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Uber for God: Inside India’s Religious Tech Industry

The sun hadn’t yet risen in New York when I opened my laptop and signed onto Skype, but it was almost 5 p.m. Indian Standard Time — my proper muhūrta, the moment at which my planetary energies are aligned.

I was greeted by an image of a bright room somewhere in New Delhi, where three men were already well into their preparations for a puja, a Hindu devotional prayer ritual on my behalf. One was the priest leading the ritual, wearing a light-pink kurta. One was a man named Acharya Vivek, who was to be my physical stand-in while I watched on my laptop (the title acharya signifies a learned religious man). And the third was Acharya Keshav, the man who’d organized the puja on my behalf, through a “religious platform” startup called Shubhpuja.

Shubhpuja, which bills itself as a platform that facilitates “connections to God in one click,” was launched in 2013 by Saumya Vardhan, a former consultant at KPMG and Ernst & Young in London. The company has a large network of pandits (Hindu scholars), astrologers, and other experts in traditional Indian religious practices that it connects with would-be worshippers to organize prayers and consultations. It’s just one of several tech startups that have recently emerged in India to capitalize on the country’s lucrative spiritual and religious market — estimated at $30 billion per year.

Acharya Keshav had made sure I was prepared with a glass of water and a plate of sugar and rice to be used during the ceremony. Portraits of the elephant-headed god Ganesh (who is worshipped before any new venture) as well as the goddess Saraswati (worshipped for success in education) were set up, with a lit candle flickering in front of them. The men were seated cross-legged on the floor, and laid out in front of them were small plates of sweets, bananas, and flowers that would be offered to the gods.

Acharya Keshav patiently walked me through the different stages of the puja, as the priest began a series of Sanskrit prayers in a melodic singsong. I was asked to fill in my birth month — July — and birthplace — Colorado — as well as parrot some Sanskrit lines after the priest said them. I watched as a bracelet was tied around Acharya Vivek’s wrist, in place of my absent one. Acharya Keshav instructed me several times to “put some water on the Earth!” by sprinkling a few drops of water in front of my MacBook. Skype dropped the call twice, and we had to reconnect. At one point, the priest blew a conch shell, and everyone stood up, which brought all three men out of my laptop’s field of view. I could still hear young kids playing in the background, and a Delhi train passing in the distance.

After about an hour, Acharya Keshav told me I could sign off. As a nice Shubhpuja convenience, the acharyas would continue the next hour of the puja without me having to be present through Skype. I’d gotten my own prayer ceremony without needing to do much more than press a button and fill out a form — basically Uber, but for god.

Religion has been an omnipresent force in the homes and lives of most South Asians since long before smartphones and e-commerce. The subcontinent has a diverse range of sometimes overlapping belief systems, and a unique fervor for spirituality. Within many Hindu communities in India, religious customs oversee everything from marriage to business. And instead of being relegated to churches and synagogues, Hindu religious practice in India is often split between the home and the temple. A survey of households in the state of West Bengal found that 89 percent of respondents spent money for “performing religious rites at home,” which might include household shrines and materials for puja. Outside the home, Indians of all ages and means spend their hard-earned cash to go visit places of worship near and far — a massive, growing phenomenon sometimes called “religious tourism.” Today, 50 percent of leisure travel in India is related to religious tourism, and the most famous temples attract thousands of visitors daily year-round.

Also not a new phenomenon: making money off of religion in India. “Everyone in the country spends money on religious things,” Vardhan told me. “Even if a person does not spend on Amazon and Flipkart, they will spend on puja and giving donations to temples.” At certain temples in southern India, women shave their heads and offer their hair as a religious tribute that is sometimes repackaged and sold off by the temples as “temple hair” — ending up for sale as hair extensions in high-end salons in the U.S. and Europe. One of India’s most famous spiritual leaders, Baba Ramdev, has quietly been building one of the country’s largest consumer goods companies based off his audience of devotees.

What is new, however, is internet entrepreneurs viewing the large market for faith-based services as a business opportunity. “We’re trying to add a professional element to puja, which hasn’t been done before,” Vardhan, who is also Shubhpuja’s CEO, says. The goal is to provide “very customized, authentic pujas” for her customers. In general, modern technology seems to have accelerated, rather than dampened, Indian spending on religion. In 2012, about 20-25 percent of total mobile downloads were for religious or devotional content, compared to 15-20 percent in 2010., launched around the same time as Shubhpuja, is a religious item shop that offers more than 2,000 products for sale. For India’s 177 million Muslims, startups like Hajjnet have developed mobile apps to help those making the holy annual pilgrimage to Mecca organize the logistics of their trip.

