Buddhism was born in India in 5 th.Century BC and spread to South and East Asia in subsequent centuries to be the dominant Asian faith till the advent of Islam in 7th. Century AD which made significant inroads into Afghanistan, the Indian sub-continent, and parts of South East Asia.
Today, neither India nor China nor the chip of the old Indian block, Pakistan, is a Buddhist country. As per the 2011 census, less than one percent of Indians are Buddhist. In contrast, in China, millions are Buddhists. But the Chinese state is communist and avowedly non-religious if not anti-religious. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, there are no Buddhists left.
However, all three countries have begun to use their Buddhist past and the remains of the Buddhist era found in them, to establish and strengthen ties with the Buddhist countries of Asia.
Some Buddhist countries in the region, like Sri Lanka, are trying to cement ties with countries associated with Buddhism in the past like India, Pakistan and China, by stressing the ancient Buddhist link.
In this era of “soft power” and “public diplomacy” wherein culture, arts, historical links and religion, the use of Buddhism and other religions to forge and strengthen international links is accepted as part of legitimate diplomatic practice.
The International Vesak Day celebrations being held in Sri Lanka from May 12 to 14, under the aegis of the government of Sri Lanka and backed by the UN, is a manifestation of public diplomacy on the part of the host government as well as the participating nations.
The event which commemorates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death all in one go, will be inaugurated by the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi at Colombo on May 12, and the valedictory function at Kandy on May 14, will be presided over by the Nepalese President Bidya Devi Bhandari.
The participating countries, which are mostly Buddhist but also include India and China, have put up stalls or “pandals” representing the unique ways in which Buddhism manifests itself in each country to stress the theme of “unity in diversity.”
Though many political and economic issues have been dividing Sri Lanka and India, Buddhism has been a unifying factor. Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka in the 3rd. Century BC by Prince Mahinda, the son of Emperor Ashoka, who ruled large parts of India from Magadha in Bihar. And through the centuries trade relations had strengthened links between the Buddhists of the two countries. Today, more than 200,000 Sri Lankans visit India for pilgrimage as it is only in India that places directly associated with the Buddha exist. He lived, preached and died there. Indeed, this is India’s Unique Selling Proposition (USP).
Although it was India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who started exhibiting India’s Buddhist heritage to the world by organizing the Buddha Jayanti celebrations in an international way in 1956, it is only since 2006 that New Delhi accepted “Public Diplomacy” as a part of its diplomatic armory. Buddhism is being used as part of India’s “public diplomacy”.
In 2012, the Kapilavastu relics of the Buddha were displayed by India in many places in Sri Lanka with great success. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been aggressively pushing for the use of Buddhism in foreign relations. Modi intends to use the numerous Buddhist sites in India as a tourist attraction to rake in foreign exchange and use it to boost his “Look East” policy.
It is therefore not surprising that Modi accepted with alacrity Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s invitation to be the chief guest at this year’s international Vesak festival.
Though a proponent of Hindutva or Hindu supremacy, Modi has had a long association with Buddhism. He had made Gujarat a part of the Buddhist pilgrimage trail in India (apart from Bodh Gaya and other places in Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh) when he was Chief Minister of that state from 2001 to 2014.
Modi has often proudly stated that his home town, Vadnagar, was an established Buddhist center of learning in ancient times, and that Baruch port had played a critical role in the spread of Buddhism overseas. Baruch incidentally, had very close trade relations with Sri Lanka. Buddhism came with the Gujarati traders.
Modi got the Gujarat Archeology Department to dig up and preserve buildings associated with Buddhism in ancient times.
Speaking at the International Seminar on Buddhist Heritage in Gujarat in 2010, in which the Dalai Lama was a participant, Modi said: “The link between Buddha and Gujarat is as old as Buddha himself. The trade and commerce of Gujarat played a role in bringing Buddhism to western India. The reason why Gujarat and particularly the port of Bharukaccha (modern Baruch), is frequently mentioned in the oldest Buddhist literature is obvious. Traders coming from Buddhist centers like Benaras and Vaisali brought Buddhism to Gujarat during its early days along with their merchandise.”
