It is a chilly morning on Basant Panchami in February 2032. Shraddha, a 30 year old techie, has flown to Bhagyanagar in Telangana. She is an ardent devotee of Saraswati, the Goddess of vaak, code and wisdom. She is eager to visit the Vigyan Saraswati Mandir, a tech-temple that was inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi in the previous year after becoming the longest serving Prime Minister of India. She has made the reservation for a visit at 11 AM.
Shraddha works as a robot trainer and calibrator in a large corporation that makes robots to assist the elderly. She lives in “Kumaon Cloud City” off Bageshwar in Uttarakhand. It is one of the many new high-tech cities rebuilt from the depopulated villages of Uttarakhand and organised based on interest groups. The city she resides in is filled with young poets that bonded over writing modern divine poetry. Many have also found refuge from the pollution in Faridabad and Gurgaon that had reached apocalyptic levels in the late 20s.
The temple is in the outskirts of Bhagyanagar, where a tech-media mogul has revived a ruined temple by creatively deploying advancements in material science, robotics and global aesthetics. He made his fortune by producing a series of hit movies made through Midjourney with younger avatars of yesteryear stars. He was first of the many techies that have started contributing to dharmic causes; quite unlike the early 'secular' unicorn founders of 2010s. Some Indonesians had also pooled in cryptos for the cause and had requested features resembling Taman Saraswati Temple at Ubud. Neo-Hindus from Germany, Iran and Brazil too had pitched in with substantial amounts.
Her flat-white coffee smelled perfect. She pulls open the curtains to see the Buddha statue over Hussain Sagar Lake. Shraddha awakenes her device and the algorithm presents her with an interview of the founder of the tech-temple. He says, “Successful business people across centuries have poured resources in the service of dharma. You can see it not only in India but across the world. I had visited the grand Birla Mandir at Goa built in 2023. Ever since, I dreamed of building something like that…I also wanted to deploy as much technology as possible to demonstrate that tech can turbo-charge spirituality. I not only wanted to satiate my love for tech, but also provide a venue for spiritual solace. I was deeply inspired by an essay published in Swarajya magazine on temples of the future!” .
Whenever she thinks of temples, Shraddha is reminded of her late grandfather. One of her earliest memories was of her visiting the neighborhood Durga temple in Ballygunge in Kolkata with her grandfather. They would go to the temple every day. He introduced her to shlokas for various gods, taught her myths, and thus opened a new world for her (The best humanities education, she would realize later). They would end up snacking on prashad or watching a recital of the older kids before heading home. The temple faced many threats as the neighborhood got Islamized over time due to political mistakes of the previous decade. But as is their wont, the Bengali Hindus had gritted it out yet again.
Her younger brother, born much later, was not lucky to have grandparents take him to the temple. He had totally missed the wholesome experience. Both their parents had moved on to senior positions at work, and she was busy with studies (and video games). But her family had still insisted on morning prayers. Thankfully, in the past few years, the local temple had developed a virtual assistant app. Her brother and a couple of his friends took to it gleefully.
The virtual assistant would inform him about events in the temple - a special pooja, or a bhajan, or a discourse. He picked the events to attend with his friends through a social feature. He was introduced to new shlokas for each deity. While circumambulating, the virtual assistant played, and he repeated “या देवी सर्वभूतेषु…” just like a family elder! He became proficient in the whole mantra in a few days. He would learn new verses every few weeks, sing, and share them with friends on social media. It brought him a new sense of joy and recognition. The app was modularized to learn more songs and mantras for many gods. The virtual assistant did not go into the esoterica of religion, but it just helped him experience the temple. The whole experience was gamified to earn “punya” points."
Shraddha's brother appears on her screen. Think of the devil! He is studying in Auckland to be a horticulturalist (He wants to extend the lives of flowers!). After a brief chit-chat, they bantered about the social media fights from a few years ago on the use of technology in temples. The “trads” were downright opposed to bringing technology into something as ethereal and pure as devotion. They would argue that the only timeless way of accessing the experience in temples was to go unaided. They pointed to the fact that even large churches in the West had no trace of technology, except for iPads at the entrance to collect tithe.
The modernists (for some reason called “raitas”) argued that Sanatana dharma was perfectly compatible with modernity and that the gurus had taught that one should not shy away from using tools of modernity in the service of dharma. A leading influencer of the time, Arushi, had said, “There are more Hindus now than at any other time in history. We need to acknowledge that this generation is different and needs hand-holding. Temples need to recognize the scale. They have to be mindful of changed attitudes and provide space for individualized experiences".
The techies of those days sensed the demand and started small - like the app Shraddha’s brother had used. They took a user-centric approach in making the end-to-end experience more enjoyable and spiritually rewarding. The tech was designed to be easy-paced, and the moments of concentration were left undisturbed. They attempted to respect the practical dichotomy of “inward vs. outward” focus involved in temple darshanas.
Modernists convinced the purists slowly. Not withholding their stance, the latter agreed to the fact that the new generation needed hand-holding. Technology would be needed, they realized, not just for children, but also for adults to get enriched. Slowly, they realized that tech could, in fact, pull new seekers into the Sanatana fold. Then the floodgates opened!
It was 10 AM, and it was time to get going. Shraddha catches the metro and transfers to a waiting cab. The metro station, redeveloped in 2026, is an architectural delight. She has her facial recognition turned on. Shraddha calls her father, who has gone on a hike to Gurudongmar Lake in Sikkim, to see 'the paramatma in prakruti,' as he would say. He is happy that he has raised a dharmic child.
