Buddhism new obstacle between India, China

by Indrani Bagchi, TIMES NEWS NETWORK, June 21, 2007

NEW DELHI, India -- India and China are engaged in a competition for soft power supremacy in Asia - the battlefield is ownership of one of the world's oldest religions, Buddhism.

At stake is not only India's civilisational space but, on a more temporal note, it will determine how Asia is defined - with China or India is the mother civilisation.

It's no coincidence that India built a Buddhist temple - in the Indian style - in Luoyang in China in 2006. The message, said senior MEA sources, was simple: Buddhism travelled from India to China over 2,000 years ago and made its first landing in Luoyang.

The Baima temple complex, which is generally regarded as the cradle of Chinese Buddhism, was built after a Chinese emperor of the Eastern Han dynasty welcomed the first Buddhist monks from India - She Moteng and Zhu Falan - and a white horse which carried the sutra and the figure of Buddha.

This week, foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee followed up on the Nalanda University initiative by setting up a Nalanda Mentor Group in Singapore, headed by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Singapore foreign minister George Yeo.

Nalanda is at the heart of the Indian soft power push. It's where China's greatest Buddhist traveller, Hiuen Tsang, came to study Buddhism under a Bengali teacher called Shilabhadra in the 7th century BC.

It's the ancient fountainhead of Buddhist teaching and India's reclamation of its past is the new story. The significance of the Indian initiative is not lost on the Chinese or on any of the Asian countries who practise Buddhism.

China has been the entrenched Buddhist power in Asia, and even the Communist revolution failed to dislodge it from its perch of being the arbiter of Buddhism.

Beijing hoped the physical control of Tibet would enhance its stature, which is why the Dalai Lama's presence in India is such a sore point.

In fact, it is Beijing's unfinished Buddhist agenda that is behind its loud claims to Arunachal Pradesh. Needless to add, it's for exactly the same reason that India cannot give up its claim on the state.

In East Asia, China's Buddhist pre-eminence resulted in India being regarded as an interloper. India was anyway a latecomer to the south-east Asian region, and burdened with the legacy of British imperialism, the reigning impression of Indians was of "coolies", quite apart from the Chinese elite.

Therefore, when the issue of the east Asian community came up, there were many takers for the Chinese contention that the Indians were "outsiders" and the community could only be ASEAN+3, not ASEAN+6 as India was trying to push. China is trying hard to keep India out of this grouping claiming it was the "periphery" of Asia.

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 civilisation, that in many ways, India has been the cultural trendsetter.

The Indian contention is that the cultures of Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar are all derivatives of Indian culture and history. Many freedom movements in south-east Asia were inspired by Indian leaders like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

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