Digital Hinduism

Dharma and Disclosure in the Age of New Media

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Murali Balaji
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , November
     2017.
     208 pages.
     $90.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498559171.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

     READ INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR HERE

As the title of this book would suggest, Digital Hinduism: Dharma and Discourse in the Age of New Media explores varying topics at the intersection of digital studies and Hindu studies. This collection of essays edited by Murali Balaji provides both an introduction to this intersection and examples of a variety of possible methodological approaches. There are varying levels of academic rigor in these essays due to the structure of and contributors to the book, but what each individual essay lacks in depth is made up for by the collection on the whole as an introduction to this area of study.

Digital Hinduism helps to legitimize a relatively new conversation in religious studies. Because the subfield of digital religious studies is still being defined and studies on the intersection of new media and religion are burgeoning, particularly within Hindu studies, this collection of essays brings further insight to a fairly new area of study. It stands to reason, then, that many of the approaches presented here are still experimental and not necessarily standardized. This book serves as a series of possible approaches to how the digital world of Hinduism might be included in the academic conversation about digital media and religion.

Balaji is a consultant and former Director of Education and Curriculum Reform for the Hindu American Foundation, a group known for their advocacy for education about Hinduism. The contributors to this collection range from established academics to bloggers, activists, and performers. In the introduction, Balaji provides a disclaimer that many of the chapters were written by non-academics. While this doesn’t necessarily detract from the volume, it does shift the expected overall message of the book in certain ways. Specifically, many of the essays fail to make a clear distinction between the scholarly interests and personal, religious interests of both the authors and the editor. Each contribution, however, brings a unique voice to the proverbial table.

The essays in this volume are grouped into three parts. Part 1, “Constructing an Online Hindu Identity and Community” offers three essays on varying modes of community building online since the 1990s. These essays are the most academically rigorous of the collection and approach the material through a focus on the digital. Each essay could benefit from an additional page or two further detailing terms used as well as the technology presented, but unfortunately, space is limited in an edited collection such as this. Part 2 of this book, “Digital Hinduism in Practice,” provides two distinct examples of new forms of Hindu practice online. The first essay in this section, “Mirabai Sings on YouTube: The Transmission of a Poet-Saint in the Age of Digital Devotion,” shows that websites like YouTube have provided a platform for the consumption of devotional songs in abundance. This allows for practice and interpretation to flourish. The third part of the volume is titled “Digital Hindu Voices from the Diaspora.” Two of the essays present diasporic communities and their engagement with online sources, while the other two essays deal with online communities asthe diaspora. Put together, these three parts form a broad examination of potential approaches to the study of Hinduism and digital tools.

This collection has many strengths. Almost every essay provides a wealth of information on technology and how accessible that technology may be to various communities. Additionally, many different topics relating to the formation of an online Hindu identity are represented. An effort was clearly made to bring a diversity of voices into the conversation. Further, the essays are grouped in such a way that the progression makes sense. The essays focused on technology build on each other. The essays relating to exclusively online identities work to provide multiple examples of the same social construction. On the whole, this collection provides a wide-ranging survey of digital Hinduism. 

Though Balaji provides a disclaimer that not all of the essays are written by scholars, only one essay, “Dharma Deen Alliance,” is directly disclosed as non-academic. Unfortunately, this raises questions of intent and bias in other essays throughout the collection. A further issue became apparent in the eighth essay, “Digital Divide, Diasporic Identity, and a Spiritual Upgrade” by Charu Uppal. While the methodology of the research presented in this essay may have been sound, its presentation involves many illogical conclusions, which weaken the overall argument of the author. These issues only minimally affect the overall argument of the book. 

Digital Hinduism effectively claims that academic inquiry into digital Hindu practices is valuable. This volume reads as an introduction to the topic and provides examples through which this academic pursuit could take place. Although individual points could be debated, the book is successful in its goal. The individual essays of this collection may not all be suitable in the classroom on their own, but the whole book would be helpful for examining a myriad of methodological approaches to the study of digital religious practice, particularly in Hinduism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Griswold is a graduate student in Religion and Culture at the University of Alabama.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Murali Balaji is a d iversity and education consultant and Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.

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