In the midst of the contentious Central Vista project is the calm visage of the Buddha carved in stone in a museum dedicated to him. It is the most visible manifestation yet that India, as the birthplace and cradle of dharmic faiths including Buddhism, will no longer underplay its civilisational distinctness from neighbouring lands where Abrahamic religions hold sway and marks an end to its hesitancy to underline the common spiritual heritage it shares with other nations in the region.
As part of its soft power projection, the government is working to a strategy which invokes Buddhism, sometimes referred to as the country’s most significant export, as a key element of its Act East policy. Of course, this policy owes much to the PV Narasimha Rao-AB Vajpayee years when the Look East policy was first conceptualised and then formulated.
But it is to the credit of the current dispensation that the shared Buddhist inheritance of the region has been made an integral part of India’s diplomatic outreach by using it as strategic asset.
New Delhi, which has already had a bit of a fracas with Kathmandu over this alleged “appropriation” given the Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha in Lumbini in present-day Nepal, has been careful to emphasise the universality of the Buddha’s message. But the policy establishment’s sotto voce and, it may be added, historically accurate narrative is that it was in India that the prince achieved entitlement – at Bodh Gaya (Bihar).
Buddhism subsequently spread peacefully across Asia – to Sri Lanka, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Japan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his message to commemorate the Buddha’s birthday this year, iterated: “Countries are joining hands with each other and becoming each other’s strength, taking (forward) the values of the Buddha.” There is some squeamishness among diplomats about treating Buddhism as a product over which India is trying to establish ownership, as it were, but that is the way contemporary geopolitics works. Already, experts see a concerted effort by China to stake claim to the Buddha’s legacy. It now claims it is the “largest Buddhist nation in the world”, all sense of irony that it’s a self-avowedly communist nation obviously lost. Hegemonic ambitions and the resistance to them have everything to do with history, culture, and faith. That’s been clearly exhibited in Mr Modi’s outreach to Bhutan, the first country he went to as Prime Minister, his sojourn to Xi’an in China, where a Tamil preached Buddhism centuries ago, and on official trips to Sri Lanka, Mongolia, and Japan, where he has visited Buddhist temples, met monks, and extolled the shared values of the Buddha’s way.
To add heft to this policy of Buddhism-fronted engagement, the Archaeological Survey of India has set up a special department under the aegis of the MEA to execute requests by various countries to help preserve their Buddhist heritage. The results of these initiatives are likely to show in the years ahead. Patience, after all, is a key Buddhist virtue.