From popularity among Dalits to promoting tourism: the new life of Buddhism in India


Earlier this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated Kushinagar International Airport. Eastern UP airport should serve the Buddhist tourist circuit. Since 2016, the Ministry of Tourism has been actively promoting India’s first transnational tourism circuit. The tour map includes Bodh Gaya, Vaishali and Rajgir in Bihar, Kushinagar, Sarnath and Shravasti in UP as well as Lumbini in Nepal.

The story of the birth of Buddhism in India is well known. Although Buddhism was very widespread in ancient India and was even designated as a state religion by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC AD, it slowly lost its importance over the years.

In recent years, however, there has been a gradual revival of religion. Historian Upinder Singh in her article, Exile and Return: The Reinvention of Buddhism and Buddhist Sites in Modern India notes: “It is clear that Buddhism never really disappeared from India, even though it declined and was relegated to the geographic, political and cultural fringes. Singh argues that this is due to the fact that Buddhism was “swallowed up by Hinduism” and suffered from a lack of political patronage and loss of material support due to the economic turmoil caused by frequent wars.

The revival of Buddhism in India can be historically mapped and attributed to several factors including geopolitics, the popularity of religion among lower castes, the exile of the Dalai Lama in India as well as the attractiveness of Buddhism among more populations. youth.

Buddhism and the Dalit community

Dr BR Ambedkar (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1956, on the 2500e anniversary of the death of the Buddha, Bhimrao Ambedkar publicly pronounced the vows of Buddhism with 400,000 of his Dalit disciples. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Dalits and tribes have converted to Buddhism.

According to Ajahin Prasheel Ratana Gautam, a respected Buddhist monk, “Ambedkar has revitalized Buddhism in India and many Buddhists in India are grateful to him for transforming their lives.” Dalits have a very close connection to Ambedkar, and Prasheel uses this connection to encourage children to follow in Babasaheb’s footsteps. Every time he visits the United States, he comes back with a $ 1 bill. When he identifies a student who has shown a particular commitment or potential, regardless of his faith, he gives him a laminated copy of that note to hang over his bed. It is a reminder for them to keep working hard so that they can emulate Ambedkar by studying in America, and someday return to uplift the country themselves.

Prasheel also attributes Dalit support to the core values ​​of Buddhism which prioritize equality and dignity. Citing the example of Hinduism, he said, “A person born as a Dalit can never become a Brahmin because Hinduism is a caste-based religion. In Buddhism everyone is considered equal and even women can achieve enlightenment and join the monastic order. This perspective of equality particularly appeals to Dalits and other marginalized populations in part because of their low status in society. Ambedkar himself said: “I love the religion which teaches freedom, equality and brotherhood.

Buddhist tourism

According to Singh, “the promotion of spiritual tourism… is a very conscious goal of the Indian state”. India is the cradle of Buddhism and has the Buddhist Circuit, a route that follows in the footsteps of the Buddha. Starting at Bodhgaya in Bihar, where the Buddha attained enlightenment, the route ends at Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh, where he gave his first teachings and passed away. The Buddhist Circuit is a vital pilgrimage for 470 million people who identify as Buddhists around the world.

As reported by The Indian Express, since the government announced the Buddhist Circuit project in 2016, Rs 343 crore has been sanctioned under various programs, of which INR 278 crore has already been distributed. Additionally, the report notes that in Bihar and UP, the plan is to further develop Buddhist sites, which currently receive around 6% of foreign tourist arrivals nationwide.

Prasheel claims that his interest in Buddhist tourism is complemented by the promotion of religion by Narendra Modi during his international visits. “Encouraging Buddhist tourism is good for foreign investment and promotes the development of India,” he said.

However, there is more to do. According to Prasheel, while there are Buddhist deputies, none of them stand out on the national stage. “If Buddhism had a prominent representative of India at the international level, it would help foster better relations with the countries of East Asia. This visibility would also contribute significantly to the objectives defined in Modi’s Act East policy. Japan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Bhutan all have significant Buddhist populations, and some have even funded Buddhist tourism projects in India.