Another one of these startups, OnlinePrasad, offers prasad (small blessed offerings, usually food) for sale from “top temples” all around India. Traditionally, one goes to a temple to receive prasad in person, but with OnlinePrasad you can have the holy package shipped right to your door from a temple hundreds of miles away. OnlinePrasad also sells tickets for special expedited temple visits called “Quick Darshan,” ensuring “maximum convenience” for those making religious pilgrimages. Like Vardhan at Shubhpuja, OnlinePrasad’s founder Goonjan Mall also has a consulting background, and left Bain & Co. to bootstrap the startup in 2012, out of a frustration with the often crowded and mismanaged temple experience that persists through most of India. Mall told a reporter for CNBC that the idea “came in a flash”: “Religion must be simplified and technology was the perfect tool” to do so in India.  

Browsing through OnlinePrasad recently, I landed upon prasad from the historical temple of Sai Baba, a famous universalist guru active in the late 19th century. Not only is prasad from Sai Baba’s temple one of the best-selling items on OnlinePrasad’s “Top Temples” list, but it also has an average five-star rating from over 45 reviews: “When I opened the box,” one customer wrote, “I felt the divinity & presence of my lord.”

After an item is ordered, an OnlinePrasad representative will offer prasad on the customer’s behalf (in this case at the Sai Baba temple in Shirdi near India’s west coast), pack up the prasad with other little gifts, and send it off to the customer via courier. I ordered a pack of “Prasad + Golden Sai Poster,” and just over a week later, it arrived at my apartment in New York.

The prasad came with a small “sacred thread,” a golden poster of Sai Baba on a throne, a mini Sai Baba–branded 2016 calendar, and, finally, the pièce de résistance — a sealed-in-plastic packet of edible rewri prasad (a sesame-toffee-like sweet) as well as some ash prasad from the temple’s holy flame. 

Both OnlinePrasad and Shubhpuja have attracted investor interest. “With 1.2 billion people and 330 million gods and goddesses in India,” early OnlinePrasad investor K Ganesh told the Times of India, “faith [is] price inelastic.” Ganesh said in a separate interview that the online religious market is “recession-proof” because “people resort to faith in good times and bad times.” Also, Ganesh pointed out, “nobody negotiates with God!”

One particularly lucrative market for the businesses is the Indian diaspora. I spoke with Shubhpuja customer Adesh Narain, an investment banker from Delhi who has been working in the Middle East for over a decade. In Kuwait, where he lives and Islam is the official state religion, Narain told me that “there are no pandits, no resources” for him to practice his Hindu faith. Narain considered flying home to Delhi to do a puja in honor of his parents, but tried out Shubhpuja instead and organized a puja he could call into with Whatsapp. Young urban Indians like himself, Narain said, are often “not that well-educated about religion” — when a priest recites Sanskrit mantras, it’s “hard to know whether they’re doing it right or wrong.” Shubhpuja “talks my language,” he told me, and “there is no feeling of being gypped.”

I grew up nonreligious in the U.S., yet I remember visiting several famous temple sites on trips to India with my dad. His family is from a Jain background, a different religion entirely, but we still went as tourists to pay our respects to Hinduism’s great gods. We waited in long lines in dank, teeming hundred-year-old passageways to reach the inner sanctums, clasp our hands in prayer, and receive a bite of prasad. On one such trip, to the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, my dad noticed something new: an expedited line. For about $1 each, we skipped the hourlong line of worshippers and went through a shorter one to see the deity and get our prasad. Many large temples now offer these VIP services — those who can afford a premium can get to God quicker, while the poorer devotees must wait their turn.

At their core, services like OnlinePrasad and Shubhpuja are simply 21st-century, tech-enabled manifestations of this class-based branching of religious experience. They bring a new level of efficiency to worshipping — but, like the VIP line, only for the well-off Indians who can afford it. India’s rife and rising economic inequality is obvious to anyone who steps foot on a Mumbai street: 90 percent of Indians own less than a quarter of the country’s wealth. Yet places like the Meenakshi Amman Temple are equally revered by India’s paupers and millionaires. Now that religious blessings are available à la carte online, perhaps the temples will start to see fewer of the VIPs in person. India’s ancient homes of God, grand melting pots ostensibly devoid of class divisions, may become just as changed by income inequality as its schools and hospitals.

But in the meantime, it’s hard to argue that these services don’t make religion more convenient, courteous, and efficient — even if a believer is connecting to their faith over Skype. One thing seems certain: If these services work well, they will spread like wildfire. As one of OnlinePrasad’s seed investors Nandini Guglani noted, “Religion is the most viral business in India.”

Uber for God