Ganesh Chartuthi festival

Robotic arm performs traditional Hindu ritual

Image credit: Reuters/Steven Saphore

During the festival of Ganesh Chartuthi, a robot has been captured in a video performing aarti, a religious ritual in which flaming wicks are waved before a Hindu deity, accompanied by chanting or hymns.

The hugely popular Hindu festival typically falls for ten days at the end of August, and is celebrated throughout India. Devotees gather to celebrate and perform rituals to honour Ganesh, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles.

Among the most famous rituals is aarti, whereby a priest or other worshipper moves a lamp in circles before the statue of a deity, while chanting or singing hymns. First and foremost, this ritual represents the removal of darkness.

In a potentially controversial move during the festival, robotic arms designed by Patil Automation Ltd – which mostly produces manufacturing robots – were made to perform this ritual at a facility in Pune, western India. One arm waved a small flaming pot before a small statue of Ganesh, surrounded by offerings, while a second arm rang a bell.

In a short video of the robotic ritual, a religious song can be heard in the background.

A worker for Patil Automation told Quartz that the robot was mostly a “decoration”, and not intended to replace human practitioners. Professor Herman Tull of Lafayette College, PA, argued that the robot was not performing the “real thing”, as the practice was not merely a physical, but also a mental act.

According to analysis by Dr Carl Benedikt Frey and Professor Michael Osborne of the University of Oxford, who created the “Will robots take my job?” website, the chances of the responsibilities of a religious leader being automated are less than one per cent. This renders religion one of the safest industries to work in for those concerned about technological unemployment.

While traditional religious acts are considered deeply human, technology is becoming increasingly vital for religion to thrive in the 21st century. Religious organisations use Twitter and other social media platforms to spread their messages, religious services are livestreamed, and various “prayer apps” have been developed to help Christians connect with God.

In the past year, some robots have taken on religious roles, with a SoftBank Pepper robot adapted to perform traditional Buddhist funeral rites, and BlessU2, a robotic priest which offers blessings in different languages.

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