Comparing the Evolving Digital World and Metaverse With Experience in the Traditional Hindu Innerverse
By Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami
It’s no secret that today’s youth have a deeper interest in all things digital than previous generations. As digital experience proliferates and grows more realistic and compelling, it is entirely possible that its proper use could serve to deepen the younger generations’ understanding of and interest in Hinduism’s perspective of the Deities and inner worlds. I have asked, “Can the experience of non-physical digital worlds help youth understand and appreciate the non-physical spiritual worlds?” To explore this, we need to look at the major digital trends.
The earliest computer-generated virtual worlds and characters are known respectively as computer-generated imagery (CGI) and computer graphics and animation (CGA). Over the last few decades, the level of sophistication has increased remarkably, helped along by machine learning. Take the 2021 Academy-Award-winning computer-animated musical and comedic fantasy Encanto. Or the compelling experience of the new Avatar film. Watching these movies, viewers soon forget the characters are animations and start relating to them as real actors. In such experiences, though, the viewer is passive, unable to interact with the story.
On a parallel track, digital gaming has evolved from the early incarnations of Pong and Tetris into massive multiplayer online games (MMOs) which can bring thousands, even millions, of players together in immersive worlds. Advanced games can have graphics more realistic than movie animations and boast vast and traversable worlds; the current largest digital geography is equivalent to 62,000 square miles, almost the size of Great Britain in real life.
Recent technologies take digital experience beyond films or gaming, allowing users to actively explore a virtual environment with others who share that same space. Augmented reality (AR) superimposes a computer-generated image into the user’s view of the real world, creating a composite experience. Using this technology, one can place, for example, a digital sculpture of Lord Ganesha on a desk and move around it or lift it as though it were actually in the room. Virtual Reality (VR) goes a step further, using sophisticated goggles to create a fully computer-simulated environment that may be populated by many users. The “metaverse”—a term made popular by Facebook for its AR/VR platform—combines these technologies with advanced virtual worlds as are used in MMOs. These worlds continue to be active and “alive” even when one user logs off. Such virtual landscapes can be used not only for play, but also for work, creativity or socializing.
No wonder youth are so deeply engaged with these technologies, for they marry the real world with the imagined, creating a storytelling adventure that is literally out of this world, one with infinite possibilities. It is Grimms’ Fairy Tales on steroids.
This idea of realms, material and immaterial, can be found in the ancient Hindu concept of the three worlds, triloka, which are the primary divisions of the cosmos. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells us: “Now, there are, of a truth, three worlds: the world of men, the world of the fathers, and the world of the Gods. The world of the Gods is verily the best of worlds.” Our Himalayan Academy Lexicon offers this description: 1) Bhuloka: “Earth world,” the physical plane; 2) Antarloka: “Inner” or “in-between world,” the subtle or astral plane; 3) Sivaloka: “World of Siva” and of the Gods and highly evolved souls—the causal plane, also called Karanaloka.
Computers are used to create virtual worlds that individuals can experience through digital devices. Similarly, the Hindu temple serves as a channel to experiencing the two very real non-physical worlds—the astral plane and the causal plane. The causal plane, in particular, is difficult to experience. It is most readily accessed through worship in the temple. My guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, declared: “All Saivites believe that religion is the harmonious working together of the three worlds and that this harmony can be created through temple worship, wherein the beings of all three worlds can communicate.”
During temple puja, the Deity comes and hovers over and within the murti in His/Her subtle body. A verse from the Saivite Ajita Agama states: “Sivalinga puja is for the purpose of invoking the presence of Sadasiva in the Linga.” This concept is explained in the Vaishnava Satvata Samhita: “When the perfectly designed image is systematically installed, He occupies the consecrated image. By His gracious presence in that image, He gives concrete and visible expressions to all of His transcendental and imperceptible qualities.” This is analogous to Augmented Reality (AR) technology in which youth are exploring the interface of the material world and the immaterial, finding their path to understanding the two.
To experience augmented reality, a digital device is needed with powerful microprocessors, advanced cameras and real-time object recognition. Cameras capture information from the surrounding real world, then objects are detected and mapped into the computer’s understanding of the world, wherein virtual objects may be added. Sensors then detect where in the real world you are pointing the device (looking) and render your perspective in the virtual world on the display.
What then is needed to perceive the Deity in the subtle worlds hovering within and above the murti during the puja? We need the inherent abilities of our soul. These abilities to experience the unseen increase as our devotion to the Deity deepens, just as the fidelity of virtual experiences improves with each technological advancement.
My guru gave this explanation of the process: “Hindu priests invoke the Gods to come and manifest for a few minutes within the sanctum of the temple. The Deities do come in their subtle bodies of light. They hover in and above the stone image and bless the people. If you are psychic and your third eye is open, you can see the God there and have His personal darshana.”
Gurudeva started holding group pilgrimages for his devotees in 1969, and I have continued that pattern, with the most recent pilgrimage being held in 2019. Many of the programs went to India and Sri Lanka, where devotees had the opportunity to attend grand ceremonies at ancient temples. Many devotees had visions of the Deities, born of the intensity of pilgrimage and inner striving, in which the form of the stone or bronze murti would move or smile at them. Sometimes the experience, instead of being visual, is auditory with the Deity speaking to the devotee. Such encounters usually take place at the height of the puja, when the curtain is opened and the fully decorated Deity is being presented various lamps. More than a few devotees have had such visions at our temple here in Hawaii.
Visions can also take place when the devotee is not in the temple, such as in meditation or deep sleep. At these times the devotee is looking into the Third World or Karanaloka, where the Deities and fully liberated souls reside. This can be compared to the experience of virtual reality, when one is not at all aware of his physical surroundings, being fully immersed in a non-physical world. If you speak with a knowledgeable Sivacharya, you will learn that the temple is much like an artificial intelligence device, with hardware (granite) and software (Sanskrit mantras) all designed to take the participant into another world, the spiritual realm of Siva and great beings of light.
In the metaverse of online gaming, the virtual world continues to exist even when you are not in it. Similarly, in a temple, because of its consecrated purpose and daily pujas, some devas are always present, which is the parallel to the metaverse’s always existing. During ceremonies, devotees in the physical world and devas from the Antarloka join together. At the high point of the ceremony, the Deity, in the Karanaloka, manifests for a short time. Furthermore, each temple has its own distinct inner world, so multiple temple inner worlds exist at the same time, as do multiple digital metaverses.
By relating temple worship to digital technology, we can create a bridge to younger generations. Teens experiencing a metaverse with a digital device and parents worshiping in a temple are both interacting with nonphysical realms. One is a digital world made accessible by computers and the other is a subtle reality made accessible by temple worship.
What’s to say that young people of the future might not use this technology to create and worship in a digital temple, not unlike a brahmin closing his eyes and performing manasa (mental) puja on a long flight to London? Consider that even the central image on this page was created not by an artist but by an AI, Midjourney! Today many temples are live-streaming their pujas, sparking debate over whether one can experience the Deity’s blessings and shakti remotely through digital devices, outside the psychic force field of the physical temple. Those who tune in to our live-streamed Kauai pujas have told us, yes, to an extent.
After all, in the physical, digital and subtle worlds, all experience happens in the mind of the perceiver.