China and Japan didn’t seem to be on speaking terms. Flanking Suranjan Das, Calcutta University’s vice-chancellor, but separated by disputed islands and the “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea, the consuls-general of the two countries carefully avoided looking at each other as they glowed in the radiance of the Buddha. Emphasizing the Middle Path not the Middle Kingdom, each trumpeted his country’s robust Buddhist credentials. Each staked a vigorous claim to ancient ties with India. China’s Wang Xuefeng spoke as India’s closest neighbour. Kazumi Endo stressed that despite distance, Japan is India’s closest friend.
The occasion for this competitive courtship, enigmatically called Release of Posters, was the Indian Museum’s curtain-raiser last Monday for the exhibition of Indian Buddhist art it is sending to Shanghai and Tokyo. Japan’s self-confessed Buddhists and Shintoists together outnumber its total population. But China claims to be the world’s largest Buddhist country with more than 240,000 monks and nuns, over 28,000 monasteries and 16,000 temples. The world’s tallest Buddha statute and the world’s highest Buddhist pagoda testify to its devotion. The Buddha must be grinning.
The museum’s expert on Buddhist art, Anusua Sengupta, who has lovingly curated the 91 sculptures, manuscripts, silver, wood carvings and other artifacts illustrating the three stages of the Buddha’s life must have some inkling of the passions art evokes. Her pride – a second-century schist stone titled Miracle at Sravasti, the first discovery of Gandhara art -can provoke fierce controversy. A distinguished Pakistani at Harvard severely scolded me for daring to call Gandhara art Graeco-Indian. “Indian hegemonism!” he screamed, “Gandhara is in Pakistan!” He magnanimously agreed to accept “Graeco-Indian” if I acknowledged the Taj Mahal as Pakistani.
He wouldn’t have been pleased with Singapore’s Kaala Chakra exhibition in 2008 with its huge banner, “The influence of Indian cross-cultural interactions was the major common factor across early South-east Asia.” Another exhibition titled On the Nalanda Trail might have been more acceptable: it depicted Buddhism as China’s gift to South-east Asia. An Indian diplomat had the last laugh. “The Chinese only gave South-east Asia what we had given them to start with,” he gloated. The Chinese consul-general acknowledged that when proudly affirming Buddhism went “to Japan, South Korea and South-east Asian countries through China”. What he didn’t say was that Buddhism’s Silk Road from India to China meandered through Tibet. Jonathan Fenby writes that China’s “religious boom” indulges Buddhism as a middle-class interest providing it doesn’t benefit the Dalai Lama. I don’t know how successful the separation is for much of the cash that created problems for another Tibetan prelate, the young Karmapa Lama, came from Chinese devotees. The apolitical Karmapa Lama can’t be branded a “splittist”. But Tibet is still no-no and, sadly, India is pandering to that phobia by not including any of the museum’s Tibetan thankas in the exhibition. They recall the centuries when Tibet interacted independently with India and would be a red rag to the Chinese bull. The destruction of most of Tibet’s more than 6,000 monasteries should lie as heavily on China’s conscience as the fate of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the rightful Panchen Lama.
Ironically, a faith that symbolizes ineffable peace has become an instrument of political manipulation. The message of Tagore’s Pujarini has been written over and over again in the blood of martyrs, but Buddhism still inspires intense diplomatic one-upmanship. China’s non-Han rulers promoted it to limit Confucian influence. The first Wei dynasty emperor, who made Buddhism a State religion, wrote that the Han Chinese wouldn’t worship a barbarian god like the Buddha. His people being also barbarians, deserved “the privilege to worship the Buddha and adopt the Buddhist faith.” Chinese Buddhism encountered resistance long before Mao Zedong’s storm-troopers. Confucianists, Taoists and officials resented the power of the tax-exempt sangha. Some claim Buddhism never fully recovered from the Tang Emperor Wutsung’s persecution in 845. But that hasn’t deterred political exploitation.
