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China vs. India: the battle for Buddha

China and India seek to leverage their ties to Buddhism for soft power in the region.

Lumpini nepal buddha 2012 01 18Enlarge
A Nepalese woman lights prayer candles at the stupa Boudhanath for the Buddha's birthday in Kathmandu. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

LUMBINI, Nepal — For a few short hours, as dancers imported from Kathmandu leapt and twirled for the bemused president of this tiny Himalayan republic, the sleepy, provincial town of Lumbini, in western Nepal, became the focus of the great chess game underway between India and China.

After a sudden, unannounced, and brief visit from Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in Kathmandu, Nepalese President Ram Baran Yadav had flown in to take the stage here — at the birthplace of Buddha — to inaugurate “Visit Lumbini Year 2012” on behalf of Nepal tourism.

But as he set fire to a symbolic, Olympic-style “peace flame,” more than a few observers were wondering about the fortuitous timing of the event, which coincided, like the flourish of a magician's cape, with the preventive detention of hundreds of Nepalese Tibetans in the capital.

The detention of Tibetans is nothing new, of course. And Nepal is always rife with rumors and conspiracy theories. But for the past several months a curious mystery has unfolded around Lumbini — the latest beachhead in the quiet battle for Buddha underway between China and India.

With competing conferences, organizations, and cultural tours, both China and India have sought to leverage their historical ties with Buddhism for so-called soft power in the region.

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India seeks to use its common cultural heritage to overcome China's ethnic ties to the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, and China seeks to limit the damage from its repression of religious freedom in Tibet and its incessant sparring with the Dalai Lama.

“This is part of China's effort to use Buddhism to gain an entry into Nepal, [and] to show to their Buddhists that they're showing equal attention to Buddhism outside the country,” Jayaveda Ranade, formerly additional secretary for East Asia with the Indian government, said of a Chinese proposal for the development of Lumbini.

Yadav, Nepal's president, made no mention of China before the crowd gathered at Buddha's birthplace, though in Kathmandu Wen pledged more than $140 million in aid for the building of infrastructure and other projects. Wen also agreed to consider Nepal's request to extend the 1,200 mile Qinghai-Tibet railway onward to Kathmandu and Lumbini.

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“Both sides started worrying about this once the Dalai Lama started giving intimations of mortality, shall we say,” said Jabin Jacob, assistant director of the New Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies, an independent think tank.

“If the Dalai Lama is disappearing from the scene or he is going to be stepping back from the political scene, as he already has, then there is this huge resource lying out there untapped,” he said.

India and China: their claims to Buddhism

Born Prince Gautama Siddhartha in what is today Nepal, the Buddha achieved enlightenment, gained his spiritual following, and died (or achieved final nirvana) in India. As a result, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar, located in the north Indian state of Bihar, remain major pilgrimage centers for believers from around the world.

But in India Buddhism was subsumed by Hinduism, and New Delhi has done little to spread the wealth from tourism to Lumbini — which most view as less significant than the three pilgrimage sites in India. So as Nepal's tourism ministry seeks to lure 500,000 visitors to Lumbini in 2012, expectations of Indian support are not too high — though India claims to be “more than happy” to contribute.

“Most of the inter-governmental bodies are dysfunctional,” said Aditya Baral, director of the publicity department of the Nepal Tourism Board.

At the same time, even though China is notorious for its suppression of Tibetan Buddhism, and India is home to the exiled Dalai Lama, in its other forms Buddhism is reportedly the fastest-growing religion in China and accounts for only a tiny, neglected minority in the land where it originated.

And China's largesse, at least on paper, or in rumor, appears to know no bounds.

“Nearly 40 percent of Chinese believe in Buddhism. Several of the Chinese leaders themselves are practicing Buddhists, despite being members of the Communist Party,” said Shrikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“So from that point of view it's quite natural for China to be interested in Buddhist