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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Sacred Space
  5. Visiting the Virtual Temple
  6. Visiting the Virtual Church
  7. Ritual
  8. Cyberpuja in the Virtual Temple
  9. Cyberprayer in the Virtual Church
  10. Discussion and Conclusion
  11. References

This article explores how the design of sacred spaces and ritual performance are transformed in the move from offline to online contexts. A semiotic analysis of two websites—a Christian Virtual Church and a Hindu Virtual Temple—suggests the potential for demarcating distinct online sacred spaces, in a Durkheimian sense, in which devotees can engage in ritual activity. The article focuses on the performance of cyberpuja in the Virtual Temple and the posting of prayers in the Virtual Church. Interviews with the Web designers and an analysis of the sites suggest that the virtual is primarily conceived in terms of a simulation of the “real.” Consequently these sites are envisaged in terms of conventional notions of sacred space and ritual performance, rather than as something radically new.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Sacred Space
  5. Visiting the Virtual Temple
  6. Visiting the Virtual Church
  7. Ritual
  8. Cyberpuja in the Virtual Temple
  9. Cyberprayer in the Virtual Church
  10. Discussion and Conclusion
  11. References

This article is an exploration of whether notions of sacred space and perceptions and practices of religious rituals are transformed with a move from physical to virtual spaces. In particular, it presents a comparative case study of a Hindu Virtual Temple and a Christian Virtual Church. The Hindu Virtual Temple can be found on the website of the Student Hindu Council at the University of Illinois. The Christian Virtual Church has been designed by the Pastor of the Harvest Church, a small, independent Evangelical church based in Cheltenham, England. Both of these sites have attempted to create a virtual sacred space and have constructed the sites in such a way as to create the possibility of performing asynchronous cyber-rituals. (Asynchronous cyber-rituals are rituals that are performed online at a time convenient to individuals and do not require collective online assignations at specified times.) These sites are not unique; there are a growing number of religious sites from diverse traditions that are attempting to construct distinct online sacred spaces and provide facilities for the performance of cyber-rituals.

The designer and the users of Virtual Church tend to see it in terms of simulation, a false approximation of the real, and suppletion, defined as the resolution of the real (see Doel & Clarke, 1999). In an interview, the pastor who designed the Virtual Church pages indicated that he wanted “in some sense to replicate what we were doing in the physical living church” (Measures, 2005). At the same time, the pastor acknowledged that online interaction could neither replace nor fully replicate the physical co-presence of fellow worshippers. Users of the Virtual Church acknowledged that it was important that behind the Virtual Church is a “real” church located in the physical world. At the same time, one user of the Virtual Church and other Christian sites suggested that the Internet provided opportunities “for all believers to enhance their faith and fellowship in a way that previously was not possible” (Luke,1 2005). In other words, the Virtual Church is perceived by some as supplementing the physical church. In part, this is because the concept of a church includes the sense of the fellowship of the Christian community, as well as the notion of sacred space.

The Virtual Temple is also perceived in terms of simulation. The designer of the site emphatically indicated that the Virtual Temple is not equivalent to a consecrated temple located in the physical world. A posting on Hindu Chat Line, a forum on MSN, suggests that logging on to a virtual temple “cannot recreate the same experience” as ritual performance in the real world (Arjunshakti, 2005). However, it is also acknowledged that online interaction is a real experience. Some forms of Hinduism suggest that we misperceive the true nature of the world. The physical world that we perceive through our senses is maya—an illusion—and if we can overcome this illusion, we will realize that there is nothing other than God. Consequently online experience is as real (or more accurately, as unreal) as offline experience; it is all maya. In a personal correspondence with the author, the designer of the Virtual Temple suggested that it is equally possible to overcome “this illusion” in online spaces as in offline spaces (Iyengar, 2005).

The concepts of sacred space and ritual performance are discussed in this article in relation to Durkheim’s thesis that religious thought categorizes all things “into two classes, two opposite kinds, generally designated by two distinct terms effectively translated by the words profane and sacred”(2001, p. 36). Sacred space in the physical world is often demarcated from profane space by various architectural signifiers that facilitate what Lindsay Jones (2001a, b) terms “ritual-architectural events.” Ritual, although notoriously problematic to define, is generally assumed to be intrinsically distinct from mundane activity. This article thus raises two fundamental questions:

RQ1: To what extent is the construction of sacred space and the performance of sacred activity possible in online environments?

RQ2: How are sacred space and sacred activity conceived in the two case studies?

The findings of the two case studies suggest that it is possible to “set apart” virtual sacred spaces for the performance of cyber-rituals. However, the design of the sites derives from conventional and traditional conceptions of sacred space and ritual performance.

Sacred Space

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Sacred Space
  5. Visiting the Virtual Temple
  6. Visiting the Virtual Church
  7. Ritual
  8. Cyberpuja in the Virtual Temple
  9. Cyberprayer in the Virtual Church
  10. Discussion and Conclusion
  11. References

The World Wide Web has been conceived of as parallel to geographical space (Tække, 2002).2 The term “cyberspace” is widely used to indicate the void for actual and potential computer-mediated activity, in a way that is homologous to the conception of geographical space as a void for actual and potential physical activity. Sacred places located in geographical space are often identified by particular signifiers, such as architectural style, use of images, and expected protocols of behavior. This leads to the question of whether virtual signifiers can operate in an analogous fashion, demarcating sacred cyberspace from profane cyberspace.

