Soon after coming to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi prudently decided to emphasise India’s rich tradition of Buddhism in a soft-power approach to Asian geopolitics.
Apart from countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Japan, Sri Lanka, South Korea and Mongolia, Mr Modi even reached out to China to revive India-China ties. He visited China’s ancient temples in Xi’an and made an offering in front of massive golden statues of Buddha amid monks chanting sutras.
The Modi government also undertook several diplomatic measures, mainly organising Buddhist cultural festivals, as well as gathering Buddhist leaders and experts from Asian countries to attend conferences, conventions and shows.
But two years down the line, these efforts show no mark of desired progress on the ground. The mistake often made in India is that Buddhism is perceived as an alien or a rival religion, forgetting that the Indian watchwords “Buddha, Dharma, Sangha” form the core of the religion.
Buddhism underpins core Asian values. Ninety-eight per cent of Buddhists live in the Asia-Pacific region. Buddhists comprise more than half the population in 14 Asian countries; in seven of these, over 90 per cent of their population practise Buddhism.
In modern times, Buddhism serves as a spiritual anchor for many in Asia amid the tumult of the region’s quest for modernity and economic prosperity.
It is no surprise then that even communist China, after a gap of several decades, is now lending its support to the religion, in part to arrest the fraying of China’s moral and social fabric.
It is ironic that just as China is doing so, India no longer has the fuel for spinning its own dharma wheel, let alone replenishing others. The activities of the hitherto moribund Buddhist Association of China (BAC), established in 1953, have grown noticeably both within China and externally as a result of state support and China’s economic might.
Beijing is particularly keen on foreign outreach programmes and projecting China as the chief patron of Buddhism on a global scale. Not only has the BAC deepened links with overseas Chinese Buddhists, but also with other Asian Buddhist nations. In soft-power terms, Buddhism helps to soften China’s
image as a rising power.
China’s outreach programme extends to cover both the Theravad a and Mahayan atraditions in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Korea, Mongolia and other countries. Chinese Buddhists make generous donations to deepen institutional ties through funding Buddhist projects and assisting schools and rebuilding monasteries across Asia.
It is another irony that Buddhist globalisation and diplomacy, originally practised by Indian emperors such as Ashoka and Kanishka, are now being used to greater effect by the Chinese.
Mr Modi was quick to gauge how Buddhism could play a useful role for Indian cultural diplomacy on the global stage. For instance, he took up the legacy left by his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, of resurrecting the glory of the ancient Nalanda University.
Unfortunately, Buddhism is also being used in the service of narrow political interests and as yet another front for rivalry between India and China. An example is the wielding of the “Tibet card” to offset China’s influence.
If India is to be taken seriously as a world leader in the promotion of Buddhism, it has to raise its game. Posturing won’t do. Initiatives like supporting events and conferences through NGO-style outfits that enjoy neither the spiritualism nor the depth of Buddhist scholarship are doomed to end in failure.
What Mr Modi could do more fruitfully is to focus on restoring millennia-old Buddhist heritage sites, which would better connect with large numbers of Asian pilgrims.
India should also focus on building its own Buddhist profile and strengthen connections with the millions of faithful around the world. A good start would be with countries it maintains strong relationships with, such as Japan, South Korea, Bhutan and Nepal.
Unlike China, India has the advantage of history and being the original home of the religion. India also has the edge of being recognised as a country having democratic values that can attract many Asians in their attempt to link their spirituality with modernity.
India should not see Buddhism merely through the prism of rivalry with China. It can do so much more to build on its natural foundations to make the country a true leader in the world of Buddhism.