The College of Humanities and the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics hosted a public lecture on The Rashtra is Online: How Digital Devotional Networks Aid the Global Reach of Hindu Nationalism.
The lecture was delivered by visiting scholar Professor Dheepa Sundaram, assistant professor of Hindu Studies at the University of Denver, US. Her research interests lie in hate politics, ritual, nationalism, and digital culture in South Asian contexts. She focuses on the formation of Hindu virtual religious publics through online platforms, social media, Apps, and emerging technologies such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
Dean and Head of the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, Professor Simangaliso Kumalo said, ‘This public lecture further cements the partnership we have with the University of Denver. As a University we prioritise internationalisation to share, produce and disseminate knowledge.’
Executive Director: Corporate Relations, Ms Normah Zondo added, ‘Hosting scholars of Professor Sundaram’s calibre is particularly important for us at the University of KwaZulu-Natal as we are forever looking to exchange knowledge with the best in the world.’
As a segue into the lecture, a prayer dance was performed onstage by Nehaal Productions showcasing the Hindu Goddess Durga as she transforms into her ferocious avatar of Kali ahead of a battle and then into a calming avatar of Shakti. The dance represented the triumph of good over evil.
Sundaram explored how devotional networks provide the infrastructure for ethnonationalist politics in the Hindu digital sphere. Devotional publics are forged using shared messaging that links supporters through various platforms (e.g., social media, website, Apps, etc.). ‘Digital platforms ensure a dynamic, “living” canon of work that can be altered to suit the needs of the collective body of users within the network. Rather than making digital canons less rigid, such flexibility enables an authenticity politics to which the “canon” can now be moulded to support,’ explained Sundaram.
Focusing on two seemingly disparate case studies, the virtual spiritual corpus of global guru Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma the Hugging Guru) and the militant Hindu priest Yati Narasinghanand’s violent, anti-Muslim messaging, Sundaram argued that ‘both figures convert orthopraxic canons into accessible, saleable formats which rely on Hindu digital devotional networks or “publics” invested in Hindu majoritarianism. As such, these devotional networks provide ground for Hindu nationalist ideology and beliefs to become normalised as part of Hindu praxis.’
Sundaram also noted that Hindu majoritarian values traverse digital networks in a variety of ways. ‘Even spiritual networks like that of Amma for whom the rhetoric of inclusivity is a vital aspect of her movement can still be instrumentalised as part of a majoritarian politics – it can still contribute to the Hindutva ethos by continuing to promote the hallmarks of a caste privileged, often sanitised, digitally portable Hinduism.
‘Turning Hindu values and culture into a commodity that can in effect be marketed and sold through spiritual networks invariably fosters market dynamics rather than representational inclusion,’ she said.
Lecturer in the School Mr Che Chetty commented that online or virtual platforms are easily accessible, and will become increasingly potent in shaping contemporary perceptions of Hindu literature, and the substratum of Hindu worldviews: ‘Such platforms have the potential to become tools to determine the acceptability and authenticity of particular Hindu worldviews, and moreover become a means to regulate religious thinking, and in turn govern how the Hindu canon is interpreted and analysed. With the added input and focus of Hindu nationalist ideology, the tenets and values of Hindu nationalist worldviews become regarded as part and parcel of “correct” Hindu religious expression, and belief,’
The public lecture can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-PNTErficA