Building on the Durkheimian distinction between the sacred and the profane, Mircea Eliade (1983) suggests that the sacred is conceived as being ontologically distinct from the profane. However, the sacred manifests itself in the profane world in what Eliade terms a hierophany (p. 80). In other words, a particular object (e.g., a tree or a rock) might appear to be simply a mundane object, but for the believer, it has ceased to be simply another rock or tree—rather, it is transformed into something sacred, something set apart.

This distinction between the sacred and the profane and the transformation of the profane into the sacred are particularly significant when considering space. Eliade (1983) suggests that sacred space is somehow marked out and distinguished from profane space. Profane space is consecrated in some way and consequently transformed into sacred space. Eliade (1959) further suggests that “for a believer, the church shares in a different space from the street in which it stands” (p. 25). Religious buildings act as architectural signifiers of sacred space, and according to Lindsay Jones (2000a, p. 22), “constitute inexhaustible funds of otherness.” Sacred architecture has its own specific style that facilitates what Jones terms ritual-architectural events, which he understands in terms of the specific interplay between worshippers and buildings. For the believer, crossing the threshold of a sacred building signifies a move from profane to sacred space. Michael Benedikt (1993) proposes that information in cyberspace “quite literally” has “an architecture” (p. 123). If this is so, then ritual architectural events are as possible in computer-mediated contexts as they are in geographical space, and virtual sacred spaces may well have the potential to “constitute inexhaustible funds of otherness” (Jones, 2000a, p. 22).

Jones further suggests that ritual-architectural events can be conceived in terms of hermeneutical games or hermeneutical conversations that involve activity (the ritual occasion) which brings participants (both building and human) together (2000a). Consequently, we have to understand sacred space as process and encounter, rather than simply as place or structure. This raises the possibility that different forms of encounters (e.g., specific encounters between viewer and mass-mediated event) might be regarded as instrumental in the construction of sacred space. Designers of religious websites that are intended to be participatory clearly perceive the potential for online ritual encounters.

It is of course debatable whether cyberspace constitutes space at all. Jesper Tække (2002) argues that cyberspace is a real parallel to geographical space, as it is a space “where we do not only see and listen to broadcast communication, but participate in communication, create things and satisfy needs” (p. 33). Tække further argues that there is an additional parallel between cyberspace and geographical space that derives from Platonic notions of space. In The Timaeus, Plato suggests that space is not directly perceptible by the senses, yet provides a sort of empty receptacle in which things exist:

Space is eternal, and admits not of destruction and provides a home for all created things, and is apprehended without the help of sense, by a kind of spurious reason, and is hardly real. (Plato, 360 B.C.E)

Add the term “cyber” in front of the first word of this quote from the 4th century BCE and change the word “created” to “virtual,” and we have a very accurate description of how the Internet is conceived. Cyberspace cannot be apprehended as such, but merely is deduced by the presence of data for which it “provides a home.”

Lars Qvortrup (2002) argues for a phenomenological understanding of space/cyberspace. In this phenomenological conception, space cannot be considered independently of “the properties of human perception” (p. 9). Qvortrup’s position is supported by the development of perspective in Renaissance paintings. However, the perception of perspective on a two-dimensional canvas is primarily passive. Humans not only perceive space in a passive sense but also move through space in an active sense. Qvortrup suggests three aspects of spatial experience: the perception of space (primarily a visual and aural experience), being in space (movement through space), and the practice of space (interacting with objects in space). Consequently it is important to identify all these aspects in the analysis of the websites.

What is important is that cyberspace is not merely a store of information, but primarily a space of “social interaction and communication” (Wertheim, 1999, p. 232). Consequently it is a space in which, as Tække (2002) has suggested, it is possible to “create things and satisfy needs” (p. 23). This suggests that it is possible to set apart, in the Durkheimian sense, special places within cyberspace in which cyber-ritual-architectural events can be facilitated that bring together (disembodied) people and (virtual) building in a hermeneutical conversation/game.

Visiting the Virtual Temple

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Sacred Space
  5. Visiting the Virtual Temple
  6. Visiting the Virtual Church
  7. Ritual
  8. Cyberpuja in the Virtual Temple
  9. Cyberprayer in the Virtual Church
  10. Discussion and Conclusion
  11. References

The Virtual Temple is clearly intended as a virtual sacred space that has the potential to facilitate a cyber-ritual architectural event. Opening up the link to the Virtual Temple reveals a color photograph of a Hindu temple framed against a blue sky. Any Hindu will immediately recognize this photograph as a temple. Although all temples in the physical world are dedicated to some particular Hindu deity, there are no visual or textual clues to indicate which deity this temple is actually dedicated to. A click of the mouse brings up a page with a clip art image of a temple. As in the photograph, there are no iconic signifiers to indicate a specific deity, yet any Hindu would clearly recognize the sketch as being a Hindu temple.