“The Ashokan rock edict in Jungadh bears witness to the spread of Buddhism in Gujarat during his time. During the time of Greeks, Partho-Scythians, Satvahanas, the Bodhi dynasty, Ksatrapas and Saka rulers, several rock-cut Buddhist structures came up in Gujarat, many of which have not been excavated yet.”
“During the time of the Maitraka kings, there were more than 13,000 monks in Gujarat. We also had one of the greatest Buddhist universities, the Vallabhi Buddhist University in Vallabhipur in Gujarat, during that period.”
“Gujarat is also the land of Shantideva, who gave the marvelous Bodhcaryavatara – one of the landmark texts in Buddhism in Sanskrit, which is known to us as the way of the Bodhisattva.”
“Prosperous Gujarat, whose warehouses were full, and whose merchants carried out extensive commercial activity according to Hieun Tsang, supported intellectual giants of Buddhism like Dharmagupta, Shrimathi and Gunamathi.”
“Chinese traveler Hieun Tsang travelled extensively to places like Bharuch, Kutch, Vallbhipur, Saurasthra, including Vadnagar, and noted that both Hinayan and Mahayana were practiced in Gujarat.”
Hindutva’s links with Buddhism
Ironically, Modi’s interest in Buddhism goes back to the days when he was a full time worker of the Hindu radical Rashtriya Swyamsewak Sangh (RSS). The RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, the parent bodies of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to which Modi belongs, had co-opted Buddhism in its version of Hindutva. The RSS saw Buddhism as “reformed Hinduism” and as a vehicle for wider Indian influence.
The RSS leader V.D.Savarkar coined the term “Hindu-Buddhist religion” and declared that the religion of India was “Hindu-Buddhism” and described Asia as “Hindu-Buddhist”
Dr.David Scott in his article in the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs in 2016, says that Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister who started using Buddhism as “soft power” as part of “public diplomacy.”
“India should leverage its great traditions and culture in forging ties with countries around the world in a way that is deeper, more personal, and therefore, far more powerful. Countries that have Gautam Buddha as part of their own culture have a bond with India that transcends diplomatic ties,” Modi said in 2015.
“As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi took a personal interest in the rediscovery of ancient Buddhist sites. He also made a point of visiting Buddhist events. At the Buddhist Heritage Seminar organised in Gujarat in January 2010, he celebrated the modern “relevance” of Buddhism,” says Dr.Scott.
In 2014 Modi tweeted: “On Buddha Purnima, we bow to the venerable Lord Buddha, whose teachings have guided the entire humanity for centuries.”
He has made it a point to attend important Buddhist events. He was chief guest at the International Buddha Poornima Diwas celebrations (Vesak) in May 2015, organized by the International Buddhist Confederation.
Modi has publicly said that the Buddha was a reformer whose message had been re-absorbed into Hinduism. This devalues the independence of Buddhism but it enables Modi to use the Buddha to portray Hinduism in a better light and to shape a more Indian focus for Buddhism, Scott argues.
Modi played a particularly prominent role at the Global Hindu-Buddhist Initiative on Conflict Avoidance and Environment Consciousness held in New Delhi in September 2015.
“You are visiting a nation that is extremely proud of its Buddhist heritage, which draws pilgrims from ASEAN nations, as also from China, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia. My government is doing everything possible to give an impetus to this Buddhist heritage across India, and India is taking the lead in boosting the Buddhist heritage across Asia,” he said.
According to Scott, on the third day, Modi joined the delegates on a trip to Bodh Gaya, where he led a formal meditation session underneath the sacred Bodi tree where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Modi cited Swami Vivekananda’s earlier incorporation of the Buddha into Hinduism and went on to assert that he would personally call India “Buddhist India” as it has imbibed all the values and virtues of the teachings of the Buddha. Hindu religious scholars had incorporated Buddha’s teachings in their literature, Modi claimed.
“Buddha is the crown jewel of the Indian nation. So, Hinduism, after the Buddha’s advent, became Buddhist Hinduism or Hindu Buddhism,” he asserted.
