Keeping the faith with chanting
In the early 2000s, Soka Gakkai Buddhist chants became a rage among urban Indians. Despite questions around the movement, what ensures its appeal two decades on?
Novelist Manju Kapur’s world collapsed around her in 2001, when she lost her daughter in a road accident. For a year, distraught, she tried a number of things to find solace. She studied Vipassana, an intensive form of meditation. She read religious texts and visited Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation.
Kapur’s job at the time, as a reader of English literature at Miranda House, Delhi University, meant she had to interact with young women constantly, many about the age of her daughter. These interactions came to fill her with dread. She felt a gaping void within, an emptiness that threatened to overwhelm her existence.
She was hesitant when a friend suggested she try a form of Buddhist chanting. But the friend was persistent.
“The person who introduced me to chanting came to my house for six months, every single day," says Kapur, who is now 70. “We would chant for five or 10 minutes."
This chant, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, is at the core of Nichiren Buddhism, on which the modern Soka Gakkai movement is based. Nichiren Daishonin, a 13th century Buddhist monk, believed the Lotus Sutra, an important scripture in Mahayana Buddhism, was one of Gautama Buddha’s vital teachings, holding the key to happiness. It translates, roughly, to “devotion to the mystic law of the lotus flower sutra".
“I stopped feeling like a victim once I accepted that it was my karma," Kapur says. Hindus are acquainted with such causality as part of their religious philosophy—one of the reasons Bharat Soka Gakkai (BSG), as the Indian chapter is called, has grown so dramatically. Since it’s not a religion, Nichiren Buddhism doesn’t require conversion. It isn’t particularly hard to follow and is accommodating of other religious practices.
In the early 2000s, the movement became popular in urban India. Chanting groups gathered in high-rises. Harried professionals joined on weekends. Homemakers were drawn to it. And the organization has extended its reach through word-of-mouth and a personalized approach.
The lost and lonely
Many BSG practitioners join the group during some form of personal crisis. Members approach people they know personally and then connect them to a leader close to their home for easy meet-ups and follow-through.
Abhinav Purohit, a telecom strategy consultant in Dubai, says his sister was going through a rough patch when she was approached by a BSG member. Purohit, a teenager at the time, followed his sister into the group.
Dubai-based Rupkatha Bhowmick’s father was embroiled in court cases when a member introduced her to BSG.
In 2017, Reena Dham’s then 27-year-old son Rishi went into a coma after an accident. Dham, whose sister and daughter are practitioners, had until then only been a supporter of the philosophy and not an active member.
Indrani Ghosh, an IT professional in Kolkata, had her world turned upside down in 2009 when her mother fell ill.
“She was hallucinating and delusional," says Ghosh. Her paternal aunts, practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism, advised her to chant. “I had no time to go to meetings, so they suggested I chant while working, and there was a miraculous change," says Ghosh. Once she began chanting, her mother recovered and she was able to sort out an ongoing legal tangle involving her apartment. These two developments cemented her faith in the practice.
“Everything fell into place," she says. “I’m a rational person. It’s not magical, but I believe the practice is mystical." Ghosh has served the group in various capacities, including as leader of the young women division (YWD). She had to step down as YWD leader when she got married. Married women are encouraged to join the women’s division (WD).
Dham and her family kept chanting through those days of uncertainty. “For two months, my son was in a coma. Doctors had warned that things could get worse," she says.
“The Sensei (referring to Daisaku Ikeda, the 90-year-old founding president of Soka Gakkai International, or SGI) says the philosophy turns poison into medicine through faith. As we chanted, we could see that change around us," Dham says. “My son has completely recovered. Chanting helped keep our hopes alive." Soon after, she took up a more active role in BSG. The 56-year-old resident of Sikandrabad says her family also chanted for three other patients who were in a similar condition at the hospital.
Purohit says “people do get introduced when they’re in some sort of trouble" but adds that they stay because the philosophy is empowering. He adds that he is a temple-visiting Hindu by faith and a Soka Gakkai Buddhist by practice.
“We’re not actively looking for the stray dog with a wound," says Sumita Mehta, the head of public relations at BSG. Mehta joined the practice when she was struggling with multiple issues herself. “We don’t specifically look for people in distress," she says, but agrees that most people join BSG when they are at their lowest, physically and emotionally. She now dedicates most of her time to her voluntary role within the organization.
The Indian chapter, established in 1986, is a registered NGO whose membership grew from 4,000 in 1997 to 150,000 in 2016. Remarkably, it more than doubled in size between 2014 and 2016. Mehta says the current membership is just under 200,000, though she isn’t sure of the exact figure.
Globally, the Buddhist offshoot works in 192 countries, with a membership of 12 million. Ikeda, who spread this belief system across the world, is a larger-than-life figure. He has visited India several times. The practice now has celebrity followers such as actor Tisca Chopra and designer Rina Dhaka.
In India, new members fill out a form where they declare political affiliations along with other personal details. The organization is wary of members with political links, senior members say. “I’m sure if a politician turns up for a meeting, they won’t be refused," says Ghosh. “But if someone declares himself or herself to have political ties, I’m not sure they’ll be encouraged to join." The organization doesn’t want to be associated with any political ideology.
