A Millennial Take on Buddha: Meet India’s New-Age Buddhists
There’s a new kind of Buddhist in town: Upper-middle class, starkly unascetic, educated, English-speaking and young. They’re chefs, PR professionals, musicians, digital agency heads, journalists and students. They’re not necessarily non-smokers or non-drinkers, and are proud iPhone owners with active, well-updated social media lives. They are everything you dismiss when you think of a Buddhist.
Over the last few years, a trend has emerged which has seen urban youth take to Buddhism, particularly Nichiren Buddhism (a branch of Mahayana Buddhism) across Indian cities. At present, there are roughly about 1,50,000 Soka Gokai Buddhists in India. Soka Gakkai is a Japanese religious movement based on the 13th century teachings of Nichiren, a reformist Buddhist monk. More than 65% of them are under 35 years of age.
What does this contemporary take on an ancient religion include (or exclude)? Why has it become particularly appealing to young people in the 21st century?
Buddhism and Feminism
For Ankita Gaba, head of her own digital agency, taking to Buddhism was about survival. Eight years ago, she was battling physical and mental health issues and couldn’t shake off thoughts of suicide. So, when she stumbled upon Nichiren Buddhism with its claim to help people achieve “absolute happiness”, she was more than willing to give it a shot. Her biggest victory as a Buddhist has been staying alive. “I would’ve killed myself otherwise,” says Gaba.
Nichiren Buddhism is based on the Lotus Sutra, expounded by Gautam Buddha eight years before he achieved Nirvana. It is one of the central Mahayana sutras. Gaba explains: “The idea is that the beautiful lotus not only blooms in a muddy pond, it needs a muddy pond to bloom. We are asked to actively fight and engage with the obstacles of life, and remain happy even while fighting them. Our goal is not nirvana.”
While another of the Lotus Sutra’s key messages is the absolute equality of all living things, there is always the matter of certain patriarchal messages expounded by Gautam Buddha for women to be good wives and homemakers, in a different age, thousands of years ago. How does Gaba, a strong, thinking woman reconcile those differences? “There is no question of gender or ethnicity or race in this contemporary Nichiren Buddhism. We are encouraged to recognise the highest Buddha nature and the potential of the entire universe in each person.”
However, venture a little further and streaks of that ancient religion are visible when Gaba explains what her sensei or mentor thinks of the issue.
Buddhism and Vices
For 23-year-old Sulgana Chatterjee, the story starts off on a similar note. Nine months ago, she was wafting, always sad, professionally hopeless and could cry at the drop of a hat. That’s when a beloved professor at college shared her experiences of chanting with Chatterjee.
“Initially, I was apprehensive because the idea I had of Buddhism included monks, and giving up everything for nirvana. It didn’t make any sense to me that chanting something can change lives or make people happy. But then slowly as I started practising and meeting more peers, good things started manifesting in small ways in my life,” says a bubbly Chatterjee.
In a few months, Chatterjee felt her spirits lift as things at work, home and relationships began to “seamlessly” align for her. Now, she swears by her faith, and heads one of many Soka Gokai International (SGI) Youth Divisions. She is a cog in a system unique to SGI across India.
Each leader pays home visits to members of his or her small group, chants with and for them, and discusses victories and challenges they are trying to overcome. If one member is going through a hard time, everyone rallies and chants for him or her. These groups also meet monthly or bi-monthly, usually at a member’s home. “It removes the negative vibrations from around you,” Chatterjee says.
The Hindu Buddhists?
Twenty nine-year-old Bangalore-based musician Rohan Majumdar was slowly convinced over a period of few months to take up Buddhism when he saw his best friend become visibly happier and more successful after she started chanting.
“One of the biggest aspects of Nichiren Buddhism is the sangha or the community. We believe that through our practise we can make ourselves and others around us happy, and all we need to do is replicate this success on a larger scale. So, we constantly try to reach out to new people and try to convince them into trying the practise. I was one of the converts,” says Majumdar with a laugh.
It’s funny because he hasn’t officially converted to Buddhism, just like Sulagna, Ankita and most new-age Buddhists. Majority of them are still officially Hindu, with Hindu parents, and Hindu pujas to sit in at home.
“You don’t need to convert to be a Nichiren Buddhist since it’s not an organised religion. We revere the Gohonzon, which is a physical representation of the universe, with Nam Myoho Rengo Kyo inscribed on it. We also believe we have the universe inside each one of us. So, when we chant, we are not praying, we are not chanting to anything external. We are speaking the language of the universe, chanting in front of the Gohozon to reach the highest potential of ourselves,” explains Chatterjee.
Gaba’s parents were skeptical when she told them she’s taking up Buddhism. But given her frail mental health condition, she was willing to try anything. When her parents saw her improve, they eased into it. “My father did ask me very worriedly if I was going to stay a Hindu officially on government records,” recounts Gaba.
Buddhism to the Rescue
One of the reasons for the growth of this contemporary take on Nichiren Buddhism is the growing skepticism of the educated middle-class and the urban youth towards organised religion with its strict rules and rituals, and frenzy to convert newcomers. Besides, even secular society has not been able to provide or even start a discussion on problems ailing the urban youth: Financial crises, mental health and sexuality issues, family feuds and even terminal illnesses.
Added to this, the appeal of taking the onus of one’s own spiritual health without placing any restrictions on food or other habits makes the teachings of Buddha more appealing. Community chanting, individual bonds within the community and a continuous support-system have been effective ways to persuade the urban youth to seek help and solace from others, and within themselves in this increasingly lonely, digital world.
(On the occasion of Buddha Purnima, The Quint is republishing this story from its archives.)