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The power of Buddha

By Swapan Dasgupta

Sep 03, 2015

The only area where soft power needs active government assistance is the projection of its civilisational inheritance. Sadly, this is an area where India has faltered.

Civilisational concerns and cultural diplomacy are unlikely to captivate the popular imagination at the time of celebrity murder. Yet, when a Prime Minister makes time in his otherwise busy schedule to inaugurate a global Hindu-Buddhist convention on something as abstruse as “conflict avoidance and environment consciousness”, it is wise to presume that the agenda is more far-reaching than it appears on first glance. This may not be apparent from a perfunctory reading of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on September 3 at the inauguration of the convention organised by Vivekananda International Foundation and the Tokyo Foundation, Japan.

Yet, while the Prime Minister is constrained by what he can and cannot say in a public forum, his remarks on the need to shift from ideology to philosophy in negotiating differences are significant. They suggest the importance being attached to managing a broad civilisational convergence between countries wedded to non-exclusivist philosophical traditions, countries that simultaneously recognise the ground rules of dialogue — as did Adi Sankara in his legendary debate with Mandana Misra.

To highlight this initiative does not in any way imply that the focus on soft power was missing over the past 10 years. The United Progressive Alliance government was also mindful that traditional diplomacy had to be complemented by a larger societal outreach to targeted parts of the world. The Modi government has taken the process a step further by also incorporating themes the Congress-led government felt unwise to include in the soft power basket.

For a very long time, and without the assistance of any government, modern India had become associated (particularly in the West) with Bollywood, cricket, curry and call centres. The associations may well have perpetuated new stereotypes but they were a darn sight better than the picture of hunger and disease that defined the India of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, none of these new symbols of national identity overseas necessitated any pro-active government initiative. Bollywood and Indian cricket can prosper and conquer without any state interference; desi food is a rapidly growing industry that has never looked to the domestic public sector for anything; and Indian professionals — now many notches above call centre functionaries — compete in a global environment on their own steam.

The only area where soft power needs active government assistance is the projection of its civilisational inheritance. Sadly, this is an area where India has faltered. Whether this shortcoming was due to an adherence to some abstract notion of secularism or grounded in calculation is worthy of examination in the future. For the moment, it is sufficient to state that India has been utterly negligent in pursuing a cultural diplomacy centred on its Buddhist inheritance. Indeed, I would go so far as to state that successive secular governments have more or less gifted the mantle of Buddhism to China which, in turn, has appropriated it with glee.

The evidence speaks for itself. China convened the First World Buddhist Forum in 2006, the Second Forum in 2009 and the Third Forum in 2012. The Fourth World Forum is due to be held in Wuxi in October 2015. In October 2014, China hosted the 27th general conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) in Shaanxi. At the conference, the Beijing-appointed Panchen Lama Gyaltsen Norbu made the astonishing claim that “Buddhism has already integrated into the Chinese culture and it is recognised by the Chinese government. For over thousand years Tibetan Buddhism has become the precious gem of the Chinese nation.” Astonishing or not, post-Mao China has carefully assumed custody of the Buddhist inheritance. This has paid handsome dividends in Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand and even Vietnam and Cambodia.

India, by contrast, deprioritised its engagement with Buddhism. To some extent this can be attributed to the country’s waning interest in Indology as a scholastic pursuit and the non-recognition of theology as a discipline separate from philosophy. At the same time, Indian diplomacy tiptoed its way around the “Buddhist question” for fear of stepping on the toes of China. The use of Buddhism as an instrument of soft power was rarely explored beyond increasing tourism in the Buddhist circuit of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. A high commissioner of Sri Lanka once lamented the indifference surrounding the treasure of sacred Buddhist relics in the storage rooms of the Indian Museum in Kolkata.

Had even a fraction of these been sent to, say, Sri Lanka or Japan, for a special exhibition, the goodwill generated would have been incalculable. India has never fully woken up to the diplomatic and political potential of its civilisational reach.

The shift in Indian policy under Mr Modi has been evident. Apart from personally visiting all the countries in the neighbourhood and countries such as Mongolia, Mr Modi has signalled the start of a larger civilisational engagement of traditional eastern faiths, including Confucianism and Shintoism. Whether this results in tangible foreign policy outcomes — say, a common approach to conflict avoidance, as distinct from conflict resolution — is still not certain. After all, many of the intellectual premises on which indigenous intellectual traditions were built have been replaced by post-Enlightenment traditions of the West.

However, any institutionalised encouragement of a new orientalism crafted on Asian economic prosperity is a worthwhile endeavour. It is important that, by way of a start, India’s cultural diplomacy internalises the project and not treat it as an optional extra best left for creaky bodies such as the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

Apart from some official encouragement to the process, what is needed is a larger mindset change. In our bid to define India’s modernity and its multi-denominational character, there is a measure of embarrassment associated with identifying statecraft with the symbols of Indic religions. The squeamishness is of recent origin Jawaharlal Nehru wasn’t embarrassed by his appropriation of Ashokan iconography as state symbols or with the government’s large-scale Buddha Jayanti celebrations in 1956.

However, its effect has been devastatingly counter-productive and has facilitated China’s grip on Asia. Overcoming that dominance is a long, hard slog and resurrecting our Indic inheritance is a small but important step in that direction.

The writer is a senior journalist