Narendra Modi of political Buddhism
Like the much reviled political Islam, Christianity has remained a political religion. It is the Treaty of Westphalia that severed the direct contact between State and religion but remained valid in a way what people like Emile Durkheim or Jean-Jacques Rousseau have extensively discussed in their writings. European Enlightenment merely gave rise to ‘civic religion’ that Max Weber, for example, opined on for long.
Political Buddhism, on the other hand, has been prevalent in ancient India, gaining legitimacy from monarchs like Emperor Ashoka. But with the advent of the Muslim rulers in the subcontinent, its loci shifted to South East and East Asia where it is alive and well.
In the intermediate age of pre-independent India under British rule, the Dalits and others of their ilk embraced Buddhism as evidenced in bold relief by the embrace of it by Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution that in a way, advocates a form of civic religiosity that militates against its own prescription of ‘secularism.’
Recent reports suggest that Narendra Modi, the second highest civil and political authority of the country, will be seeking the help of Buddhist monks to campaign for his party amongst the low castes of Uttar Pradesh, one of the largest states in the country as its legislative assembly poll approaches.
The Hindutva spewing supremacist RSS, in other words, is seeking to emerge from its obscurantist religious ideas by spreading the net wider beyond the narrow confines of its Hindu, upper caste constituency to a broader religious appeal that captures the lower castes.
It is comparatively easy for the RSS to accept this because Gautam Buddha was coopted into the pantheon of Hindu gods as an incarnation of Vishnu, one of the three members of the Hindu Trinity.
As an electoral ploy, it is not an unexpected phenomenon when the RSS itself is undergoing a churning to seek a more contemporary attitude, keeping the demographics of the country in mind. Its political offshoot, the BJP is under severe threat of being bypassed politically and socially by the arithmetically numerous low castes who consider Buddhism as their salvation from the tyranny of the Hindu upper-caste.
With the Left political forces joining the battle with the Sangh Parivar by an amalgamation of Ambedkarite politics with that of Karl Marx, the RSS-BJP needed to come up fast with a countervailing force. This is especially since the other substantial minority, Muslims, have rejected the BJP completely, especially since Modi and Amit Shah took charge.
In bringing on Buddhism into the political arena, Modi may be borrowing a leaf from the playbook of his Chinese counterparts, the increasingly Maoist potentate Xi Jinping. Recently a scholar visiting New Delhi’s premier Institute of Chinese Studies talked at length about the agency of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition being used by the Chinese leadership to run parallel with the Communist Party in the mind-space of the Han Chinese majority.
Considered one of the best Marxist minds of the 20th Century, Antonio Gramsci has a unique take on religion. He wrote: “Religion and common sense cannot constitute an intellectual order, because they cannot be reduced to unity and coherence even within an individual consciousness, let alone collective consciousness. Or rather they cannot be so reduced “freely”—for this may be done by “authoritarian” means, and indeed within limits this has been done in the past.”
But as Prof Dan Smyers Yu explained in his talk at ICS, the Tibetan Buddhism is amalgamating scientific lexicon in its religious proselytisation. The religion that is increasingly making inroads into mainland China - with a ostensibly ‘atheist’ leadership allowing its spread - uses the secular vocabulary of scientificism like “scientific ignorance” or “science of the mind/spirit” thus obfuscating its feudal and medieval roots.
Prof Yu says that Xi Jinping is himself allowing the addition of Tibetan Buddhism to the ‘soft power’ tool-kit of China. But he also explains that Buddhism is also a religion of ‘subversion.’ It demands ‘transformation’ first of the ‘individual’ and then for the larger institutions.
That Buddhism is subversive and can be militant has been witnessed in Vietnam in the early 1970s, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and so many other East and South East Asian nations. The death of Rohith Vemula, the Hyderabad University scholar who committed suicide, thus igniting minds across the country, has goaded his family to convert to Buddhism. Did they embrace the religion for transcendental reasons? Or did they do it to challenge the order of upper caste/class hegemony in this country?
Thus, one can say that Narendra Modi has embarked on a path that is both prescient and fraught with uncertainty. The possibilities for political Buddhism igniting prairie fires across the country are enormous. Can he himself as the helmsman control the forces he is seeking to unleash?
(The author is an independent journalist. Views expressed are strictly personal)