In Japan, the movement has sometimes come under criticism for creating a personality cult around Ikeda, whom practitioners also refer to as the Mentor. “We’re not a cult or a religion," Mehta says. “We are a practice, a way of life. We’re not interested in publicity. We’ve never had an expansion drive. Joining and leaving is a choice people make."
Yet there is a conscious urbanity to the movement. One criticism levelled at the group is that it has made almost no effort to reach out beyond India’s English-speaking upper middle class. The ability to read and write English is a prerequisite, since the religious literature has not been translated into Indian languages.
Bhowmick raised this issue when she was a district leader in Ballygunge, Kolkata. “I’ve written to them many times asking why Bengali can’t be used as an alternative language in Kolkata, to no avail," she says.
Dham, who introduced her driver Suraj to chanting, acknowledges that a lack of knowledge of spoken and written English perhaps keeps him from attending BSG meetings, though he has benefited from the philosophy.
Mehta says a lot of effort has gone into preserving the spirit of Nichiren’s philosophy in these English translations. Translation into regional languages will need approval from SGI, and, unless there is great demand, it’s unlikely to happen.
Ghosh says this has kept out a vast number of people who could potentially have benefited from the philosophy. “I’ve seen people raise this issue at meetings several times, only to be told that if English is done away with as the medium of communication, the membership numbers will swell beyond BSG’s capacity to accommodate, and ‘we don’t want that’," Ghosh says. “I believe they need permission from SGI to translate into other languages."
This translation barrier might be unique to India. SGI literature is frequently translated into other foreign languages. As many as 1,000 different language editions of Ikeda’s works have been published outside Japan. One of them, Choose Life, has been translated into 28 languages. A German edition of the first volume of Nichiren Daishonin’s writings has also been published.
Members are also clear that the recruitment of new members isn’t mandatory for ascension within the group.
“In the last 16-17 years, I have introduced only two members, and I’ve never been pressured by the organization to bring in new members, so I don’t think evangelism is part of BSG," says Purohit. “My wife doesn’t practise Nichiren Buddhism and I’ve never felt the need to ask her to; it should come from within."
“No one actually says you have to get in these many members, though it’s seen as an achievement," says Bhowmick. Purohit concurs. “Some people are driven to get X number of members, but leadership roles aren’t dependent on that," he says.
According to three members Lounge spoke to, none of whom wanted to be named, BSG was initially cautious about inducting non-Hindus. Mehta denies this; and the same members add that no such restraint exists today. But the group remains predominantly Hindu-majority, and adjusts meeting schedules according to Hindu religious festivals to accommodate members.
“In the years that I was quite active, mainly between 2009 and 2012, I didn’t see any Muslim members in my district in Kolkata (in the Ballygunge area), and in Chittaranjan Park in Delhi (where she lived for a while)," says Bhowmick. Ghosh echoes this. “In my years in Kolkata, I didn’t come across any Muslim or Sikh members," she says.
“Soka Gakkai is open to anyone," insists Mehta. “We’ve never consciously excluded anyone."
Despite two emails and repeated messages sent via Mehta, BSG chairperson Vishesh Gupta did not respond to Lounge’s queries on this issue. The organization also did not respond to questions on the number of members, and the gender-wise break-up.
Chanting, which is at the core of this practice, is used by members to reinforce the positive effects of the philosophy during all kinds of crisis—be it recovery from a grievous injury or financial insolvency. But members are quick to point out that it isn’t a substitute for practical help.
“It was modern medicine that helped my son get better, but it was almost miraculous the way the transformation happened. Even doctors acknowledged it. Chanting gave us courage," Dham says.
Not every member is always in tune with BSG’s philosophy. They sometimes bring in biases and misinterpretations.
For instance, Bhowmick’s mother-in-law was told she could chant to lose weight. “The member who said this has no understanding of what BSG stands for," Mehta says. “We can’t take the place of the medical community. We only encourage others to seek the solution to their problems within. If someone has a mental health issue, we gently advise them or their family to get them the help they need."
Bhowmick loves the philosophy but not the organization, and does not attend meetings any more. Ghosh was troubled by an incident at one meeting, when a chapter leader in Kolkata went outside the group’s norms while soliciting voluntary contributions. “It was inappropriate and ruffled some feathers," Ghosh says. She also began to feel a certain intrusiveness.
“My in-laws had no problem with my practising Nichiren Buddhism," she says, “but it was a strange thing for them to see frequent meetings at home and leaders dropping by unannounced to check on me." BSG leaders are entrusted with the well-being of members under their care.
Certainly, BSG has touched many lives in urban India. Many have found solace. Questions remain about its ability—and desire—to reach out to those beyond the urban elite, but the group insists it isn’t in a rush to expand in India. Members spread the message quietly through Facebook groups, friends and family, finding troubled souls who need guidance.
Solidarity among women
BSG is believed to have drawn more women than men to its teachings over the years. Sumita Mehta, who handles BSG’s public relations, says this could be because “women are more open and accepting" of new ideas.
u Close bonds are formed within chanting groups. Home sessions provide a safe space for women to open up about their personal troubles. Mehta says members are encouraged to share personal victories at sessions called “experience sharing". What is said in those sessions is not supposed to go outside the group.
u Male leaders are not allowed to visit women members’ homes without a female member present. IT professional Indrani Ghosh says relationships between members aren’t encouraged, though there are instances of members meeting and falling in love over chanting sessions.
(Disclaimer: Rupkatha Bhowmick is related to the writer.)