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Dealing with deities: Forget the temple, Modern Hindus do it on Internet

Posted: Friday, July 05, 2002

BANGALORE, India (AP) -- When an astrologer warned Anasuya Dhanrajgir that bad luck was on her horizon, she took the road increasingly traveled by modern Hindus looking to appease ancient divinities.

Anasuya, a professional stage designer and mother of three, logged onto the Internet.

In the old days, the astrologer's advice might have pushed the 39-year-old Anasuya to take a 900-mile journey to a temple on the southern tip of India. There, she'd pay respects to Shani -- the Hindu god the astrologer said she had angered.

''I surfed the Internet to see if there was a way out,'' said Anasuya, from the western city of Pune, near Bombay.

She found that technology offered an easy way to keep the faith, and a new means of communicating with some of her religion's millions of incarnations of deities.

The site -- www.prarthana.com -- is named after the Sanskrit word for worship. It offers to conduct prayer rituals for a fee at some 400 temples across India.

With the click of her mouse, Anasuya placed an order for a ceremony or puja -- which she was told would cost $25. This particular prayer service, marked by chanting of Vedic verses and worship of fire, was designed to mollify Shani.

Hindu temples offer puja ceremonies aimed at providing good health, success in business, marital bliss and so on. Prices vary according to the service required.

For just over a dollar, one can order prayers involving simple chanting and offering of flowers. More elaborate atonements require a donation of cows and silk saris to poor people, for example, and can cost upward of $400.

''We performed the puja on Anasuya's behalf,'' said K. Ganesan, the Web site's founder. The company sent her an e-mail confirming the ceremony had been completed on the proper day. The temple sent Anasuya a parcel with part of the offerings, which symbolically conveyed the god's blessings.

''I was happy to know there was a remedy,'' said Anasuya.

When it was time to perform a blessing on her newborn son, also at a faraway temple down south, Anasuya returned to her computer. This time, she planned to make the trip herself, but let the Internet entrepreneur make all her travel arrangements and the necessary bookings at the temple.

Ganesan estimates that the number of Web sites offering similar services to Hindus has swelled to 300. Many customers are overseas Indians unable to pray in person at home temples.

The Indian software industry employs more than a half-million people, many of them pious Hindus. Some are driven by religious faith as much as an entrepreneurial itch to set up online puja services.

The rewards, after all, could be enormous.

India is the world's second-most populous country with more than a billion people, 80 percent of whom are Hindus. Fewer than 1 percent, however, own a personal computer, and Internet access is even rarer.

But the spread of cyber cafes across India, offering an hour of 'Net browsing for half a dollar or less, have taken these services to those who cannot afford a computer.

In Hinduism, someone can perform a ceremony in a temple for another. Family members often do it for each other. Prarthana.com and some other Web sites carry disclaimers saying they are providing a service, but are not directly connected to a temple, nor are they priests.

Many the temples themselves are getting Web-connected too.

The Venkateswara temple in the southern Indian town of Tirupati is reputed to be the richest Hindu temple in the world. Members fill the offering pot with so much cash, jewels and other gifts that temple workers use a conveyor belt to transfer offerings to a storage building. Now, the temple accepts credit card donations at www.tirumala.org.

The Web site of Hindu holy woman Mata Amritanandamayi shares her teachings of love and spirituality. It also hosts a travel exchange where devotees plan car pools and group accommodations in cities on the traveling guru's itinerary.

Those who are extending Hindu practice to cyberspace predict ample returns -- though the payoff might not arrive as material riches.

''I have spent a fortune running the Web site and haven't made any money,'' said Ganesan, founder of prarthana.com. ''But I'm sure I'll be showered with divine blessings for the service I am rendering.''

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On the Net:

http://www.prarthana.com

http://www.tirumala.org.

http://www.mediateckisol.com



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