MCLEOD GANJ : For the past 14 years, Kailash Chandrabauddha has been living in McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Himachal Pradesh’s Dharamshala city, studying Buddhism, Tibetan language and philosophy. He’s far from his hometown in Uttar Pradesh’s Mainpuri district, but it’s in the hills that he’s found his purpose.

“The Tibetan community-in-exile has preserved knowledge that holds meaning for the world. I’m hoping I can do my bit to keep this knowledge alive, share it and contribute positively to the world," says Chadrabauddha, 33, who translates the Dalai Lama’s teachings into Hindi and posts them on social media.

Education, technology, connectivity and urbanization have brought diversity to the lives of millennials, but have also created a sense of restlessness. Many are looking to understand themselves and what truly drives them, be authentic, and cut through all the chatter on social media to separate real relationships from virtual ones.

“More young people are interested in religion and spirituality now and come to Dharamshala looking for direction," says Chadrabauddha, a science graduate from Lucknow University and now a student at McLeod Ganj’s Institute of Buddhist Dialectics.

“Buddhism appeals to millennials because the message is simple, and questioning and debate is encouraged. His Holiness never preaches; he talks to you, which works best for my generation," he says. “It’s different from the unquestioning obedience and blind faith that we’re brought up with."

All around Dharamshala are posters and flyers offering ways and means to find inner peace. One can try kriya meditation, a restorative yoga retreat, Japanese butoh dance for mindfulness, experience power healing or crystal energy healing, centre oneself by petting pig at an animal recovery centre, participate in a mindful march against climate change, or even unleash one’s inner goddess.

Some of these may seem like they’re tailored to the flaky tourists looking for a quick fix to anxiety, but it’s a market that’s grown around the institutions and monasteries that the Tibetan community-in-exile has recreated painstakingly over the past 50 years to keep their religion and culture alive.

By retaining a link to their past, the Tibetan community has provided a base for millennials seeking peace, or those who have decided to take a short break from the corporate world to “find themselves".

Millennials who pick spirituality over organized religion, however, aren’t in the majority in India. Religion matters to more than half of India’s millennials and religiosity increases with age, according to data collected in a YouGuv-Mint Millennial Survey.

Those who do identify as spiritual but not religious prioritize finding meaning or purpose over rituals, daily prayer and organized religion. The questions they’re asking themselves include how should I live, who should I be, what is my purpose? Often, what sparks such reflection is experiences they cannot make sense of, a vague sense of dissatisfaction in their work or personal life, or having a nagging sense that there’s more out there.

“Millennials are questioning more, there’s no doubt about that," says Sharanya G., 32, who works in the social sector in Bihar. “But we also have to recognize that a market has grown around ‘finding your purpose’. Sometimes, it seems like everything around you is pushing you to ‘find yourself’ and ‘seek purpose’, like you’re not doing something if you don’t ‘follow your passion’," she says.

She’s been on meditation retreats in Dharamshala, tried practising Vipassana and spent a year working on a spiritual arts project in Bengaluru, after quitting a job in communications. In the past year though, she’s been practising “active listening and empathy" and says that’s been more effective than anything else she’s done so far.

“In the current political climate, when everyone is fighting with everyone else, and WhatsApp and social media are the main form of communication, we don’t seem to be listening. So, in 2019, I reminded myself to listen fully in all my interactions." She says it’s made her more mindful and has helped her have meaningful conversations. “I’d say my spirituality has shifted and become more action-oriented in the past year. Listening with empathy keeps you in the moment, which is the aim of meditation too."

Many believe in manifesting good energy for themselves by meditating, reading, spending time in nature, doing yoga and going on spiritual retreats. There’s also the belief that all beings are interconnected and being spiritual means connecting with a universal energy. “I believe that love is our basic nature, or that we should all operate from a place of love, not fear or anger or hatred," says Nirupama Kumar, who lives in McLeod Ganj and works as a content writer for Bengaluru-based startups. “That’s how I approach spirituality. Living in the hills gives me a chance to make time for meditation and long walks in nature, which ground me."

She moved to Himachal Pradesh four years ago after her engagement ended.

“My workplace was also toxic, and everything seemed overwhelming. I needed space to breathe and, if not find myself, at least find a pace that suited me," says Kumar, 31.