The photograph has, in semiotic terms, a higher modality than the drawing. In a photograph, the signifier and signified are almost identical. Consequently, the photograph suggests a direct correspondence between the Virtual Temple, as represented on the Web page, and a “real world” physical temple.3 The clip art image of the temple, in its use of simplified perspective, flat colors, and lack of detail, is “unrealistic” in relationship to the photographic image. However, the lower modality of the drawing suggests that the Virtual Temple is not associated with any specific temple and consequently has a universal significance for all Hindus. This combination of a high modality image and a low modality image connotes both the reality and universality of the Virtual Temple. The universality is further reinforced by the lack of any iconic signifiers that are associated with a particular Hindu deity. Through the use of perspective, both the photograph and the clip art image give an impression of space.

The sketch positions the viewers as though they are on a path approaching the main entrance to the temple. There are links to a meditation room, a shrine, and a puja4 room. The connotation is that a click of a mouse is synonymous with physically walking up a path and entering a temple. The different rooms connote that, as in a physical temple located in geographical space, a number of different religious activities take place within the demarcated sacred cyberspace. This page functions as a threshold between the virtually profane space signified by the photograph (that positions the viewer on the outside of the temple) and the virtual sacred spaces (that can be potentially reached by the click of a mouse). The Web designer of the Virtual Temple suggests:

The reason I didn’t directly link the rooms to the photograph is because the first page is like “entering” the temple. When you walk into a real temple, you don’t walk right into the shrine. You walk into a lobby, hall, or coat room. Then you walk upstairs to the various shrines. The design of the Virtual Temple is supposed to mimic this. The drawing was simply a clipart that came with the software. It worked quite perfectly actually, because I was looking for a sketch of a temple that had separate compartments—just like a real temple. (Iyengar, 2005)

The move through the various levels of the Web page of the Virtual Temple parallels the transition the devotee makes from profane space to sacred space when entering a temple and then proceeding to the inner sanctum to make an offering to the deity. The act of navigating the pages from home page to photograph, to drawing, to puja room, meditation room, or shrine are synonymous with Qvortrup’s (2002) concept of “being in space.”

In the Hindu tradition, a temple has to undergo an elaborate ritual of consecration. The Sanskrit term for a temple mandir, literally meaning abode, is considered as being a place in which the deity resides. Consequently, it is important to prepare and build a temple in a way that is appropriate for the dwelling place of the deity. No such consecration was undertaken in the construction of the Virtual Temple. The Web designer of the Virtual Temple suggests:

I don’t think creating a “virtual sacred space” that is equivalent to the consecration of physical space as prescribed by the silpasastras5 is quite possible. (Iyengar, 2005)

This raises the question of whether the Virtual Temple can be considered a temple at all. In Hinduism, going to a temple is often considered to be secondary to domestic worship, and many Hindus have a cupboard, a corner, or a room that is a dedicated shrine. The Web designer indicated:

I consider the Virtual Temple to be more equivalent to an in-home shrine. Many Hindus have shrines in their home …. and these shrines are not necessarily consecrated in the same manner as a temple. (Iyengar, 2005)

As the shrine is located in a space that also serves a domestic function, the divide between sacred space and domestic space is not simply an ontological difference but a hermeneutic distinction. Domestic space is transformed into sacred space through the hermeneutic conversation played out through the performance of puja. This suggests that cyberspace can be transformed into a virtual sacred space through specific modes of hermeneutic conversations between devotee and specific websites.

Visiting the Virtual Church

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Sacred Space
  5. Visiting the Virtual Temple
  6. Visiting the Virtual Church
  7. Ritual
  8. Cyberpuja in the Virtual Temple
  9. Cyberprayer in the Virtual Church
  10. Discussion and Conclusion
  11. References

The Virtual Church, like the Virtual Temple, clearly intends to facilitate a hermeneutic conversation between believer and website. Opening up the Virtual Church reveals a painted image of what looks like a carpeted corridor, with the words “Virtual Church” woven into the carpet. There is what appears to be a purple screen at the end of the corridor, with the legend “main hall” above it, and with the words “open” and “close” immediately below the screen. To the sides are six purple squares that, if one moves the cursor, reveal different areas of the site that can be accessed. These include a worship room, a prayer room, a chat lounge, Bible study, Church offices, and a kid’s/teen zone. Aside from the use of the word Church, there are no clear visual symbols that this is a Christian site.

The use of perspective in the image positions the viewer as though she or he has just entered a small modern church hall, and is looking down a corridor that has a number of different options. This again gives an impression of space. A click of the mouse on the word “open” reveals a slightly blurred image of people viewed from the back. A clearly visible cross, the stylized arched doors, and the way in which the people are represented as being focused on some activity taking place in the front of the hall convey a sense that the viewer is standing at the back of a Christian congregation joined together in worship. A small dialogue box requests that the visitor sign in. Although this simply requires typing in a name, the act of signing in acts as a metaphor for joining the virtual congregation and allows the visitor to access other parts of the site. The act of signing in signifies a threshold, and functions in a similar manner to the intermediary page of the drawing found on the Virtual Temple pages. It connotes a crossing over into a designated zone of religious activity. The pastor who designed the Virtual Church pages suggested that the act of signing in “is supposed to give people a sense of belonging” (Measures, 2005). Once signed in, the visitor is given the option “to enter” the various rooms of the Virtual Church; this gives a sense of what Qvortrup calls being in space.

