Thursday, May 21, 2015

Using soft power to hardsell spirituality

My article Using soft power to hardsell spirituality appeared in the Edit Page of The Pioneer.

Here is the link...

Prime Minister Modi has been promoting a new term, ‘spiritual neighbourhood’. He used it during his trips to Sri Lanka and more recently to Mongolia to link up with Buddhism. It makes for good diplomacy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invented a new concept in diplomacy, ‘spiritual neighbourhood’. Addressing the Great Hural, the Mongolian Parliament, the Prime Minister affirmed, “I bring the greetings of your 1.25 billion spiritual neighbours. There is no higher form of a relationship; no bonds more sacred than this.”
Mr Modi added, “As in the life of a human being, in the life of a nation, too, few things are as precious as the gift of friendship.” He reminded his Mongolian hosts that “around two thousand years ago, monks from India crossed difficult terrain and long distance to spread the message of Lord Buddha in this enchanting land”.
After a successful visit to China, the Prime Minister could not mention that the spiritual bridge linking India and Mongolia was Tibet. During the 13th century, the Tibetan Lamas from Sakya converted the belligerent Mongol Khans to the pacifist doctrine of Gautama Buddha. Before changing the lives of the steppe men, the Dharma had travelled from the plains of Nalanda to the Roof of the World.
For centuries, Tibet was close to Mongolia (in 1913, both nations, then independent, signed a Treaty of Friendship). In 1932, a year before his death, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama prophetically warned the Tibetans in his testament: “Remember the fate that befell the Mongolian nation when Communists overran the country and where the Head Lama’s reincarnation was forbidden, where property was totally confiscated and where monasteries and religion were completely wiped out. These things have happened, are happening and will happen in the land which is the Centre of Buddhism (i.e. Tibet).”
We know what befell Tibet in 1950. It is a pity that the Prime Minister could not mention the case the Ninth Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa, the head Lama of Mongolia who, in 1959 took refuge in India, where he spent most of his life revitalising the Jonang Buddhist tradition, prevalent in Mongolia. During the last years of his life, he returned to his native country, where he was reinstalled as ‘The Protector of Beings of the North and Leader of all the Buddhist Schools’; he eventually died in Ulaanbaatar in 2012.
The concept of ‘spiritual neighbours’ is exceedingly important for India’s soft power diplomacy. China might be far advanced as far as infrastructure or economy is concerned, but India is the only nation which can take the lead in spiritual matters. Buddhism and yoga are indeed good ambassadors of India’s sacred traditions, which have sustained for thousands of years.
It does not mean that China is not active, even in this field. Here too Beijing wants to be the leader. On October 27, 2014, The Buddhist Channel, a global news platform which provides news on Buddhism, reported that “China lays claims to leadership of the Buddhist World”. New agency Xinhua elaborated: “Hundreds of the world’s Buddhists gathered at an ancient temple in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province to open the World Fellowship of Buddhists’ 27th general conference. …more than 600 representatives from 30 nations and regions were in attendance.”
When it is convenient, communist China believes in the Buddha (and even in the re-incarnation of Buddhist masters). In 1957, on the occasion of the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, a hardcore communist, brought to India relics of the Great Monk; this pleased Jawaharlal Nehru immensely.
The highlight of the Shaanxi conference (incidentally, it is where Mr Modi met President Xi Jinping, when he recently landed in China) was the speech of the Chinese-selected Panchen Lama, Gyalsten Norbu, who urged Buddhists worldwide to jointly strive for deepened exchange and cooperation. Norbu told the international gathering, “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.”
Well, the ‘real’ Panchen Lama, selected by the Dalai Lama 20 years ago, still languishes under house arrest somewhere in China. This is the other side of the coin: While Beijing promotes Buddhism for political reasons outside China, it is banned (or policed) for sections of society, like with the Tibetans. One can understand that, at a time the membership of the communist party is shrinking, hundred million Buddhists could be subversive for the regime in China. Can Buddha be more popular than Karl Marx?
The March trip of Mr Modi to Colombo should also be seen in the context of ‘spiritual neighbours’. While visiting Sri Lanka’s ancient capital Anuradhapura and offering prayers at the sacred Mahabodhi tree, the Prime Minister had noted, “Sri Lanka is where Buddhism has truly flourished.” During his official visit to Japan, the Prime Minister had reminded his hosts, “Buddhism from India has inspired Japan for over a millennium.”
All this is significant at a time when China is trying hard to take the leadership of the Buddhism movement in Asia; with Beijing having a lot of money to invest in ‘soft’ diplomacy, many are tempted. Remember, in November 2012, it was reported that Mr Pushpa Kamal Dahal, ‘Prachanda’, the Nepal Maoist leader, had signed a deal with a shadowy Chinese from Hong Kong, Xiao Wunan, for developing Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace. Xiao was to put three billion dollars in the venture. Finally, it did not materialise, but it showed that money was not a problem for the Chinese.
The Dalai Lama has never been able to visit Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka or Myanmar, where tens of millions of Buddhists live — just because Beijing opposes the trips. It was comforting that soon after Mr Modi’s return from Sri Lanka, the Tibetan leader met with a delegation of Sri Lankan Theros (senior monks), to discuss Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic discipline. It is a rather rare occurrence, as the followers of the Buddha rarely ‘exchange’ their views on their respective interpretations of the Buddha’s words. On the occasion, the Dalai Lama reminded his Sri Lankan colleagues: “We are all followers of the same Buddha.”
It was refreshing that New Delhi took the initiative to host a dialogue between Theravada and Tibetan/Himalayan monks of the Nalanda tradition. A long way since November 2011, when before the Global Buddhist Congregation organised by the Ashoka Mission in New Delhi (with an attendance of some 900 monks and nuns from over 40 countries), Beijing objected to the presence of the Dalai Lama at one of the functions. After China threatened to call off the 15th round of the border talks between the Special Representatives, the then Indian Government backed out; both the Prime Minister and President were suddenly too busy to attend. As far as Buddhism and Hinduism is concerned, India should take the lead. It will be a plus in Modi sarkar’s tally.
In Bhutan
In China
In Japan

In Sri Lanka
In Nepal

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