Just like every other walk of life, media has influenced the social institution of religion to a great extent. With the internet and social media, the impact is relatively incalculable. This article briefly talks about the media’s effects on religion.
Historically, before the existence of any form of media and technology, oral traditions kept the interpretation of religion fluid. The coming of the printing press set their meaning in stone, making religions rigid. Although, the press also has played a key role in bringing reformations, for instance, the Protestant Revolution led by Martin Luther.
Over time, media has had far-reaching effects on religion. In the Indian context, media has homogenised many festivals and even customs that were once specific to certain regions. Media has popularised these practices by emphasising them on a large scale. Ganesh Visarjan, which has been prominent in Maharashtra, is no more local to the region but is a celebration pan-nation. Similarly, worshipping Sai Baba and Durga Pujan of Kolkata. Media has nationalised these festivities.
Media, while considerably narrowing down the scope of religion, has widened a superficial perception of it. For instance, Hinduism (which is not a religion, but rather a composite culture of indigenous traditions) has varied branches, school of thoughts and beliefs. ISKCON follows Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, Isha foundation follows Shaivism and so on. Mediatisation has limited this expanded understanding to just some popular gods.
TV media, especially, has limited the religious understanding of Hinduism to Ram and Islam to Jihad (a satire on present news programming). This, in turn, has polarised the two communities. Tablighi Jamat coverage is a recent example. A community, despite living in the country land since ages, has now become foreign in the view of the other. Media plays a crucial role in reinforcing beliefs or doing them away.
TV series like Ramayana and Mahabharata have helped impart knowledge of the mythologies and in a way, they have helped in enhancing people’s experience about their religion. The consumption became mediated and religion – palatable. Though, the purpose of production and broadcasting of these mythological shows can be contested as its market was primarily the north Hindi-speaking belt. Its re-release during lockdown was also a question of why? Moreover, the secularism of Doordarshan, being the National Public Broadcaster gets challenged for broadcasting religious content.
Religion itself impacts the media substantially. Since the advent of cinema in India, mythology has been a popular genre. Raja Harishchandra, Mohini Bhasmasaru, Savitri Satyavaan, Lanka Dahan were some initial releases of Indian cinema.
Apart from cinema, there are dedicated channels that telecast Harmandar Sahib kirtan and Vaishnomata puja live daily. This mediated form of darshan garners a fair number of religious eyes. Channels like Aastha and Sadhna has helped religious gurus and music reach more people. The culture of religion has also changed with the media. Doing online Puja or Iftars or Confessions has had an effective effect. It has become transactional. These were followed more frequently during the pandemic lockdowns worldwide.
Where traditional media has primarily helped traditional practices to flourish, new media is mostly helping more spiritual and redefined practices to grow. It is a common notion that more versed audiences access these platforms, which is why concepts relating more to faith rather than religion, like inner engineering and happiness programmes now exist. Spiritual leaders like Gaur Gopal Das, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Prasad and Jaggi Vasudeva make use of all kinds of media extensively, from books to social media, to popularise their ideas of spirituality. Since lockdown, Sadhguru has been running YouTube live sessions. These people, aka ‘mystics’, have re-worked religious teachings to bring them at par with the present and science. The new media helps them reach their targeted people, essentially the educated class.
Smartphones, the internet and the new media let people find their niche through virtual communities and peers of similar thought processes. This also applies to religions and their propagators on these media. While there are extremists like T Raja Singh and Zakir Naik, there also are agents of religious change. With the proliferation of smartphones and the internet, there also are sects and fringe elements that wage war on social media against each other in the name of religion, some of which are indeed politically motivated. Media has the power to instigate riots and violence; what happened in Bangalore was an outcome of a social media post ridiculing a religious figure. Media could further such an agenda of hatred. We must not let ourselves fall to the algorithms of social media and become polarised.
Cinema, TV, social media, all together, have set a template for ways of practising rituals or celebrations by popularising them on a mass scale. The dominant North Indian Hindu practices often find its place on popular media. This has imparted symbolism in customs. For instance, wedding rituals like Haldi, Mehndi, etc. have become prominent and more symbolic.
Social media has influenced certain ways of celebrations to make them worthy of capturing for social media. From dressing to decorating, things have changed to look more fashionable and presentable to the social media community.
Today, Indian news media uses religion as a lens, far more than necessary in their reporting. Identities are being mapped solely on a religious basis. A lot of which is politically and financially motivated. Religious sermons on TV, religious magazines, etc. can further push groupism and identity reinforcement. But, if used in good faith, media has, and still can transform world religions for the good of society. Media is and will continue to be the mass carrier of religious messages and texts that occupies a dominant role in the perpetuation of religious ideas, beliefs, practices, rituals and customs.