There’s a moment in Indian Matchmaking—the hit Netflix reality show that centers on a Mumbai-based matchmaker who works with clients in both the United States and India—that led many Buddhist viewers to take notice.

For those who have yet to dive into the buzzy docuseries, the heart of Indian Matchmaking is Sima Taparia, the 50-something matchmaker who is devoted to finding the perfect rishta (match) for her clients. In episode three, viewers learn Sima’s dedication even extends to meditating over how best to help them find love. The camera pans to Sima as she sits at her personal prayer area and recites “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” which is the title of the Lotus Sutra and the bedrock chant for followers of the Nichiren Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International (SGI) worldwide.

In many ways, the embrace of SGI by Sima is reflective of the growth of the organization in India, especially among the country’s thriving professional class. While SGI’s Indian affiliate Bharat Soka Gakkai only had 1,000 members when it opened 1992, membership has skyrocketed in the decades since. The group now claims to  have over 200,000 members in over 300 cities and towns across India. 

Much of that growth can be attributed to SGI’s boom in popularity at the beginning of the millennium. Soka Gakkai “is definitely Japan’s most successful religious export,” Levi McLaughlin, an expert on Soka Gakkai and a professor of religion and philosophy at North Carolina State University, told Tricycle. “And that is really saying something if you think about Zen, for example.”

As McLaughlin watched Sima meditate on the show, he was struck by several aspects of her practice, particularly the fact that she displayed an Indian statue of the Buddha alongside statues of Hindu deities like Shiva. (In keeping with Soka Gakkai tradition, the gohonzon, or mandala depicting the daimoku, was not photographed and instead appeared to be just off camera). “If you were to set up the calligraphic object of worship alongside the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu in Japan, people there would be quite shocked,” he said, adding that Nichiren Buddhists in India are known for blending local cultures with Buddhist principles.

Sima’s adoption of SGI practice also reflects the faith’s growing popularity in India, particularly among that nation’s burgeoning population of upper-middle-class professionals. “This is a very aspirational group of people, and Soka Gakkai appeals to the aspirational,” said McLaughlin. “One of the principles of Soka Gakkai is human revolution and the belief that through dedication to the practice one can achieve anything one desires to achieve.” Whereas Soka Gakkai is known as a religion of the poor in Japan—a history that dates back to the faith’s growth in the 1950s as Japan struggled to recover from World War II—the average SGI practitioner in India is decidedly economically ambitious. 

indian matchmaking buddhism
Pundit Sushil-Ji and Sima Taparia in episode 5 of Indian Matchmaking | Netflix © 2020

For Indian American SGI practitioners, watching Indian Matchmaking and seeing Sima chant the daimoku was particularly poignant. “The show has both its positives and things that I don’t necessarily agree with, but they are all part of our society,” viewer and SGI practitioner Shraddha Wadhwani told Tricycle. Critics of the show note that Indian Matchmaking glosses over how matchmaking can serve to uphold India’s caste system and how the insistence of many families that potential brides be “fair” continues to normalize the rampant colorism many Indians experience.

Despite the criticism, Wadhwani was heartened to see a familiar custom on screen. “I don’t think the concept of matchmaking is foreign to Indians and honestly, any marriage is arranged right?” she remarked. “You usually either meet the person through friends or family.”

Wadhwani was particularly taken by the fact that Sima not only chanted to support her personal goals but also to receive guidance about how best to serve her clients—many of whom had opened up to her about their past relationship struggles and their dreams for the future. “I liked the fact that she used meditation to chant about her clients, that is a very integral part of SGI and Nichiren Buddhism,” noted Wadhwani. “The practice is meant to make us more compassionate and promote the happiness of both self and others.”

Wadhwani also understood how Soka Gakkai could provide much-needed guidance for both a matchmaker and someone going through the process of finding a spouse. Wadhwani now lives in New Jersey, but she first came to Soka Gakkai seven years ago when she was at a turning point in her life while still living in India. “When you chant, you tend to look at things at a deeper level,” said Wadhwani. “There was a phase in my life where things weren’t going well and made me realize some of the things that I needed to work on.”

That introspection is particularly important for those looking to get married, said Wadhwani, who got married herself two years ago at the age of 32. Searching for a spouse “is a high stress thing and the chanting helps you look beyond just finding a partner,” she said. “It prompts you to ask, ‘Why do you want to get married in the first place? What is it that you are seeking?’ That helps you focus on your goals.”

Watching Indian Matchmaking reminded SGI practitioner Meghna Damani of her own experiences as a young bride in 2002. Damani was surprised to discover that Sima also practiced Nichiren Buddhism, a practice that she herself started following after she struggled to adjust after her own marriage. In her debut documentary, Hearts Suspended, Damani detailed the struggles she and many other Indian wives experienced after arriving in the US on spousal visas that prohibited them from working. She was introduced to Soka Gakkai after she briefly separated from her husband and returned to Mumbai to work in advertising.

“My boss practiced Soka Gakkai, so the screensaver on my work computer was the chant,” she recalls. Her boss soon invited her to an SGI meeting. “It was incredible because the chanting itself really started giving me hope and made me start believing in myself,” Damani said. As she continued her practice, her fellow practitioners urged her to rejoin her husband in the US and to seek out the SGI community there.

Connecting with the Soka Gakkai community in New Jersey after she settled back into life in the States “was like finding an anchor,” she said. “It was realizing that home is not a physical place, it is a spiritual place within yourself.”

While Sima’s Buddhist practice may escape mainstream viewers of the show, SGI practitioners may see a hidden message in her commitment to Buddhism.

“As in all matters of the heart, we can get easily swayed. What the practice of Nichiren Buddhism teaches us that we create our own lives and destiny,” Damani explained. “As we transform, we attract the right partners into our lives.” 

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