The battle for Buddha


The latest Indo-China spat is just another chapter in the ‘Great Game with Buddhist characteristics’, says Ashok Malik

 Dalai Lama
Lightning rod The Dalai Lama’s presence in India has irked China no end
Photo: AP

IN NOVEMBER, Beijing called off border talks with New Delhi in protest against the Dalai Lama addressing a Buddhist conference in the Indian capital. Was the objection to the Tibetan leader’s presence or the Buddhist gathering or both? Is this merely a reflection of China’s trademark tetchiness about its ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region’ or one more episode in the subtle struggle for what an Indian diplomat calls “the IPR on Buddhism”?

Foreign policy observers took notice of this rather unusual battle in Singapore in November 2007 during the ASEAN summit. The Asian Civilisation Museum hosted an exhibition of Buddhism. At its opening, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the only visiting head on government to address the audience.

This gesture was not just an acknowledgement by Singapore of India’s help in putting together the exhibition, it also pointed to a contest for the soul of Asia. This hinged on, essentially, two questions. One: which is the true Buddhist homeland? Two: who qualifies for insider status in East Asia?

The exhibition was India’s big Buddhist statement. Marrying cultural cartography with political suggestion, its various panels made some fairly significant points. For instance, the layout of the exhibition made clear that Buddhism travelled from India to China, Sri Lanka, Central Asia and East Asia. Second, there was a section on Chinese monks — such as Hiuen- Tsang and Fa-Hien — who came to India to learn about the Buddha and carried his legacy back to their country.

Why was this messaging necessary? China had been looking for ways in which to thwart India’s Look East policy. While it could not match India’s Buddhist antiquities, it did play another card: race. The East Asia Summit of 2007 took place in Singapore. It was essentially a meeting of the ‘ASEAN+6’. In the days before the summit, China sought to inject a caste system, and categorise the collective as ‘ASEAN+3 +3’.

“Beijing tried to convey,” a Ministry of External Affairs official then said, “that China, South Korea and Japan being nations of Mongoloid people were closer to East Asia, while India, Australia and New Zealand were not.” The target was India, which China wanted to keep out of the ASEAN inner track. The move was resisted by India, with support from Japan and Singapore. India’s response was that the common feature the East Asia community needed to invoke was not race or ethnicity but shared cultural values as rooted in traditions such as Buddhism.

Since then, the ‘Great Game with Buddhist characteristics’ has intensified. In 2008, China organised its own global conference on Buddhism. In 2010, President Pratibha Patil travelled to Luoyang, in China’s Henan province, and consecrated a Buddhist temple inspired by the Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh. Luoyang is regarded as the nursery of Chinese Buddhism, and is the birthplace of Hiuen-Tsang.

Further, two transnational Buddhist projects are coming up in India. In Nalanda, Bihar, a university is being built with Japanese and Singaporean help. Recently, the Chinese have shown ‘me-too’ interest. In Sanchi, the Madhya Pradesh government is planning a Buddhist University in collaboration with Sri Lanka’s Mahabodhi Society.

The Tibetan question only adds to the mix. In renewing Chinese claims on Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, Beijing is seeking proprietary rights on an ancient Buddhist monastery revered by Tibetan Buddhists. The Dalai Lama recognises a spiritual but not territorial relationship between Lhasa and Tawang. On the other hand, Beijing, alive to a possible fog of succession after the Dalai Lama’s passing, is seeking to convey it is more sensitive to Tibetan rights on Tawang than the government-in-exile in Dharamsala. Wherever he is, the Buddha must be smiling a sardonic smile.

Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka. 
[email protected]


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