Mongolia’s Buddhist Diplomacy and India’s Union of Religious and Foreign Policy

The Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), along with Indian, Japanese, and Mongolian partners, hosted its third Samvad (which, in Hindi, means “dialogue”) conference in Ulaanbaatar over last Friday and the weekend. As reported in BDG’s news article on the conclave, Mongolian political and religious leaders took this event very seriously. In his closing speech on the final day of the 7th, Swaminathan Gurumurthy, chairman of the organizing Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) and director of the Indian Reserve Bank, reaffirmed that there is not yet an “endgame” or fixed destination point for Samvad.

“With each Samvad, we get clarity,” he proclaimed. “You cannot swim if you do not enter the water first and try something.” Gurumurthy’s perspective had been pre-empted several days before by an organizing partner, who affirmed that they were discovering new opportunities and identifying shortcomings for themselves as they went along.

Watchers of national strategic cultures might feel restless with this “swimming” approach. In his excellent comparative study of China and India’s strategic cultures, China and India: Asia’s Emergent Great Powers, Chris Ogden notes presciently that while India’s strategic culture might not be as “clear-cut” as those of its colossal neighbor or the superpower that is the United States, there are underlying continuities driving the tactics and means that, to Chinese and American analysts, appear non-cohesive or ad hoc:

“Under the umbrella of (re)-becoming a great power, these would include being pro-peace, anti-hegemony and pro-multipolarity; desiring an equitable international system; heightening its global trade to achieve internal development and to enrich its international status; increasing defence spending to ensure its trade/energy security needs; and developing a stable neighbourhood to amalgamate the pursuit of these goals collectively.” (Ogden 2017, 50-53) These themes outlined certainly seem to underpin the overt aims of the Samvad series of conferences: “conflict avoidance” and “environment consciousness.”  

Samvad was launched in 2015 by Indian and Japanese prime ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe. Both harbor grand visions of what their countries are and can ideally represent as Asia’s largest and most influential democratic nations. It is no surprise that the last two Samvad conferences beyond the diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri in New Delhi were in Myanmar—seat of a deep-rooted Buddhist monastic establishment that Aung San Suu Kyi always saw herself as part of far more than any Western liberal institution (VIF delivered a speech on the Burmese state counsellor’s behalf in Ulaanbaatar)—and now Mongolia, where the Buddhist leaders of Gandan Monastery have joined hands with politicians to “balance” the interests of this burgeoning, informal alliance of Buddhist Asian Democracies­.

Gandan Monastery, 8 September 2019. 

Pressing against India’s flank are pro-China countries unhappy with India’s regional dominance, as well as with India’s claim to being the historical seat of Buddhism. Nepal, specifically Lumbini, is where China has concentrated large amounts of funding, but Sri Lanka and Pakistan have also been angling for a formidable challenge to Indian assumptions about Buddhism. These include pointed reminders about Sri Lanka’s custodianship of Theravada Buddhism in Ceylon and Pakistan’s shared nurturing of Buddhism through the millennia, including the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, the flourishing of Mahayana Buddhism, and the birth of Padmasambhava: Vajrayana Buddhism’s central saint.  

Over the past four years, India has attempted to challenge the charge that Buddhism “went extinct” in the country of its birth in the 12th century. It has thrown open the doors to considerable Japanese investment in Bodh Gaya and other sites along its vaunted “Buddhist tourism circuit,” which was the central theme of the country’s sixth international Buddhist conclave in 2018. Finally, through Samvad, it has attempted to build its own entente of “BAD” that, when seen on a world map, appears as a direct answer to China’s Buddhist allies: Japan to the east, Mongolia to the north, and Myanmar to the south. Samvad friendlies and observers like Vietnam and South Korea pepper the peripheries, but are always kept in New Delhi’s orbit for the next biannual Samvad conference.

There are still open questions. India has not quite threaded the string of Gelug diplomacy completely. An ideal situation would be one where the channels of power were unblocked from Kalmykia, the seat of Russian Gelug Buddhism, through Dharamshala where the Tibetan establishment’s voice is supreme, and upwards into Bhutan (currently caught between a Sino-Indian tug-of-war that boiled over into a diplomatic and military crisis in 2017) before finally reaching Mongolia.

Perhaps a certain degree of openness is actually helpful in these extremely complex situations, as Russia’s close friendship with China prevents it from trumpeting its closeness to the Dalai Lama since the Soviet days. Mongolia finds itself in an equally complex position; a landlocked country with a tiny population relative to its geographical size, in an existential struggle to balance the interests of influential powers like China, Russia, India, and Japan. Nevertheless, since 2015, the fog of war has slightly dispersed. We now see more clearly whose side Mongolia seeks to play the game on.

Despite the BJP’s understanding of itself as a Hindutva political movement, Modi has always seen Buddhism as part of the Indic family of faiths, and that is why observers sometimes have struggled to square the circle of how Modi and his allies have, whatever their faults, been responsible for a resurgence of Buddhist diplomacy unseen in modern Indian history. British journalist George Monbiot wrote of Brexit: “But what counts above all else is ideology, as ideology successfully pursued is the means to power. You cannot exercise true power over other people unless you can shape the way they think, and shape their behaviour on the basis of that thought. The long-term interests of ideology differ from the short-term interests of politics.”

Words like conflict avoidance and environment consciousness (Samvad’s consistent conference themes) might have sounded peculiar, perhaps even redundant, back in 2015. Now, those words conjure a very specific mode of Buddhist action: one that always leads back to New Delhi’s very unique understanding of transnational Buddhist power.

Raymond Lam is senior writer of BDG

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