In the serene landscape of the Himalayas and across the vast plains of the Indian subcontinent, a profound spiritual journey began over two millennia ago. India’s historical connections to Buddhism have not only shaped the country’s spiritual landscape but also laid the foundation for modern policymakers to enhance India’s soft power, fostering cultural ties that resonate across South, Southeast, and East Asia.
As the birthplace of Buddhism, India shares an intimate spiritual bond with the religion. During India’s zenith of power, scholars and priests embarked on pilgrimages that stretched across distant lands, carrying with them the teachings of the Buddha. This spiritual odyssey led to the spread of Buddhism across Tibet, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, often via the vibrant hub of Sri Lanka. Tibetan Buddhism found its roots in the North, influencing Tibet and China, while the Theravada school of Buddhism flourished in South Asia and cascaded throughout Southeast Asia. Today, India’s ancient heritage remains visible in its art, culture, and architecture, with the iconic three lions of the Ashoka pillar adorning the country’s national emblem. In 2023, nearly 10 million people in India continue to practice Buddhism, a testament to the enduring legacy of the religion.
India’s connection to Buddhism extends to its sizable Tibetan community, the first wave of which arrived in India in 1959, following the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950. India has since provided sanctuary to high-ranking Tibetan religious leaders, members of the Tibetan nobility, and ordinary Tibetans who have sought refuge. Notably, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, a revered spiritual leader, resides in India, along with the heads of all four main sects of Tibetan Buddhism: Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya, alongside many other esteemed Tibetan lamas. Although the principal monasteries of these sects remain in Tibet, India serves as a sanctuary for preserving Tibetan Buddhist traditions.
In recent years, India has actively promoted Buddhist thought and culture. In 2011, with the support of the Indian government, the Global Buddhist Congregation (GBC) convened representatives from various Buddhist traditions worldwide to establish the International Buddhist Confederation. This pivotal body aimed to safeguard diverse Buddhist traditions and foster research and the popularization of Buddhism.
China has also hosted international Buddhist gatherings known as the World Buddhist Forums (WBF) since the mid-2000s, in an effort to elevate the profile of its appointed Panchen Lama and gain recognition from the Buddhist community. However, the GBC’s gathering in India in 2011 had a significant impact, overshadowing China’s efforts, and the subsequent WBF in 2012 was notably subdued.
India hosted a Buddhist conference in Nalanda in March 2017, uniting Buddhist lamas under one banner and further solidifying India’s standing in the global Buddhist community.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office in 2014, the Indian government has integrated Buddhism into its bilateral diplomatic endeavors, particularly with Japan and Mongolia. Private organizations have also played a role in fostering these connections, as seen in the joint Buddhist and Hindu conclave focusing on conflict avoidance and environmental consciousness in September 2015.