Imagine A ‘Smart Temple’ Experience

by Banuchandar Nagarajan - Sep 9, 2018 12:52 PM +05:30 IST
Imagine A ‘Smart Temple’ Experience
  • As technological innovation meets Hinduism’s innate ability to adapt, it is time to think of Smart Temples.

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realised. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency,” said the great architect, Daniel Burnham.

A visit to Somnath or Uluwatu or Puri Jagannath can set the spirits soaring. Though grand new temples have been built recently, such as the Akshardham temple in New Delhi, we have not yet reimagined temple-building, employing the tools that advanced technologies offer us. Burnham’s inspirational words should guide us in reimagining and building new temples.

When this author was a graduate student in the US in the early 2000s, the idea of showing aarti at a click of the mouse to Tirupati Balaji over the internet was a huge hit. Before a thesis defence or a submission of a grant proposal or a take-home exam, many graduate students would click a button and do a sashtanga namaskaram to the computer and go on about their nerdy lives. Nobody raised the it’s-so-weird eyebrow. Recently, a video of a robot arm doing aarti went viral. While it would have brought a smile to people’s faces, it would not have looked unnatural. Even small temples today have a contraption, which at the push of a button activates a transmission mechanism to ring the bell, sound the shankhnaad, beat the drums and play the cymbals, all at once.

Sanatana Dharma is programmed with an uncanny adaptability to modernity that melds well with advancement in technology. It offers no resistance and accepts it into its fold. After all, when the actual “seeking” is at the individual level, appendages that aid in the process should not matter. If we pause and think for a moment, it is quite astonishing that an age-old religion is ready to thrive in the new age of robotics, artificial intelligence and trans-humanism.

There is opportunity for the current generation to advance the adaptation of technology as an aid for preserving and promoting tradition. The idea is to not use technology for the sake of itself, but to make it a part of the journey in the quest of the ultimate truth or the Brahman.

Temples have been places of personal worship, but more importantly, of shared sacredness. They imbue a sense of community and serve as places where “dharma is grown” collectively. It is possible to think of a next-generation temple fitted with modern technology to advance the collective sense of piety and knowledge.
With that background let me put forward the proposal for a smart temple, with the hope to trigger a discussion among religious scholars, technologists and philanthropists. I will call it the “Start-up Saraswati Temple”. This temple shall be branded and built to assist in the spiritual quest of Gen Z. Needless to say, it will be for everybody. The sequence of sannidhis can be in the order of Saraswati first, Lakshmi next and Durga as third, almost in line with the journey of start-up founders from knowledge to wealth to power.

Imagine a futuristic vimana that will be an amalgam of our ancient architectural style and of the “domed cities” seen in sci-fi movies. The temple shall have all advanced IoT (Internet of Things) devices. It can be fully automated and could even dispense off with priests if need be to make the rendezvous with the deity totally personal.

Booking a darshan can be done through an app, and a QR code can be scanned to enter the temple. A sensor can turn on the water tap as the devotee walks through the turnstile. After entering the sannidhi, at the press of a button, the devotee can have the whole puja performed by an automaton (abhishekam, alankaram, offering of flowers, performing the aarti, offering of prasadam etc.) customised to the astrological chart of the devotee.

Devotees can contribute their offerings digitally. The schedule of prayers and special pujas for auspicious occasions can be pre-programmed. Data from the whole visit to the temple can be captured and analysed (big data) to offer in-temple and off-temple services. For example, for a particular devotee, Lalitha Sahasranamama can be played as he ambles on a pradakshina around the goddess. Personalised souvenirs (through 3D printing) or prasadam could be sent to the devotee on important dates.

We need not stop with simple automation of the existing processes. But the “Start-up Saraswati Temple” can employ holograms, virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR) to have a more powerful darshan. Imagine the Durga sannidhi, not with a static statue of the goddess but a hologram dancing to “Aiygiri Nandini” or the Lakshmi sannidhi with the goddess showering gold as seen through augmented reality. In the end, there can be a VR theatre that takes us through the 108 Shakti Peethas, which are difficult to visit in real-life because of geographical constraints.

All logistics, administration and security can be automated. It shall have a campus that is green and run on clean energy. A project report of the temple, detailing technical, financial and spiritual portions can incorporate traditions such as vastu and other elements of infrastructure.

Traditionalists might pooh-pooh that the idea is akin to converting a temple into a theme park or that these are mere gimmickry that does not stimulate spiritual energies. For some, the use of technology for harnessing spirituality itself might be an anathema and the hassles are part of the tapasya to be performed to get the tryst with the deity!

But, we should remember that our darshanas, puranas, teachings of gurus and the whole hermeneutics are prefaced on expanding options and pathways to realisation. It will be instructive to know that our ancient temples are architectural and scientific marvels. Anyone visiting Avudayar Kovil or Lepakshi can readily see the technological brilliance of the times they were built. Our forefathers were fearless in designing and building since they knew the real “purpose” of temples.

There is a renaissance of cultural consciousness buoyed by political and economic successes of Hindus. New age scholars, gurus and artists are already researching and reinterpreting the wisdom in our ancient texts. It is time our architects also join the bandwagon. As Steve Jobs reminds us, it is up to the creative among us to anticipate demand and create something beautiful and enduring. We only have to peer at the towering Meenakshi Amman Temple to remind us that Indian architectural genius must be just dormant, waiting to come to life.

The coming years of automation and robots will ask us fundamental questions on consciousness, free will and what it means to be human in the first place. Hinduism is probably the best placed to cater to the diversity of seekers without imposing stifling moral and behavioural constraints. Shri Aurobindo said in his visionary Uttarapara speech, “She is rising to shed the eternal light entrusted to her over the world”. We should draw upon the inspiration to innovate and improvise to make Sanatana Dharma accessible to the world. Temples offering transcendental experience have always been a part of it. Technology should play a role in enhancing, personalising and making the experience immersive. Let them entwine.

Banuchandar Nagarajan is a public policy adviser. An alumnus of Harvard University, he has worked in the World Bank, PwC and the UN. Follow him @Banuall.

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