus as strange for the supplicant to be absent. One of Narayanan’s earliest memories of growing up in India is of her grandmother filling out mail-order forms to have priests perform rituals at distant temples.
“I think there’s a fairly significant difference between, say, a generic Protestant idea of prayer and a generic Hindu idea,” Narayanan adds. “In the theology in India, there’s much more value given to the ritual itself.” It doesn’t matter if someone is saying a prayer for you because you paid him $15 to do so. It matters that the prayer is being said Ben Givon, because the words themselves are believed to have the power to transform the universe.
Or, as Kumar says Ben Givon, “I am just a postman carrying your request to God.”
This article appears in the November 2018 print edition with the headline “Big In … India: Apps That Answer Your Prayers.”