“We in India would like to develop Bodh Gaya so that it can become the spiritual capital and civilizational bond between India and the Buddhist world. The government of India would like to provide all possible support that its Buddhist cousin nations need for the satisfaction of their spiritual needs from this holiest of holy places for them.” Modi said.
Using Buddhism to Woo China
Modi even made an attempt to use the Buddhist plank to get friendly with the Chinese President Xi Jinping in September 2014.
Modi said: “The monk Xuan Zang (Hiuen Tsang), who came to India from China in 600 AD, went to Gujarat and stayed in the village where I come from. Through the medium of Buddhism, India and China – especially China and Gujarat – have developed very close relations.”
Against this background Xi’s visit to Gujarat was of “special historic and cultural significance,” Modi said.
The India-China Joint Communiqué issued at the end of Xi’s visit included a promise that China would help India promote its tourism and the routes taken by Xuan Zang.
Xi reciprocated Modi’s gesture in May 2015 when he took Modi to the White Goose Temple in Xi’an, which commemorates Xuan’s return from India. Xuan Zang went on to take charge of the White Horse Temple in Luoyang, where he remained until his death.
The White Horse temple was established in 68 CE with the arrival of two Indian monks, Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmaratna. Dharmaraksha, the Kushan translator, resided at the White Horse Temple from 289 to 290 CE. In the fifth century, Bodhidharma, the famous Indian founder of the Ch’an (Zen) school of Buddhism, visited it.
However, all efforts to use Buddhism to build bridges between India and China crashed as a result of the continuing India-China border dispute; China’s claim to India’s Arunachal Pradesh state; and India’s support to the Dalai Lama of Tibet. India’s efforts to sabotage China’s One Belt One Road project in Sri Lanka and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Pakistan, only added to the issues preventing India-China cooperation in using Buddhism to promote ties.
China’s dalliance with Buddhism
After decades of persecuting Buddhists, China has been showing a great deal interest in promoting what it calls “Chinese Buddhism” to find out how it can contribute to foreign relations.
In was in the 1990s that China co-opted Buddhism in its quest for a “harmonious society”, to bolster the regime both at home and abroad, Dr.Scott notes. When President Xi Jinping addressed the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs in 2014, he said: “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative.”
China then launched what has come to be known as “faith diplomacy” using Confucianism and Buddhism.
The Chinese state-controlled media has acknowledged the advantages of deploying Buddhism. Such deployment can “increase China’s influence in the region” and “project a harmonious and accepting image as the country seeks to increase its influence with its religious neighbors,” the media said.
Dr.Scott reveals that President Xi Jinping has some personal links with Buddhism. His father, Xi Zhongxun, for years wore a watch presented to him by the Dalai Lama. His mother, Qi Xin, was buried with full Tibetan Buddhist rites. And his wife, Peng Liyuan, is a personal practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism.
At the UNESCO headquarters, Xi unfolded the following story about China and Buddhism: “Buddhism originated in ancient India. After it was introduced into China, the religion went through an extended period of integrated development with the indigenous Confucianism and Taoism and finally became Buddhism with Chinese characteristics. The Chinese people have enriched Buddhism in the light of Chinese culture and developed some special Buddhist thoughts. Moreover, they also helped Buddhism spread from China to Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and beyond.”
China has not explicitly used Buddhism to strengthen its ties with Sri Lanka but it is expected to do so, at least to counter India’s moves in that direction. The first move has been in this Vesak celebrations. There is an attractive Chinese stall which has an imposing Buddha and typically colorful Chinese decorations.
Pakistan exhibited Buddha’s relics in Sri Lanka in 2011. In Buddhist lore, Pakistan was known as Gandhara Deshaya.
Pakistan also publicized the fact that the now accepted image of the Buddha was the creation of the sculptors of the Gandhara school in ancient Pakistan. Pakistan also facilitated the visit of Sri Lankan monks to Buddhist sites in the Northern parts of the country.
A former High Commissioner of Pakistan in Sri Lanka, Seema Illahi Baloch, a lover art and music, introduced “soft power” into Pakistan-Sri Lanka diplomatic relations and made her Islamic country look diverse and respectful to other religions and cultures.