A definite shift in India’s ‘Look East Policy’ is underway with added emphasis on Buddha diplomacy under the new dispensation. India’s Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has plans to market the Buddha card to the countries in the region as India is the place of origin of Buddha’s, Dhammam and Sangham. The PM 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.
The Chinese President Xi Jinping on his visit to India in September landed in Ahmedabad in Gujarat where Modi received him and 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 to his birth place at Vadnagar in Gujarat. The Prime Minister of Vietnam Nguyen Tan Dung on a visit to India on October 27-28 also made offerings at Bodhgaya temple on his arrival.
The emphasis in the policy is likely to become more evident when PM Modi 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 the next month. Thereafter, Modi will express his neighbours First Policy at the SAARC Summit slated in November 26-27 in Kathmandu.
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, Myan-mar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal – and seek integration with the 10-member ASEAN bloc.
With vast population of Buddhists in east and Southeast Asia, plans are afoot to make India a Mecca for world Buddhists. The idea is already bearing results as the work on phase-I Buddhists Tourist Circuit is already 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 (UP) 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 early years before embarking on the journey to get enlightenment, Vaishali in Bihar where he delivered his last sermon, Shravasti in Uttar Pradesh where he spent 24 rainy seasons at Jetavan monastery and Kausambi 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 to complete this project. As the government is bullish in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI), Modi is expected to take up this issue with leaders of east and Southeast Asian countries. As a positive sign, for the revival of ancient Buddhist centre of learning, Nalanda University, several countries in the region have already pledged their contribution.
In the subsequent phases there are plans to develop ancient Buddhist sites across 17 states in the country, including Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim, Karnataka, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Arunachal Pradesh and Odisha.
Since the conception of Buddhist Tourist Circuit in 1986, so far very little has been done, and the country still attracts 0.005% of global Buddhist tourists. To escape summers, most of the foreign tourist visit India during winters and miss out visiting Buddhist sites on major festive occasions like Buddha Jayanti in the month of Vaisakh (April/May). There are other festive occasions that are 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 Southeast Asia. Hence it seems to be a quid pro quo basis of cooperation.
The Archaeological Society of India is 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. And work on My Son group of temples in Vietnam is also in pipeline.
Besides this, 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 that can play a key role in tourism.
Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh host number of sites which will be of great interest 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, is also expected to be liberal in allowing Tibetan pilgrims to visit India.
Considering the Buddha connect, deploying the soft power of Buddha diplomacy to make the idea central to South Asia and then integrating it with the east and Southeast Asia will make newer roads for wider cooperation between countries in South Asia.
Of particular interest to China would be travel route of the ancient Chinese scholars like Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang), Faxian (Fa Hien) and others.
After hosting Olympics in Beijing, it is said, China has become keen to project its ancient cultural identity. For this, it will have to look towards India for its ancient linkage, particularly related to the spread of Buddhism and the visit of ancient Chinese scholars to India. And though its claim over Arunachal Pradesh has remained a contentious issue between the two countries, many analysts believe that ultimately China will have to look towards India in the quest for preserving its ancient tradition and culture.
Buddha diplomacy, therefore, can be an effective tool and soft power for India’s engagement within South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia and Russia. It is believed, people to people contact and cultural exchanges can go a long way to resolve contentious political issues in the near future. As a step ahead, Modi at the UN General Assembly proposed UN Day for Yoga which received instant support from Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It appealed to many Buddhist countries also.
Can Modi government attract considerable foreign direct investment (FDI) for developing Buddhist Tourist Circuit and make India a Mecca for global Buddhists remain to be seen? Future can only predict how far India’s Buddha diplomacy would go to bring about country’s bonhomie in the region and resolve contentious issues.
–Ashok B Sharma
(The writer is a senior columnist)