On the path of Buddha and his followers
- Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Kushinagar International Airport in eastern Uttar Pradesh to facilitate foreign tourists and Buddhist pilgrims to reach the important site of the Mahaparinirvana Temple, where Lord Buddha attained nirvana by leaving behind his earthly body.
- The completion of the Kushinagar airport is an important milestone in the Indian government’s 2016 plan to develop a “Buddhist Circuit” predicated on having world-class infrastructure to attract overseas tourists to India, the birthplace of Buddhism and home to its holiest pilgrimage sites.
- The ambitious tourism circuit, however, can achieve regional objectives as well.
What Is Buddhism?
- Buddhism is an ancient religion based on the teachings of the Buddha (“Awakened One”)—the title given to the Indian spiritual seeker Siddhartha Gautama after he attained enlightenment more than 2,600 years ago.
- The Buddha’s best-known teachings, the four noble truths and the eightfold path, describe the nature of human suffering and a way to liberate oneself from the existential pains of life and reach nirvana.
- These teachings spread from India throughout Asia and eventually the rest of the world. While the broader Buddhist family includes many different schools with their own beliefs and practices, these various traditions share a conviction that one can come to understand the truth of existence by living an ethical life dedicated to spiritual development.
How Buddhism can help in increasing soft power of India?
- Buddhist Circuits: First, India’s internal Buddhist Circuit can connect to the larger circuit of developing Buddhist tourist sites in the Muslim majority Central Asian Republics (CARs) and those that are part of China’s Belt & Road Initiative.
- This will require tracing back Buddhism’s living legacy and its archaeological remains in the SCO nations to its roots in India.
- More than physical connectivity, it is the dissemination of a historically factual and holistic narrative connecting these widespread ancient temples, monasteries and grottoes, that will counter ongoing Chinese attempts to Sinicise the Buddhist narrative, not just in the maritime Belt & Road Initiative countries like Sri Lanka, but also in Himalayan border monasteries in Leh, Arunachal Pradesh, and India’s neighbours Nepal and Bhutan.
- India's role in ancient times: India’s centrality to this history lies in not just being the Buddhist Holy Land but in its role of introducing Buddhism across the region of the SCO and then continuously disseminating new ideas into this network for circulation, assimilation and, at times, transformation.
- An outstanding example of this process is the spread of Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism — based on the concept of “mindfulness” or Dhyana — founded in India around the 6th or 7th centuries.
- Highlighting this transnational narrative : Highlighting this transnational narrative and its continuum even today is urgent as India is home to the Dalai Lama and the heads of major sects of Himalayan Buddhism. This is pertinent as Bhutan has about 75 per cent Buddhist Lamaist population, while Nepal has 10 per cent. It is well-known that China leverages the soft power of Buddhism in these countries to achieve its strategic geopolitical goals. In the case of Bhutan, it favours particular sects for endowments and attention, while in the case of Nepal, it is known to intervene in the appointment of high-ranking monks in an attempt to curb any restiveness among Nepal’s resident Tibetan population, which is likely to spill over into the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
- India’s Buddhist Circuit including Lumbini in Nepal as a pilgrimage site holds out the tantalising potential — given the almost ready international airport by Nepal there — of seamlessly extending this circuit to India’s neighbours. This ties together India’s SCO soft diplomacy with the Neighborhood First and Act East policies. India hopes to attract Buddhist pilgrims and tourists from South Asia, South East Asia and the Far East to Buddhism’s Holy Land.
- Trade or Conquest: Last, the spread of Buddhism, whether through conquest or trade, also coincided with the transmission of secular knowledge from the Indian subcontinent – like traditional Indian medicine (Aayush), manufacturing (sugar) and the astro-sciences into these regions.
- Spread of Indian Monks: Most monasteries along the Silk Route during the first millennium were often headed by Indian monks. They hosted merchants, travellers, and tended to the sick using traditional Indian medicine. Even today, among the CARs, there is an interest in traditional Indian medicine, like Ayurveda. Exchanges (research and students) for studying this would be of great interest to these countries.