Even as India and China are locked in a military standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, the two countries are battling for influence over the Buddhist world.
This week India used its strong ties with Buddhism not only to expand its influence over Buddhist monks and scholars around the world, but also to assert and assert its sovereign rights over Arunachal Pradesh. Which is a state in the northeast of India where China claims about 90,000 sq km. of the field.
On 17 April, the Indian Himalayan Council of the Nalanda Buddhist Tradition organized a major Buddhist convention at Xemithang in Arunachal Pradesh. The event was attended by around 600 Buddhist monks and scholars including spiritual leaders of Tibetan Buddhism from across India.
Visits of Indian leaders and the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh, as well as important global events that India hosts here, never fail to attract Beijing’s ire. It is likely that the conference at Xemithang would have been closely watched by an angry Beijing.
Located in Arunachal’s Tawang district, Gemithang borders the Tibetan Autonomous Region. It is of immense importance not only in contemporary Tibetan history but also in India’s relations with Tibetans.
It was at Xemithang that the 14th Dalai Lama made his first stop on his way to India on March 31, 1959, after escaping Chinese repression in Tibet. Since then, the Tibetan spiritual leader and about 100,000 Tibetans have been living in exile in India. It is in Dharamsala in India that the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile is located.
The significance of the location of the meeting must have been noted by the Buddhist scholars attending the event, and certainly by Beijing.
The dust has just settled from the Arunachal incident that India will host another global Buddhist event, this one in New Delhi.
More than 170 delegates, including monks, scholars and representatives of Buddhist organizations from 30 countries, as well as around 150 Indian delegates, will participate. Global Buddhist Summit (GBS) in the Indian capital on 20 and 21 April. The GBS is being hosted by the Government of India and the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC), which comes under the Ministry of Culture.
China will be a notable absentee. “The Chinese are not coming. Invitations have been sent…” IBC Director General Abhijit Halder told the media on Monday. The Delhi event will have two participants from Taiwan. Haldar said on Monday that the Dalai Lama, who is at the center of a controversy over his alleged inappropriate behavior with a young boy, could not attend the meeting due to “health issues”.
Global conferences on Buddhism and other events in India, especially those in which the Dalai Lama participates, regularly draw Beijing’s ire. Tibetan spiritual leader was invited to deliver the keynote address in a 2011 GBC event To mark the 2600th anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment. China objected to their participation but the event, which saw the participation of 900 Buddhist scholars from 46 countries, went ahead as planned.
A furious Chinese government retaliated. This led to the suspension of the China-India boundary talks between the special representatives of the two sides.
Just as important as their battle over territory is the India-China contest for leadership of the Buddhist world. Both countries pursue their ties with Buddhism.
Although Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born in Lumbini in present-day Nepal, all the important events of his life related to Buddhism such as his enlightenment, first sermon and ‘Nirvana’ took place in India. Therefore, India sees itself as the birthplace or cradle of Buddhism.
China on the other hand likes to project its role revival of buddhism, When Buddhism declined in India from about the 5th–6th centuries CE and all but disappeared in its native land, it was in China that it gained a new lease of life.
Today, China and India pull Buddhist Heritage as a Soft Power Resource To reach out to Buddhist societies around the world. They send Buddhist relics such as teeth or bone fragments of Buddha to Buddhist countries for display. They fund the construction of Buddha statues and shrines there and provide scholarships for Buddhist studies. Buddhism is an important component of their diplomatic outreach in Asia.
China displays its support for Buddhism abroad to negate global perceptions of its role in the destruction of Tibetan Buddhism. Like India, China hosts global Buddhist meetings. Its Programs of World Buddhist Forum Attract monks and scholars from many countries. For example, these meetings are jointly organized by the cities of China and Taiwan or Hong Kong.
Like India, China’s interest in hosting global Buddhist conferences is driven by the Tibet question. It is keen to ensure that Buddhists around the world will support its choice of successor to the current Dalai Lama. Hence its diligent courtship by Buddhist monks and organizations around the world through hosting conferences and funding activities. It has used WBF programs to promote and project Gyaltsen Norbu, his appointment as the second-ranking Panchen Lama in Tibetan Buddhism.
Given its deep hostility towards the Dalai Lama, China has never invited him to WBF meetings.
Should the Tibetan leader stay away from the IBC meeting in Delhi – he is scheduled to speak on the second day of the two-day event – Beijing would be relieved.
All eyes will be on the New Delhi meeting on Friday. Will the Dalai Lama come?