A state visit to China this month by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi included visits to a number of Buddhist sites of historical significance in Sino-Indian relations. Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, for example, is famous for being one of the repositories of the sutras and statues that the Chinese monk-pilgrim Xuanzang (602–64) brought back from India in his acclaimed journey to the west. Modi also visited Daxingshan Temple (a short distance from Xi’an’s southern gate), which hosted the influential tantric master Amoghavajra from 756 until his death in 774. In both places, Buddhist scriptures of various schools were painstakingly translated from Sanskrit into Chinese, marking one of human history’s most successful examples of cultural assimilation.
By visiting these hubs of Sino-Indian religious exchange, Modi offered Asia watchers, policymakers, and commentators a statement about the bonds that bring nations together to work toward shared prosperity and purpose. By paying tribute to a common tradition between his country and China, he was touting a bond that existed between the two countries long before they were even invented in the modern sense. Buddhism was the conduit connecting China and India while they were still “civilization-states.” Modi is well aware that cultivating all-important economic and geopolitical ties needs deeper cultural (preferably religious) symbolism to set legitimizing parameters for a narrative of joint heritage and fortune shared.
This is not Modi’s first time to invoke Buddhism in international diplomacy: as the first country he went to as prime minister, he prioritized Buddhist Bhutan. Aside from developing Buddhist sites for the tourism industry, he has also made commitments to excavate and preserve such sites across 17 Indian states. Modi is also notable for being the third prime minister to commemorate Vesak—official celebrations of this festival since Indian independence have been confined to 1956 and 2007. In his Vesak message, Modi positioned the festival within a much larger pan-Asian story, stating that the Buddhist teachings were a vital part not of India’s heritage alone, but also of Asia’s heritage as a whole.
While Modi was in China, the state-owned Chinese Film Corporation and Indian firm Eros International made a carefully timed announcement that actors Huang Xiaoming and Amitabh Bachchan would star in a co-produced film about Xuanzang—an example, one imagines, of the far-reaching, reciprocal benefits awaiting cultural development and business. If envisioned creatively and coordinated competently, such partnerships between Chinese and Indian non-profits, state institutions, and private enterprises could extend beyond entertainment into other fields. For example, a new and modernized Journey to the West route for sightseers, starting from Xi’an and stopping at real-life locales mentioned in Wu Cheng’en’s novel, could be an imaginative economic and cultural investment.
Sino-Indian relations aren’t perfect and despite Modi’s political pragmatism, his government is not shy to express grievances. During his China visit, diplomats tiptoed around the disputed border issue in the Himalayas. Of much greater concern was Indian foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s claim that India was never approached about the Silk Road Economic Belt. The belt is a plan to resurrect the Silk Road for the 21st century by building a network of railways, roads, and ports from China and Central Asia to Rotterdam and Venice. It is the continental component of Xi Jinping’s central geopolitical ambition, the “One Belt, One Road” vision, which also includes the littoral aspect of the Maritime Silk Road, embracing Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Mediterranean. Jaishankar pointedly called the Silk Road Economic Belt “a Chinese initiative,” hinting that it would be up to the Chinese to approach India for the latter’s inclusion in the plan. Military disputes and wrangling over “One Belt, One Road” could therefore distract from initiatives for Buddhist-themed Sino-Indian development, which would require significant time, negotiation, and investment to enact.
Those who believe that Buddhism can play a constructive part in the Sino-Indian conversation should define the debate as a choice between diplomatic distractions and stagnation versus an unmatched opportunity to nurture the “civilizational continuity” between China and India—with Buddhism at the heart of the narrative. There are grounds for optimism. Along with a slew of European and Asian countries, India is already a founding member of China’s other great project, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). As it claims to focus on integration and connectivity, it seems sensible for the AIIB, once it is fully established by the end of this year, to invest in projects that bring India and China closer while connecting the dots between sustainable economic growth and cultural and social development (Buddhism being among these cultural dimensions).
For centuries, Buddhist symbolism was deployed to legitimize the rule of monarchs across Asia.* This month, a contemporary form of Buddhist “legitimation” was appropriated by Modi to make a statement about the relationship between China and India. However, if his visits to Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and Daxingshan Temple are to have any meaning beyond the merely symbolic, Buddhism should function as a stimulus for sustainable and interconnected economic projects that encourage cultural and religious awareness as well.
Beyond India and China, Buddhism can serve as an impetus for deeper unity between the various regions of the world that share its heritage. Buddhist ties can be strengthened between countries like India and Mongolia, China and Thailand, or Japan and Vietnam, among many others. Even countries that have an archaeological history of Buddhism (not necessarily a living tradition), such as Afghanistan or Pakistan, could share in this endeavor. As Eurasia becomes ever more integrated, Buddhism could offer a universal language of peace to cultures increasingly diverse.
*Sinologist Erik Zürcher explained how Buddhism, after the 4th century, sanctified Chinese emperors with Indian ideas like the chakravartin (universal ruler), skillful means (upaya), and the supramundane protection of the imperial court through the manifestation of Buddhas and bodhisattvas (Zürcher 2013, 96–97).
For more information, see:
Indian PM Narendra Modi: “21st Century will never be a Century of Asia without Buddhism” (Buddhistdoor International)
Indian PM visits China to strengthen ties (Steppe Dispatches)
India and East Asia: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Buddhist Diplomacy” (Global Research)
China-India Co-production about Pilgrim-monk Xuanzang Confirmed (Buddhistdoor International)
Modi Calls on China to Rethink Stances That Strain Ties to India (The New York Times)
Zürcher, Erik. 2013. “Buddhism in a Pre-Modern Bureaucratic Empire: The Chinese Experience.” In Buddhism in China: Collected Papers of Erik Zürcher, edited by Jonathan A. Silk, 89–103. Leiden: Brill.