The dilemma of digital dharma

How many of you can remember stories about the impact of cable and satellite television on evangelicals and charistmatics? Good.

How many of you remember stories about the whole wired-sanctuary, plasma-screen worship movement among modern megachurches? OK, that’s good too. All of that is valid news.

Every now and then, it is good to see a glimpse of other world religions crashing into modern technology, I mean other than the impact of cell telephones and the Internet on Islamic fundamentalism. This week’s Religion News Service “article of the week” by reporter Joshua M. Greene is a news feature that does just that.

(What this means is that RNS puts the text of this article online for a week. So if you want to read it, click here now. After that, you can Google for it or try Beliefnet’s news section, which always posts a good selection of RNS copy.)

The headline is “Hindu Holy Place Altered by Technology, Development, Pollution” and the dateline is Vrindavan, India. So what happens when you take a quiet, scenic Hindu holy place two miles from Delhi and then blend in digital telephones, real-estate sharks, boom boxes, satellite dishes, automobiles, solar panels and other signs of modern life? It’s hard not to notice the changes.

Not everyone is happy with the transition.

“It is a painful subject,” says Shrivatsa Goswami, whose family traces its roots to Vrindavan’s 16th-century restorers. “In those days, this place had the most beautiful riverside architecture in India’s history. It was like a miniature painting come alive.”

Goswami notes that previous generations of temple authorities understood the importance of holy places and took responsibility for their maintenance. Today, he says, that sense of stewardship is absent. . . . (With) modernization, the nature of pilgrimage to this holy spot has shifted dramatically. As recently as the 1980s, hardly one car a day arrived here, and there was little to distract from an all-day walking tour of medieval sites. Today, traffic backs up along the newly completed six-lane National Highway. A water park has opened less than seven miles from Govardhan, a hill that is among Vrindavan’s most sacred spots. Near the actual site of Krishna’s appearance in nearby Mathura, Pepsi-Cola has constructed a production plant. Cell phone towers loom up into the sky over temple domes.

Got the picture? But this is where the story gets interesting, raising questions that are surprisingly universal.

At what point do “austere conditions” begin to turn off and, thus, turn away modern pilgrims? Is it acceptable to modernize religious sanctuaries, if that is what the modern consumer wants? Does any of this affect prayer? The soul? How important is it to, as Greene puts it, separate the “spiritual dabblers from the truly devout”?

Now where have I heard those questions before?

Check this story out, before it goes offline. I have said this before, but people who are truly interested in religion news need a way to interact with RNS.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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