In 2014 I began to cover the role of Buddhism in the diplomacy of Modi’s India. I have really just one gentleman to thank for setting me along this path. Prashant Agrawal was serving as consul general to Hong Kong and Macau when he organized an exhibit on ancient Indian Buddhist art in the district of Wan Chai. I always thought that the Indian diplomats’ approach to promoting Buddhism was the right one. Because they were serving on the ground in local Chinese cultures, their efforts to promote Indian Buddhism or Buddhism’s heritage in India emphasized the narrowing of differences and broadening of common ground. They didn’t seem as forced as the work of those who are aligned with the Hindutva ideology of Narendra Modi’s party, the BJP.
The diplomats’ method of showcasing information and exhibiting artifacts tends to emphasize the integral role of Buddhism in the evolution and story of Indian civilization. In contrast, attempts within India itself to sell Buddhism have perhaps inevitably coalesced around the personality and self-promotion of Modi (I have heard people, including some Buddhist figures, ridiculously comparing him to a modern-day Ashoka). It comes as no surprise to me that the government’s domestic attempts to project itself as an advocate of Buddhist interests have sometimes fallen flat—especially to Buddhist representatives visiting India during any of the expensive and lavish conferences it has hosted for this purpose.
Ultimately, the goal of Buddhist diplomacy, whether in China or India or elsewhere, is relatively simple. In terms of foreign relations, it should be to cultivate ties with other Asian countries by stressing civilizational, cultural, and philosophical commonalities owed to Buddhism. Domestically, it should be to cultivate political capital and goodwill among Buddhist populations by supporting programs that will benefit Buddhist institutions. All for what? The final piece of the puzzle is, of course, the Buddhist community itself, who in return should return goodwill to the government and, if possible, even lend human and intellectual resources in an official or unofficial capacity.
Although I wish very much for the right kind of Indian Buddhist diplomacy to succeed, I feel a bit uncertain about the prospects and ultimate success of the current domestic approach. In India, promoting authentic Buddhism has been overshadowed by the BJP’s more urgent priority of subsuming Buddhism within its Vedic-nationalist worldview (meaning that Buddhism just becomes another expression of BJP Hinduism). This Vedic nationalism claims to hearken to the primeval days of the Veda but it’s really a modern, postcolonial creation. It’s built on the edifice of “India as a Hindu nation-state,” and the tension of promoting Buddhism within this Hindutva will very likely strain Modi’s support among his base but also with the international Buddhist community he seeks to reach.
Meanwhile, I think countries like China (and even Japan) can let its Buddhism be Buddhism, a tradition speaking for itself rather than under the aegis of a greater religious mission. While all Buddhist institutions express their loyalty to the national mission of making China a prosperous and self-reliant nation state, the expression of Chinese Buddhism has generous historical precedents that the government has little incentive or need to tamper with actively.
The lesson: Buddhist diplomacy’s objectives, I maintain, are not complicated and remain far more elementary and simple than the usual brand of chessboard, adversarial geopolitics. Still, especially in India’s case, they are not easy to accomplish.