The pastor indicated that he definitely perceived the Virtual Church as a sacred space—in Durkheimian terms, as a space “set apart and surrounded by prohibitions:”

I think the indication is given when people come to the Virtual Church that you cannot profane things. There is no swearing…. and no stupidity…. And so in that sense, yes it is a sacred space. The atmosphere would definitely be different. (Measures, 2005)

The notion of coming to the Virtual Church is clearly analogous to visiting a church in the “real” world physically. Just as a physical church utilizes various conventional signifiers to convey a sense a sacred space, so too does the Virtual Church. Despite a lack of any overt Christian symbols when one first opens the Virtual Church page, there are various signifiers to convey the sense that this is a religious website. Most noticeable is the relative lack of clutter on the opening page. In particular there are no banner headlines and no distracting animated visuals. The pastor indicated that this sense of creating a sacred space online very much depends on the way in which the website is designed. Here it seems that a style of Web design is possible that is analogous to what Lindsay Jones has termed ritual-architectural expression in the physical world, which “give[s] expression to rarefied theological doctrines” (Jones, 2000b, p. 11). Just as architectural expression of doctrine needs to be “reconciled with the more prosaic concerns of engineering stresses and loads [and] fidelity to the canons of tradition and style” (Jones, 2000b, p. 11), so too must Web design conform to the exigencies of Internet technology and the conventions of tradition.

In the design of the Virtual Church, the notion of rooms is very deliberate. The pastor suggests that the rooms “replicate the various aspects of the ministry” (Measures, 2005). The pastor and members of the Harvest Church clearly perceive the Virtual Church as an extension in cyberspace of the actual physical church. Consequently, the pastor perceives that there is no inherent difference between his online and offline ministry. The metaphor of a room emphasizes not only the multifarious aspects of a church, but also has a connotation of a building. The act of moving from room to room is synonymous with physically moving around a building, as well as being a metaphor for the various aspects of evangelical Christian mission. The pastor indicated that his intention was for the site to be “as 3D as possible, to have that movement around the site” (Measures, 2005). A building, and in particular a church, also connotes a place where Christians congregate to pray. The pastor indicated that the aim of the Virtual Church was to be a “place of meeting rather than just a place of just going to” (Measures, 2005).

Members of the Virtual Church clearly perceived it in terms of a place to visit for their religious needs. One member suggested that the Virtual Church “is a place” to visit if you had a particular prayer need. Another member of the Virtual Church indicated:

When I go into the Virtual Church, just as if I was going into a cathedral or a modern type of church building, I find a real sense of peace. There is a real sense of that. You can go there and it can be a sort of hiding place if you will. (James, 2005)

For this member, the Virtual Church is a place that can be visited in a way that is analogous to visiting a church in the physical world. In particular, the Virtual Church functions as a sanctuary from the trials and tribulations of the profane world. A hermeneutical conversation is conducted between the believer and the website in which both participants are transformed. Another member concurred, indicating that she considered the Virtual Church to be “a place where people can go and feel safe” (Peters, 2005).

Both the Virtual Church and the Virtual Temple draw on conventional signs of their respective traditions to construct a virtual sacred place in cyberspace. In both examples, the relationship between the virtual representation and real world signified is, in Peircian terms, iconic: The signifier imitates and resembles, as closely as possible, the signified.6 However, if we accept Jones’s (2000) thesis that sacred space must be understood in terms of the encounter with architectural forms, it is necessary to consider how these virtual architectural forms might facilitate ritual encounters. Furthermore, although the Virtual Temple and the Virtual Church both utilize strategies to convey a sense of not only perceiving space but also of being in space, there is no sense yet that either of these sites facilitate the practice of space. Ritual performance can be conceived of in terms of this third aspect of space.

Ritual

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Sacred Space
  5. Visiting the Virtual Temple
  6. Visiting the Virtual Church
  7. Ritual
  8. Cyberpuja in the Virtual Temple
  9. Cyberprayer in the Virtual Church
  10. Discussion and Conclusion
  11. References

Both the Virtual Temple and the Virtual Church have attempted to create a facility for performing online rituals. Prayer and puja can be considered to be the nucleus of ritual activity in their respective traditions. Although both Christianity and Hinduism include a wide range of ritual practices, prayer and puja are typically incorporated in other forms of ritual performance in their respective traditions. If the Internet is, as Dawson and Cowan (2004) suggest, “changing the face of religion worldwide” (p. 1), then the corollary is that it will also impact on the way in which ritual is both conceived and practiced. Jay Kinney (1995) suggests that the “technical innovations on the Net are likely to encourage the development of new forms of ritual” (p. 763).

