Asadha Purnima: India to go big on Buddha’s first sermon

NEW DELHI: Amid tensions with China, the Centre has decided to celebrate ‘Asadha Purnima’ on Saturday to commemorate Buddha’s first sermon to his first set of disciples. Being pushed as an event to show India’s strong Buddhist heritage, the event to be hosted at Rashtrapati Bhavan by the culture ministry will see the virtual participation of leaders from major Buddhist countries, except China.

The Central Tibetan Administration has asked Tibetan Buddhists to participate in the online event in large numbers to “support and appreciate” the effort.

Put together by the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC), the event will see monks from countries such as Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Uganda, UK, US and Vietnam.

“We want to send across a message of Buddha… this is the time to follow the middle path, not engage in violence,” IBC secretary general Dhammapiya said.

Apart from PM Narendra Modi who is expected to deliver a video address, other speakers include President of Mongolia, Princess of Cambodia, King of Bhutan, President of Sri Lanka and several others, he added. As part of the event, chanting of prayers at the Mulagandhakuti Vihara temple Sarnath, the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, Gandan Tegchenling monastery (Mongolia) will be live streamed.

An official said when the IBC – among the three most important institutions of the government to promote Buddhist activities, held its first event in 2011 in New Delhi, some seven buddhist monks from China had participated in it, but after that China has strictly kept away from India’s official events on Buddhism, and has not even sought to be a member of the board of the IBC that has Buddhist delegates from all major countries.

India’s strong ties with Tibetan Buddhism—the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile have been an important facet of the IBC’s approach, which is also seen as among reasons for China to have stayed away. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s World Buddhist Forum (WBF) has been hosting congregations of buddhist monks since 2005. The last one held in 2018 had around 1,000 buddhist monks and scholars from different countries. China’s extensive infrastructure investment in Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal, is also seen as a strategic move to claim the Buddhist legacy, according to experts.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Modi has made Buddhism a regular feature of his diplomacy, making it a point to visit buddhist sites in Sri Lanka and China. He also participated in the culture ministry’s Buddha Jayanti event in May, during the lockdown.

The Sino-Indian geopolitical rivalry over buddhist legacy is not new, B.R. Deepak, Chairperson of JNU’s Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies told ET.

He added that cultural diplomacy is very important at a time of conflict like this, “The timing of the event is particularly important, because this is when both countries would like to resurrect their linkages with others. To show that like-minded countries are coming together sends across a message. What is however important is that one has to put in sustained effort at this, and have a relook at India-China policy with strategic cultural moves.”

Deepak said while Buddhism might have vanished from India as a religion practised by many people, it is still a critical part of India’s civilisational ethos. “There should be buddhist corridors..Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh, apart from UP and Bihar. There could be nodal centres for people-to-people exchanges for those who come from South Korea, Taiwan and other countries,” he said.

P. Stobdan, who tracks political Buddhism told ET that Buddhism has become an important tool in contemporary geopolitics particularly in Asia, and it has become increasingly evident that whoever controls the Buddhist discourse and activities will sway influence in Asia.

“Both China and India have been trying to do that. China has been using its Buddhist influence even in South Asia even in India’s neighborhood, with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan through sponsorship of Buddhist activities. China, under Xi Jinping has been specifically using Buddhism as a tool of influence with the world.”

Although no other country can take Buddhist leadership away from India, the status of Buddhism in India is quite different now, he said. “India has not been promoting its own Buddhist streams or strengthening the original Buddhism. Promoting anything else or any other brand than its own limits a genuine outreach. Even in the contest of Himalayan Buddhism, India should have promoted its own Buddhist leadership,” he said, adding “anything else becomes a subject of contestation, and the essence of using Buddhism as a diplomatic card gets lost.”

“There are elements in the Chinese Communist party and in the PLA who are antagonistic towards India. But there are also hundreds of millions of Chinese who have a deep devotion towards Buddhism… India needs to reach out to those Chinese constituencies too, for long term gains. After all, India conquered the hearts and minds of Chinese for 200 years without sending a single troop to China,” he added.

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