August 08, 2020
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Seeing In The Dark

Buddhism returns to its birthplace as urban Indians find in it an emotional anchor for their troubled lives

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Seeing In The Dark
Dennis Landi
Seeing In The Dark

Why Buddhism Is Catching On In The Land Of Its Birth

  • Appeals to the rational urban Indian fed up of organised religion and its rituals
  • Provides a moral and ethical framework suitable to modern times
  • It’s highly individualistic, not requiring you to bow down to any god
  • Makes you responsible for your own happiness
  • It provides a community and support system to fill a vacuum in city life


Not perhaps since Buddhism's heyday, some 2,200 years ago, did such a power crowd gather to pay their tribute to Gautama Buddha in the land of his birth. Among the 6,000 of India's well-heeled and well-connected who assembled at the opening of the country's grandest monument in recent times to the Buddha—the Rs 100-crore Global Vipassana Pagoda, "the largest dome in the world"—in Mumbai's Gorai island last Sunday were the President, a governor, several central and state ministers, an industrialist, a media baron and the Buddha's star new-age disciple, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Like Priyanka, there's a new wave of Indians—affluent, rational, metropolitan, English-educated individuals impatient of organised religion and willing to experiment with alternate spiritual forms—who are increasingly turning to the Buddha's teachings for anwers to their dilemmas. A far cry from Ambedkar and his Dalit followers who converted to Buddhism 50 years ago as a way of getting back at Hinduism and its hierarchy, these small bands of new-age spiritualists shy away from the very word 'Buddhist' with all its political baggage. Their Buddhism instead is more therapy than religion, a self-help practice that enables them to cope with the daily pressures of city life—nuclear families, generation gap, divorces, collapse of family support systems, relationships, pressures of jobs and joblessness, lifestyle diseases, teenage angst and loneliness—even as it unlocks their hitherto hidden potential.

For business executive Archana Sehgal, 32, who migrated to Delhi with her first job some eight years ago, her spiritual journey began when a friend invited her to chant nyam myo ho renge kyo, the title of the Lotus Sutra in Japanese. Desperately unhappy with her feuding family, Archana decided to give it a try, chanting for two-three hours a day for a week. It worked for her, she says, giving her the inner space to resolve her anger and start believing in her power to change "anything in my life". Today, Archana is the leader of the young women's division in her locality of the Bharat Soka Gakkai (Value Creation Society, BSG) inspired by the teachings of 13th century Japanese Buddhist monk Nichiren, adapted to contemporary times by its mentor, Daisaku Ikeda, and now flourishing in 192 countries with a membership running into tens of millions.

Archana is expected to make at least two "home visits" a week in a system that is unique to BSG: each leader being charged with responsibility for the happiness and well-being of every individual in her "block". Such a block is limited to 10 or less members to ensure that each member gets individual attention. It's a practice, Archana says, that gives her deep fulfilment by mentoring other young women like her facing job insecurity and social turmoil of other kinds. "If one person has a problem, everyone rallies around. It's a philosophy which is easy to apply to daily life. You begin to understand how your inner life works and learn to take responsibility for your own happiness."

The combination of community chanting, individual counselling and a support system that works like an extended family without its handicaps has turned the BSG into an impressive organisation of over 38,000 members in 300 cities in India in a little over two decades.

To sceptical outsiders, especially educated middle-class professionals with their horror of anything that smells of organised religion, the extreme organisation and zeal to induct newcomers into the practice, along with the strict rules of confidentiality, seem almost masonic sometimes. But within the BSG, it's hard not to be moved by members' sincerity and genuine concern for others. And it's impossible to spot an unhappy face. It's not as if they don't have their problems, some of them huge, like cancer. But as BSG head Naveena Reddi explains, the chanting works as a way of transforming negative thought into positive. More important, members are taught to chant for the happiness of those they don't like. What also keeps them upbeat is sharing their experiences—under strict confidentiality—of how the practice has changed their lives. Countless stories emerge of daily miracles wrought by individual and community chanting—improved relations within the family and at work, promotions that come without pulling strings, jobs that land suddenly in one's lap, cancers that recede, eyesight restored.

But it's not just spiritual therapy, as Reddi stresses. What the practice hopes to bring about is a change in the world through a "human revolution", leading members to fight for a world in which Buddha's core values of peace and non-violence are propagated in contemporary times, whether it is in dealing with issues like global warming, the anti-nuke campaign or greening the earth.

