This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

Post-independence, India has always been cognisant of the need to not make military power the basis of the country’s foreign policy. From the time of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Panchsheel principles, India has been guided by the ideals of peaceful co-existence.

Though India’s position in the international system has evolved significantly since—and today the rhetoric of India’s great-power aspirations is increasingly heard—ideas that advocate non-coercive power projection are still important to foreign-policy formulations.

The Rising Role of Buddhism in India’s Soft Power Strategy, studies one particular facet of Indian soft power projection: the leveraging of India’s historical associations with the Buddhist faith in diplomacy and foreign policy.

Why Buddhism?

Buddhism’s potential utility in foreign policy is derived to a large extent from the manner in which the faith was revived following the Second World War. The revival had a decidedly internationalist outlook, and focused on crossing extant sectarian and geographical boundaries. This was facilitated by the foundation of a number of organisations and the convening of numerous councils and conferences in the decades after the war that emphasized transnational cooperation between the various Buddhist sects.

It is within this context that one can understand the efforts of the Indian government to incorporate Buddhist heritage to form a basis for further diplomatic, economic, cultural, and strategic associations within its foreign policy.

The established transnational network for Buddhism, and the important role played by the faith in the lives of millions across the world, is what gives it potential for Indian foreign policy. The pan-Asian presence of the religion and its importance for national identities in the region, coupled with its image as a peaceful religion makes it ideal for soft power diplomacy, with its focus on non-coercive power.

Why India?

Despite the fact that it is host to a relatively small population of Buddhists, India can claim legitimacy in its promotion of Buddhist diplomacy for a number of reasons. First, the Buddhist faith originated in India, therefore granting it singular historical legitimacy. Second, India has numerous sites of importance to the Buddhist faith, such as Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, and Nalanda. Third, India has nurtured an image of being a protector of the persecuted through the presence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan parliament-in-exile in Dharamshala.

In addition, historical links to Theravada Buddhism mean that India is in a good position to further relations with other Buddhist countries and create conversation between multiple streams of this faith.

Successfully leveraging these associations with other Buddhist countries could have an impact beyond the realm of cultural diplomacy, and aid in other areas of foreign policy as well. Deepening ties with Asian nations on the basis of Buddhism could potentially feed into the government’s larger policy objectives, for example, the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, and the ‘Act East’ policy.

Avenues of deployment of Buddhist heritage

At the most basic level, Prime Minister Modi has made Buddhism a regular feature of his diplomatic visits. In speeches made on official international visits, such as to Sri Lanka and China, among others, Modi has made a conscious effort to emphasize shared Buddhist heritage. Additionally, on trips to foreign countries, the prime minister reserves one day for visits to Buddhist temples wherever possible. Modi has often spoken at a number of occasions domestically, where he has hailed the importance of the Buddhist faith for the development of both India and the world.

Religious Tourism

Religious tourism in India has been identified as holding great promise. Though India is currently home to seven of the eight most significant Buddhist sites in the world, it receives less than one percent of global Buddhist tourism. South East Asian nations, such as Thailand and Indonesia, are the prime recipients of such tourism.

To remedy this, the Ministry of Tourism is promoting a number of tourist circuits that cross national borders. A press release from the Indian Ministry of Culture in March 2015 detailed a Buddhist tourist circuit that involved visits to sites in Nepal, such as Lumbini and Kapilavastu.

Academic initiatives

As mentioned earlier, the revival of Buddhism was buoyed by the international conferences organised and councils convened that facilitated interaction between members across sectarian and national boundaries. To capitalise on this, a number of conferences that draw global audiences have been organised, such as the ‘Buddhism in the 21st Century’ conference that took place at Rajgir in 2017. In October 2016, the ‘5th International Buddhist Conclave’ was organised in Varanasi by the Ministry of Tourism, with over 240 delegates from 39 countries.

The agenda for the conclave included business meetings between international and domestic tour operators, giving further impetus to the proposed tourist circuits. In 2015, the ‘Hindu-Buddhist Initiative on Conflict Avoidance’ was organised by the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Tokyo Foundation in Bodh Gaya, and inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi.

This conference was of particular importance because of the emphasis laid on the relationship shared by Hinduism and Buddhism, which was projected as one of mutual benefit and growth instead of one of antagonism.

Ancient geopolitical tool

Theoretically, the variety of India’s soft power diplomacy has expanded the scope of soft power rhetoric, by allowing for shared cultural development instead of the export of cultural products. However, in the realm of practical outputs, the Indian government is found wanting when it comes to Buddhist diplomacy. Ambassador P. Stobdan said in an interview that “Buddhism was India’s ancient geopolitical tool that could still be employed to meet the challenges of the new millennium. While there has been a definite acknowledgement of this fact in government rhetoric, the effort has not been put in to truly capitalise on it.

What India has in its favour at the moment is an abundance of resources by way of pilgrimage sites, the presence of the Dalai Lama, and international goodwill, as well as the right intentions. In terms of initiatives at the international level, the government must also ensure that it does not direct its efforts solely at Tibetan Buddhism, and make attempts to promote connections with other Buddhist schools.

The study of ancient languages, like Pali, in which a number of Buddhist texts are written, would also be necessary for the holistic development of Buddhist academia. Entire schools of Buddhist thought, such as Nagarjuna Buddhism, remain largely unexplored in academic study, further expanding the scope for research to be encouraged and funded.

The promotion of Buddhist tourism reminiscent of the ‘Incredible India’ campaign is required to popularize India’s association with the faith internationally. In addition to advertisement, proper management of tourist sites is a must.

Having displayed adequate intent to bolster India’s position in the Buddhist world, the present government faces the crucial challenge of effective execution. This would go a long way in strengthening India’s relations with Asian countries, and helping it further down the path of its regional and global power ambitions.

The Rising Role of Buddhism in India’s Soft Power Strategy, Observer Research Foundation, Shantanu Kishwar