RIGHT ANGLE – Reasserting India’s Buddhist Legacy
An editor of a prestigious journal invited me the other day to participate in a debate in his new virtual platform on “The Buddha, India, China and East Asia”. The idea was to discuss India’s success/failure in cultural diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific region, given its Buddhist heritage. And this success/failure was to be measured against that of China, which is actively pursuing the Buddhist card these days in strengthening its support-base in the region.
Three of my fellow participants argued that India’s foreign policy under Modi over the last seven years has been a big failure because of mainly the state of our domestic politics, which, in their opinion, is majoritarian and communal, with the non-Hindus compelled to lead a miserable life as third-class citizens. It was said that like other non-Hindus, the Buddhists in India, most of them Dalit-converts, have no security of their life and property and they are over-exploited. One participant even went to the extent of arguing that India does not have any right to say that this country was the Buddha’s “karmabhoomi” as the cruel Hindus ensured that Buddhism was dead in the country after his death. This participant explained that unlike other countries in the region, Buddhists in India do not constitute even one percent of the country’s population. “If this is the reality of Buddhists in India, do you think the proud Buddhists in other countries of the region like China and Southeast Asia will ever side with India and support its policies?”, he asked and then gave a prompt reply himself of “a Big No”.
I was astounded by such perverse logic and did not hesitate to say so when my turn came. First of all, that Hindus and Buddhists are antithetical is sheer madness when the Buddha is considered to be one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Secondly, the word “Hindus” was not in vocabulary during the time of the Buddha. In fact, there is nothing called Hindu in our sacred texts; the name was given by the Arabs to all the people living this side of the river Sind or Sindhu. The point here is that the so-called never Hindus never considered the Buddha belonging to a different religion; they considered Him to be one of their own.
Thirdly, the Buddha never founded a religion. His was essentially a reform movement within the broad “Sanatan Dharma” against some of the evil social practices of the time; it is some of his self-appointed followers and motivated foreign writers centuries later who described the Buddha’s teachings constituting a separate religion. It was essentially a political ploy, nothing else.
However, coming to the real theme of the debate, the fact is that many more Buddhists live outside than inside India. Of the nearly 488 million Buddhists, majority live in Sri Lanka, Myanmar(88 percent of the country’s population), Thailand (93 percent of the population), Cambodia(98 percent of the population) Mongolia (55 percent of the population), Bhutan ( 78 percent of the population),Japan( 36 percent of the population) South Korea( 26 percent of the population) and China (18 percent of the population).
Why there are more Buddhists outside India is already explained – the fact that in India the Buddha was never seen to be representing a different religion for thousands of years; he representing something different and distinct from the so-called Hindus is a relatively new phenomenon that is essentially political, not religious.
Secondly, Buddhists living in other countries follow different sects of Buddhism that developed over centuries. So much so that today the Buddhists in those countries have nothing to do with the principal teachings of Buddhism as we know and have studied here in India – nonviolence, peace, truth and compassion (‘karuna’).
In my considered opinion, therefore, there is nothing to be defensive about our Buddhist heritage. It is India, no other country, which gave birth to the Buddha; before that he was Gautama Siddhartha who was born (physically) in Lumbini garden of modern-day Nepal. Therefore, India has every right to promote and exercise its “soft power” or cultural diplomacy in the name of Lord Buddha.
But then, as a student of international relations, one is conscious of the fact that the timing of using any national resource, including heritage, as a tool of foreign policy depends always on the political leadership of the day.
While writing my book, “Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look East Policy”, I had interviewed late Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, acknowledged as the father of India’s Look-East Policy (Modi has made it Act- East policy). It was Rao, who started the process of revitalising India’s interactions with Southeast Asia, the region with which we had a dynamic relationship in history; later Prime Ministers like Atal Behari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi expanded the focus to cover the whole of East Asia by including Japan, Koreas, far eastern parts of Russia and Australasia.
Rao told me that during his regime he had deliberately underplayed the cultural component since that, according to him, would have generated “unnecessary apprehensions” in the region, particularly when “hegemonism” was the catch-word in international politics, thanks to China.
His point was that since of the three religious and cultural movements in East and Southeast Asia – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam – the first two originated in India and the last one went through India, any assertive attempts at cultural diplomacy on the part of India could affect the sensitivity of the people in the region.
But it so happened that the Vajpayee government (whose policy Modi has basically followed with greater vigour) took a different line, possibly on the ground that Rao’s fears were unfounded since political interference by India was never the phenomenon in ancient India’s ties with the Asia-Pacific region. India, unlike China, had never gone for territorial aggrandizement in the region. In fact, India’s attractiveness always rested on its pluralistic culture: its political values and policies that avoid arrogance by taking into account the interests of all.
It may be noted likewise in this context that the Congress governments before the Vajpayee regime were extremely defensive on highlighting the importance of the affluent and the highly successful Indian Diaspora(people of Indian origin) in the developed western countries like the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia. In contrast, the Vajpayee government considered the Diaspora to be an important component of Indian foreign policy. The Modi regime has further reinvigorated this feature.
Likewise, Modi Used Buddhism as a medium of his diplomacy after assuming office. His first foreign visit as the Prime Minister was to Bhutan. He was the first Prime Minister to visit Mongolia. In his trip to Japan in 2016 not only he visited two Buddhist temples, he also ensured that Buddhism found a mention in the joint-statement with Japan.
However, it needs to be admitted that Modi’s enthusiasm in using Buddhism in the country’s foreign policy did not last long. Among the reasons, one was the simultaneous campaign in the name of the Buddha by China, with which Modi was trying his best to mend the fence, without any reciprocity.
Secondly, a devious China was working very hard to undercut India’s Buddhist legacy by pushing Nepal to highlight its “rightful” ownership of the Buddhist legacy for being the place of birth of the Buddha. And this was the time China also did his best by prompting Nepal to oppose everything that had anything to with India. It donated millions of dollars to make the Lumbini garden the biggest spot of Buddhist heritage in the world.
There are also economic dimensions with regard to India’s relative failure, compared to China’s, in playing the Buddhist factor in its cultural diplomacy. There cannot be any effective soft power without economic heft. India’s economic interactions with the ASEAN countries remained problematic, more so after the Modi government declined to be a part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Bilateral economic and infrastructural agreements that India has signed with many ASEAN countries have also not exactly worked or been completed.
But all this does not mean that China’s card of Buddhism is a card of success. Communist China’s sudden love for Buddhism (during its so-called Cultural Revolution, even Confucianism, China’s most important cultural legacy was a taboo, let alone other heritages) is there because it wants to control the unrest in Tibet and appoint the next (15th) Dalai Lama by disregarding the nomination of the present ageing Dalai Lama, living in exile in Dharamsala, as per the Tibetan tradition.
However, China is not going to have its own Dalai Lama through soft power. It will impose one definitely, but that will be through its raw hard power that will unleash bloody violence all over Tibet. The world is not going to accept that.
And that, in turn, will provide India yet another opportunity to expose before the rest of the world China’s sheer hypocrisy in its concern for the Buddha’s legacy and consolidate its own claim over the true Buddhist legacy as a country where the Buddha preached and worked for the causes of nonviolence, compassion and peaceful coexistence.
Of course, in the process, the Modi government needs to be bold in displaying its pride and courage by asserting that the presence of the Dalai Lama on its soil and his concerns for his fellow Tibetans need global support. Also, it needs to review its decision on the RCEP and other economic engagements with the ASEAN, Japan and South Korea. By doing so, India can beat China in the race to reclaim its primary status as the land of the Buddha.