They reminisced about the unforgettable visit to the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai in 2029. The grandeur was stunning as always. They were provided with an AR device that they would point at sculptures to know their history and mythology. A Pokémon Go-like game let them unearth stories, architectural subtleties, history, songs, among other things.
In a friendly chat with a temple official, they learned that the general administration of the temple had absorbed all innovations of the time such as cloud, SaaS, big data, and the works. They used the data imaginatively, providing useful and practical updates that helped in planning and logistics. Through creative messaging, devotees stayed connected with the temple and contributed resources. Similarly, all advances in security - QR codes, drones, scanners - were deployed for crowd management and control.
In a temple in Thanjavur, they could be an NPC (Non-Playing Character) in a VR drama based on a historical event. They went to a 'padal petra sthalam' (a temple revered in the verses of Nayanmars) and listened to a recitation, recreating events of about 1,300 years back.
For Shraddha's parents, old-school folks, the trip was an eye-opener. They had watched virtual darshanas on TV. But getting the VR experience was mind-blowing! They then 'visited' the Kashi Vishwanath temple, with relatives in Sunnyvale and South Delhi, through the metaverse. VR glasses had long replaced the cumbersome headsets, and it is easy to switch between the virtual and real worlds.
Shraddha arrives 10 minutes ahead of time in the parking lot of the Vigyan Saraswati Temple. She hops into a self-driven pod that welcomes her. She has the option of purchasing pooja related items on the menu. At the entry of the temple, she is prompted to remove her shoes, and water is sprinkled on her. She asks for a robotic assistant to accompany her in the pod that would connect to her mother. Her mother appears on the accompanying robot assistant's screen, wearing her kanjeevaram and VR glasses that have haptic feedback.
Shraddha and her mom enter the temple. It is super clean, smelling of flowers and incense. There are pods with excited children waiting before her. She looks around to absorb the ambiance. Her mom is thrilled to hear the mooing of the cow in the goshala within the temple. Shraddha gets down to feed grass to a young calf, which has learned that the arrival of a pod means food and love.
The pod meanders to the Ganesha shrine. She quickly purchases fresh tulsi, jasmine flowers with modak for Ganesh. Her favourite childhood prayer is played in her earpiece. Her mother on the other hand hears the Ganesh mantra. Shraddha gets out to do her seva and turns off her VR. There is a robot that lights up an aarti and places it before the devotees. It also applies kumkum to their foreheads. Shraddha transfers Rs 500 to the robotic priests' welfare upgradation fund. (Robots of all castes and companies have been empowered to do poojas).
Shraddha looks at the towering gopuram and wonders what it will be like to be up there. A drone view of the temple appears on the screen. She zooms into a wonderfully sculpted yakshi’s statue. Some parts of the gopuram are not permanently sculpted. The 3D screens change by the lunar month. Advances in smart material technology and construction materials have been deployed to add to the longevity and beauty.
After salutations to other gods, she comes to the main shrine of the Devi. A beautiful Veena rendition and the smell of incense adds to the divinity of the experience. Shraddha is overcome with bhakti. Tears flow as she sings out aloud as if describing the murti before her…
दोर्भिर्युक्ता चतुर्भिं स्फटिकमणिनिभैरक्षमालान्दधाना
हस्तेनैकेन पद्मं सितमपि च शुकं पुस्तकं चापेरण ।
भासा कुन्देन्दुशङ्खस्फटिकमणिनिभा भासमानाऽसमाना
सा मे वाग्देवतेयं निवसतु वदने सर्वदा सुप्रसन्ना ॥
The virtual priest, assisted by robots, already has her details. He checks with her to see if there are any more names to be added or any other special puja needs to be conducted. Shraddha hurriedly adds her mom's details that she has forgotten. Her mother opts for a special pooja and spells out the requirements. The next seven minutes are ones of bliss. There is a grand pooja, with the playing of instruments, abhishek, and aarti. Both of them are spellbound. No corners were cut. The diction of the mantras was perfect.
Shraddha’s mother immediately makes her promise to take her to the temple again in-person someday, that too on a non-tech day, when ceremonies are performed the old school way and the machines undergo maintenance. They paused to see a show of virtual projections of the many alankaras made on the deity over the last many months.
The pod gets them out of the shrine into the wide praharas. They opted for an immersive history tour. They switch on the VR headsets. The show takes them on the history of the temple - how it was damaged by Islamic invasion, the number of times it was rebuilt, and to the modern age where the tech-bro had upgraded the temple. Shraddha’s mom wants to listen to a discourse, like the good old days. The mandapam is high-tech but has retained the spiritual essentials. Shri Sukhananda is delivering a rousing lecture on what it is to be a human in the age of robots.
It has been an hour, and she gets a notification saying that she is running out of time. The pod takes them through the administrative centers, gently prodding them to donate more. Shraddha orders a giant laddoo for her brother. In the souvenir shop, she buys a 3D-printed doll as memorabilia to be sent to her parents. They bid adieu as the pod drops her back to the car.
Shraddha hops into the waiting taxi. She feels that the best thing of the year has happened already! She looks at the towering gopuram from a distance. One more time she chokes up and goes…
सा मां पातु सरस्वति भगवती निःशेषजाड्यापहा…
(Oh Goddess Saraswati, please protect me and remove my ignorance completely…)
(The author thanks Messers Vishal Sharma and Yagnanarayanan Kalyanaraman for discussions on the topic. The character, Arushi, was inspired by Swarajya editor Arush Tandon.)
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