Ritual is a notoriously problematic term to define, and scholars continue to debate exactly how ritual activity can be distinguished from mundane quotidian activity. As Catherine Bell (1992) indicates, almost every theorist posits a different conception of what actually constitutes a ritual. While Tambiah (1981) observes “that we cannot in any absolute way separate ritual from non-ritual” (p. 116), he suggests a working definition:

Ritual is a culturally constructed system of symbolic communication. It is constituted of patterned and ordered sequences of words and acts often expressed in multiple media, whose content and arrangement are characterised in varying degree by formality (conventionality), stereotype (rigidity), condensation (fusion) and redundancy (repetition). (p. 119)

Tambiah, like Habermas (1987), perceives ritual as a form of communicative action. The concepts of conventionality and rigidity indicate that ritual practice is derived from a shared cultural context and is highly conservative. The concept of condensation originally derives from psychoanalysis, but is utilized in communication studies to indicate that a multiplicity of ideas can be conveyed by a single word or image. In ritual, a nexus of complex and abstract ideas can be communicated through a single concrete form. For example, the Christian metaphysical worldview is condensed into the mythical narrative of the Passion, which itself is condensed into the symbolic form of the cross and the ritual performance of the Eucharist. Redundancy refers to phatic communication, a modality of communication that conveys no new information. Consequently, redundancy is linked to convention and the maintenance of social relationships. Ritual communication is essentially phatic: It is structured by formulaic conventions and generally does not convey new information per se. Furthermore, as Durkheim has argued, ritual performs a social function. In his oft-quoted definition of religion, Durkheim (2000) suggests that rituals are simply practices that unite adherents “in a single moral community” (p. 46).

Two forms of ritual interaction can be identified online: Synchronous and asynchronous interaction. Synchronous rituals are those rituals in which the performers meet online and perform a ritual as a collective at the same time. (For an emic perspective of online synchronous ritual performance, see McSherry, 2002, 2005; for an etic account, see Schroeder, Heather, & Lee, 1998). However, the Virtual Temple does not provide the possibility of synchronous interaction, and aside from a small and underused chat room, there is no facility for synchronous ritual performance in the Virtual Church. Consequently, the focus of these sites is on the performance of asynchronous rituals. Asynchronous ritual performance illustrates how notions of time have been transformed by computer-mediated communication. According to Castells (2000), one of the features of the new temporality of the network society is that:

[t]he whole ordering of meaningful events loses its internal, chronological rhythm, and becomes arranged in time sequences depending upon the social context of their utilization. (p. 492)

In other words, the timetabling and sequence of ritual performance is determined more by end users than by the conductors of ritual and the exigencies of liturgical time.

Cyberpuja in the Virtual Temple

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Sacred Space
  5. Visiting the Virtual Temple
  6. Visiting the Virtual Church
  7. Ritual
  8. Cyberpuja in the Virtual Temple
  9. Cyberprayer in the Virtual Church
  10. Discussion and Conclusion
  11. References

The Web designer of the Virtual Temple clearly perceives the possibility of the performance of online ritual:

Since God is in everything and is omnipresent, we can devote our every action as an act of worship. Why not, then, use the Internet as another venue for worship? (Iyengar, 2005)

Numerous forms of ritual practice and styles of worship can be identified within the Hindu tradition; however, puja is the core ritual of devotional forms of Hinduism (Eck, 1985). Puja basically involves a sequenced offering of items to an image of a deity. The Sanskrit term for a temple image is murti; this literally means “form.” For many Hindus, the murti is considered to be a form of the sacred and not simply a symbolic representation. Consequently, images are brought to life or imbued with the deity through a special ritual of establishment that transforms it from something mundane into something sacred. This is a classical example of Eliade’s notion of a hierophany in which, for the believer, the profane becomes transformed into something sacred. Underlying the performance of puja is a concept referred to as darśan—literally “sight” or “vision.” What is important for Hindus, when entering a temple, is that they not only see the murti, but that they are also seen by the deity. Consequently Hindus often talk about ritual in terms of going for or receiving darśan.

As puja is the paradigmatic form of Hindu ritual that is found in domestic worship, daily temple worship, and major festivals, I focus this discussion on the Puja Room. The Puja Room displays a deep red screen with a maroon square at the top, with the Hindu symbol OM, a simple line drawing of the elephant-headed deity Ganesh, and the Ganesh mantra7Sri Ganeshaya Namaha”(Praise to Lord Ganesh) written in the Devanagari script. Below is a list of 10 other deities. This is clearly in line with the concept of ista deva, literally, “chosen deity,” which is the tradition whereby Hindus select a particular deity as a focal point for their devotional practice. The primacy given to Ganesh is commensurate with his role in the Hindu pantheon, where he signifies “The Remover of Obstacles.” As well as being propitiated before undertaking any new venture, Ganesh is probably the most popular deity throughout the Hindu world.

The deep red background has a connotation of a screen or curtain that conceals the deity. This again is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Hindu religious practice. Images in temples are frequently concealed behind curtains, particularly at night and at midday. These curtains are often dramatically pulled aside, frequently to the loud accompaniment of bells and the blowing of conch shells, to allow devotees darśan. Domestic shrines are often kept in cupboards with doors closed until a member of the household wishes to perform a puja. This aspect is particularly noticeable if the Balaji option is chosen. On clicking this option, an image of a door opens to the sound of bells ringing to reveal the readily recognizable form of Balaji. It is represented as if the viewer were standing in a temple directly in front of the main shrine, the primary spot for darśan, with the connotation that the viewer both sees and is seen by this virtual murti.