The Dalai Lama

Another major factor that catalyzed the emergence of Buddhism in India is the Dalai Lama. Forced to flee his native Tibet ten years after the Chinese occupation, the Dalai Lama came to India with around 85,000 followers. According to Singh, with the help of the Indian government, the United Nations and foreign donors, the Tibetan refugees were eventually placed in 52 camps spread across 10 Indian states. Subsequently, a Tibetan central administration, functioning as a government in exile, was established in Dharamsala.

Tibetan Buddhism often differs from other schools of the religion, and Singh notes that there is little overlap between Dalit Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. However, the Dalai Lama’s advocacy created greater recognition of Buddhism internationally and nationally, which resulted in gains for both schools of thought.

Singh adds, the Tibetan government in exile has also “made efforts to promote the study of Buddhist philosophy” which in turn has led to “greater international visibility of Tibetan Buddhists in India, a highlight of the ancient Indian Buddhist heritage, and the fact that India is the original homeland of the Buddha. While Dalit Buddhists and Tibetan Buddhists may have different degrees of loyalty to their home and adopted country, there is considerable commonality in the recognition that India was the soil in which the seeds of Buddhism were found. pushed.

This meeting with Tibet also had repercussions vis-à-vis China. In 1913, the Tibetan government signed the Simla Agreement which designated the border between India and Tibet. Since China’s invasion of Tibet, Beijing has repeatedly refused to recognize the lines demarcated by the agreement. This caused friction between the two countries, made worse by India’s protection of the Dalai Lama and China’s other regional power games. Moreover, although the Indian government does not officially recognize the Tibetan government in exile, as it considers Tibet as part of China, as stated by Manjeet S Pardesi in India’s strategy in China under Modi, “New Delhi implicitly allowed Tibetans to engage in certain political activities. On the surface, there is no encouragement from the Indian government, but below the lines, there is a small, complex system of alliances in which the government passively and sometimes actively promotes Tibet’s independence. .

According to Pardesi, “the Tibetan factor was at the heart of the outbreak of the Sino-Indian rivalry” because the country effectively acts as a buffer between India and China.

For now, India has refrained from taking an active position on the issue. It continues to provide a safe haven for the Dalai Lama but also accepts Tibet as an autonomous region of China.

Popularity of Buddhism among young people

buddhism, Kushinagar, kushinagar airport, Buddhist tourist route, religion, Buddhist tourism, spirituality, monk, Dalit, Ambedkar, Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity, Islam Ajahin Prasheel Ratana Gautam (Express Photo)

There is also an additional factor to consider. Many people who follow Buddhist practices and adhere to Buddhist traditions officially identify themselves as members of other religions. In fact, compared to data from the 1851 census in which 2.48% of Indians identified as Buddhists, in 2011 that number stood at 0.7%. This, according to Prasheel, is because people regard Buddhism “less as a religion and more as a way of life.” This is especially true among young people, many of whom were not registered in the last census.

Buddhism particularly attracts young people because it promotes a sense of community. Manik Soi (27), who identifies as a Hindu, points to this community as a major factor behind his decision to actively practice Buddhist traditions. “The Buddhist community, because of its horizontal structure, encourages members to interact,” he says. Soi regularly attends meetings organized by his local Buddhist chapter and has said that he often relies on spiritual elders and other members of the community when facing challenges in his life. It also helps, according to Self, that Buddhist texts are very practical and easy to read. The texts he follows include a series of letters between a monk and his disciples, in which the former advises the latter on daily problems. “It’s very accessible,” Soi explains, and “has helped me solve several problems in a practical way. The accessibility of these texts would also make them easier to read and understand by Dalits.

Moreover, unlike other religions, Buddhism has notably remained in conflict with politics. According to Prasheel, this is because “unlike the fanaticism displayed by other religious groups, Buddhism is tolerant and promotes brotherhood, solidarity, love, peace and conscience”. Self agrees with this statement. “While other religions have been influenced by socio-political factors, Buddhism focuses less on ritualistic practices and more on fostering a positive state of mind and a positive way of life,” he says. . While other religions share many common aspects, leaders often will not accept the similarities because religion is too ingrained in the political ecosystem. “It came to the fore with the BJP but existed long before with Congress as well,” Soi said. “It is very off-putting to me and although I have explored other religions, I relate to Buddhism because it creates unity. For my part, I cannot think of a single religion, except Jainism, which could aspire to be the same.