India’s re-emergence as a leader of global Buddhism - Hindustan Times
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India’s re-emergence as a leader of global Buddhism

Apr 20, 2023 06:50 PM IST

India’s keenness to propagate Buddhism is in keeping with its legacy as the fountainhead from which the teachings of the Buddha spread worldwide.

The first Global Buddhist Summit hosted by India on April 20-21 brings together over 170 prominent monks, scholars, and practitioners from 30 countries to deliberate upon how the infinite wisdom of Buddhism can be harnessed to solve contemporary international problems. By convening such a diverse gathering of Buddhist thinkers, India is sending across a message that it has the vision to take on the core leadership role in the sustenance of the timeless spiritual heritage which originated in India and influenced large parts of Asia over the past two millennia.

PM Modi at Global Buddhist Summit in Delhi on Thursday.(ANI) PREMIUM
PM Modi at Global Buddhist Summit in Delhi on Thursday.(ANI)

India’s current keenness to don the mantle of the propagator of Buddhism’s knowledge is in keeping with its historical legacy as the fountainhead from which the teachings of the Buddha spread worldwide. The diffusion of Buddhism in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia and Central Asia owed greatly to empires based out of undivided India, such as the Mauryas and the Kushans. Had it not been for the patronage and the cultural vision of emperors such as Ashoka and Kanishka, Buddhism would not have grown wings and reached so many corners of Asia.

Today, Buddhism is the majority faith in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Laos and Mongolia, and also a significant minority faith in Japan, South Korea, China, and Vietnam. This phenomenon owes to India and the sagacity of its rulers, travellers and universities like Nalanda and Vikramashila. By consolidating the global Buddhist universe and connecting it to the motherlode that is India, the government is indicating that India is back to being what it once was — a civilisational superpower — a vishwaguru.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertion that “India has been following the path shown by the Buddha”, and the policy initiatives he has spearheaded to modernise and facilitate international tourism along famous pilgrimage sites of the Buddhist Circuit in India and to unify different sects and regional variants of Buddhism, have won hearts of people in Buddhist countries. The establishment of the International Buddhist Confederation, an organisation that unites Buddhists from all over the world, is a major institutional innovation by India that has echoed widely in Asia.

Although Buddhists make up a tiny proportion of India’s population, in absolute numbers, they comprise a fairly large group. The 9.2 million-strong Indian Buddhist community, which thrives with considerable religious freedom and State support, is a living testimony to the fact that India is as much a Buddhist country as any Buddhist-majority nation. There has been much speculation about the supposed clash between Hinduism and Buddhism in medieval India, when Adi Shankaracharya defeated Buddhist scholars through logical argumentation. But if one takes a longer historical view, Hinduism and Buddhism have coexisted for centuries. Buddhism’s revival within India and flourishing transnational ties between Indian Buddhists and their co-religionists in Asia augur well for India’s image.

Mega conclaves such as the Global Buddhist Summit also have a strategic dimension. China may be the main lender and trading partner of all the Buddhist-majority countries of Asia, but the soul-crushing nature of China’s Communist dictatorship and the cultural genocide of Tibetan Buddhists under Chinese rule is known. Seen from a Buddhist lens in, say Myanmar or Sri Lanka, India stands out as a highly tolerant country in contrast to the atheistic and tightly controlled China.

In international relations, realist thinkers dismiss cultural diplomacy and spiritual outreach as irrelevant or wishful exercises because materialistic factors such as economic might and military strength are ultimately what matter in determining a country’s position and stature. But what if a country keeps growing in hard power attributes while simultaneously enhancing its soft power? The result would be more impressive and it would ensure heft in that country’s strategic partnerships.

India cannot simply do Buddhist diplomacy and hope that its partners around Asia will flock to it and accept India’s leadership. Rather, the strategy should be to further enhance economic and security ties with key partners and overlay it with a heavy dose of Buddhist camaraderie, so that it is not just the State elites or corporate houses of those countries that want more of India, but also the citizens who see India as an upholder of dhamma.

The re-emergence of India as a leader of global Buddhism is part of the bigger story of India’s aspiration to be a leading power. Only by investing more in the former campaign can the latter end goal be achieved.

Sreeram Chaulia is dean, Jindal School of International Affairs 

The views expressed are personal

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