The image itself is a direct copy of the murti that is found in the main temple dedicated to Balaji in South India. In Peircean semiotic terms, the murti can be thought of as a symbol, as there is no direct relationship between the signifier and signified. The meaning is conventional. No one who is not conversant with the symbolic conventions of Hindu iconography would be able to discern any particular meaning from the image. However, for Hindu devotees, the murti is an index, as the murti is regarded as a manifestation of the deity in an analogous way to the fact that smoke is an index of fire. The virtual image in the Puja Room of the Virtual Temple on one level is an icon of the murti, as it clearly resembles the image that can be found in a physical temple. So here we can identify an iconic representation of a symbol. However, for the devotee, a representation of a murti, for example in the popular color prints that can be bought in the bazaars around temples in India, is regarded as indexically connected to the murti and consequently to the sacred. Thus from an emic perspective, the relationship between the various representations of Balaji in different contexts and the sacred is in fact considered to be an indexical chain.

The Web designer of the Virtual Temple clearly believes that virtual darśan is possible. In other words, the devotee can see and be seen by the sacred when online.

I do believe that virtual darshan is possible. Like (sic) I mentioned earlier I see the Virtual Temple as an in-home-shrine, and just as one can do darshan from their in-home shrine, the same can be done with a Virtual Temple. (Iyengar, 2005)

The designer of the Virtual Temple perceives online puja to be an effective practice for accessing the sacred:

The world is the Lord’s Maya—God’s play. Hindu saints and scholars preach that this world is an illusion and that once this mind can overcome this illusion, true realization and union with God (Nirvana) can occur. Hindus use any form of worship available. … Why not, then, use the Internet as another venue of worship? (Iyengar, 2005)

In this view, the performance of virtual puja might be conceived to be as valid as the performance of “real world”puja. Placed near the images in the various deity options are representations of bells that can be rung, flowers that will scatter at the base of the murti, kumkum8 for painting a tilak,9 incense sticks that can be lit, oil lamps that can be waved in front of the image, and virtual coconuts that can be smashed, all with a click of the mouse. All of these replicate common elements in the performance of “real world”puja. This fulfils Qvortrup’s (2002) third dimension of space—the practice of space—which involves interaction with objects in space. It is clear, however, that the possibilities of virtual interaction are far more limited than in geographical space.

Although there is no facility to interact with others built in to the Virtual Temple, the meaning and structure of the online puja is clearly derived from the wider social context. Thus any Hindu will readily recognize and be familiar with the elements of the Virtual Temple. Furthermore, all the elements of Tambiah’s definition of ritual (formality, stereotype, condensation, and redundancy) can be clearly identified in the performance of the online puja in the Virtual Temple. The fact that the form of the virtual puja is identical to the form that puja takes offline reinforces Tambiah’s evaluation that ritual is characterized by formality and stereotype. The images of the various deities are condensations of complex mythical narratives, which in turn condense the Hindu metaphysical worldview. The performance of virtual puja, like offline puja, is characterized by redundancy, in that it conveys no new information but does confirm the Hindu identity of the performer.

Cyberprayer in the Virtual Church

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Sacred Space
  5. Visiting the Virtual Temple
  6. Visiting the Virtual Church
  7. Ritual
  8. Cyberpuja in the Virtual Temple
  9. Cyberprayer in the Virtual Church
  10. Discussion and Conclusion
  11. References

Like the Virtual Temple, the Virtual Church does not simply place information about religion on the Internet. The pastor, who is also the Web designer, indicated that his intent was to “produce something that was more active and involving” (Measures, 2005). However, given that the ethos of Christianity is quite different from the Hindu tradition, the nature and form of the interaction within the Virtual Church is quite different from that of the Virtual Temple.

Like the Hindu tradition, there are many forms of ritual practice in Christianity. However, prayer might be considered the central form of Christian religious practice. Prayer is a universal aspect of Christian practice and can be performed individually and collectively (Walls, 1998). Underlying the concept of prayer is the belief in the accessibility of God. Prayer tends to be either eulogistic or petitionary. Prayer can be practiced formally and traditionally, drawing from authorized texts such as the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, or informal. Collective worship, particularly on a Sunday, is also an important element of ritual life for most Christians. In almost all Christian groups, collective worship involves the taking of bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus’ Last Supper. This ritual celebration—often referred to as Communion, Mass, or the Eucharist—takes various forms and is interpreted differently by various Christian denominations (Walls, 1998). The materiality and embodied nature of this ritual seems to preclude it from being performed in online contexts. A user of the Virtual Church emphasized that a virtual environment could never fulfil this aspect of Christian worship.

The Virtual Church allows its visitors to enter a number of different rooms. The Worship Room has a verse from Chronicles10 exhorting worship of the Lord, followed by a brief explanation by the pastor of the role of prayer. The Worship Room also has a link to a Christian radio station that broadcasts Christian pop songs, in addition to a facility “for sing along with worship.” This provides the words to a hymn and the accompanying music on an audio file. The Prayer Room contains a Guide to Prayer that explains various facets of prayer. However, the main feature of the Prayer Room is the facility to place prayer requests. This allows visitors to the site to request prayers for particular problems that they or others are experiencing. A fairly typical posted example reads:

Please pray for a miracle healing for my husband who has a blood cancer. I know God is able. I thank you for your prayers—God bless. (The Virtual Church)

The Prayer Room has a facility for posting prayers and testimonies. Testifying or witnessing is a significant dimension in Protestant Evangelical Christianity. The fact that an illness is cured, employment is found, and so on is regarded as proof that not only does God exist, but he is present in this world and cares for his followers. A fairly typical testimony posting reads:

Thanks be to our Lord Jesus Christ for seeing me safely through surgery and bringing me back home in time to have a Christmas meal with my husband. (The Virtual Church)

The facilities for posting prayer requests and testimonies seem to facilitate a very instrumentalist approach to ritual. The pastor suggests that the majority of people access the Virtual Church “because something has happened in their life, or they have had an answer to a prayer” (Measures, 2005). A member of the congregation indicated that the Virtual Church is “a place, where if you have a particular prayer need, you don’t have to have someone physically there to contact” (Luke, 2005).