Even at the height of Communist militancy, China always produced a monk or two for dignitaries like Myanmar’s U Nu. Hosting the World Fellowship of Buddhists conference for the first time last month, China proclaimed that its future won’t be as a supplier of only goods and services but also as the source of Buddhist wisdom. Pledges to preserve Buddhism’s tangible and intangible heritage and protect and promote Buddhist culture and values were said to be especially significant for South Asia where Muslim extremists and Christian fundamentalists are allegedly harassing Buddhist communities. Neither commitment applies to Tibet: ” Diya tale andhera, the darkness is under the lamp.”
Perhaps India and China are two bodies with one spirit, as Narendra Modi apparently told Xi Jinping. Playing the same game, Jawaharlal Nehru sent the last Chogyal of Sikkim, a rimpoche as well as the Mahabodhi Society’s president, to Lhasa in 1956 to invite the Dalai Lama to the Buddha’s 2,500th birth anniversary celebrations. The invitation was informal enough not to indicate head of state ceremonial, but conveyed disapproval of the erosion of Tibet’s status. The Chinese retaliated by keeping the Chogyal waiting at the border, rejecting his international driving licence, and making him take a fresh test for Lhasa. When the Dalai Lama reached Nathu-la, a Chinese agent clipped a Chinese flag to his car. The pamphlet Buddhism Will Make You Free dedicated to the “Depressed Classes” of India that a Sri Lankan monk published in 1937, and B.R. Ambedkar’s public conversion with 600,000 other Dalits continued the politicization.
Japan’s politicking began with the 1868 Meiji Restoration. The new government was as determined as Ajatsatru to eradicate Buddhism (“a corrupt, decadent, anti-social, parasitic, and superstitious creed, inimical to Japan’s need for scientific and technological advancement”) and exalt Shintoism. A Meiji edict robbed Buddhist precepts of State law status and allowed monks to marry and eat meat. Yoshiharu Tomatsu argues that this “codification of a secularized lifestyle for the monk coupled with the revival of the emperor system and development of State Shinto were fundamental in desacralizing Buddhism and pushing it to the margins of society”. But victory was shortlived. As Japan’s consul-general recalled on Monday, the scholarly Suzuki Daisetsu warned not much would remain of Japanese culture if Buddhism is excluded. Suzuki himself became a Theosophist at Adyar.
Wang noted that Xi recalled in Gujarat that the author of Journey to the West, Xuan Zang (our Hiuen Tsang) from Xian, had studied the Buddhist scriptures in Modi’s state. Tourists to Xian are shown the Great Mosque and the Terracotta Warriors. They used to be invited to pay to be photographed with the peasant who accidentally discovered the soldiers. But Wang claims Xuan Zang converted Xian into a centre of Buddhist learning to which Xi invited Modi. Japan is ahead in this respect. Not only has Modi been there as prime minister, but he offered prayers at the Toji and Kinkaku-ji shrines in Kyoto. The Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh trinity which inspired the former is reflected in Hindu Divinities in Japanese Buddhist Pantheon, Dwijendra Nath Bakshi’s meticulous list of Japan’s Brahmanical links. China too reveres Indian deities but Indian visitors are perplexed to find a female Avalokitesvara.
Japan is now celebrating a year-long Festival of India. When Rajiv Gandhi started the fashion, Maneka remarked that India also needed a Festival of India. Presiding over Monday’s event as vice-chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, Das made a similar fervent plea to enlighten Indians about their Buddhist past. All this recalls the wartime verse with which the Germans mocked the British: “God save England/ and God save the king./ God this and God that,/ and God the other thing. ‘Oh God!’ says God. ‘My work’s all cut out!'” Additionally, the Buddha must thaw the chill between China and Japan so that Qing dynasty ghosts who spoke of Japanese “dwarf bandits” don’t march again. An overworked Buddha isn’t smiling.