Buddhism: Modi’s soft power and money spinner

Buddhism: Modi’s soft power and money spinner

Colombo, May 11: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a determined mission to use Buddhism, which had its birth in India and spread to other parts of South and East Asia from there, as a “soft power” to influence Buddhist  countries in South and East Asia and to earn money by promoting  “Buddhist tourism”, writes P.K.Balachandran in Daily Express.  

He intends to use the numerous Buddhist sites in India as a tourist attraction to rake in foreign exchange. He believes that Buddhism can be used as an instrument of foreign policy or as an agent of “soft power” to get round Buddhist countries in South and East Asia as part of his economic, security and “Look East” policy.

This being so, it is not surprising that Modi accepted with alacrity Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s invitation to the chief guest at this year’s international Vesak festival to be held in the island on May 12.

Modi would be visiting the Gangaramaya temple, inaugurating the festival at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall and then flying to Kandy to worship at the Temple of the Tooth.

Indian leaders have for long had ties with Buddhism though the number of Buddhists in India has been small (only 0.7% in the 2011). Dr.B.R.Ambedkar, the leader of the “untouchables” now called Dalits or Harijans, converted to Buddhism along with his followers as a protest against caste discrimination in Hindu society.

Congress party stalwart and India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was captivated by the “Samadhi” statue of the Buddha in Anuradhapura. As India’s first Prime Minister, he drew spiritual sustenance from Buddhism and used its symbolism to represent free India. He chose the lion capital at Sarnath, where the Buddha preached first, to be the symbol of the government of independent India. The Buddhist Dharma Chakra was placed at the center of the Indian national flag.

“The story of Gautama Buddha has influenced me from my childhood. That influence was two-fold. First, it influenced me as a story and secondly, I liked the scientific attitude reflected therein, the scientific and ethical attitude.” Nehru said.

As a person of reason, Nehru was naturally attracted by the criterion of rationalism propounded by Buddha. He favored the spirit of scientific inquiry and attacked superstition, rituals and dogma.

“I thought of his (Buddha’s) message which, apart from its religious significance, was a message of tolerance, a message against superstition, rituals and dogma. It was a message essentially in scientific spirit. The Buddha asked no man to believe in anything except what could be proved by experiment and trial. All he wanted men to do was to seek the truth and not accept anything on the word of another even though it be of Buddha himself. That seems to me the essence of his message,”  Nehru said.

On November 28, 1956, Nehru said: “It is essentially through the message of Buddha that we can look at our problems in the right perspective and draw back from conflict and from competing with one another in the realm of conflict, violence and hatred.”

In the United Nations General Assembly, on Oct 3, 1960, Nehru said, “In ages long past, a great son of India, the Buddha, said that the only real victory was one in which all were equally victorious and there was defeat for no one. In the world today that is the only practical victory; any other way will lead to disaster.”

As an ultimate tribute to the two persons who inspired him most, Gandhi and the Buddha, Nehru said in his Independence Day speech from Red Fort on August 15, 1956: “One feels proud that the soil on which we have been born has produced great souls like Gautama Buddha and Gandhiji.”

Modi in a Chinese temple with Xi Jinping

Narendra Modi

Though a proponent of  Hindutwa or Hindu supremacy, Narendra Modi has had a long association with Buddhism .He had made Gujarat a part of the Buddhist pilgrimage trail in India when he was Chief Minister of that state from 2001 to 2014

In fact, he 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.”

Hindutwa’s links with Buddhism

The Rashtriya Swyamsewak Sangh  (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 Hindutwa.   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.” Consequently, “Hindu-Buddhist Asia” became an often-heard trope in Mahasabha circles, and one on which the organization took action through active networking with Buddhist organizations across Asia, notes Davis Scott in his 2016 paper:   Buddhism in Current China–India Diplomacy, in the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs.

Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister who started using Buddhism as “soft power” as part of “public diplomacy” which was adopted by India in 2006.

“ 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.

Countering China

New Delhi aims to use Buddhism to neutralize any Chinese soft-power advantage. Founder Gautama may have been born in Nepal, around Lumbini, but he has been adopted as a “son of India” (Bharat ka beta). It was in India at Bodh Gaya that he obtained enlightenment, thereby gaining the title of the Buddha, the “Enlightened One.” It was in India at Sarnath that the Buddha gave his first sermon, it was in India that he continued to teach the Dharma, and it was in India that he set up a continuing community: the Sangha. Finally, it was in India at Kushinagara that he died, Scott notes.

These sites have been linked together in the “Buddhist Circuit” by the Indian government, organized domestically by the Ministry for Tourism but also used externally in Indian diplomacy.

Even previous Ministers for External Affairs, such as Pranab Mukherjee, had claimed the Buddha’s mantle for India.

“ We can rightfully be proud that India is the janm-bhoomi [“land of birth”] and karma-bhoomi [“place of work”] of this great son of ours. It is also a matter of pride for all Indians that it is we who nurtured and developed the Buddha’s teachings and spiritual traditions at Nalanda, Vikramsila and other Buddhist centres after his parinirvana. The Buddha’s message of peace and tolerance was carried abroad by Indians,” Mukherjee said in 2008.

Mahinda, the son of Emperor Ashoka, carried Buddha’s message to Sri Lanka. Padmasambhava took it to to Tibet. Kashyapa Matanga and Bodhidharma took it to China. Countless others took it to the vast swathe of the world from Central Asia to the islands of Japan.

On the  diplomatic benefits of invoking Buddhism, Mukherjee said in 2007 that the renewed interest in Asia’s Buddhist heritage will rekindle ancient links between East and South Asia and help them come closer to India.

Narendra Modi has taken a particularly strong lead in invoking the Buddha and Buddhism, a lead that represents “an amalgamation of cultural and faith-based diplomacy,” Scott says.

“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.”

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 embraced the Buddha as a reformer whose message has 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. He welcomed the delegates with domestic and external nuances.

“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.

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.

Modi meditating in Bodh Gaya with delegates from other countries 

Wooing 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 (Huen 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.

It was no surprise that the subsequent India-China Joint Communiqué 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 founder of the Ch’an (Zen) school of Buddhism, came to the temple from India.

2005 Indo-Chinese Agreement

An Indo-Chinese  bilateral project concerning the White Horse Temple was agreed upon at the highest level during Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in 2005, Scott recalls. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) said that the Indian government would assist with the funding in addition to providing the architectural design and construction material.

Five years later, the edifice was finished, complete with Sanchi Stupa and Sarnath Buddha replica statuary provided by India. The Indian president, Pratibha Patil, was the official guest of honor at its inauguration ceremony.

“I hope that this shrine will further enhance people-to-people contact between India and China by encouraging greater exchange in the current age and in times to come,” Patil said.

However, all efforts to use Buddhism to build bridges between India and China crashed as a result of the continuing border dispute ,China’s claim to 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.

(The featured picture at the top shows Japanese monks walking around a dug up  Buddhist site in Vadnagar,the birthplace of Narendra Modi)