Suthichai Yoon in Bodh Gaya
By The Nation/Asia News Network
It was a typically hot, sunny day. But you could feel an occasional breeze that calmed the mind. Buddhist monks from Asian countries and local Hindu swamis were chanting together under the Bodhi tree where Lord Buddha found enlightenment 2,603 years ago.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sat serenely nearby, his eyes closed in meditation. I was seated with about 50 other delegates from countries around the world - just two metres away. He was calm and collected, as if mentally chanting in unison with the monks.
Whether you call it a faith-based strategy or "Buddhist diplomacy", Modi was launching a unique initiative by calling for a transformation from "conflict resolution" to "conflict avoidance".
When he declared that Bodh Gaya would be developed as a "spiritual hub of the Buddhist world to strengthen the civilisational bonds between (Hindu-majority) India and the Buddhist nations", Modi was spearheading a new style of diplomacy aimed at preventing conflicts by shifting the focus from ideology to philosophy.
Speaking at the concluding ceremony of a two-day Global Hindu-Buddhist Initiative on Conflict Avoidance and Environment Consciousness, the Indian PM declared: "Buddha, one of the spiritual masters, is the crown jewel of the Indian nation, who accepts all ways of worship and religions, a principle that sustains its secularism."
Modi noted that he was the first Indian prime minister to have made a significant visit to this world-renowned Buddhist site since Jawaharlal Nehru 65 years ago.
"The government of India would like to provide all possible support that its Buddhist cousins need for the satisfaction of their spiritual needs from this holiest of holy places for them … to turn Bodh Gaya into the capital of world Buddhism."
There is little doubt that under Modi, Buddhism is beginning to acquire an unprecedented weight in India's Asian policy.
In his opening address to the conference in New Delhi two days earlier, the Indian leader noted that "severe limitations in our conflict-resolution mechanisms are becoming more and more obvious".
He then proposed: "We need significant, collective and strategic efforts to prevent bloodshed and violence. It is thus no surprise that the world is taking note of Buddhism. This is also a recognition of historical Asian traditions and values, which can be used to shift the paradigm to conflict avoidance, to move from the path of ideology to philosophy."
The conference was organised by the Vivekananda International Foundation, which is close to the Modi government, the Tokyo Foundation and the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC).
The fact that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined the conference in a video clip extolling the idea of using Buddhist and Hindu principles to pursue "conflict avoidance" emphasised a new dimension of Asian diplomacy in which India and Japan may join hands in promoting peace through moral authority.
Meanwhile China's decision to stay away underscored the different stand taken by Beijing. "We did send invitations to China. But apparently, they couldn't make up their minds," said a senior member of the organising committee.
Modi pointed out that "intolerant non-state actors" are now controlling large territories where they are unleashing barbaric violence on innocent people". Dialogue, he stressed, was the solution to all problems.
The second conflict, he said, is between nature and man, between nature and development, and also between nature and science. Dialogue to bring conflict avoidance is the key here, rather than the current approach of "give-and-take" conflict-resolution negotiations.
Since taking office last May the Indian leader has emphasised a "Look East" policy.
No doubt, by moving to bind two great world religions, he is attempting to gain a diplomatic advantage by using the land of Buddha's enlightenment as the springboard for a new initiative, at a time when China is striving to neutralise the influence of the Dalai Lama, who has made Dharamsala in northern India the site of his Tibetan government-in-exile.
Modi spiced up his Buddhist diplomacy with a strong reminder that this "extraordinary development" also coincides with "the rise of Asia".
And when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj delivered the valedictory address to an audience of leading religious and academic figures from across Buddhist Asia, including Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Mongolia, there was no mistaking the message: India is treading new ground and is bringing religion into foreign policy.
An Indian academic told me: "Modi's injection of religion into foreign policy and climate-change policy will certainly cause some unease. So far, India has consciously kept religion out of politics, even when its past leaders talked about shared culture and civilisation. But, apparently, Modi has no qualms about making that big break. However, he has to handle this new direction with great care. He can't afford to be seen to employ it against any particular country or group of countries."
Diplomats noted that while Modi chose to appear in person at the Buddhist ceremony at Bodh Gaya, he deputised Minister for External Affairs General VK Singh to attend the victory parade in Beijing marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Some naturally questioned whether the Modi-Abe solidarity over the Hindu-Buddhist initiative in New Delhi on September 3 was a clear signal to China.
But Buddhism and Hinduism are all about peace and the "middle path". If the traditional, Western, simplified perspectives of conflict between faiths and civilisations have failed to provide solutions, Asian cultural values based on religious harmony and understanding should then be given a chance.
Critics may claim that Modi is exploiting Buddhism for political gain. But, if he manages to mobilise the forces of morality, harmony, goodwill and understanding in the international arena to resolve certain specific issues through "conflict avoidance" instead of "conflict resolution", he will have made a new breakthrough in world diplomacy.
However, only when words turn into concrete actions will we know whether the declarations at this sacred Buddhist site last week are mere rhetoric or the start of a real "Hindu-Buddhist Initiative".