NEW DELHI – The bank executive, the book publisher and the social worker had one thing in common: Their hectic lives in the crowded Indian capital had become so chaotic and stressful, they've turned to chanting Buddhist mantras in search of calm.
The practice is catching on among India's well-off urban professionals, growing by word of mouth as a way to relieve stress. Most of those picking up the practice are Hindu, but they say they see no conflict between their religious beliefs and the chanting. Some say it is soothing, others invigorating.
"I feel it just makes me a better human being, more humane," says Gaurav Saboo, 34, a devout Hindu working at an international bank in New Delhi. "It enables me to understand the suffering of others and reach out to others."
Buddhism, he says, "is a philosophy, a way of life," and the chanting has brought a positive energy into his life.
While Buddhism began on the Indian subcontinent around the 5th century BC, it has waned in both India and Nepal while flourishing in different forms in Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and other countries. With its easy rituals and lack of dogma, Buddhism has long drawn supporters from afar. Hollywood celebrities, agnostics, Christians and Jews alike attend Buddhist spiritual retreats.
Archi Sharma, a housewife who took up chanting a year ago, says she was "searching for some meaning" in her life when she heard about Buddhist chanting from friends.
"I felt there was a vacuum in my life," Sharma said. "The chanting has helped. It stops you thinking about me, myself. It makes one think of others first."
Sharma, who chants twice a day between household chores and taking care of an ailing relative, said she saw no conflict between her family's traditional Hindu beliefs and her chanting.
"The chanting is not invasive and runs parallel to what we practice as Hindus," she said. "It opens a doorway to another stream of happiness into one's life."
The practice of repeating a mantra is not exclusive to Buddhism. Many across Hindu-dominated India also include chanting as part of their yoga, and some Christian groups repeat chants.
While Hindu chanting is often associated with religious rituals, Buddhist chanting is seen as less dogmatic, aimed at calming the nerves or feeling a sense of wellbeing, said New Delhi-based sociologist Abhilasha Kumari.
"Hindu chanting is linked to religious ritual," she said. "Buddhist chanting is a free space where you chant and are not tied down to other aspects of religiosity."
Many Indians who have picked up chanting have been drawn to sessions organized by Soka Gakkai International, the lay organization of a major Nichiren Buddhist sect whose stronghold is in Japan. The group traces its roots to the chants and teachings of a 13th century Japanese monk named Nichiren.
The group has not been engaged in an active campaign to promote chanting in India, although it claims to have introduced the practice to around 100,000 Indians since setting up in the country in 1986, according to the group's office in New Delhi.
Practitioners chant individually but many meet monthly. Many say that that apart from easing their own stress, the chanting also makes them understand people around them and working for the happiness of others.
At a recent gathering in a middle class New Delhi neighborhood, participants shucked off their shoes and quietly sat down on thin mattresses in the basement of an apartment building. They faced an ornate wooden altar holding a scroll on which the words they will chant for the next hour are written: "Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo," which refers to the law of cause and effect.
Latecomers seamlessly joined in, blending their chant with the ongoing rhythm. Soon the incantation picked up speed, building to a crescendo and then slowing again while the chanters recovered their breath. Faintly, there was the clicking of wooden beads that the chanters used to help focus their thoughts on the mantra. Every now and then, one of them struck a gong.
"You feel invigorated. It's a great feeling," said Ruma Roka, 54, at the end of the chanting session as she and the others moved to another room for discussions over tea. Roka started chanting about 10 years ago as a housewife, and has found it helps her cope with the stress of her job teaching the hearing impaired at the special clinic she runs.
"If I did not chant, if I went back home with all the heaviness of this very challenging work ... I would not be able to survive," Roka said. "I would have a compassion deficit."
Getting numbers on the recent growth of chanters is difficult, but Indian media has reported on the trend. Many individuals hear about the chanting sessions by word of mouth, and are often simply looking for new ways of stress-busting after trying other traditional methods.
Namrta Bangia, a 32-year-old publishing executive, said she had tried Pranayama, an ancient Indian breathing practice, and the silent Hindu meditation of Vipassana before settling on Buddhist chants. Her family and friends tell her they have noted a change in her.
"I've become more positive, more confident, more cheerful," she said after a recent group session. "I'm a different person. I am not going to get defeated."
Follow Nirmala George at www.twitter.com/NirmalaGeorge1