The pastor indicated that the intention is to foster a link between prayer requests, prayer postings, and testimonies:

What I would like to do is to have an interaction between visitors so that there is a clear connection between somebody posting a prayer and someone else as it were, being able to post fairly close alongside ‘I am praying for you, here is a verse that I have got for you, here is a bit of encouragement.’ (Measures, 2005)

However, an analysis of the three aspects of the Prayer Room reveals very little relationship among them. The pastor is aware that, at the present time, the connection between request, prayer, and testimony is not as strong as it could be. This, he suggests, is at least in part due to the technological limitations present at the time when he constructed the Virtual Church. Nonetheless, both the pastor and members of the congregation suggested that the Prayer Room is the most successful aspect of the Virtual Church. Underlying this view of the Prayer Room is the concept that, although there is always a place for individual private prayer, collective prayer is an essential element of Christian worship. The pastor, for instance, suggested that “collective prayer has a special dynamic to it that prayer on your own does not have” (Measures, 2005). He was emphatic that this “special dynamic” can be achieved online as well as offline. Nonetheless, he was equally emphatic that worship online could never replace face-to-face interactions. He suggested that “there is something about being together (in the physical sense) that makes a big difference to your experience of Christianity” (Measures, 2005).

There is also a facility on the site to listen to a recording of a sermon given by the pastor in the “real world” church. All the dimensions of a “real world” service in the physical church are available online. However, a virtual service is far more flexible. One member of the Harvest Church and user of the Virtual Church suggested that it was much easier “to walk out” of a virtual sermon if he found it boring, “without hurting the feelings of the pastor” (James, 2005). Another member suggested that in the case of children fighting, for example, it was possible to stop the service, minister to the children, and then return at a more convenient time (Peters, 2005). This clearly illustrates Castells’ (2000) thesis that CMC is instrumental in creating a new temporality.

Unlike the Virtual Temple, the central rationale of the Virtual Church is to create a space where ritualized interaction with others is possible. The structure of the Prayer Room allows for a connection to be made—albeit not always fully utilized—between posting a request, a prayer, and a testimony. This prayer facility, combined with the possibility of listening to a sermon and participating in hymn singing, clearly replicates the structure of a “real world” service at the Harvest Church. However, this ritual structure is not only recognizable to the members of the home church, but it is also readily identifiable to anyone within the Protestant Evangelical tradition.

In comparison to the Virtual Temple, the visual layout of the Virtual Church site is relatively simple. This is commensurate with the aniconic aesthetic of Protestant Evangelical Christianity. The aniconic aesthetic is defined by Goethals (1990) as “the exclusion of representational arts particularly from the liturgical setting” (p. 2). Consequently, there is a much greater emphasis on linguistic as opposed to visual signifiers. This is consistent with the importance placed on the concept of “the Word” in Christianity11 and with the centrality of scripture and preaching in Protestant forms of Christianity. Cyber-ritual performance in the Virtual Church clearly conforms to Tambiah’s definition of ritual. However, what is interesting to note is that patterned and ordered sequences of ritual performance in cyberspace are far less constrained than is ritual performance in geographical space.

Discussion and Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Sacred Space
  5. Visiting the Virtual Temple
  6. Visiting the Virtual Church
  7. Ritual
  8. Cyberpuja in the Virtual Temple
  9. Cyberprayer in the Virtual Church
  10. Discussion and Conclusion
  11. References

Both the Virtual Temple and the Virtual Church have made a bold attempt to create a cyber-facility with the aim of bringing virtual places and online individuals into a ritual encounter. However, it is equivocal whether these projects indicate a transformation in religious practices, as advocates such as O’Leary (1996, 2004, 2006) and Brasher (2004) suggest, or whether this is simply a case of old wine in new bottles.

Both the Virtual Church and the Virtual Temple are highly conventional in their design. This conventionality is hardly surprising. If ritual is regarded as a form of communicative action, and sacred space is thought of in terms of a hermeneutic conversation between architectural forms and human actors, then both can be thought of as semiotic systems in which meanings are encoded. Consequently, meaning has to be encoded in a way that is recognisable to the interpretative community for whom it is intended. The signifiers utilized by both websites are derived from the conventions of their respective traditions. The websites are iconic representations designed to resemble an evangelical church and a domestic shrine, and to imitate the experience of Christian worship and Hindu puja.

