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From popularity among Dalits to promotion of tourism: Buddhism’s new life in India

Buddhism originated in India but slowly declined in popularity over the centuries. It now looks to be revived by a combination of factors

Written by Mira Patel | Mumbai |
Updated: October 30, 2021 1:48:04 pm
buddhism, Kushinagar, kushinagar airport, buddhist tourist circuit, religion, buddhist tourism, spirituality, monk, dalit, ambedkar, Hinduism, jainism, christianity, islamThe Kushinagar airport in Eastern UP is expected to service the Buddhist tourism circuit. (PTI Photo)

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Kushinagar international airport. The airport in Eastern UP is expected to service the Buddhist tourism circuit. Since 2016, the Ministry of Tourism has been actively promoting India’s first transnational tourist circuit. The map of the circuit includes Bodh Gaya, Vaishali and Rajgir in Bihar, Kushinagar, Sarnath and Shravasti in UP along with Lumbini in Nepal.

The story of Buddhism’s birth in India is well known. Although Buddhism was very prominent in ancient India and was even designated as the state religion by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, it slowly declined in prominence over the years.

In recent years, however, there has been a gradual revival of the religion. Historian Upinder Singh in her article, Exile and Return: The Reinvention of Buddhism and Buddhist Sites in Modern India notes, “It is clear that Buddhism never really disappeared from India, though it did decline and was relegated to the geographical, political and cultural margins.” Singh argues that this is because Buddhism got “swallowed up by Hinduism” and suffered from a lack of political patronage and loss of material support due economic dishevel caused by frequent wars.

The revival of Buddhism in India can be mapped historically and be attributed to several factors, including geo-politics, the popularity of the religion among lower castes, the exile of the Dalai Lama in India as well as the appeal of Buddhism among younger populations.

Buddhism and the Dalit Community

buddhism, Kushinagar, kushinagar airport, buddhist tourist circuit, religion, buddhist tourism, spirituality, monk, dalit, ambedkar, Hinduism, jainism, christianity, islam Dr. BR Ambedkar (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1956, on the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s death, Bhimrao Ambedkar publicly took the vows of Buddhism along with 400,000 of his Dalit followers. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Dalits and tribals have converted to Buddhism.

According to Ajahin Prasheel Ratana Gautam, a respected Buddhist monk, “Ambedkar revitalised Buddhism in India and many Buddhists in India pay gratitude to him for transforming their lives.” Dalits have very strong ties to Ambedkar, and Prasheel uses that connection to encourage children to follow in Babasaheb’s footsteps. Every time He visits the US, he comes back with a $1 bill. When he identifies a student that has shown particular commitment or potential, irrespective of their faith, he gives them a laminated copy of that note to hang above their beds. This is a reminder to them to keep working hard so that they can emulate Ambedkar by studying in America, and one day come back to uplift the country themselves.

Prasheel also attributes Dalit support to the core values of Buddhism which prioritise equality and dignity. Citing the example of Hinduism, he says, “A person born as a Dalit can never become a Brahmin because Hinduism is a caste-based religion.” In Buddhism, everyone is considered equal and even women can achieve enlightenment and join the monastic order. This prospect of equality uniquely appeals to Dalits and other marginalised populations in part, because of their lowly status in society.  Ambedkar himself said, “I like the religion which teaches liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

Buddhist Tourism

 According to Singh, “the promotion of spiritual tourism… is a very self-conscious aim of the Indian state.” India is the birthplace of Buddhism and boasts the Buddhist Circuit, a route that follows the footsteps of the Buddha. Beginning in Bodhgaya in Bihar, where the Buddha attained enlightenment, the route ends at Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh, where he gave his first teachings and died. The Buddhist circuit is a vital pilgrimage for 470 million people who identify as Buddhists globally.

As reported by The Indian Express, ever since the government announced the Buddhist Circuit project in 2016, Rs 343 crore has been sanctioned under various schemes, of which, INR 278 crore has already been distributed. Furthermore, the report notes that in Bihar and UP, the plan is to further develop Buddhist sites, which currently receive approximately 6 per cent of nationwide foreign tourist arrivals.

Prasheel asserts that his focus on Buddhist tourism is complemented by Narendra Modi’s promotion of the religion during international visits. “Encouraging Buddhist tourism is good for foreign investment and promotes development in India,” he says.

However, there is more to be done. According to Prasheel, while there are some Buddhist MPs, none of them are distinguished on the national stage. “If Buddhism had a prominent representative from India internationally, it would help foster better relations with Eastern Asian countries.” This visibility would also contribute significantly to the aims outlined in Modi’s Act East policy. Japan, Myanmar, Thailand and Bhutan all have significant Buddhist populations and some have even financed Buddhist tourism projects in India.

