Brace for Buddha diplomacy

A definite shift in India’s Look East Policy is underway with added emphasis on Buddha diplomacy under the new dispensation. Prime minister Narendrabhai Damodardas Modi plans to market the Buddha card to the countries in the region as India is the place of origin of Dhamman and Sangham. He indicated such a change in emphasis by his first official visit abroad to a neighbouring Buddhist country in South Asia, Bhutan and then to Nepal where Lord Buddha was born. His first official visit outside South Asia was to another Buddhist country, Japan.

Chinese president Xi Jinping on his visit to India in September landed in Ahmedabad in Gujarat where prime minister Modi received him. Modi narrated to him the importance of the state in the Buddhist era and the visit of the ancient Chinese traveller Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) in 7th century BC. Prime minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung on a visit to India on October 27-28, made offerings at Bodhgaya temple on his arrival.

The emphasis in the policy is likely to become more evident when the prime minister visits Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar for the India-ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit slated in the second week next month. Further edge to the new ‘Look East Policy’ will be given when he visits Brisbane for G20 Summit and have bilateral meetings with the Australian prime minister Tony Abbott in the middle of next month. Thereafter, Modi gets the chance of expressing his ‘Neighbours First Policy’ at the SAARC Summit slated for 26-27 November in Kathmandu.

People-to-people contact is one of the cornerstones of Modi’s foreign policy. His plans for making this as central to South Asia and then integrating with the South-East Asia makes him deploy the soft power of Buddha diplomacy. As forging integration in South Asia may become difficult due to the belligerent attitude of Pakistan, Modi may have the option of taking along with him the BIMSTEC group of countries- Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal and seek integration with the 10-member ASEAN bloc.

With vast population of Buddhists in east and south-east Asia, plans are afoot to make India a Mecca for Buddhists from around the world. The work on phase-I ‘Buddhists Tourist Circuit’ is gathering pace. This includes Lumbini in Nepal where Lord Buddha was born, Bodhgaya where he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh where he delivered his first sermon, Rajgir in Bihar where he lived and taught, Nalanda which became the centre of Buddhist learning and teaching, Kushinagar in UP where he died, Kapilavastu on India-Nepal border where Lord Buddha spent his first early years before embarking on the long journey to enlightenment, Vaishali in Bihar where he delivered his last sermon, Sravasti in UP where he spent the 24 rainy seasons at Jetavan monastery and Kaushambi in UP where he preached.

A study undertaken by the International Finance Corporation has suggested an investment of Rs 500 crore each by the public and private sector over a span of four years. The government has proposed some initial investment in the current budgetary proposals. As the government is bullish in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI), Modi is expected take up this issue with leaders of east and south-east Asian countries. Regarding the revival of ancient Buddhist centre of learning, Nalanda University, several countries in the region have already pledged their contribution.

Buddha’s relics are found in many places across India and other parts of the world interred within hemispherical mounds called stupas. In the subsequent phases there are plans to develop ancient Buddhist sites across 17 states in the country, including Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim, Karnataka, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Arunachal Pradesh and Odisha.

Believers from several Buddhist countries like Bhutan, Bangladesh, China, Japan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand have set up their monasteries around Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya where pilgrims stay. But the in modern times the need is to develop more luxurious accommodations and budget hotels for different classes of tourists. Since the conception of Buddhist Tourist Circuit in 1986, very little has been done and the country attracts a mere 0.005per cent of global Buddhist tourists. Most of the foreign tourist arrivals are in the winter season as they feel summer uncomfortable and, therefore, they miss out visiting Buddhist sites on major festive occasions like Buddha Jayanti in the month of Vaisakh (April/May). There are other festive occasions celebrated in India like Lasar or the Tibetan New Year, Hemis Fair in Ladakh, Ullambana, Sangha Dayor Magha Puja, Asatha Day and Pavarana Day.

While India is seeking help for revival of Buddhist sites, it is also helping to revive ancient temples and ancient sites in South-East Asia. Hence it seems to be a quid pro quo basis of cooperation. The Archaeological Society of India is engaged in engaged in reviving Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm Temple in Siem Reap in Cambodia. Vat Phou Temple in Laos, Ananda Temple in Bagan in Myanmar, Thiruketeeswaram Temple in Mannar in Sri Lanka. It is slated to take works on My Son group of temples in Vietnam.

India has the excellent opportunity to rope in Mahayana Buddhists from China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam, Theravada Buddhists from Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Vajrayana Buddhists from Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, western China, Russia and Nepal. Sikkim in India is the home to all sects of Buddhism. Countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, which are now not Buddhist countries, have ancient Buddhist sites of importance to tourism.

Buddha in Indian diplomacy is a soft power that can connect to the people in the east and south-east Asian region. Particular interest to China would be travel route of the ancient Chinese scholars like Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang), Faxian (Fa Hien) and others. Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh host number of sites which are of interests to Mongolian and Tibetan Buddhists. China which is ready to give alternative route to the Hindu pilgrim site at Mansarovar in Tibet via Nathu La in Sikkim should be liberal in allowing Tibetan pilgrims to visit India.

Buddha diplomacy, therefore, can be an effective tool and soft power for India’s engagement with in South Asia, South-East Asia, East Asia and Russia. 
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