Why you should care
India was where Buddhism was born. Now it’s staging a comeback.
Ruma Roka is a practicing Hindu and visits temples. But for at least 20 minutes every morning and evening, the home of the 57-year-old in the Delhi suburb of Noida rings with the Buddhist chant nam-myoho-renge-kyo. The founder of a nonprofit, Roka works with hearing- and speech-impaired children and youth. It’s challenging work, but the chant has “helped me empower myself,” she says. It’s also helping one of the world’s major religions, Buddhism, regain lost ground in its birthplace.
It was in northern India that the Buddha gained enlightenment in the sixth century B.C. But Buddhism, the world’s fourth-most-practiced religion with more than 500 million followers, suffered setbacks at home following waves of invasions from Central Asia and subsequent competition with Islam and Hinduism that left its centers of learning destroyed or deprived of funding. Buddhists today constitute less than 1 percent of India’s population. Now, a branch of the religion that’s based on the philosophy of Nichiren Daishonin, a 13th-century Japanese monk, is reviving Buddhism across the country’s cities, pulling in tens of thousands of people with its promise of happiness and a peaceful world.
Globally, Nichiren Buddhism is led by Soka Gakkai International, an organization that was established in Japan in 1930 and that has chapters in at least 192 countries. Yet as late as 2014, Bharat Soka Gakkai, or BSG, the India arm of the Japanese tradition, had only 75,000 followers. Since then, however, it has seen its base expand dramatically, doubling to 150,000 followers by 2016. The number is now estimated to have crossed 200,000, and BSG today has groups in more than 300 Indian cities and towns that meet for regular group chanting sessions.
Everyone wants some refuge from problems … they find solace in this.
Hira Paul Gangnegi, Buddhist studies professor, Delhi University
For some, the chanting is meditative and serves as a path to mental peace and stability in a fast-paced modern world. For others, the gatherings offer a way to socialize and meet new people amid growing urban loneliness. But there’s also another key attraction: This tradition of Buddhism doesn’t require followers to give up their existing religious beliefs. Practicing Hindus, Muslims and Christians are among those who gather for the chanting sessions in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata. On the one hand, that means the growth in followers of the tradition doesn’t reflect in census figures for Buddhists since most identify there with the religion they formally subscribe to. But it also shields this booming expansion of Buddhism from backlash at a time when India is gripped by tensions over religious conversions and Hindu majoritarian politics. Followers get to treat Buddhism as an additional faith to the religion they’ve grown up practicing.
“There is no concept of heaven or hell,” says Roka. “It [Nichiren Buddhism] believes that each individual — regardless of any race, gender, caste — can overcome challenges.”
Officially, India has 8 million Buddhists, as per its latest census. But even that figure is mostly because of large-scale religious conversions by lower-caste Dalit Hindus in the 1950s, under the leadership of Bhimrao Ambedkar, the Columbia University-educated father of India’s Constitution. That’s why more than 5 million of India’s recorded Buddhists are from Maharashtra, the home state of Ambedkar — himself a Dalit. Buddhism’s rejection of the caste system remains attractive to many in India.
Sashwat Malik, a 27-year-old Delhi-based photographer, started taking Tibetan language classes and became intrigued by Buddhism. He belongs to an economically and socially disadvantaged community and started questioning the impact of his caste on his life. “That is when I wanted to explore Buddhism and its teachings,” he says. He doesn’t chant but is keen to explore that.
But the new wave of Buddhism is fundamentally different. It’s no act of mass protest against centuries of upper-caste persecution. Instead, high-end business people, homemakers and students are embracing it to deal with 21st-century anxieties that traditional religion doesn’t address: increased loneliness and emotional turmoil, heightened pressures at work, tensions at home. Indeed, while the BSG movement really started in 2000, it’s the recent global emphasis on wellness and spirituality that’s now helping Buddhism expand rapidly in India, suggests Hira Paul Gangnegi, a Buddhist studies professor at Delhi University. “Everyone wants some refuge from problems … they find solace in this,” he says.
Divya M., a 29-year-old architect from West Delhi’s Punjabi Bagh neighborhood, says she turned to chanting when she was going through a period of emotional vulnerability a few years ago. For Noida-based Sumita Mehta, a 70-year-old who discovered Buddhist chanting two decades ago, the practice has helped her “realize the power to change myself.”
The communal chanting gatherings help members find camaraderie and companionship. Mehta says she has learned to “really listen to other people” through this daily practice. Nichiren, who Mehta says was “an outspoken critic of the established Buddhist schools” in his time, emphasized the Lotus Sutra, one of Mahayana Buddhism’s most important texts, as the source of enlightenment. So the BSG organizes workshops and meetings where members discuss, among other things, the Lotus Sutra. Mahayana Buddhism is one of the religion’s two main strands — Theravada Buddhism is the other — and is the dominant form of the faith in China, Japan, South Korea, Bhutan, Nepal and many Southeast Asian nations.
Some traditional Buddhists are concerned about the overarching emphasis on chanting in Nichiren Buddhism. Geshe Lhakdor, director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamshala — home of the Dalai Lama in northern India — says that while he “can’t say what they are doing is wrong,” basing an entire religion on the glorification of a “single ritual” is a “big problem.”
But the Soka Gakkai International also presents itself as a global problem-solver. Every year, the organization’s president pens a “peace proposal” that explores Buddhist responses to everything from nuclear proliferation to environmental degradation. That, says Gangnegi, helps followers feel “they are a part of something big.”
To be sure, Nichiren Buddhism remains confined to India’s cities and towns. Most of its marketing is via word of mouth and through Facebook groups. But in a country where 46 cities have a population of more than 1 million people, that still represents a large growth opportunity. Not that Buddhism’s expansion is what’s driving followers like Roka. She’s convinced that chanting has changed her for the better. “If I didn’t chant,” she says, “I don’t think I would be as compassionate as I am today.”