Home Global Village Buddha Diplomacy: Pakistan uses its inter-religious past to build modern ties

Buddha Diplomacy: Pakistan uses its inter-religious past to build modern ties

Pakistan joins the competition to win influence in Asia. China and India, in part to win influence in Asia, use the Buddha as a tool. Hundreds of Buddhist heritage sites are scattered across Pakistan, last week the country sent sacred relics to Sri Lanka for the Vesak festival.

Buddha Diplomacy

News Analysis |

India’s bid to invoke Lord Buddha in its outreach to some of its neighbors now faces a new challenge and it comes from Pakistan. New Delhi has so far been competing only with Beijing in leveraging the legacy of Buddha in diplomatic outreach in South and South-East Asia.

Islamabad, however, joined the race and of late invoked Buddhist legacy of Pakistan in its ties with countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal. Both New Delhi and Islamabad last week sent sacred relics of Gautama Buddha to Sri Lanka on the occasion of Vesak Festival in the island nation.

The Vesak Day or Buddha Purnima is the holiest day for the Buddhists around the world. It commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha in Theravada Buddhism. The relics sent from Islamabad to Colombo had been originally discovered during an excavation near Dharmarajika Stupa, which had been built at Taxila, now in Punjab province of Pakistan, in the 3rd century BCE.

Buddhism was the faith practiced by the majority of the population of Sindh up to the Arab conquest against the usurping Hindu kings by the Umayyads in 710 AD. Today Buddhists live mainly in Sindh and some parts of South Punjab.

The Dharmarajika Stupa had been excavated by Ghulam Qadir in 1912-16 under the direction of legendary archaeologist John Marshall. The stupa had been built to enshrine Lord Buddha’s holy relics which had been redistributed by Mauryan King Asoka, according to a press release issued by the High Commission of Pakistan in Colombo.

New Delhi, too, sent sacred relics of Lord Buddha to Sri Lanka on the occasion of the Vesak. The relics included one found by John Marshall near Dharmarajika Stupa at Taxila in Pakistan but had later been brought to India. The other relic sent by New Delhi had been found by A H Longhurst of Archaeological Survey of India in 1929 in Maha Chetiyaor, a large stupa at Nagarjunakonda in Guntur district of the then Madras Presidency. The second relic had been enshrined at Sarnath near Varanasi in India, according to the High Commission of India in Colombo. The relics sent by India to Sri Lanka is currently on display at Temple Trees in Colombo.

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As part of their growing competition for influence in Asia, China and India have used the Buddha as a weapon: sponsoring conferences, financing religious sites, and displaying relics in countries where the religion is widely adhered to. In December 2011, India and Myanmar co-sponsored a three-day conference of Buddhist scholars at the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy in Yangon. India’s Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid joined Myanmar’s vice-president U Sai Mauk to inaugurate the conference, which brought together people from across southeast Asia.

“As the international community watches Myanmar with renewed interest, it is only apt that this important meeting of scholars – designed to provide us with a better understanding of the depth and global spread of Buddhist influences – is being organized in this golden land, Suvarnabhumi,” Khurshid said in his speech.

Khurshid also attended a ceremony to mark the unveiling of a five-meter statue of the Buddha in Yangon’s glittering Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most revered Buddhist shrine. The statue had been donated by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his visit to Myanmar in May 2011.

According to experts, the tussle between India and China over Buddhism may be the beginning of a new cold war in the region where religion and commercial interest play a crucial role. India has often used the Tibetan Buddhist government in exile to stir up trouble in neighboring China in the same way it terror proxies in Pakistan.

The stupa had been built to enshrine Lord Buddha’s holy relics which had been redistributed by Mauryan King Asoka, according to a press release issued by the High Commission of Pakistan in Colombo.

Pakistan while new to the game is using this religious diplomacy in order to fight off Indian machinations to isolate it. Hundreds of Buddhist heritage sites are scattered across the length and breadth of Pakistan: crumbling testaments to the moral and cultural power that was once enjoyed by the tenets of the Noble Eightfold Path – the teachings attributed to the Buddha. Taxila, Sirkap, Takht-e-Bahi, Dharmarajika, Mohra Muradu are but a few of the names of sites that we are familiar with – where Stupas and carved stones speak of a flourishing Buddhist past.

Read more: Brutalized Dalits leave Hinduism for Buddhism

The region that is today known as Pakistan once had a large Buddhist population, with the majority of people in Gandhara (present-day North Western Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan) being Buddhist. Gandhara was largely Mahayana Buddhist and was also a stronghold of Vajrayana Buddhism. The Swat Valley, known in antiquity as Uddiyana, was a kingdom tributary to Gandhara. There are many archaeological sites from the Buddhist era in Swat.

The Buddhist sage Padmasambhava is said to have been born in a village near the present day town of Chakdara in Lower Dir District, which was then a part of Uddiyana. Padmasambhava is known as Guru Rinpoche in Tibetan and it is he who introduced Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet. Buddhism was also practiced in the Punjab and Sindh regions.

Gandhara remained a largely Buddhist land until around 800 AD, when the Pashtun people migrated to the region from Southern Afghanistan and introduced the Islamic religion. Most Buddhists in Punjab converted to Hinduism from 600 AD onwards. Buddhism was the faith practiced by the majority of the population of Sindh up to the Arab conquest against the usurping Hindu kings by the Umayyads in 710 AD. Today Buddhists live mainly in Sindh and some parts of South Punjab.


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