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DECEMBER 8 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 46 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Asiaweek Pictures.
Visions of the Sublime
Few believe Information Technology is God — but many are putting I.T. into the service of their beliefs
By OLIVER ROHLFS

If you have an ecumenical turn of mind, check out Beliefnet.com, which creates a virtual inter-faith community. The site offers information on all of the world's main religions and even some smaller ones, like Shinto. To keep content fresh, experts of various faiths contribute feature stories and opinions — the site recently hosted a webcast by the Dalai Lama. But Beliefnet.com is not so ethereal that it shuns mammon. The e-shopping area includes books, prayer and meditation aids and even travel packages to the world's sacred sites.

Cyberspace need not be a spiritual void. Sites on everything from Sikhism to Scientology are readily available to online seekers. And just as there are many paths to the infinite, there are many ways to expand your sensibilities beyond the narrow confines of your office cubicle, cellphone or palm-sized organizer.

If, for example, you feel the need, you can download the Bible onto any device with enough memory. Ask a man who's done it: "The last time I went on home leave, I left my Bible behind and just took my Palm pilot," says David Marriott, pastor of Union Church in Hong Kong.

And if you can't afford to drag your corporal presence to religious shrines, then do the next best thing. Visit Sacredsites.com, where American anthropologist Martin Gray tastefully annotates his stunningly beautiful photographs of places of pilgrimage on five continents. In Asia, the selection ranges from the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon to the Hindu Temple of Pura Besakih on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Agung in Bali. The sections devoted to the hallowed sites of India and Japan are particularly well presented.

Many Asian holy shrines have opened their own websites, allowing devotees around the globe to worship vicariously. The Siddhivinayak temple in Bombay, dedicated to the Hindu deity Ganesh, was among the first of India's temples to go virtual two years ago at Siddhivinayak.org. You can buy religious artifacts and order a Hindu puja (act of devotion) from the site. If you want to find other temples, Indian heritage and culture portal Saranam.com enables you to order pujas from 250 temples across the subcontinent.

One of the Islamic world's most accessible and inventive English-speaking portals is based in Malaysia. Mukmin.com [mukmin means believers] caters to the needs of Muslims in their daily lives. "The site also provides content that will help them understand and practice their religion," says Raslan Dahlan, the site's chief operating officer. Included is such useful information as local daily prayer times, the location of Muslim centers and halal restaurants in over 4,000 cities.

Understanding-islam.com provides a more scholarly approach to the faith. An avowed aim of the Pakistan-based website is to overcome what webmaster Moiz Amjad terms "sectarian disharmony" within the Muslim world. It offers articles on Islamic beliefs and practices, Islamic society, economics and comparative religion. The hottest app on both sites is the ability to question religious experts. "It is imperative that people be encouraged to ask their questions without fear of censorship or scholarly rebuke," says Amjad.

Spirituality on the Web isn't all solemn stuff. Indiagames.com helps the uninitiated in search of enlightened interactivity to understand Indian history and deities through play. In one game, the player becomes Rama, hero of the Hindu Ramayana epic on the hunt for the mythical golden deer. More profound questions about Hinduism can be satisfied at Hindunet.com. The extensive collection of Hindu dharma material spans most of the Hindu scriptures, festivals and rites. If you find yourself seeking more, the sister site at Hindulinks.org might lead you down the right path.

Perhaps the most elegant religious portal, with a serene golden Buddha gracing its homepage, is Buddhanet.net, run by Australian volunteers. "We present the ancient Buddhist teachings in what we hope is an attractive, contemporary style," says webmaster and Buddhist monk Venerable Pannyavaro. The site's downloadable file library includes Buddhist artwork, e-books (including many formatted for Palm OS devices), a kids' coloring book, meditation aids and teachings from all of Buddhism's traditions. There are also links to Buddhist monasteries and meditation centers across Asia.

Feel the urge to meditate but can't pull yourself away from your screen? Surcease might still be yours. Enter "online meditation" at About.com's homepage, and choose from more than 50 meditation aids, like the sound of rain or running water to soothe jangled nerves. Pannyavaro sees it this way: "The net is just another tool. It is how you use it that makes it wholesome or unwholesome." He might be right. Somewhere between the hype, the sleaze and the buzz of the information flow, the Internet really can offer food for the soul.

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