India has its own 'soft power' - Buddhism

By Sudha Ramachandran, Asia Times, July 3, 2007

BANGALORE, India -- 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 credentials.

Buddhism originated in India around the 5th century BC. But after flourishing here for many centuries, it declined in the land of its 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.

Buddhist monks 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 Southeast Asia.

"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 Nalanda University.

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.

A giant, 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.

In 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.

Indian 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 Indian export.

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 civilization".

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.