Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted the country on the occasion of Buddha Purnima on Wednesday, but it is his “Top quotes of PM Modi on Lord Buddha” on the Narendra Modi app (www.narendramodi.in) that caught the eye. A bit like Chairman Mao’s quotes from his little red book – but of course, not quite. The story actually had 11 quotes by the PM, with pictures of Narendra Modi bowing his head at various Buddha temples in the country and abroad.
Each of the 11 quotes is accompanied by a different photo of the PM praying or lighting a candle or offering flowers or standing next to Buddhist priests in front of a variety of iconostasis bathed in brilliant orange.
The assemblage of photos, a veritable staggered photoshoot over the last three years, is a message to anyone who cares to look beyond the obvious: The Prime Minister of India is not only addressing Buddhist majority-Sri Lanka, where he is travelling over the next two days, but also the rest of the world. And alongside the message of tolerance and understanding is subtly putting out that the Buddha, really, belongs to India.
In other words, Modi is saying that as the mother country of the Buddha, India has a special responsibility towards all Buddhists wherever they are in the world – including China. (Naturally this includes the Dalai Lama, which partially explains Modi’s growing interest in Buddhism in recent months to produce a weapon of geopolitical distraction.)
Interestingly, the Buddha has a special place in India’s strategic thought. Remember when “the Buddha smiled” on Indira Gandhi in 1974, a phrase which has since gone down in India’s nuclear history as proof that India, a Third World developing country, had gate-crashed into the First World and actually conducted a nuclear test?
The story behind this event is equally beautiful. Evidently, then director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre Raja Ramanna — who would play western classical music on a grand piano especially lowered into the mine shaft in the Pokharan nuclear test site in the Thar desert for the several days the test team lived and worked there – sent Indira Gandhi this cryptic message as the atom split and the earth shook with the conduct of the test: “The Buddha is smiling.”
Indira Gandhi understood, of course. So did the rest of the world.
Ramanna was versed in the Jataka tales, in which the Buddha convinces a serpent to follow the Dharma and not bite people as is its wont. But when a group of people badly beat up the serpent as he quietly suns himself on the side of the road, the serpent goes back to the Buddha and asks him, “Now what is to be done?”
At which the Buddha smiles softly and tells the serpent: “I told you not to bite people, but I never told you not to hiss at them.”
According to nuclear expert and former diplomat Rakesh Sood, “India went nuclear in 1974 and again in 1998 because we wanted to only tell the world that we are capable of defending ourselves. We have never had any aggressive designs towards anyone.”
Interestingly, Modi travels to Sri Lanka tomorrow, on May 11, the 19th anniversary of the 1998 nuclear tests – which, incidentally, is also Buddha Purnima.