Recently an email arrived from the Indian Embassy in the Netherlands, where I live. It announced a venture to promote Sanskrit. That this is necessary does not surprise me. Like Latin, the antecedent of European languages, Sanskrit, the root of Hindi, is in a terminal condition.

This makes India’s promotion of Sanskrit abroad intriguing. Given its indifferent embrace at home, what explains this branding initiative? A clue is the trumpeting of “the world’s first Gamified Sanskrit Learning app”. Developed by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the app is called “Little Guru”.

Gamification induces us with online rewards and competition. The metric of success: engagement. Facebook shows us more of what we click. YouTube suggests versions of what we saw. Spotify pushes songs like what we have heard.

The hearts and smileys become algorithmic icons of influence. Like sponges, they absorb our attention. At the same time, they goad screen gladiators into affinity and embattlement. We seem the agents of the game; quite possibly, we are being gamed.

Little Guru – which announces itself as addictive – follows this formula. You get an Arjuna card after chanting shlokas or memorising yoga gurus. While mastering the Bhagavad Gita, you receive an Om badge.

That language learning is folded into gaming logics seems inevitable. After all, on Amazon-owned Goodreads, literature, usually absent instrumental rationality – open-ended, without evident utility – is a hustle. People compete to read as much as they can, as fast as they can.

It matters not what you’ve learned from Dostoevsky but that you read him, and crushed others, within the prescribed time. You then gloat and receive rote validation; preferably in all caps with exclamation marks. This perform-and-approve jig animates our gamified lives.


And so to the energies of India’s authorities. Gamified Sanskrit may be a last-ditch effort to resuscitate a dormant language – a digital form of CPR, applied to a dormant patient. But is it also the wider ethos of India’s religious nationalism – “Gamified Hinduism”?

Virtual reality

To address this, we might see how gamification amplifies our lower selves against our higher ones. There is the reactive, dopamined self, responding to the Pez dispenser of online pings. And in all of us is open-ended awareness, capable of empathy and ethical elicitation.

In India, countervailing tensions within – the aversive versus the expansive – are well inscribed in language. Think of the ruh or soul’s altitudes, how the lower self (nafs) operates vis-à-vis a higher self (aql).

Shoshana Zuboff identifies how “surveillance capitalism” buttresses this lower self. Platform companies monetize our relations and decisions. They employ visual immersion, subliminal cues, micro-targeting, and real-time rewards and penalties.

The “platform” of Hindu nationalism, it would seem, employs analogous tactics to game loyalty and punish dissent. This is prevalent in two registers: the prosaic and political.

In the former, Facebook messages with India’s tiranga flag emoji trigger subconscious – and sometimes combative – identification. In the latter, we have the 2014 election, where the Bharatiya Janata Party deployed holograms simulating Narendra Modi’s intimate presence.

It’s like a first-person virtual reality encounter on an Oculus Rift headset. With both the hologram and virtual reality, we have stereoscopic absorption but no agency. Its parameters are dictated by programmers, the illusion foisted upon us.

A literal instance of nationalist gamification was in February 2019. Indian Air Force planes struck Balakot, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. A widely shared Whatsapp video was sold as an exploding Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist camp. It was actually from the Arma 2 video game.

The distinction between real and fake is irrelevant here. In claims that the video is a military strike and in Arma 2’s mechanics, we see the porous logic of gamification. Politics as well as play is now multiplayer simulation. What you make up convinces insofar as others collude in it.

Beyond electoral or warlike mobilisation, we have the augmentation of enmity. The Bajrang Dal’s Whatsapp rumours – that Muslims slaughter cows or marry Hindu girls so they can convert them to Islam – are perversely akin to Pokémon Go.

In both, users scramble their surroundings for scavenger hunts. In one, vigilantes scurry to identify traitors; in the other, players comb streets to catch Pokémon creatures. Muslims are thus lynched through digitally augmented means.

With Gamified Hinduism, we have a zero-sum logic: winner and loser, friend and enemy. People who in their everyday lives display a complex range of affiliations participate, via their smartphone, in casual – but not consequence-free – smackdowns. Witness the tapped-out triumphalism when the Union government revoked Article 370 on Kashmir’s constitutional status.

A final aspect of Gamified Hinduism: you won’t be left alone. There is irresistible escalation against national sceptics. The serious-yet-joking rape threats at feminists and environmentalists are “fun”. With democratic decency subservient to gamified pleasure, we see social distanciation and psychic disassociation.

The 20th century was an era of commitment expressed in dispersed institutions and everyday ritual. Our current time is of the uncommitted, episodically ranting and periodically provoking. We are tenuously tethered to ideas and society by whatever flotsam drifts through feeds.

Research on the online gambling industry is instructive here. Problem gamblers and former addicts are bombarded by sweeteners prodding them to play. Gambling companies use data sets and behavioural models to lure in the vulnerable.

On the one hand, Gamified Hinduism seduces the atomised and disenchanted with ersatz online community. On the other, it mobilises aggregate pressure against the intimate lives of non-conformists.

Photoshopped fantasies

Such in-your-face persistence is how dissenters experience online nationalists. Every glance at feeds reminds them of their eternal stain. Photoshopped fantasies of dismemberment, pornographic videos of violation, drip into one’s account and consciousness.

As such, Hinduism – which in its poetic and practiced forms can be capacious and generous – becomes, in its digitised and nationalised iteration, brittle and mean.

This digital conflation of religion and nation, I’ve suggested, operates prosaically and politically. I’ve unsubscribed countless times from the Indian embassy’s list; I keep getting spammed.

Yet should the BJP government ask Facebook and Twitter to remove embarrassing critiques, they are remarkably responsive. Silicon Valley’s programmers – which promise us sealed digital fortresses – are either mystified by or complicit in Gamified Hinduism.

In the mid-20th century, the British, the United Nations, and India itself floated the idea of a Kashmir plebiscite to decide its future. In the decades since, Kashmiris couldn’t be left well enough alone. India and Pakistan now administer separate sections of the territory. Hundreds of thousands of security personnel are stationed there, disrupting circulation, denying dignity.

The Centre’s recent Internet blackouts exist to punish Kashmiris. To say: we win, you lose. At such moments, Kashmiris are momentarily spared the invective coursing through wifi. But on Srinagar’s streets, in Shopian’s orchards, at Pulwama’s checkpoints, there is no escape from the biggest legacy game of all: nationalism.

A region suffused by cross-currents – Buddhism, Shi’ism – is forcibly clicked into the playlist, the timeline, of the Hindu rashtra. India’s nation-form – reactive and hermetic – simply won’t leave Kashmiris alone. Even if they didn’t sign on, they can’t sign off. No plebiscite is now offered.

And for all of us, numbed and neutered by digital politics, no button exists to unsubscribe.

Ajay Gandhi is an anthropologist and assistant professor at Leiden University.