The Dalai Lama

Another major factor that has catalysed the emergence of Buddhism in India is the Dalai Lama. Forced to flee from his native Tibet ten years after the Chinese occupied it, the Dalai Lama came to India along with about 85,000 followers. According to Singh, with the help of the Indian Government, the United Nations, and foreign donors, Tibetan refugees were ultimately placed in 52 settlements across 10 states in India. Subsequently, a Central Tibetan Administration, functioning as a Government in Exile, was established in Dharamsala.

Tibetan Buddhism often differs from other schools of the religion and Singh notes that there is little overlap between Dalit Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. However, the advocacy of the Dalai Lama has created more recognition of Buddhism internationally and at home which has translated into gains for both schools of thought.

Singh adds, the Tibetan Government in Exile has also “made efforts to promote the study of Buddhist philosophy” which in turn has led to “greater international visibility of the Tibetan Buddhists in India, a highlighting of the ancient Indian Buddhist heritage, and of the fact that India is the original homeland of the Buddha.” While Dalit Buddhists and Tibetan Buddhists may have different degrees of loyalty to their home and adopted nation, there is considerable commonality in the recognition that India was the soil in which the seeds of Buddhism grew.

This tryst with Tibet has also led to repercussions vis-à-vis China. In 1913, the Tibetan Government signed the Simla Agreement which designated the border between India and then Tibet. Since the invasion of Tibet by China, Beijing has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the lines demarcated by the agreement. This has caused friction between the two countries, compounded by India’s protection of the Dalai Lama and China’s other regional power plays. Additionally, although the Indian Government doesn’t officially recognise the Tibetan Government in exile, as it considers Tibet a part of China, as stated by Manjeet S Pardesi in India’s China strategy under Modi, “New Delhi has implicitly allowed the Tibetans to conduct some political activities.” On the surface, there is no encouragement from the Indian Government but beneath the lines, there is a small complex system of alliances in which the Government is passively and at times, actively, promoting Tibetan independence.

According to Pardesi, “the Tibet factor has been central to the onset of the Sino-Indian rivalry” because the country effectively acts as a buffer between India and China.

For now, India has refrained from taking an active stance on the matter. It continues to offer the Dalai Lama safe heaven but also accepts Tibet as an autonomous region of China.

Popularity of Buddhism among the youth

buddhism, Kushinagar, kushinagar airport, buddhist tourist circuit, religion, buddhist tourism, spirituality, monk, dalit, ambedkar, Hinduism, jainism, christianity, islam Ajahin Prasheel Ratana Gautam (Express Photo)

 There is also one additional factor worth considering. Many people who follow Buddhist practices and adhere to Buddhist traditions, identify officially as members of other religions. In fact, compared to census data in 1851 in which 2.48% of Indians identified as Buddhist, in 2011, that number stood at 0.7%. This, according to Prasheel, is because people view Buddhism “less as a religion and more as a way of life.” This is especially true amongst young people, many of whom were not registered in the last census.

 Buddhism particularly appeals to younger populations because it fosters a sense of community. Manik Soi (27), who identifies as Hindu, points to this community as a major factor behind his decision to actively practice Buddhist traditions. “The Buddhist community, because of its horizontal structure, encourages members to interact,” he says. Soi regularly attends meetings held by his local Buddhist chapter and has stated that he often relies on spiritual elders and other members of the community when facing challenges in his life. It also helps, according to Soi, that Buddhist texts are very practical and easy to read. The texts that he follows include a series of letters between a monk and his disciples, in which the former advises the latter on day-to-day problems. “It’s very accessible,” says Soi, and “has helped me navigate several problems in a practical manner.” The accessibility of those texts would also make them easier to read and comprehend by the Dalits.

Also, unlike other religions, Buddhism has notably remained affray of politics. According to Prasheel, this is because “unlike the fanaticism displayed by other religious groups, Buddhism is tolerant and promotes fraternity, solidarity, love, peace and consciousness.” Soi agrees with this assertion. “While other religions have been influenced by socio-political factors, Buddhism focuses less on ritualistic practices and more on catalysing a positive mindset and positive way of life,” he says. While other religions share many common aspects, leaders often won’t accept the similarities because religion is too ingrained in the political ecosystem. “This came to the forefront with the BJP but existed long before with Congress as well,” says Soi. “That is very off-putting for me and while I have explored other religions, I relate to Buddhism because it creates unity. For my part, I can’t think of a single religion, except Jainism, that could aspire to be the same.”

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