Stories about the demise of Buddhism in India are grossly exaggerated

After reading his own newspaper obituary, Mark Twain said: “The news of my death is grossly exaggerated.” Likewise, having been informed of the disappearance of Buddhism in its native land, I now realize that this understanding, also rather misunderstood, is guilty of gross exaggeration. Recent archaeological evidence from Krimila in Bihar shows that new Buddhist monasteries, including the one led by Vijayashree Bhadra, a nun, were established until the end of the 11th century CE, centuries after the alleged disappearance of Buddhism in India. Critically, Buddhist communities continued to exist in some Patachitra painting villages of Odisha, there were the Shakya of Uttar Pradesh, the Baruah Buddhists of Bengal and the Himalayan communities stretching from Ladakh to the eastern Arunachal Pradesh. Buddhist communities in Tripura bond with those in Bangladesh and Myanmar, forming a large Theravada branch that continues into greater Southeast Asia. (These are cited just to highlight the continuity and heterogeneity of Buddhist communities in India and should not be taken as an exhaustive list).

India’s Buddhist heritage, art and architecture, ethics and values ​​have been deeply rooted in Indian traditions, so much so that it is almost impossible to separate the various strands according to the ‘theological origin. Therefore, any discussion of the revival of Buddhism in India amounts to misinterpreting history. What is absolutely necessary, and what is happening with the support of the government, is to bring attention to this heritage and the presentation of its multifaceted manifestations to Indians and the world. What has happened is that we have not been able to project the Buddhist component onto the heritage of India to an adequate extent, affecting a double loss for both Buddhism and for the ‘India. First, Buddhist sites – there are thousands of them all over India – are not as well developed in terms of access, facilities and information. Fortunately, the development of the Devni Mori complex in Gujarat, Aastha Kunj in Delhi and Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh, for example, shows that things are changing. Second, most non-Buddhist countries do not automatically link Buddhism with India and do not view it as the land that gave birth to Buddhism and supported it to become the world religion that it is. It is the efforts to try to correct the image that are very important and can potentially be misunderstood.

India is not only historically the land of Buddhism, but also the center of Buddhist studies. Indian universities and academies welcome thousands of foreign students who come here to study Buddhism.

The International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) was established in 2011 to bring together Buddhist communities from around the world on one platform. Many predominantly Buddhist countries have national mahasanghas, while many are less structured. There are important monasteries and academies, universities and lay congregations. The IBC has members in 39 countries. In Russia itself, there are members in three of its republics including the Republic of Kalmykia, the only majority Buddhist region in Europe. Although funded by the Indian government, the IBC is not a government body and in the coming years is expected to mobilize resources from various sources so that it can potentially serve as an effective platform to bring Buddhists together. of the whole world. It is also necessary to dispel the feeling that the Indian government is playing the Buddhism card as a strategic instrument in Asia, to counter efforts elsewhere to appropriate the Buddhist heritage.

Big parties are organized twice a year. One, during Vesak – Buddha Purnima, which marks the birth of Buddha, enlightenment and Maha Parinirvana. The other is Asadha Purnima, also known as Guru Purnima, who marks the first turn of the Dhamma wheel on the day that Buddha delivered his first sermon to Sarnath. In addition, the IBC and its members organize many local functions, including Dhamma talks for the benefit of believers and non-believers.

The IBC also tries to work with national governments to showcase the Buddhist heritage of this country. An exciting trip to Uzbekistan, where the government went to considerable effort to restore stupas near the town of Termez, on the border with Afghanistan, had to be postponed due to Covid-19 restrictions. Buddhist organizations and media groups from India, the Republic of Korea and Japan formed the core of this contact group. There are the ruins of many Buddhist monasteries in the region, and the Kyrgyz Republic and Kazakhstan are said to be the next countries whose heritage needs to be better known.

India is not only the land of Buddhism historically, but also the center of Buddhist studies. Even today, Indian universities and academies welcome thousands of students from foreign countries who come here to study Buddhism. In order to strengthen the academic partnership, the CIB with the support of the Ministries of Culture, Tourism and External Affairs (Indian Council of Cultural Affairs) and Nava Nalanda Mahavihara are organizing a global Buddhist conclave focusing on the theme of Buddhism in literature in Nalanda on November 19 and 20. In order to generate momentum and attract the participation of academics from all over the world, this conclave would be preceded by eight regional conferences, four of which in India. These would be in Dharamshala, Gangtok, Hyderabad and Sarnath (in India) and in Bangkok, Tokyo, Phnom Penh and Seoul. A scholar-to-scholar exchange program is also being launched, whereby the IBC would send Indian scholars to universities and academic institutions abroad and invite foreign scholars to spend time at universities and Indian institutions.

As mentioned earlier, the IBC also works closely with state governments to develop Buddhist sites and create a suitable environment in such places for Buddhist organizations around the world to establish their presence there.

The effort is clear and it is not political, far from being geostrategic. India needs to project its rich Buddhist heritage and re-establish itself as the main center of Buddhist studies. At the same time, being home to almost all of the holiest places in Buddhism, India needs to strengthen its partnership with Buddhist organizations around the world. The IBC and its partners take the help of their respective national governments to facilitate their work, but these do not go beyond the stated objectives of our institutions.

The last thing strategic thinkers should advocate is that India play the Buddhist card, because such an approach would necessarily be transactional and not generate greater goodwill. Far from helping the country gain a strategic advantage, it might have a backlash. India should instead step up its efforts to make much of the world feel that India is their spiritual home, to which they would come to renew their beliefs and help make the world a better place.

The author is Director General of the International Buddhist Confederation, New Delhi.