Drawing on over a decade of reporting on Buddhist affairs, religion journalist Raymond Lam outlines India’s pursuit of Buddhist diplomacy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who found a soulmate strategist in Japanese counterpart Abe Shinzo. The spiritually inspired initiative included links with Nepal and Mongolia but appeared aimed at leaving China on the sidelines.
Buddies in Buddhism, 2015: Then Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo and Indian counterpart Narendra Modi prayed together and performed a puja of the Ganges River at Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi (Credit: narendramodi.in)
As it regains its historic place as the center of the global economy and world events, contemporary Asia is bound together by contrasts. Large swathes of the largest and most populous continent live in poverty, even though its most aspirational cities resemble visions of the future, inspiring the cyberpunk literary landscape that has become a cornerstone of science fiction.
The lifestyle of these cities is often frenetic and bustling, yet it is now in vogue to learn and get back in touch with Asia’s ancient spiritual traditions and the wisdom of millennia past. A final contradiction that I have learned firsthand is that “Buddhist diplomacy” is a thing, a thoroughly recent and modern creation, despite drawing on perhaps the oldest religion tradition binding Asian nations together. Theoretically older bodies of spirituality such as Hinduism or philosophical Daoism do not quite cut it. The Indian vision of Buddhist diplomacy appeals to ancient history while rooted in contemporary geopolitical concerns. It is also a universalist Dharma (the nature of reality or truth), as opposed to the narrowly domestic Dharma of Hindutva, yet is also exclusively “Indian.”
To be clear, each country has its own geostrategic expression of this manner of soft mediation. The Pakistani approach (unusual as it may sound, there is a Pakistani strategy, which is all about claiming Gandhara civilization as the country’s heritage) differs from the South Korean approach, which differs from the Thai approach, and so on. India began exploring Buddhist diplomacy relatively recently, which would seem a surprise given the government’s now-constant refrain: that Buddhism began in India, and as far as the Indian government is concerned, that means that Buddhism is an Indian religion. Note that the two assertions are not logically connected. Christianity began in Roman Palestine but no Palestinian nationalists use the apocalyptic teachings of a Jewish end-of-times preacher in opposition to Israel’s territorial claims. “Buddhism is Indian due to its Indian origins” is a unique claim made by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
My first contact with Indian Buddhist diplomacy occurred in 2014, one year before the turning point that would position India’s strategy as one crafted to project the country’s stewardship of an ancient, homegrown religion. That was also the year in which I met the Indian consul-general in Hong Kong, who had organized an exhibit on Gandhara Buddhist art in Wanchai, a busy district in the heart of Hong Kong Island. Over the next couple of years, until he moved on to another diplomatic assignment, the consul-general would sometimes send me piecemeal glimpses into the unfolding Indian strategy of Buddhist diplomacy.
Through both direct and indirect channels with the Indian consulate, I would come to learn of a project that Modi was planning – Samvad (meaning “dialogue”) – that was to reshape the role of Buddhism in India and also position Buddhism as a diplomatic tool like never before. This initiative would be kicked off by two influential defense-oriented think tanks on the Indian and Japanese sides – the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Tokyo Foundation – and be ultimately carried forward by the Indian government’s outsourced wing for Buddhist contact, the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC).
The Japanese connection
The shock assassination on July 8 of the Abe Shinzo, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, violently removed not only an influential shaper of Japanese policy for the past decade but also – and few would recognize this – an advocate of Japanese Buddhist diplomacy. He wedded his vision with Modi’s as early as 2015, shortly after the Indian leader had visited Xi’an, China, in the May of that year.
With whose vision of Buddhism was India’s Buddhist diplomacy more compatible – China’s or Japan’s? After Modi had cast his die in September 2015, rolling in favor of Abe rather than Chinese leader Xi Jinping, his gamble paid off with an official visit by his Japanese counterpart to India in December of that year. This led to the two men committing to “a deep, broad-based and action-oriented partnership, which reflects a broad convergence of their long-term political, economic and strategic goals” – given the grandiloquent title of the “Japan and India Vision 2025 Special Strategic and Global Partnership Working Together for Peace and Prosperity of the Indo-Pacific Region and the World”.
