Robots perform Hindu rituals – some believers fear they will replace the worshipers

The conversationIt’s not just artists and teachers who are losing sleep over advances in automation and artificial intelligence. Robots are being introduced to Hinduism’s most sacred rituals – and not all believers are happy about it.

In 2017, a tech company in India introduced a robotic arm to perform “aarti,” a ritual in which a devotee offers an oil lamp to the deity to symbolize the removal of darkness. This particular robot was unveiled at the Ganpati Festival, an annual gathering of millions of people where an icon of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is taken out in a procession and plunged into the Mula Mutha River in Pune, central India.

Since then, this robotic Aarti arm has inspired several prototypes, some of which still regularly perform the ritual across India today, along with a variety of other religious robots across East Asia and South Asia. Robotic rituals still include an animatronic temple elephant in Kerala on India’s south coast.

But this type of religious use of robots has led to increasing debates about the use of AI and robotic technology in devotion and adoration. Some devotees and priests believe this represents a new horizon in human innovation that will lead to the betterment of society, while others fear that the use of robots to replace practitioners bodes ill for the future.

Ganesha Aarti is executed by a robotic arm.

However, as an anthropologist specializing in religion, I focus less on the theology of robotics and more on what humans actually say and do when it comes to their spiritual practice. My current work on religious robots focuses primarily on the notion of “divine object persons” where otherwise inanimate things are viewed as living, conscious beings.

My work also addresses the unease that Hindus and Buddhists express about ritual automatons replacing humans, and whether these automatons might actually make better devotees.

Ritual automation is not new

Ritual automation, or at least the idea of ​​robotic spiritual practice, is not new to South Asian religions.

In the past, this included everything from special pots that continuously drip water for bathing rituals that Hindus routinely perform for their icon deities, called abisheka, to wind-powered Buddhist prayer wheels—the types often seen in yoga studios and supply stores .

While the contemporary version of automated ritual may seem like downloading a phone app that chants mantras without the need for any prayer object like a mala or rosary, these new versions of robots performing rituals have gotten too complicated held talks.

Thaneswar Sarmah, a Sanskrit scholar and literary critic, argues that the first Hindu robot appeared in the stories of King Manu, the first king of mankind in the Hindu faith. Manu’s mother Saranyu – herself the daughter of a great architect – built an animated statue to perfectly fulfill all her household chores and ritual obligations.

A male figure wearing a crown and holding a red bag in one hand.
Visvakarman, who is considered the architect of the universe in Hindu belief. Photo credit: british museum, (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Folklorist Adrienne Mayor similarly notes that religious tales of mechanized icons from Hindu epics, such as the mechanical chariots of the Hindu engineer god Visvakarman, are often thought to be the ancestors of religious robots today.

Additionally, these stories are sometimes interpreted by modern nationalists as evidence that ancient India invented everything from spacecraft to rockets before then.

Modern traditions or traditionally modern?

However, the recent use of AI and robotics in religious practice is raising concerns among Hindus and Buddhists about the type of future automation could lead to. In some cases, the debate among Hindus revolves around whether automated religion promises mankind’s arrival in a bright, new, technological future, or whether it is merely evidence of the apocalypse to come.

In other cases, there are concerns that the proliferation of robots could cause greater numbers of people to abandon religious practice, as temples rely more on automation than practitioners to tend to their deities. Some of these concerns stem from the fact that many religions, both in South Asia and around the world, have seen a significant decline in the number of young people willing to devote their lives to spiritual education and practice in recent decades. With many families living in a diaspora scattered around the world, priests or “pandits” often serve smaller and smaller communities.

But if the answer to the problem is fewer ritualists, more robots, people are still wondering if ritual automation will benefit them. They also question the simultaneous use of robotic deities to embody and personify the divine, as these icons are programmed by humans and therefore reflect the religious views of their engineers.

Do right by religion

Scientists often find that these concerns all reflect a pervasive theme — an underlying fear that robots are somehow better at worshiping gods than humans. They can also create inner conflicts about the meaning of life and one’s place in the universe.

For Hindus and Buddhists, the rise of ritual automation is of particular concern because their traditions emphasize what religious scholars call orthopraxy, which places more emphasis on correct ethical and liturgical behavior than on specific beliefs in religious teachings. In other words, perfecting what you do in relation to your religious practice is seen as more necessary to spiritual progress than what you personally believe in.

This also means that automated rituals appear on a spectrum ranging from human ritual fallibility to robotic ritual perfection. In short, the robot can perform your religion better than you because robots, unlike humans, are spiritually incorruptible.

Not only does this make robots an attractive substitute for dwindling priesthoods, but it also explains their increasing use in everyday contexts: humans use them because nobody cares that the robot is wrong, and they are often better than nothing when the possibilities are limited to ritual performances.

Saved by a robot

In the end, the move towards a robot for religious restoration in modern Hinduism or Buddhism may seem futuristic, but it belongs very much in the present. It tells us that Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions in South Asia are increasingly thought of as post- or transhuman: they use technological ingenuity to overcome human weaknesses because robots don’t tire, forget what to say, fall asleep or leave.

More specifically, this means that robotic automation is being used to perfect ritual practices in East Asia and South Asia—particularly India and Japan—beyond what would be possible for a human devotee, creating an impossibly consistent and flawless ritual completion with an imagination linked by is better religion.

Modern robotics might then feel like a particular kind of cultural paradox, where the best kind of religion is one that ends up not involving humans at all. But in this circularity of humans creating robots, robots becoming gods, and gods becoming humans, we’ve only managed to reinvent ourselves once again. The conversation

Holly WaltersVisiting Lecturer in Anthropology, Wellesley College

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *