How India is building ties with nations that share Buddhist heritage
In September 2019, while addressing the United Nations General Assembly on terrorism, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi stated that the teachings of “Buddh” (Lord Buddha) rather than the message of “yuddh” (war) were India’s contribution to the world. For the PM, Buddha and his teachings have a special place, and he has spoken, on various occasions, about the teachings of Buddha and their relevance in today’s world. Buddhism is India’s civilisational heritage, and is one of our greatest cultural exports. Every year, since 2015, Buddha’s birth anniversary is being celebrated in the form of ‘Vesak’ or Buddha Poornima on an international scale.
The PM believes that rekindling India’s ties with Buddhist countries and building strong relationships with them, given our shared values and outlook, is his moral responsibility (dharma). The associated strategic partnerships and tourism potential that derive from this enhanced partnership are second-order benefits. This is also evident in the countries he has visited since becoming PM. Of the 19 countries that the PM visited in his first year, at least eight had either a significant Buddhist population or a strong Buddhist heritage. The first country he visited, Bhutan, has 75% of its population practising Buddhism. Apart from Bhutan, the PM, in his first year in office, visited Nepal (9% Buddhist population), Japan (36%), Myanmar (90%), Sri Lanka (70%), China (20%), Mongolia (55%) and South Korea (15%). In the case of Mongolia, Modi was the first Indian PM to visit the country. Apart from this, several initiatives proposed by the PM are multi-country collaborative efforts aimed at fostering a sense of partnership and brotherhood.
As Buddha’s karmabhoomi, India has several places of significance associated with his life, the most important ones being Gaya where Buddha attained Nirvana, Sarnath where he gave his first sermon, and Kushinagar where he attained Mahaparinirvana. Despite a global Buddhist population of more than 500 million, with 90% of them living in Southeast Asia and East Asia, India’s Buddhist heritage centred around Sarnath and Gaya attracts a paltry 0.005 % of the Buddhist population. This is also, partly, due to infrastructure gaps in these places. The government is bridging them in mission mode. The ministry of tourism has sanctioned ₹100 crore for the development of the Buddhist circuit around Kushinagar, Sravasti, and Kapilavastu as a part of the SWADESH Darshan scheme. Overall, about ₹325 crore has been sanctioned for the development of Buddhist circuits in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.
The inauguration of the Kushinagar international airport is another step that will facilitate the travel of Buddhist pilgrims to a revered site. Pilgrims, historians and heritage enthusiasts can visit Kushinagar, and also discover other historically significant locations such as Lumbini, Kapilavastu Kesariya Stupa and Sravasti.
Buddhist ties between India and Sri Lanka date back to the 3rd century BC when Emperor Ashoka’s children, Mahindra and Sanghamitra, travelled to propagate Buddhism in the island-nation. It is thus only befitting that the first inaugural flight to Kushinagar airport will be from Sri Lanka. The flight will bring more than 120 monks including the Mahanayakes (leaders) of four chapters — Siyam, Malwathu, Ramanna and Amarapura. In 1898, excavations in Piprahwa in UP led to the discovery of a casket that contained Lord Buddha’s relics. A part of the discovered relics was given to Ven. Sri Subhuthi Mahanayake Thero as a token of gratitude for his help in translating the inscription on the casket. This is currently housed at Rajguru Sri Subhuthi Mahavihar in Waskaduwa, south of Colombo. To celebrate this shared vision and partnership, a part of the same relics is now being brought to Kushinagar for display.
Over the last seven years, the PM has created several avenues to build strong ties with countries that share a common Buddhist heritage with India. We are now seeing many of these relationships flourish around a common shared purpose and a set of universal values.
G Kishan Reddy is minister for tourism, culture and development of the Northeastern region
The views expressed are personal