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On the path of Buddha and his followers

🔴 Sifra Lentin writes: Buddhist pilgrimage centres can help India leverage its soft power

A lord Buddha statue placed inside the Kushinagar international airport, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate Kushinagar international airport in Uttar Pradesh on Wednesday, Oct. 20, to facilitate air travel requirements of Buddhist pilgrims in India. (PTI Photo)

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Kushinagar International Airport in eastern Uttar Pradesh to facilitate foreign tourists and Buddhist pilgrims to reach the important site of the Mahaparinirvana Temple, where Lord Buddha attained nirvana by leaving behind his earthly body. The completion of the Kushinagar airport is an important milestone in the Indian government’s 2016 plan to develop a “Buddhist Circuit” predicated on having world-class infrastructure to attract overseas tourists to India, the birthplace of Buddhism and home to its holiest pilgrimage sites. The ambitious tourism circuit, however, can achieve regional objectives.

The two-millennia old, shared Buddhist religious and cultural legacy between Buddhism’s holy land India, and her seven Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) partner nations is an important historical narrative that connects all eight, however politically and culturally at odds they may be today. India can leverage this astutely through people-to-people diplomacy between the SCO members of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan.

India has already made a beginning in this direction. On November 30 last year, as chair of the SCO Council of Heads of Government, India hosted the Shared Buddhist Heritage virtual exhibition in New Delhi, where it showcased Buddhist art, tapestry, ritual objects from across this vast Eurasian region. This must now be followed up with a deeper story of Buddhist history, trade and student exchanges, to become truly impactful.

First, India’s internal Buddhist Circuit can connect to the larger circuit of developing Buddhist tourist sites in the Muslim majority Central Asian Republics (CARs) and those that are part of China’s Belt & Road Initiative. This will require tracing back Buddhism’s living legacy and its archaeological remains in the SCO nations to its roots in India.

More than physical connectivity, it is the dissemination of a historically factual and holistic narrative connecting these widespread ancient temples, monasteries and grottoes, that will counter ongoing Chinese attempts to Sinicise the Buddhist narrative, not just in the maritime Belt & Road Initiative countries like Sri Lanka, but also in Himalayan border monasteries in Leh, Arunachal Pradesh, and India’s neighbours Nepal and Bhutan. India’s centrality to this history lies in not just being the Buddhist Holy Land but in its role of introducing Buddhism across the region of the SCO and then continuously disseminating new ideas into this network for circulation, assimilation and, at times, transformation.

An outstanding example of this process is the spread of Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism — based on the concept of “mindfulness” or Dhyana — founded in India around the 6th or 7th centuries. This became the foundation for Chan (Chinese), Zen (Japanese) and Tibetan Buddhism. In turn, it is largely Tibetan Buddhism that travelled into the Russian provinces bordering Mongolia and the only European region where Buddhism is practised by a majority of people, Russia’s Republic of Kalmykia. Often, it is the reframing of original Indian beliefs and knowledge into locally-acceptable idioms that popularised Indian Buddhist beliefs abroad.

Second, highlighting this transnational narrative and its continuum even today is urgent as India is home to the Dalai Lama and the heads of major sects of Himalayan Buddhism. This is pertinent as Bhutan has about 75 per cent Buddhist Lamaist population, while Nepal has 10 per cent. It is well-known that China leverages the soft power of Buddhism in these countries to achieve its strategic geopolitical goals. In the case of Bhutan, it favours particular sects for endowments and attention, while in the case of Nepal, it is known to intervene in the appointment of high-ranking monks in an attempt to curb any restiveness among Nepal’s resident Tibetan population, which is likely to spill over into the Tibetan Autonomous Region. India’s Buddhist Circuit including Lumbini in Nepal as a pilgrimage site holds out the tantalising potential — given the almost ready international airport by Nepal there — of seamlessly extending this circuit to India’s neighbours. This ties together India’s SCO soft diplomacy with the Neighborhood First and Act East policies. India hopes to attract Buddhist pilgrims and tourists from South Asia, South East Asia and the Far East to Buddhism’s Holy Land.

Last, the spread of Buddhism, whether through conquest or trade, also coincided with the transmission of secular knowledge from the Indian subcontinent – like traditional Indian medicine (Aayush), manufacturing (sugar) and the astro-sciences into these regions. Most monasteries along the Silk Route during the first millennium were often headed by Indian monks. They hosted merchants, travellers, and tended to the sick using traditional Indian medicine. Even today, among the CARs, there is an interest in traditional Indian medicine, like Ayurveda. Exchanges (research and students) for studying this would be of great interest to these countries.

The idea of common cultural roots between people from these eight very diverse nations can be the bedrock of future planned institutions within the ambit of the SCO, like the proposed SCO University. Though the SCO as a multilateral regional organisation is more a political, economic and security alliance, India engaging vigorously in its soft diplomacy sphere will have a virtuous influence on the other dimensions too.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 27, 2021 under the title ‘The Buddha circuit’. The writer is Bombay History Fellow, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. She has authored the report, ‘India and the SCO: Bound by Buddhism’

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