How Much Would You Pay for a Prayer?
In India, thousands are embracing apps that allow them to pay for a ritual to be performed on their behalf.
SIGAL SAMUEL. NOVEMBER 2018 ISSUE. The Atlantic.com
How can i get a divine intervention for my career? That’s the question Ravi Ganne, a young investment banker in Bangalore, typed into Google seven years ago. His search results led him to the website of a new company called ePuja. For about $15, the start-up would have a puja, a Hindu devotional-prayer ritual, performed on his behalf at one of its many in-network temples. A few clicks later, Ganne had arranged for a ritual at his favorite temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and located in Tamil Nadu. “It worked out for me,” he says. “I got a better job offer. So I started doing this on a regular basis.”
In recent years, tens of thousands of Indians have turned to ePuja and other prayer-by-proxy companies, whose smartphone apps and websites make summoning a godly intercession as easy as ordering a pizza. Another such company, Shubhpuja, has marketed itself as a way to “connect to God in one click.” The offer appeals to Hindus—both in India and abroad—who don’t have the time, money, or physical ability to travel to the temple with the best reputation for resolving their particular problem. Just select a puja and temple, pay a fee, and the company gets a priest to perform the ritual. Shubhpuja even allows customers to Skype into rituals as they’re being performed.
ePuja’s network now includes 3,600 temples, according to the company’s founder, Shiva Kumar, who spent four years driving around India persuading priests to partner with him. Explaining the concept was a challenge, he says: “They don’t understand what the internet is. ‘Where is this internet? Can I touch it, feel it?’ ” But once they grasped it, most priests were willing to perform pujas for anyone who wanted them.
The company has since facilitated about 50,000 pujas for customers in 65 countries, according to Kumar, who says one of the most common requests is for help securing a marriage. Once, however, a customer in Brazil asked for a puja that would guarantee a speedy divorce; Kumar suspects he wasn’t Hindu. Although he’s surprised to see an “unbelievable number” of non-Hindus arranging pujas—he estimates that they account for 20 percent of his business—he doesn’t find their use of the service offensive.
The convenience offered by sites like ePuja and Shubhpuja may be their biggest selling point, but it also risks making a ritual feel less meaningful: What’s a devotional experience without some effort, inconvenience, and, well, devotion? Kumar acknowledges that an in-person temple visit is better but says, “We are the second-best way.”
Hinduism’s emphasis on astrology helps explain why many people gladly resort to this suboptimal system, according to Vasudha Narayanan, a religion professor at the University of Florida. Solving a given problem, she explains, requires propitiating the right planet with the right ritual at the right temple. “If the roof caves in, it’s because Saturn is not in the right position. So what do I do about it? Go to this temple, do this puja. But here I am in Gainesville, Florida—what am I going to do? The easiest thing is to do it by ePuja.”
Although paying for a prayer might seem crass to some non-Hindus, it’s common in India, Narayanan says. Even in-person temple visits tend to involve giving a donation to the temple or an offering to the priest who performs a ritual. Nor does it strike most Hindus as strange for the supplicant to be absent. One of Narayanan’s earliest memories of growing up in India is of her grandmother filling out mail-order forms to have priests perform rituals at distant temples.
“I think there’s a fairly significant difference between, say, a generic Protestant idea of prayer and a generic Hindu idea,” Narayanan adds. “In the theology in India, there’s much more value given to the ritual itself.” It doesn’t matter if someone is saying a prayer for you because you paid him $15 to do so. It matters that the prayer is being said, because the words themselves are believed to have the power to transform the universe.
Or, as Kumar says, “I am just a postman carrying your request to God.”