It is likely that Modi shared with Abe an Indo-Japanese vision of a constellation of “Buddhist democracies”, led by a partnership between Asia’s most populous and its most prosperous democratic states. This was not explicit in even the statements that emerged from future Samvad conferences; nevertheless, at the very first Samvad conclave, which Modi attended and Abe joined by video call, emphasis was made on two commonalities that implicitly sidelined China. First, there was the shared democratic heritage of India and Japan – as Asia’s largest and most economically influential democracies. Second was a pointed reconfiguration of the Silk Road, made with full awareness of China’s attempt to define the Eurasian landmass as a Sinocentric one through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
This vision connected Bodh Gaya – the region that Modi consistently touted as the origin and true home of Buddhism – to the ancient Japanese capital of Nara (where Abe was fatally shot), bypassing the Chinese Silk Road hub of Xi’an (Chang’an) completely. An additional, implied snub in this Indo-Japanese entente was that Japan, not China, was the ideal custodian of Buddhism after it fell into decline in India. Contestation over “post-Indic” Buddhism is an extremely sensitive subject for Asian nationalists of all stripes, and Modi knew Japan would bask in Indian approval.
From Abe’s perspective, India’s closeness would help him realize his vision for Asia's “strategic diamond”, which consisted of Australia, India, Japan and the United States. This later on would be transformed into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad. But Modi, of course, was all about Bodh Gaya. On September 3, 2015, at the opening of the First Samvad Conclave, he declared before our assembled Buddhist delegates that India was “taking the lead in promoting the Buddhist heritage across Asia.” Two days later, we were ushered to Bodh Gaya and led into the grounds of Maha Bodhi Temple – I had never seen it under such tight and ferocious security. There, for his Indian and Buddhist audiences, Modi sat down under the Bo Tree and meditated (briefly) while Buddhist representatives of the three vehicles chanted their respective liturgies. He was a new Dharma king, a Hindutva Ashoka, equally comfortable with plugging India’s Buddhist connection domestically and internationally, while having a foot in his real populist base: Hindu nationalism. The first conclave was, notably, styled as a Hindu-Buddhist dialogue on conflict avoidance and environmental consciousness.
Nepal in the middle
In a recent article about China and India’s tussle over Nepal (an aspect that I will return to below) in ThePrint, Binoj Basnyat, a retired Nepali Army major general and a security analyst, noted that China’s objective was to “create internal cohesion through Buddhist correlation.” This can be applied in a different sense to Modi’s unique ideal of Indic civilization. Modi, as a Hindu nationalist, wants internal cohesion. It does not matter that he is not defined as, nor does he see himself as, a Buddhist nationalist. In fact, the Hindu nationalism is the point – for Buddhism to be part of this grand unifying ideology that transcends religious boundaries. The Buddhist diplomacy of China is similar: China’s Communist Party is officially atheist, and arguably, Confucianism has guided Chinese statecraft and society more than Buddhism. Yet Buddhism, if not at the core of ruling ideology, is not at the periphery either but, being somewhat in the middle, informs it.
The success of this approach is mixed, especially with India. Too often, it has also been swept up in broader geopolitical considerations that deprive it of its unique rationale, which was in theory relatively original in the first year of Samvad.
Consider Nepal as one example. Basnyat notes that “Buddhist diplomacy was perceptible between Nepal and China from 2011 onwards, with the infrastructure projects that connect the Chinese mainland to the birthplace of Buddhism, which then was enforced during President Xi’s October 2019 Nepal visit.” China had vociferously supported Nepal’s own push to be recognized as a rival center of Buddhism – notably, despite being part of the “Indic” culture complex and both countries having active Buddhist communities, Nepal’s modern borders are drawn so that Lumbini, the birthplace of the Blessed One, is in its sovereign territory. New Delhi chafed at this claim and was further angered by Beijing’s encouragement of Kathmandu to push this narrative.
