It was relatively recently in 2014 that Indian PM Narendra Modi went on an all-out charm offensive to Buddhists domestically and globally, appearing alongside Asian leaders at Buddhist sites during international trips and appearing personally at Bodh Gaya in September 2015 at the invitation of the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC). While activities related to Buddhist diplomacy have continued, including the building of a monument at the site of a long-lost monastery in Gujarat, the general sense is that Modi’s campaign to woo Buddhist institutions within India and from abroad are not only falling behind China’s, but are losing steam somewhat. Why?
Tensions in the first quarter of this year began to bubble in March when India’s formidable Ministry of Culture held a conference on “world peace” and summoned the Dalai Lama there to address a conclave of guests from India and around the world. The conference was held at Nalanda, a patch of Buddhist land that China has also pinned significant diplomatic hopes on (see my article on the story of the Xuanzang monument for why this place is so sensitive in Sino-Indian relations). Ill will then spilled over into the Doklam dispute in Buddhist Bhutan, a tense standoff that lasted from June to August. As a result, elements of the Bhutanese media’s faith in the Indian government as a sober big brother were shaken and a good deal of goodwill built between Modi and Chinese Buddhists in preceding years (often at Buddhist sites in China) were shaken. During the dispute, the Dalai Lama’s careful silence was an indirect rebuff of Indian efforts to co-opt him as a diplomatic tool.
This reflects a basic problem in the current way Buddhist diplomacy is playing out in India: do Buddhists and Modi even share the same goals and vision?
My proposition is that they don’t. Not yet. Modi’s party of the BJP, a Hindu Nationalist party that invokes nostalgia for ancient Vedic glories, espouses what I call “domineering universalism”—a way of relating to other faiths that insists on the sameness of all traditions, so much so to the point that any notion of difference becomes meaningless. Interfaith and Theosophist scholars during the early 20th century, often with good intentions, tried to reconcile the many different world religions by asserting that they all came from the same source. The problem with this assimilationist idea is that for all its noble attempts at harmonizing the disparate and contradictory truth-claims of the faith traditions, it paradoxically allows for no difference or disagreement because we all must be the same. In the case of the Hindutva movement, all rivers lead to the same ocean of Brahmanic Hinduism.
Hindus who believe in the BJP’s political goals therefore believe that the Buddha is the ninth avatar of Vishnu, an idea that has helped to assimilate Buddhism into Hindu culture and religion for centuries. I know this because Modi said so himself in a speech at the first Samvad conference in Delhi in 2015, the same conference for which he would later fly out to Bodh Gaya for. His speechwriter really should have left out that part. No sincere Buddhist will take the BJP seriously as a partner for promoting Buddhism when its members see Buddhism as basically a Hindu school that just happened to spread around the globe.
To be sure, Modi has engaged with Buddhism at a level unheard of since Indian independence. He expended considerable political, financial, and personal capital on making Buddhism a stakeholder in the statecraft of his India, even if only in a limited sense. He has repeatedly seized the mantle of constitutionalist father Dr. Ambedkar, diagnosing correctly the political alienation felt by Buddhist minorities (even if words might not translate into action). He actually deserves quite a bit of credit, if only for his audacity in trying to co-opt us.
Yet until the BJP, or any future Indian government for that matter, acknowledges this fundamental disconnect between the contemporary majority Hindu view of Buddhism and how Buddhists outside of India understand their tradition, Modi’s own party ideology will continue to severely hinder his outreach to international Buddhists.
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