Even before India went into lockdown on March 25, 2020, the country began closing its temples. Although organized religion can offer comfort during a crisis, mass gatherings are jet fuel for a plague. Festivals, pilgrimages, and community worship are all based on precisely the kind of socializing that must be stopped to bring Covid-19 under control. Fortunately for quarantined Hindus, an app already existed for accessing the gods.
To every disaster its winners, and though VR Devotee was launched by its parent firm Kalpnik back in 2016, the app’s services are ideally suited to these strange times. For several years, it has featured live streams from multiple holy sites, extensive footage of Hindu festivals gone by, and virtual reality temple experiences. But then, worship cannot be treated like a conference call, and breaking down the walls between technology and religion is a complex task.
“I hope you’re keeping well,” said John Kuruvilla, one of the company’s three founders, from his isolation in Bangalore. “For us, many things have been changing.”
I traveled to India just before the Covid-19 crisis had really taken hold, to write about VR Devotee. Back then, the app had appeared simply to be a first step in what would surely be a long journey toward changing deeply ingrained habits of worship for the country’s 966 million Hindus. Now, that feels like an entirely different world.
“We wanted to do something crazy,” Kuruvilla told me over breakfast on a rooftop one glorious Bangalore morning back in distant February, “to create not a clone of a firm successful in Europe or the U.S. but something uniquely Indian.” And what, he wondered, could be more essential to this country than religion?
Kuruvilla, deep voiced and priestly, was not wrong: there are well over 2 million Hindu temples in India, catering to up to 330 million deities, depending on whom you ask and their interpretation of sacred texts. This number is drawn from the Upanishads, Hindu scripture, and it corresponds to how many people were believed to be living in the world when they were written. Hinduism is, in essence, an umbrella cosmology for multiple local traditions, with specific gods requiring worship at specific times of the year, to generate maximum good karma. As Indians move about their country in staggering numbers, attending to these rituals has become especially challenging.
“Not a lot of people know,” Kuruvilla said, “that between 100 and 200 million people in India no longer live in the state of their birth.” But, he added, that wasn’t why he and partners Apul Nahata and Ashwani Garg founded VR Devotee.
“It began when Ashwani had to cancel on a big meeting because of a religious festival,” Kuruvilla explained, “but also because of my own mother being highly diabetic and needing me to come down to Kerala just to take her to church. And Apul’s parents are seventy-five years old; they live one kilometer from the temple, but they can’t climb the temple stairs. We thought, Hey, can’t we let devotees immerse in their faith while staying at home?”
Kalpnik was not the first company to digitally link devotees with their gods. India’s spiritual market is said to be valued at between $30 billion and $40 billion, and though this number is likely inflated, it surely is not far off — especially when the country’s 200 million Muslims and 28 million Christians are taken into consideration. Competitors like ePuja and Shubhpuja run online marketplaces where the faithful can order prayer by proxy — like buying scented candles from Amazon — and many others offer social networks for the spiritually inclined. Kuruvilla, Nahata, and Garg, though, wanted to facilitate more intimate encounters with the divine.
At that point last February, VR Devotee had been downloaded 800,000 times, with an average of around 15,000 users a week, and it was making money through a subscription service. Its biggest success had come through a partnership with the news website Daily Hunt, which hosts a selection of its temple livestreams. From when this collaboration began in November 2019 to when I spoke to Kuruvilla in February 2020, the service had been accessed more than 90 million times. This was not insignificant, but given the colossal size of the market, there was room for growth. And while VR Devotee boasts the world’s largest repository of temple footage, the firm itself was still small, with just 13 employees.
Garg joined our breakfast. Slighter than Kuruvilla, he had a soft-spoken, somewhat mystical air and came brandishing the startup’s one piece of hardware: Kalpnik’s own “VR headset,” a folded cardboard box with a slot into which a smartphone could be placed.
Garg prepped it with his own phone and bade me to put it on. I was transported to the midst of a Hare Krishna temple, wherein hundreds of thousands of flower petals were raining down over the deity. It was fantastic, a full 360-degree rendering in orgiastic color. I stared into the eyes of the idol, at the legions of attendant priests, then out toward ecstatic crowds, as the whole scene unfolded.
The video played on a dizzying five-minute loop. Watching it confirmed to me something I’d been told: that Hinduism is particularly well suited to such an enterprise.
This is because, for Hindus, seeing is touching. The motive behind pilgrimage is to look into the eyes of the divine at an auspicious moment in time, an act referred to as darshan. It is to behold all the things in a holy place and have your gaze “returned.”
So, while many religions are now exploring ways to move their services online — something that was particularly noticeable over Easter when churches broadcast to virtual congregations — Hindu rituals are not reliant on anything as physical as holy communion. Rather, the very essence is the image; when Hindus go to the temple, according to Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard, they do not say, “I’m going to worship,” but rather, “I am going to see.”
“Absolutely,” Garg told me when I put this to him. “VR Devotee is a chance for people who can’t get to temple to still do darshan with their home gods.”