The pastor responsible for the design of the Virtual Church indicated that he wanted to create online “a taster of what we have within our church setting.” In other words, there is an attempt to recreate online, as far as possible, the experience of being in the “real world church” located in geographical space. The Virtual Temple is clearly an attempt to replicate a Hindu domestic shrine online. It utilizes images that are readily available in other formats, particularly the very popular glossy colored posters of the various deities. The offering of virtual flowers and waving virtual lamps in the cyberpuja room duplicates common elements of real world rituals performed within both domestic spaces and temples. This suggests that the Internet is utilized as a tool in the maintenance of traditional practices, rather than the “creation of unique and novel forms of worship,” as advocated by the designer of the Virtual Temple (Iyengar, 2005).

Furthermore, ritual performance tends to be a highly redundant mode of communication. Ritual is generally characterized by formulaic conventions and tends not to convey any new information. Consequently, ritual systems tend to be relatively homeostatic. This is not to say that cyber-rituals and virtual sacred spaces are identical to “real world” rituals and sacred spaces located in geographical space. Different media inevitably utilize different conventions in order to convey meaning. A process of translation takes place when meanings (religious or otherwise) are expressed in a different medium, and this inevitably entails a degree of transformation. However, both Web designers have attempted to reduce the degree of transformation to a minimum, given the limitations of the technology at their disposal.

The websites that I examined derive the conventions for their design from their own religious traditions and have not really explored the potential of the Internet. Consequently, there is a general consensus that suggests that virtual sacred spaces and the performance of online rituals lack something in relation to their “real world” counterparts. A message in response to a posting about virtual puja in a MSN forum is fairly typical:

I don’t think it could recreate the same experience fully, but it is better than nothing. I’ve been to some pujas which are very powerful, meaningful and exhilarating. I no way reckon a computer Puja could match that. But if some people are not able to find any time for spirituality, then virtual Puja may serve them well. (Arjunshakti, 2005)

There are clearly differences between online and offline sacred spaces and rituals; in particular, the performance of asynchronous online rituals can be more flexible. For example, one does not have to follow an ordered ritual sequence at a particular time. It is possible to access the Virtual Church or Virtual Temple at any time and pick and choose what aspects to engage with. Online religion allows believers to participate in the religious life when located in a different geographical space; consequently, ritual activity can be performed in non-traditional spaces. One respondent to my forum posting about virtual puja indicated that it was “wonderful to have up when I get to work.” However, this is not radically different from the common tradition of pinning a poster of a Hindu deity on the wall at a place of work. Two of the interviewees indicated that they logged onto the Virtual Church site when they were living in the U.S. However, this is not radically different from the process that was begun with the radio revival shows that allowed for a re-evaluation of what constitutes a church and where worship could take place (see Hangen, 2002).

The Virtual Church can be considered as an extension of the physical church located in geographical space. The Virtual Temple can be considered as being homologous to domestic shrines. In this way, both sites can be considered successful, in that they fulfil the main intent of their designers. However, despite providing a new arena, these examples do not seem to have a particularly significant impact as yet on the way in which sacred space is conceived or ritual is performed. The virtual is primarily conceived by the designers of both of these sites in terms of simulation—a false approximation of the real. This consequently places a limitation on the ways in which the potentiality of cyber-environments has been exploited. Neither of the case studies possesses “the imaginative energy” that “overwhelms” traditional beliefs and practices, as Brasher (2004, p. 44) has proposed; rather, both are conceived in highly conventional terms.

Notes
  • 1

    The names of the interviewees have been changed to protect their privacy.

  • 2

    The term “geographical space” is used by Tække (2002) to indicate that space is conceived as being present and having extent, yet it does not have any physical attributes.

  • 3

    The photograph is of the Mahadev Temple in Khajurao, central India.

  • 4

    Puja is the most common form of Hindu ritual. Further details can be found in the section on ritual.

  • 5

    The texts in which the details of the ritual consecration of mandirs can be found (see Eck, 1985).

  • 6

    Charles Peirce, one of the founding figures of semiology, suggested three possible relationships between signifier and signified: the symbolic in which the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, e.g. colors of traffic lights; the iconic in which the signifier resembles the signified, e.g., a photograph; and the indexical in which there is a direct connection between signifier and signified, e.g. smoke is an index of fire (Chandler, 2002, pp. 36-37)

  • 7

    A sacred phrase that is associated with the respective deity and that is often repeated or chanted as a form of praise.

  • 8

    A red powder made from turmeric.

  • 9

    A mark made between the eyebrows, at the spot where the third eye is said to be, as a sign of auspiciousness.

  • 10

    Give to the Lord the glory due His name; Bring an offering, and come before Him. Oh, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness! (I Chronicles, 16.29).

  • 11

    As in the verse in the first chapter of St John’s gospel: “In the beginning was ‘the Word’ and ‘the Word’ was made flesh…”

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Sacred Space
  5. Visiting the Virtual Temple
  6. Visiting the Virtual Church
  7. Ritual
  8. Cyberpuja in the Virtual Temple
  9. Cyberprayer in the Virtual Church
  10. Discussion and Conclusion
  11. References
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About the Author
  1. Stephen Jacobs is a senior lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. His doctoral dissertation was on the topic of Hindu identity, nationalism, and globalization. He is currently researching representations of Islam in British popular television dramas.

    Address: School of Humanities, Languages, and Social Sciences, University of Wolverhampton, Millennium City Building, Wulfruna Street, Wolverhampton WV1 1SB, UK