On the path of Buddha and his disciples

Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month inaugurated Kushinagar International Airport in eastern Uttar Pradesh to allow foreign tourists and Buddhist pilgrims to reach the important site of Mahaparinirvana temple, where Lord Buddha has attains nirvana leaving behind his earthly body. The completion of Kushinagar Airport is a milestone in the Indian government’s 2016 plan to develop a “Buddhist Circuit” based on world-class infrastructure to attract foreign tourists to India, the cradle of Buddhism and home to its most sacred pilgrimage sites. However, the ambitious tourist circuit can achieve regional objectives.

The Buddhist religious and cultural heritage shared for two millennia between the holy land of Buddhism, India, and its seven partner countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is an important historical tale that connects the eight, even s ‘they disagree politically and culturally today. India can take advantage of this in astute ways through interpersonal diplomacy between SCO members from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan.

India has already taken a first step in this direction. On November 30 last year, as Chairman of the Council of Heads of Government of the SCO, India hosted the Shared Buddhist Heritage virtual exhibition in New Delhi, where it presented Buddhist art, the tapestry and ritual objects from this vast Eurasian region. This must now be followed by a deeper history of Buddhist history, commerce and student exchange, to become truly impactful.

First, India’s internal Buddhist circuit can connect with the wider circuit of developing Buddhist tourist sites in the predominantly Muslim Central Asian Republics (CAR) and those part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. the road”. This will require tracing the living heritage of Buddhism and its archaeological remains in SCO countries to its roots in India.

More than physical connectivity, it is the spread of a historically factual and holistic narrative connecting these ancient temples, widespread monasteries and caves, that will counter ongoing Chinese attempts to sinicize the Buddhist narrative, not just in the countries of the Maritime Belt & Road Initiative such as Sri Lanka, but also in the Himalayan border monasteries of Leh, Arunachal Pradesh and neighboring India, Nepal and Bhutan. The centrality of India in this story is not only in being the Buddhist Holy Land, but in its role of introducing Buddhism to the SCO region and then continuously disseminating new ideas in this network. for circulation, assimilation and, sometimes, transformation.

A remarkable 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 century. It became the foundation of Chan (Chinese), Zen (Japanese) and Tibetan Buddhism. In turn, it was largely Tibetan Buddhism that traveled to the Russian provinces bordering Mongolia and the only European region where Buddhism is practiced by a majority of people, the Russian Republic of Kalmykia. Often it is the reframing of original Indian beliefs and knowledge into locally acceptable idioms that has popularized Indian Buddhist beliefs abroad.

Second, there is an urgent need to highlight this transnational narrative and its continuum even today, as India is home to the Dalai Lama and the leaders of the major sects of Himalayan Buddhism. This is relevant because Bhutan has around 75 percent of the Lamaist Buddhist population, while Nepal has 10 percent. It is well known that China uses the soft power of Buddhism in these countries to achieve its strategic geopolitical goals. In the case of Bhutan, he favors particular sects for endowments and attention, while in the case of Nepal, he is known to intervene in the appointment of high-ranking monks in an attempt to curb any unrest among the population. Tibetan resident of Nepal, which is likely to spread to the Tibet Autonomous Region. The Indian Buddhist Tour including Lumbini in Nepal as a pilgrimage site offers the tantalizing potential – given Nepal’s almost ready international airport there – to seamlessly extend this tour to India’s neighbors. This links the soft diplomacy of India’s SCO to the Neighborhood First and Act East policies. India hopes to attract Buddhist pilgrims and tourists from South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Far East to the Holy Land of Buddhism.

Finally, the spread of Buddhism, whether through conquest or trade, also coincided with the transmission of age-old knowledge from the Indian subcontinent – such as traditional Indian medicine (Aayush), manufacturing (sugar) and astro- sciences in these regions. Most of the monasteries along the Silk Road during the first millennium were often ruled by Indian monks. They accommodated merchants, travelers and treated the sick using traditional Indian medicine. Even today, among the RCAs, there is an interest in traditional Indian medicine, such as Ayurveda. Exchanges (researchers and students) for this study would be of great interest to these countries.

The idea of ​​common cultural roots among the people of these eight very diverse nations may be the basis for future institutions planned under the SCO, such as the proposed SCO University. Although the SCO as a regional multilateral organization is more of a political, economic and security alliance, India engaging vigorously in its sphere of soft diplomacy will also have a virtuous influence on other dimensions.

This column first appeared in the printed edition on November 27, 2021 under the title “The Buddha Circuit”. The author is Bombay History Fellow, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. She is the author of the report “India and the SCO: linked by Buddhism”

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