India has its own 'soft power' -
Buddhism By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - As the Sino-Indian battle for
influence in East and Southeast Asia intensifies,
India is backing its political and economic
diplomacy with soft-power diplomacy. To counter
China's efforts to keep India out of the region on
the grounds that it is an "outsider", India is
drawing attention to its solid Buddhist
Buddhism originated in India
around the 5th century BC. But after flourishing
here for many centuries, it declined in the land
birth. However, it spread
across Asia, winning adherents in such countries
as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand,
Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Japan, Korea, Tibet,
Mongolia and China.
traveled far to spread the religion. Scholars came
to India to study at its universities. There was a
healthy exchange of ideas, of philosophic,
religious and cultural traditions right from
ancient times. The impact of this interaction and
exchange can be seen and felt to date across Asia.
It is this shared Buddhist heritage that Delhi is
now emphasizing in its engagement with East and
"China has sought to keep
India out of regional arrangements in Southeast
Asia by portraying India as an outsider. By
underlining the multi-millennia-old bond of
Buddhism that it shares with these regions, India
is quietly clarifying that it is not a
gatecrasher," said an official in India's Ministry
of External Affairs.
Although the founder
of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha as
he came to be called, was born in Nepal and not
India, all the important milestones in his life,
whether it was his enlightenment, his first sermon
or his attainment of nirvana, happened in India.
Most of the important sites of significance to
Buddhists the world over are in India.
While India has emphasized its cultural
and civilizational links with East and Southeast
Asia for decades, this diplomacy has received a
boost with the pan-Asian initiative to revive
An ancient seat of
learning, Nalanda University was primarily a
center of Buddhist studies, but it also imparted
training in fine arts, astronomy, politics and
languages. The university died a slow death around
the 12th century AD.
multinational effort is now on to set up an
international university at Nalanda that will
capture the grandeur, spirit and essence of this
renowned seat of learning. Several countries,
including India, Japan, Singapore and China, are
part of this effort. And while India is at the
center of the Nalanda initiative (the university
being located here), China is ensuring that its
links with the university are not forgotten.
Besides being part of a mentor group (headed by
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen) that will provide
vision and direction to the Nalanda initiative,
China has contributed funds for the Xuan Zang
Memorial Hall in the university. "It is making
sure that its links with Buddhism are noted," said
the Indian official.
Xuan Zang was a
Chinese Buddhist scholar of the 7th century AD who
spent two years at Nalanda. His contribution to
Buddhism is substantial. Not only did he translate
Indian Buddhist texts into Chinese during his
years in India, but it was from his translated
Chinese copies that scholars recovered Indian
Buddhist texts lost in subsequent years.
Buddhism might have arrived in China
several centuries after it was born in India, but
China has more Buddhists than India does today. In
fact, with 100 million, it is home to the largest
number of Buddhists in the world.
recent years, China has been making a concerted
attempt to project a Buddhism-friendly image of
itself, drawing attention to its Buddhist
heritage. Monasteries and temples destroyed during
the Cultural Revolution have reportedly been
rebuilt. Last year, China played host to the First
World Buddhist Forum at Hangzhou in which Buddhist
monks and scholars from 37 countries participated.
China's projection of a Buddhist-friendly
image today has to do with its Tibet policy.
"Having destroyed Tibetan Buddhism and put
in its place a state-sanctioned version of
Buddhism, Beijing is making grand gestures to
shore up its Buddhist credentials. It wants to
soften its image for East and Southeast Asia but,
more importantly, Tibet," said the official.
"Hence Beijing's bonding with Buddhism."
The Hangzhou meet, he said, was aimed at
presenting China as a country that is in favor of
harmonious living with its neighbors. More
important, it provided Beijing with an
international platform to present to the world
Gyaltsen Norbu, the Panchen Lama (Tibet's
second-ranking spiritual leader) it appointed in
1995, and to showcase its Buddhist credentials.
The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan
Buddhists who fled to India in 1959 in the wake of
the Chinese occupation of Tibet, was not invited
to the gathering.
China's effort to
project its Buddhist credentials has been
tarnished by its record in Tibet. Indian officials
say that so long as the Dalai Lama lives in India
and millions of Tibetan Buddhist refugees remain
in India, China's claims over Buddhism will be
weak. While China's Buddhist credentials are
questionable thanks to its blood-soaked record
vis-a-vis Tibetan Buddhists, that of India's is
impeccable. China cannot match India's formidable
record as a protector of Buddhism. India has
provided refuge to millions of Tibetan Buddhists
fleeing Chinese oppression.
officials admit that in the past India neglected
highlighting adequately its central role in the
Buddhist world and its Buddhist legacy. In the
process, "it surrendered the mantle of being the
custodian of Buddhist heritage and its leadership
role in the Buddhist world, which was quickly
appropriated by countries like Japan and China",
said the official. This is being corrected now.
Indrani Bagchi writes in The Times of
India: "In the past five years, India has fought
back, to reclaim what the government believes is
India's by right - that it is India which is at
the heart of the Asian civilization, that in many
ways, India has been the cultural trend setter."
Last year, India built a Buddhist temple
in Luoyang in China. The temple is in the Baima
temple complex where a Chinese emperor welcomed
Buddhist monks from India 2,000 years ago. "The
temple in Luoyang has been built in the Indian
style," said the official. "It marks the fact that
Buddhism traveled to China from India." It
underscores the fact that Buddhism in China is an
India has made Buddhism the
core of its soft-power push in Asia. This is aimed
not only at reminding countries of their
long-standing links with India but also that the
roots of their cultural heritage lie in India.
The dispute between India and China over
territory and their race for military and economic
supremacy are a familiar tale to the outside
world. The outcome of these contests will
determine who will dominate Asia - if not the
world - in the coming decades. Less visible but
equally important is their tussle over ownership
of Buddhism. This keenly fought contest will
determine which of the two is Asia's "mother
Ramachandran is an independent
journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.