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.