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In a remark made by Narendra Modi at the UNGA recently, he observed, not for the first time as a broad theme, that India was a land of peace and not a land of war, with obvious reference to Pakistan’s allegations against India’s actions in Kashmir. He reportedly said: “Hum us desh ke vaasi hain jisne vishwa ko Yuddh nahin Buddh diye hain…” Social media predictably reacted sharply over this, especially Dalit-Bahujans. They  wondered why Modi (and others from the Hindu right) always trotted out the figure of the Buddha to a foreign audience whenever they needed to put on a facade of peacefulness, yet exhibited an ugly and violent violent face inside the country with impunity and arrogance – an angry Hanuman, saffron-clad right-wingers gallivanting during Ganeshotsav, say, with swords, lynch mobs and Bajrang Dal goons.

The criticism of using the figure of the Buddha as India’s “soft power,” or India’s foreign policy mascot, is valid and on-point, though in some ways it has a history at least as old as the modern Indian nation. As historian Himanshu Prabha Ray records in her book, “The Return of the Buddha: Ancient Symbols for a New Nation,” Buddhist symbols such as the Dhammachakra and the Ashoka capital were adopted by Nehru as representative icons for the new Indian state soon after India’s independence.

The use by Modi of the Buddh-Yuddh symbolism at UNGA is not without precedent – he has made similar points on occasions before, utilizing  the same twin descriptors. In his speech to the Constituent Assembly of Nepal in 2014, he reportedly said: “You [the Nepalis] have abandoned Shashtra or weapons and followed Shaastra, the scriptures,”…  “You have abandoned the path of Yuddha or War and followed the path of Buddha.” [1]

He repeated this catch phrase again during Ramlila celebrations in Lucknow in 2016: “‘Sometimes war becomes inevitable because of the existing situations. There was war in the life of Lord Ram and Lord Krishna. But we are those who can move ahead from yuddha (war) to Buddha. We make a balance between the two,’ Modi said …’Buddha’s path should be our final path,’ he said.” [2]

Modi has courted Buddhist favors assiduously and has consciously associated himself with Buddhist ritual and ceremonies around the world. He has made visits to Bodh Gaya, participated in various Vesak celebrations, addressed Buddhist gatherings and conferences, and has even put his hometown of Vadnagar, which he claims has Buddhist remains and associations, on the Buddhist tourism map. In fact, in 2014 when the Chinese president Xi Jinping stopped by in Ahmedabad, Modi’s personal site featured a page demonstrating evidence of the Buddhist heritage in Gujarat. [3]

Modi’s great affinity for Buddhism is at odds with the relationship and reception that several Hindu groups have had with the Buddha and Buddhism, and specifically the RSS. Savarkar’s key treatise, Hindutva, found fault with Buddhism for weakening the martial spirit of the Hindus and being responsible for the capitulation to the Muslims. This was, of course, repeating a much older argument with which Brahmanical sources had been running down Buddhism for centuries –  certainly, for not paying heed to the Vedas, but also significantly for its ideology of non-harm and pacific methods. The second sarsanghchalak of the RSS, M.S. Golwalkar repeated similar arguments against Buddhism. [4]

Given the historic dismissal and low-estimation of Buddhism by the Hindutva forces (and several other Hindu organizations like the Hindu Mahasabha), it should indeed be very dissonant to see Modi’s almost unabashed insinuation into and co-option of the Buddhist narrative. The explanation, that he is doing this as a foreign policy strategy is probably not the complete story.

Before the UP assembly elections in 2017, BJP organized a Dhamma Chetana Yatra across UP. The Yatra was composed of a body of Buddhist monks, led by a controversial monk called Dhamma Viriyo Mahathero. Though the yatra, and Dhamma Viriyo, were protested at almost every step of the yatra, BJP pushed through with the yatra, pouring in all resources it could. After its victory in the assembly elections in UP, it publicly thanked and felicitated the monks: “While addressing the event BJP general secretary Bhupender Yadav said that the organisation under Viriyo had greatly helped the BJP. Bhupender Yadav said, ‘Dhamma Viriyo had been a great strength to this phenomenon of change.’” [5]

But, one has to carefully parse Modi’s public statements regarding the Buddha and Buddhism even when he seems to be praising the Buddha. Consider some snippets from his speech at Bodh Gaya in 2015 on the occasion of the Hindu Buddhist Conference on Conflict Avoidance and Environmental Consciousness:

“In this symposium we have been talking about one of the most impactful teachers in world history, Gautama Buddha. His teachings have inspired millions of people over centuries.

Today, we are also celebrating Janmashtami, the day Lord Krishna was born. The world has so much to learn from Lord Krishna. When we talk about Lord Krishna we say, श्री कृष्णम वंदे जगतगुरुम -Shri Krishna, the teacher of all teachers; the Guru of all Gurus.