After leaving that rooftop, I went to the Sri Raghavendra Swamy Mutt, the first temple to sign up with VR Devotee. Bangalore is India’s tech capital, and many members of the temple’s congregation work in that sector. The ones I spoke to were utterly won over by Kalpnik’s service. “Often I have no time to visit the temple,” a young woman called Surnithra told me, complaining about the city’s infamous traffic. “But with VR Devotee, every day you can wake up and look into the eyes of your god.”
“So, do you think it’s as good as actually being there?”
“Oh yes!” she said. “In fact, temples can be busy, can be distracting, uncomfortable. VR Devotee is better! Proper darshan.”
Leaving India’s tech hub, however, the app was eyed with more suspicion.
Later that day, I set off on my own pilgrimage. My destination was the Kashi Vishwanath Shiva temple in Varanasi, which I hoped to reach in time for the Maha Shivaratri festival, the biggest in that god’s name. Strange to recall that journey now, its immense freedom and carefree sharing of space. From Bangalore, I traveled 10 hours by bus to Hyderabad, shaken the entire way by the thrum of the engine, ears and nerves assaulted by the frantic horn blasts. Then, from Hyderabad, it was a 40-hour train ride to Varanasi in a cramped carriage smelling of people, curry powder, and detergent. It was uncomfortable and riven with delay, but from the perspective of today, the journey had a quality like science fiction.
Most pilgrims were polite about the app and wowed by its VR functions. But when asked whether they would use it day-to-day, they were noncommittal. It was well-suited for the elderly they said, but would the elderly be able to use it? And as for themselves, wasn’t it obvious? They preferred to go to temple.
At Kashi Vishwanath, the long line of devotees was a physical representation of the inconvenience Hindus are willing to endure so as to darshan in the flesh. It extended mile after mile behind wooden barriers along Varanasi’s dusty cacophonous streets, devotees pressed tight along its length in order to spend just a few seconds in front of the Shiva idol.
While standing in line, I met Anoop, a small-business owner from outside Varanasi. We chatted for hours. His view on VR Devotee was the same I had heard elsewhere: that it was good for augmenting worship, but it couldn’t replace the real experience.
“But wouldn’t it be so much easier than this?” We’d been waiting for two hours.
“Of course,” he said, “but going to temple is more than just looking at the image. It’s the whole experience; it’s meeting people.”
We queued for nearly five hours, and then, when we finally made it to the temple complex, I wasn’t allowed in.
“Only Hindus today, sir,” the policeman at the entrance explained. And neither my nor Anoop’s protests, nor the fact that other policemen had told me that this wouldn’t be a problem, could change his mind.
“Hey,” Anoop told me seriously before we were forced to part ways, “you’ve already done most of the devotion. You can do proper darshan on your app. Now, it’s the same.”
So I headed to a nearby chai stall, pulled out my phone, and tapped through to the Shiva lingam at the heart of the temple. I looked at the libations being poured over its dark contours, at the priests, and at the stream of devotees making their way inside. I did a darshan. It was an appropriate end to my own pilgrimage, but I could not know how different my experience would have been had I simply stayed home.
“Numbers are already up 25 to 40 percent, mainly for our livestreams,” John Kuruvilla tells me over the phone, adding that “the amount of time people are spending on the app is really skyrocketing.”
For Kalpnik, the weeks since India’s lockdown have been characterized by frantic activity. Like the rest of us, the firm could never have anticipated the burgeoning new world order, and now Kuruvilla, Nahata, and Garg are having to work overtime just to keep up with the changing landscape.
If they were simply welcoming new devotees to the device, that would be simple, but Kuruvilla explains that the fastest change that Kalpnik is seeing is coming from temples themselves. As soon as religious institutions were shut, priests started calling up the company in droves and promoting VR Devotee as the best alternative to attending live services.
The priests are continuing to perform rituals, Kuruvilla says, and “temples have now told many of their devotees to download our app.” It is these relationships, Kuruvilla thinks, that will be most important to the company come the other end of this crisis, as it is the priests who are the most influential in determining how people practice religion. It is refreshing to hear Kuruvilla remain positive through this crisis, but then, of course, he stands to benefit from it.
To get another perspective on online worship during this crisis, I call my pilgrimage friend Anoop in rural Uttar Pradesh. “Hey bro,” he grins to me over a video call from his bedroom. A man who usually works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, managing a small chain of textile stores, he says he’s overwhelmed by the free time he’s suddenly found himself with.
After we have caught up, I ask him how his worship habits have changed. “Honestly, I’d forgotten about VR Devotee,” he says. “But you know, every Hindu in India also has a kind of temple in their own house, a shrine. So I’m doing my worship there. And now, there’s so much change happening, I don’t know if it’s the time for trying something new.”
Yet as our conversation progressed, Anoop told me that he had been trying something new — visiting Hindu temples that had yet to be built. These were holy sites where construction was stalled, though renderings of them existed online. Soon, he was sending me links to computer-generated images of these vast, ambitious projects and to virtual tours of them, which Anoop says he is regularly “taking.” I was left with the impression that technology and religion — both present in almost every Indian household — are circling closer than ever before. Worshippers are visiting temples that are not even real. And as the global lockdown normalizes life online even more, perhaps in the future, VR Devotee and its ilk will be not only a portal to faraway temples but to holy spaces that exist only virtually.