Written by C Raja Mohan | Posted: December 3, 2014 12:59 am | Updated: December 3, 2014 8:08 am
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi winds down an intensive phase of foreign policy activism, one surprising feature of his diplomacy has been the frequent evocation of Buddhism. In his outreach to leaders in the subcontinent and Asia, from Nepal to Japan and China to Myanmar, Modi has projected Buddhism as one of India’s bridges to these nations. The PM’s overt expression of his Hindu religiosity has been controversial, but not surprising.
Some have seen it as an effort to compete with China for leadership in Buddhist Asia. Others have viewed it as a fond hope of finding a spiritual connection to China. Some point to Modi’s personal interest in Buddhism and cite his commitment to restoring the rich Buddhist heritage of Gujarat when he was chief minister there.
It does not really matter if none of the above can explain Modi’s emphasis on Buddhism. What does matter is the fact that the PM has put Buddhism at the heart of India’s vigorous new diplomacy. The Buddha has long figured prominently in India’s international engagement. As the land from where Buddhism was born and spread around Eurasia, India did not have to work too hard to make it part of its cultural interaction with the rest of the world. One out of six tourists to India visits Bodh Gaya. Buddhism has long been an integral part of India’s relations with many countries in Asia. Buddhism brought a few problems as well. By hosting the Dalai Lama since 1959 amidst continuing restiveness in Tibet, India has created an enduring source of tension with China.
China’s active promotion of Buddhism in recent years has generated some alarm in New Delhi. China held the first World Buddhist Forum in 2006 at Hangzhou. It was launched by Xi Jinping — then the party secretary of the Zhejiang province and a rising star in the CPC. Beijing convened the forum again in 2009 and 2012. The UPA government responded with a diplomatic initiative of its own. In 2011, India convened the first Global Buddhist Congregation. It joined hands with Myanmar in 2012 to convene a conference of Buddhist scholars in Yangon.
Just when it seemed that Buddhism was becoming part of Sino-Indian rivalry, Modi came along to insist that the religion could be a valuable bond between Delhi and Beijing. At his first meeting with President Xi on the margins of the BRICS summit in Brazil and in his conversations with the Chinese president in Ahmedabad, Modi spent much time talking about the shared heritage of Buddhism.
Buddhist exchanges between independent India and communist China ceased only during the disastrous period of the Cultural Revolution. After Deng Xiaoping took charge in the late 1970s, there has been a steady liberalisation in the Communist Party of China’s attitudes towards religion in general and Chinese Buddhism in particular. In more recent years, China has figured out Buddhism can play an important role in promoting China’s relations with its Asian neighbours, including India. Modi’s hope that Buddhism might leaven the troubled ties between the two countries may be unrealistic. That does not mean, however, that India should hustle itself into a permanent competition with China on Buddhism.
A closer look would suggest that China is no competition for India in the spiritual business. Given Beijing’s inability to grant full religious freedom at home and the continuing hostility towards the Dalai Lama amid the restiveness in Tibet, China will always find it hard to realise the full potential of its Buddhist soft power. India, in contrast, just needs to end the prolonged neglect of its Buddhist heritage and begin to invest in preserving and promoting it.
Within the neighbourhood, Modi’s focus on Buddhism has deeply touched the people of Nepal, despite the rumblings of discontent among its habitual anti-Indian leftists and secularists. It has also opened an opportunity for Modi to arrest the decline in the relationship with Sri Lanka and consolidate its partnerships in the vast world of Buddhism in East Asia.
Modi’s focus on Buddhist heritage nicely complements his focus on infrastructure, accelerated economic development through the promotion of tourism within the country and across its borders. The PM’s Buddhist bug appears to have infected the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu. During his recent visits to Singapore and Japan, Naidu has sought support in restoring the rich Buddhist legacy of the state.
Buddhist heritage is not limited to the contemporary borders of India. A collaborative effort with our neighbours and the participation of other interested countries like China, Japan and South Korea could go far in securing the greater subcontinent’s Buddhist heritage — from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka and from western China to southern Myanmar.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’
Buddhism is more than a diplomatic brand for Narendra Modi. It is an essential part of Bharat Mata’s (India’s) self-image. See the graphic at right for proof of that.
Narendra Modi is a bona fide political genius, and with Buddhism he has, in fact, fastened on the best way to create common ground with other Asians.
But this initiative on Modi’s part will be of benefit not only to Bharat Mata, but to the entire Buddhist world, because it will tend to draw the leadership of the worldwide Buddhist community back to India, which is where it belongs in my opinion.
The biggest besetting problem in planetary Buddhism today is the attempted leadership of the whole community by East Asians, simply because there are more of them. East Asian Buddhism is cold and doctrinally corrupted, and the result of this is that it is dying, both in Asia, and in places like Hawaii, where it once flourished. I’m sorry, but innumerable hordes of half-hearted and doctrinally clueless Buddhists who have no first-hand experience of what the Buddha’s Teaching would be like if it were actually understood and practiced, are never going to be a leading influence in the collective, and they will never produce an individual who can effectively lead the planetary Buddhasanga.
Meher Baba once said, “India is Mouth, and China is my anus,” in the face of people who were trying to completely dissociate China from Him. And what He said is true. East Asian culture, in general, is more or less clinically anal by Western standards, it is cold, exclusive, racist, extremist and fundamentally hegemonistic. In general, East Asians don’t have love outside their families and ethnic groups. What they have are placating euphemisms that have no reference their actual feelings. The happy talk and the dimplomatic games go on forever, but the Buddhadharma is never transmitted to the West by them because they just can never feel good about doing that.
But Indians, Buddhist or not, are a whole other case. Yes, they can play East-Asian-esque diplomatic games, but not for long. They certainly are structurally incapable of seven continuous generations (i.e. 1.5 centuries) of that, which is literally what has gone on in the case of Japanese Buddhism in America. Indians know better, every single one of them, than to fake a relationship with anyone, or any diety including the Buddha, that is not a real and immediate expression of love, and this is what qualifies India and Indians to head the world-wide Buddhist community.
It is well that Narendra Modi has opened the door to the world for Indian Buddhism.
Avatar Meher Baba ki Jai!
Namo Maitreya Buddha, Thus-Come to this Age!