PM Narendra Modi’s Visit To Nepal’s Lumbini Showcases Indian Buddhist Diplomacy

India is increasingly using its rich cultural and historical heritage for diplomatic outreach.

PM Modi in Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Nepal on Monday on the day when Buddhists across the world celebrate the birth of Lord Buddha in Lumbini, not far from the India-Nepal border.   

Modi took part in a traditional shilanyas ceremony to start the construction of the India International Centre for Buddhist Culture in Lumbini together with his host, Nepal’s Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. Monks belonging to three major Buddhist traditions, Theravada, Mahayama, and Theravada, performed the rituals.

India will join a clutch of other countries like Japan, Myanmar, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam that already have cultural centres in Lumbini. It will be an eco-friendly modern building which will be “net-zero compliant in terms of energy, water and waste-handling, and will house prayer halls, meditation centers, library, exhibition hall, cafeteria, offices and other amenities,” said the Ministry of External Affairs in a statement.

Besides the Buddhist Centre, a memorandum of understanding was also signed between the Indian Council of Cultural Relations and the Lumbini Buddhist University to establish a Dr Ambedkar Chair of Buddhist Studies. India’s iconic Dalit leader had converted to Buddhism, leading to many of his followers to embrace the religion. 

Indian Buddhist diplomacy

Modi’s visit to Lumbini is a testimony of India’s growing use of Buddhist diplomacy. In every country he visits, he takes time to visit a Buddhist or Hindu temple to promote India’s cultural and religious links.

India is leveraging its soft power and its shared Buddhist credentials across Asia to build goodwill in the region. This is not new. Successive governments in the past have brought into play India’s rich historical and cultural heritage to establish people-to-people links. 

With 97 per cent of the world’s Buddhist population living in Asia, this becomes an important diplomatic tool to gain friends and to influence governments. The Nalanda University project in Bihar is an example of Asia’s interest in promoting Buddhist values and culture. It is funded by India and major Asian countries.

In India’s immediate neighbourhood, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka regard Buddhism as a part of their national identity. Japan too is mainly a Buddhist country, though the Japanese do not proclaim it as part of their national identity. Cambodia’s constitution declares Buddhism as the state religion. Considering India is trying to establish close business and political relations with East Asia, Buddhism can play an important role in adding depth to diplomatic content.

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar said, “Buddhist diplomacy works hugely. It strikes a very responsive chord in people. I remember when I was posted in Thailand, a sapling from the Bodhi tree taken from India as a gift was worth its weight in not gold but platinum.’’ 

How has India used Buddhism as a diplomatic tool?

“We could have done much better,” said Sajjanhar. 

“However, in the last few years, India is playing much more attention to culture and soft power for diplomatic outreach,” added the former envoy. 

He also spoke of China in past decades and said, “China has been laying claim to its Buddhist heritage by organising conferences and claiming old historical links to Buddhism. India should have been more active in the past.” 
India has a trump card in combating China's attempt to claim a historical Buddhist heritage.

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibet, is the international face of Tibetan Buddhism that has been ruthlessly crushed by China. The Dalai Lama has been living in exile in India since the takeover of Tibet by the Chinese in the late 1950s. The fact that the Dalai Lama has been living in Dharamshala since has bolstered India’s image across the Buddhist nations.  

In 2011, the Manmohan Singh government hosted a Global Buddhist Congregation to celebrate the 2,600th year of Buddha’s enlightenment. The Dalai Lama gave the keynote address. Hundreds of Buddhists from across the world participated in the conference held in India’s capital. China sent a strong protest and cancelled a scheduled meeting on the boundary issue. 

The Dalai Lama is invited to official functions whenever India wants to needle China. India like most other countries abides by the One China Policy. In 2017, the Dalai Lama was again invited to inaugurate a seminar on Buddhism in the 21st century held in Rajgir in Bihar. China did not miss the opportunity to protest loudly and warn India. 

Every time the Dalai Lama visits the Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh, there are howls of protest from China. But since the summer of 2020 when People’s Liberation Army troops came into Ladakh and the military confrontation in Galwan, New Delhi would gradually lift the ban on official engagements with the Dalai Lama. The process is already on. Previously, Indian government officials and ministers were barred from meeting the Tibetan leader in their official capacity.

India is not the only country to use the Dalai Lama to make China bristle. America does it regularly, and so do many European leaders.