New careers, experiences

Dharamshala is also home to people like Krishan Pandey, 30, and Aparna Saha, 32, who run The Unmad, a guesthouse in Upper Dharamkot. Pandey moved two years ago after spending eight years in the advertising world in Delhi. “I was being paid well, we partied every night after work, but then I evaluated my life and realized I wanted more than just money. I wanted to feel happy within," he says.

For the first few months, Pandey just spent “me-time" and worked on his novel. “Then I decided to start the guesthouse as a way to welcome people to share my experience of living in the mountains," he says.

Saha, a freelance illustrator who takes on commercial projects, joined him about a year later because she wanted time to focus on her personal art and dreamt of opening a restaurant. “We’re hoping to do that in the north-east when we move again in a few years," she says.

For tarot card reader Abhishek Gautam, moving to Dharamshala was the culmination of years of spending weekends in the hills to escape the city. “I didn’t like my management job at all," says Gautam, 32, sitting at a table at Jimmy’s Café in McLeod Ganj, with his cards set out, reading a book while waiting for walk-in clients. “I was never happy in the city. I quit five years ago, and moved into an apartment in Naddi nearby."

He trained as a tarot reader and astrologer after a friend told him he was intuitive. “Now I’m completely settled in my heart and my mind. But you can’t chase peace. It’s better to chase money, maybe you’ll catch it. Peace has to come to you."

Sharanya has come to a similar conclusion. “I have moved from trying to find myself to realizing that I have to understand others and the world around me if I want to make sense of myself. Spirituality has to be contextualized to find ways to make sense of the world," she says.

Some millennials realize that privilege and life circumstances allow for this kind of quest for meaning.

“My father, for instance, had just one path to follow—you helped others, but the priority was securing your future and ensuring your family was comfortable," says Sharanya.

“I’m privileged to question, to pursue spiritual doubts, and try different kinds of work before choosing this job. As a generation, we’re lucky to have the time and resources to reflect," she says.

For Tenzin Thinley, 29, a Tibetan refugee who’s been studying Tibetan Buddhist philosophy for the past five years, his studies help him find “synonyms to happiness". After he graduated with an arts degree, his family wanted him to work but he didn’t have the confidence to do so because he didn’t know what he wanted from life.

“I am on the path now. Buddhism touches my heart. I know that I want to learn to preserve Tibetan knowledge and culture. Whenever I have problems, I reflect on this and feel lighter," he says.

Changing attitudes

The world offers far too many distractions to millennials, including those who have chosen to live the monastic life, says Geshe Samten Gyatso, director of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. The institute has about 100 students, of which about 30 are not monks.

“The outside world is so colourful now. There’s so much choice," says Gyatso, 50, who was once a student at the institute and recalls the strict discipline that was demanded of them.

“We would sneak out to go play football once in a blue moon. But I don’t think that kind of discipline will work today so we give the students Sundays off. We encourage them to swim in the (nearby) Bhagsu lake, play football, do more than just study. I truly believe we should change a little, offer more courses and choices without diluting our traditions," Gyatso says.

Gyatso, who has taught in Karnataka, South Africa and the UK, believes this is a generation that needs to truly understand why they are doing things. “Unlike my generation—we were happy to see where a path would take us," he says. “Their search for answers is genuine but they have to be allowed to search in their own way."

In McLeod Ganj, the crowds of seekers have manifested other, more earthly problems—water, garbage clearance and sanitation are issues, cars choke the narrow hill roads and the fragile mountains are crammed with four- to six-storey buildings.

“Dharamshala is no longer the quaint Himalayan village that we’re advertising it as," says Lobsang Wangyal, a photographer who runs the local news website Tibet Sun, conducts spirituality workshops abroad and organizes the annual Miss Himalayan pageant.

He’s also aware that the rush of seekers has led to “guaranteed happiness" and one-hour meditation workshops popping up across Dharamshala. “That’s rubbish, and it’s for the day trippers. But the presence of His Holiness does make these hills special, and that’s what draws those looking for peace. His message is compassion, and it’s such a simple one that it appeals to everyone, of all ages."

Serious students of religion find space alongside those seeking a quick fix. “It doesn’t matter if you contemplate for a week or for life," says Dhargye, 24, a Tibetan Studies student at a college in Sarah, Dharamshala. “If you do anything that encourages understanding of life, that is spirituality."

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