In December 2015, I had attended a Samvad-related seminar hosted by the IBC. It was in an Indian state that few foreigners are familiar with – Tripura, with its equally little-known capital, Argatala. Yet like many Indian border states such as Sikkim, Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura is geostrategically critical. A glance on the map will reveal that it is close to Myanmar, a country with its own proud Theravada heritage and with its own balancing act to play between China and the West’s Asian allies. But bizarrely, at this seminar, the chief guest was none other than Nepal’s minister of tourism and aviation at the time, Ananda Prasad Pokharel. I have no doubt that this was an attempt, or tentative overture, to repair relations between Nepal and India. They were at their frostiest in decades, especially after what amounted to a New Delhi-sanctioned blockade of Nepal’s border with India by Madhesi protestors, resulting in staple goods and supplies such as fuel, food, clothing, and medicine being prevented from reaching Nepal. This was particularly devastating after the great earthquake in April of that year.
This overture was unsuccessful, it seemed to me. In 2016, the Nepal Culture Ministry had hosted a Vesak celebration with the theme, “Preservation and Development of Buddhist Heritage of Nepal,” with Lumbini variously titled as “Birthplace of Buddha” and “Fountainhead of Buddhism”. India boycotted the conference. Then, as 2017 dawned, and the newly elected administration of Donald Trump intensified the adversarial stance of the United States towards China, Samvad also began to change. As I noted at one point, it was increasingly framed as a democratic alliance in direct opposition to Beijing’s BRI, with India and Japan targeting countries around China’s periphery. Conclaves and smaller meetings invoking the Samvad name were held in Myanmar, Thailand and Japan – all American allies.
Sino-Indian relations spiraled further, and the correlation with occurrences at IBC’s events is eerie. In fact, one can pick almost any year since 2017 a spat between China and India, whether it was the Doklam standoff in Bhutan from June to August 2017, or the dispute over Sowa-Rigpa medicine in 2020. The latter, being a relatively obscure dispute about its origins, was particularly bitter, because at its heart was a core obsession in geostrategic relations and diplomacy: national pride and ownership of heritage. Buddhism finds itself in a similar situation, with both China and India, as highlighted above, sparring over who has “custodianship” over its legacy in Asia: its place of official origin, or the country that did more to spread it as a classical religion of Asia’s courts and kingdoms?
The Mongolian connection
In 2019, India scored a major diplomatic victory in Mongolia that was led by a vanguard of Buddhist representatives from both countries. From September 6-7, I was in Ulaanbaatar reporting on the Third Samvad Conclave, which was followed up a fortnight later by a state visit to India by Mongolian president Khaltmaagiin Battulga from the 19th to 23rd. This trip (which included a visit to Bodh Gaya) was a long time in the making and, compared to India’s fortunes with Nepal, was quite successful.
In May 2015, the same year of Samvad’s launch, Indo-Mongolian ties were elevated to the level of “strategic partnership”. I am convinced that the Buddhist voice lent further weight to strengthening Indo-Mongolian relations. As the titular head of state, Ram Nath Kovind, India’s president said to Battulga in a meeting on the 20th: “We are not just strategic partners but also spiritual neighbors connected by our shared Buddhist heritage. Centuries-old people-to-people exchanges have been the bedrock of our ties. Buddhist monks and traders from India travelled to Mongolia with the message of peace, harmony and friendship. Similarly, over the ages, Mongolian scholars and pilgrims came to India in pursuit of Buddhist studies and spiritual blessings. This ageless tradition continues.”
