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Technology and Religion in Historical and Contemporary South Asia: Spaces, Practices and Authorities

Panel Chair: Kristina Myrvold | Monday, August 24, 1:30-3 p.m.

This panel explores intersections between technology and religion in South Asia in the past and at the present and how various forms of techno-religious intersections transform and open up for new religious practices, discourses, communities, and institutions. Technological developments at different times in history may include new machines and technologies in a broader sense (e.g. printing technology) and new means of transportation (e.g. railways, cars) and communication (e.g. telephone, radio, TV, mobile phones, and the internet) that have facilitated new spaces of religion. The techno-religious intersections generate several questions about authority and power, the politics and poetics of identity, community and place, and how religious agency, information and experience are mediated, commodified, and adjusted to demands of societies. With specific focus on South Asian contexts and religions this panel invites papers that discuss various empirical and theoretical aspects of how technological innovations create, alter and negotiate religious spaces, practices and authorities.

Knut A. Jacobsen

Technological Innovations and Hindu Pilgrimage in Contemporary India: New Means of Communication and Ritual Change

This paper analyzes how technological developments are impacting Hindu religious traditions of pilgrimage in present-day India. Despite an increasing secularization in India, the number of pilgrims visiting places of pilgrimage continues to grow. One reason for this is that new means of communication are being used to propagate the pilgrimage places and to organize the visits. The paper investigates how new means of communication impact ritual practices and particularly examines the relationship between technological innovations and how information about the places is disseminated, how ritual clients are recruited, and how the rituals are organized and performed. By looking more particularly at the impact of Internet and mobile phones, the paper argues that these new technologies create new ways of organizing the ritual clients and the rituals. The paper uses the example of the pilgrimage town of Siddhpur in Gujarat which is the place in which the śrāddha rituals for dead mothers are performed and a place of cremation. The use of Internet and mobile phones has led to a radical transformation of the śrāddha rituals and changed them from a family ritual to a collective ritual performed in large groups. The paper analyzes this ritual change and the role of new means of communication in this change.

Katarina Plank

Goenka’s Meditation Practice: When the Guru was Replaced by the Message

The development of Goenka’s insight meditation movement into a global phenomenon has been highly dependent (and in favor of) the use of modern media: In 1981 the first tape recordings of a complete 10-day meditation course were made, and in 1982 the first taped course was held with the help of assisting teachers. This enabled the movement to establish itself on different continents. The last couple of years the courses have been translated into different languages, thus downplaying the visual and auditive appearances of the meditation teacher himself. The paper will analyze the process of increased use of technology and the tendency towards universalizing the message from a local Burmese Buddhist practice into a global, secular and scientific presentation which has been instrumental for the merging of Buddhist meditative practices into a scientific discourse that today constitutes the popular mindfulness movement.

Elizabeth Weigler

Historical Consciousness and Access: Sikh Identity and Narration of the Great War in Britain

In Britain, several state-sponsored projects seek to incorporate the sources and voices of minority groups into the First World War Centenary commemorations that began in 2014. Ethnic-religiously grounded Sikh non-governmental organizations are among those asked to create “new histories” for display to the British public. . History is one way the community of Sikh faithful (Panth) make sense of religious teaching and practice; these historical projects constitute a civic extension to an existing process of historical narration among Sikh community members. The resulting WWI narratives are communicated as physical exhibits and non-traditional, publically accessible Web-based exhibits and archives. Using a preliminary case-study, this paper explores how new, widely accessible technological platforms may impact authority and individual Sikh identity. It engages debates concerning the value and nature of non-academic authority, explores possibilities for including multiple perspectives within dominant Sikh religious discourse, and questions how these sources and narrative interpretations of Sikh values in driving WWI participation are used in religious debate.


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