Hindu philosophy was one of the greatest beneficiaries of the advent and the teachings of the Lord Buddha.Many scholars have analysed the impact of Buddha on Hinduism. In fact, Adi Sankara was even critiqued for the way he was influenced by the Buddha and Sankara was called as “Prachhanna Boudha” — meaning Sankara was Buddha in disguised form. That was the extent of influence of the Buddha on Adi Sankara, regarded by many as the tallest Hindu philosopher. At the mass level Buddha was so venerated that Jayadeva in his Geeta Govinda even praised him as Mahavishnu or God himself who descended to preach Ahimsa. So, Hinduism after the Buddha’s advent became Buddhist Hinduism or Hindu Buddhism. They are today an inseparable amalgam.” [6]

Notice, the subtle ways in which a balancing act between Buddha and Krishna is maintained and also the “Buddhist Hindu,” or the “Hindu Buddhism,” terms that he employs, almost innocently, almost deferentially, to suggest the “amalgam.” This effort of Modi’s to call for a bonding across the wider Buddhist world based on the Indian claim to the Buddha also has a chilling and uncanny historic precedent. In the early part of the 20th century, several organizations, including the Hindu Mahasabha, were very active in outwardly trying to support Buddhism and also expressing ideas of a grand alliance against Asian Buddhist people: “Efforts at fomenting an ‘Asiatic Brotherhood’ between India and Japan were particularly pronounced in the 1930s when several prominent Japanese Buddhist (Nichiren) monks settled in India,” as the work by Douglas Fairchild Ober, Reinventing Buddhism : conversations and encounters in modern India, 1839 – 1956,  makes amply clear in his sections such as “Brahminizing Buddha: Sanatan dharma and the All-India Hindu MahaSabha.” [7]

Pushing the fact of India being fountainhead and disseminator of global peace on account of “giving the world the Buddha,” also seems unforgivably gimmicky and tacky. It tries to deny, obscure and whitewash the many instances of deep-rooted violence within the country. It is also, in  historical perspective, an exercise in deception, obfuscation, self-congratulation – and self-absolution. This kind of a statement cannot be a value-neutral statement, made without context; it only makes sense in comparison with some other state or region which, so the insinuation goes, did not “give the world Buddh but gave it Yuddh instead.”

Statements and claims as being made by Modi are ironic because Indian kingdoms committed aggressions against none other than Sri Lanka, which are well recorded:

“The land that sent the Buddhist religion to Ceylon also sent invaders to plunder its Buddhist monuments…during the eleventh century, when the imperial Chola kings of southern India sent invading armies into Ceylon, bent upon occupation and plunder.” [8]

The Colas (Rajendra Cola) are also supposed to have sent expeditions against the kingdoms of Srivijaya (Indonesia) and parts of Malaysia. [9]

These might not count as export of a culture of war or some endemic inclination for raids and foreign conquest  – but they do stare in the face of a claim that India never engaged in any form of war like activities. As historian Upinder Singh notes in her book, Political Violence in Ancient India, about the northern Indian kingdoms: “In early historic north India, relations between states were marked by alliances…as well as incessant warfare (p. 277).”

And this violence, the violence associated warfare, aggression, conflict which Modi seems to be drawing attention to does not even include the violence practiced by the Brahmanical Hindu society when it kept the system of caste intact over its entire recorded history. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was constrained to look into the moral basis of Hinduism in his essays like the Philosophy of Hinduism to make sense of the moral underpinnings of a belief system which would sanction and uphold an unjust and unequal socio-religious system like caste.

While the Buddhism being promoted by Modi might be instrumental to the “Look East, Act East ” foreign policy as laid out in detail in the paper titled, “Modi and Buddhism: Between Cultural and Faith-Based Diplomacy,” [10] it is also important for Modi to understand that China too has an interest in pushing the Buddhism-as-soft-power strategy, as the paper just mentioned highlights. And, not surprisingly, the Chinese President Xi Jiping’s visit to Nepal from his recent trip to Mamallapuram, caused speculations about talks regarding a high-speed train-link from Lhasa to Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal, Lumbini. [11]. Two can easily play this game, and with Beijing’s resources and clout, the crouching dragon seems to understand Buddh and Yuddh far better than the duplicitous understanding of the hiding “tiger.”

 

  1. https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/narendra-modi-speaks-nepali-language-in-his-speech-nepal-parliament-202700-2014-08-03
  2. https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/a-question-of-sources/cid/1453219
  3. https://www.narendramodi.in/buddhist-heritage-in-gujarat-6600
  4. https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/a-question-of-sources/cid/1453219
  5. https://www.financialexpress.com/india-news/for-uttar-pradesh-assembly-polls-win-bjp-thanks-buddhist-body-for-help/811733/
  6. https://www.narendramodi.in/text-of-pm-s-address-at-mahabodhi-temple-in-bodh-gaya-290934
  7. Ober, Douglas Fairchild. 2016. “Reinventing Buddhism : Conversations and Encounters in Modern India, 1839 – 1956.” Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETDs) 2008+. T, University of British Columbia. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0340476.
  8. Spencer, George W. (May 1976). “The Politics of Plunder: The Cholas in Eleventh-Century Ceylon”. The Journal of Asian Studies. 35 (3): 405–419.
  9. R. C. Majumdar (1961), “The Overseas Expeditions of King Rajendra Cola”, Artibus Asiae 24 (3/4), pp. 338-342, Artibus Asiae Publishers
  10. https://www.academia.edu/19382437/Modi_and_Buddhism_Between_Cultural_and_Faith-Based_Diplomacy
  11. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/xi-jinping-india-nepal-state-visit-first-president-in-23-years-6066478/

Ananda Maitreya is a Delhi-based writer and a student of social movements. He has been involved in various struggles of the marginalized people, including Dalit and Adivasi movements and the Palestinian struggle.


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