On September 20, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs released the “Joint Statement on Strengthening the Strategic Partnership between India and Mongolia”. The thirty-five points of the document are expansive, covering everything from space exploration to strategic cooperation. But four are devoted to Buddhism, referring to the unveiling by Battulga and Modi of the statue of Buddha and his disciples, the successful organization of the birth centenary of a Buddhist monk who played a crucial role in Buddhist linkages between India and Mongolia, the “successful” organization of the Third Samvad Dialogue in Ulaanbaatar, and the “valuable role of Buddhism in traditional, historical relations and cooperation between the two countries.” The statement also announced that the two sides would commission a study to trace the civilizational connection between them and that Delhi renewed an offer to provide assistance for the digitalization of Buddhist manuscripts in various Mongolian institutions, which Mongolia welcomed.
What seems like a common characteristic with Buddhist diplomacy, at least in my experience with its Indian expression, is that it functions as almost like a herald, a forerunner, of deeper bilateral ties to come. Buddhist figures and leaders, supported by their national governments and politicians, join in fraternal warmth and mutual praise. A few months later, but usually in the same year, a bilateral document is inked by leaders of the countries in question, with Buddhism serving as only one part of broader economic, political and strategic agreements.
During the “forerunner” Samvad event in early September 2019, I was struck by how the mutual praise exchanged between Indian delegates and Mongolian hosts had been replicated in different events with different countries. Common language and discourse consisted of words like “civilization,” “heritage,” and “history.” The truth is that India shares all three with Nepal and China as well as its democratic Buddhist allies (we have not even broached the Russian question, as the Russo-Indian relationship, especially in regard to Vajrayana and the Dalai Lama, is even more complex). The question is which country deserves the mutual sharing of this heritage, and it is this power to “share”, to unevenly dispense “Buddhist legitimacy”, that is the currency India, like China, is attempting to spend for its own benefit.
The grand chessboard – with the Buddha as a player
With the recent assassination of Abe, the Buddhist soft culture approach, especially that which has been carried out by the IBC, will surely have to undergo a strategic shift. I was never an insider at the IBC, but I know that considerable funds were expended to host these conclaves and various smaller activities over the years, many of which have had little to show for politically. I have only covered India’s dealings with Nepal, China, Japan, and Mongolia here. There have been other countries that were involved in the Samvad initiative – Vietnam and Thailand come to mind as prominent examples, with South Korea and even Russia having had lesser presences in the conferences and meets over the years.
India has enjoyed only mixed success with its Buddhist diplomacy so far, which shows in the reduced activities of the IBC. Covid-19, which struck in 2020 and hit India particularly hard in 2021, adversely affected the international flow of Buddhists. For now, livestreaming and online Dharma talks seem to be the affordable way forward for IBC. And even before Abe’s death, there was no guarantee that his successor, Kishida Fumio, has anywhere near the same level of interest in the Indo-Japanese Buddhist connection as his predecessor.
What could push the present strategic uncertainty around India’s Buddhist diplomacy, however, is what China does next as the People’s Republic increasingly perceives a faltering of the liberal world order, internal division and chaos within America’s political system, and a war in Ukraine that its ally, Russia, looks set to win over the medium to long term. India has often reacted to China’s moves, and should China inject new momentum into its own BRI-tied Buddhist diplomacy, which has flagged slightly since 2018 (and that is a whole other story), India will no doubt want to match that renewed effort. Buddhism, as it once was in the ancient and medieval past, is both influencer and pawn in the modern courts of Asia’s politicians and powerbrokers.
Banerjee, Sharbani. (July 8, 2022) “Shinzo Abe and Indo-Japan Ties”, The Statesman, Kolkata, India.
Basnyat, Binoj. (June 16, 2022) “Buddhism a point of power rivalry between India, China. The grand theatre is Nepal”, in ThePrint, New Delhi, India.
Buddhistdoor Global. (October 3, 2020) “Buddhism and Asia’s Future – China’s New Silk Road and the Indo-Japanese Samvad”, Buddhistdoor View, Buddhistdoor Global, Hong Kong.
Lam, Raymond. (April 28, 2022) “The Third Eye: Buddhist Perspectives on the Future of Asia and the World”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Vivekananda International Foundation. (2019) “Media Coverage of Third Samvad Conclave in Ulaanbaatar”, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi, India.