Other new-age forms of Buddhism arrive at the same idea of the interconnected universe through different paths, but inspired equally by the Buddha's teachings. Vipassana, which means "to see things as they really are", is a meditation practice popularised by the Buddha, and returned to the land of his birth by an Indian businessman domiciled in Burma, Satyanarayan Goenka. Having become an ardent practitioner in Rangoon, Goenka came back to India in 1969 to revive it here. Vipassana, as he points out in his talks and books, "involves no dogma, rites, rituals, conversion. The only conversion is from misery to happiness, from bondage to liberation."

When he brought Vipassana to India 40 years ago, there were about a dozen people, including Goenka's parents, willing to sign up for the meditation course. Now there are more than 55 centres in India, from Sonepat in Haryana to Chengannur in Kerala, from Jaipur and Ajmer to Dehradun and Durg. Over a million have joined up for the 10-day retreat, where beginners are taught "mental purification through self-observation". Students lead a frugal life—no talking, sex, meat, drinks, newspapers, TV, music—while they learn to focus their mind in near-total silence. Just refraining from these familiar distractions is the first step for the mind to calm down, followed by three-and-a-half days of anapana meditation focusing on your breath, followed by six-and-a-half days of a guided meditation where the student learns to observe changes in his body and its sensations as a way to gain equanimity. So popular have the courses become that the waiting lists are growing by the day.

This mushrooming of new-age forms of Buddhism is a recent trend in our cities, points out Pankaj Mishra, whose book—An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World—is a voyage to rediscover Buddhism in the land of its birth centuries after it was wiped out. "Several members of my own family, even my landlady in Defence Colony, all with an upper-caste Hindu upbringing, have signed up with some Buddhist organisation or the other," he says. For Mishra, this second coming of the Buddha is in the fitness of things because it has found an audience similar to the one the Buddha originally aimed his message at: a modernising society and its rising commercial classes. "Buddha was conveying his message at a time of huge social upheaval when close-knit societies were falling apart, and with people migrating to cities, traditional bonds were being weakened, whether in community or family networks. For people newly arrived in cities, alone and anonymous, traditional religions were of little help."

It's only natural, as Mishra points out, that a post-liberalised India, with its "spiritual and emotional exhaustion", is increasingly attracted to a form of Buddhism that provides spiritual sustenance at such times. "The more society changes, the greater Buddhism's appeal," he says. Besides, "the idea of an individual not affiliated to any caste or community being a new one in India", the Buddha's revolutionary concept of shifting the onus of spiritual health on the individual is bound to resonate.

This hunger for a new moral and spiritual framework for how to live your life meaningfully without God as an intermediary is what is driving thousands of Indians to the Dalai Lama's teachings. Until a few years ago, the pontiff's engagement diary was almost completely booked with his tours abroad or his teachings in Dharamshala, attended predominantly by his followers from abroad. No longer, says his representative in Delhi, Tempa Tsering. There's a distinct shift, with nearly 60 per cent of his engagements reserved for his talks across India. In the last month-and-a-half, for instance, the Tibetan leader was invited to address meetings in Rajasthan, Delhi, Hyderabad, Gulbarga, Chennai, Pondicherry, Delhi again, before returning to his home in Dharamshala for 10 days, then going for a brief tour to Germany and Italy before leaving again for Bangalore and Mysore. Everywhere he goes, whether university campuses or hospitals—he was in Meerut recently to open a charitable hospital—thousands gather to hear his simple, down-to-earth teachings, shorn of all dogma.

The same thing happened when the Vietnamese Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, came to India last October. Unlike his two previous visits—once in 1988 on a private pilgrimage, and again in 1997, when he spoke before a small audience in Delhi and Chennai—the response to his last visit was overwhelming, says Shantum Seth, who runs the Ahimsa Trust for propagating his Zen teacher's Buddhist practice. "His teachings are clear, useful and timely, and appeal to a generation that was schooled in scientific rationalism." Unlike other religions, Seth points out, Buddhism encourages a spirit of true inquiry—if it works for you, adopt it without getting caught up in any ism. "Its emphasis is on personal practice and self-development, which is hugely attractive to the intelligentsia."

So will it last, or will Buddhism vanish once more as it did in the past, wiped out by a disastrous mix of circumstances, including co-option into Hinduism and ritualism, and a decline of the commercial classes? Undoubtedly it will last, according to Mishra, who hails the Buddha as "the greatest thinker India has ever produced by a huge margin". At a time when so many of our shiny modern ideologies have been discredited, says Mishra, the Buddha's teachings grow increasingly relevant as the guide to an ethical life.

There's no way out for us except the Buddha's way.

By Sheela Reddy with Smruti Koppikar, Dola Mitra, Pushpa Iyengar and Harsh Kabra

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