Emphasizing the millennium-old cultural and communication links with other Asian nations, the Indian government has propounded the idea of ‘sanskriti evam sabhyata’ (culture and civilization) as a core principle for promoting India’s image globally. One indication of such an approach is that a pro-government think-tank, the India Foundation organized its first soft power conference with an emphasis on India’s past glories (India Foundation, 2018). Invoking India’s past, which the Modi government has been keen to emphasize, makes sense in an age in which cultural revivalism is occurring across the globe. Modi’s ‘faith-based’ diplomacy promoting Buddhism is particularly pronounced: it is not without symbolic significance that the first foreign visit Modi made after being elected Prime Minister in 2014 was to Buddhist Bhutan. Since then, in his official visits to Asian nations such as Nepal, Japan, China, Mongolia and South Korea, he has repeatedly invoked Buddhism. Although less than 1 per cent of the Indian population are Buddhists, Modi’s government declared Buddha Purnima (Buddha’s birthday) an official holiday to be celebrated each year (Mazumdar, 2018).With its focus on peace and non-violence, Buddhism is seen as a useful soft-power tool for India, which has traditionally projected itself as a peace-loving nation (despite being a nuclear power, the world’s largest importer of arms and having the third largest armed forces in the world).
The rebuilding and revival of Nalanda University as a pan-Asian project, funded by other Asian countries, in addition to India, including China,Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore, was also influenced by soft power considerations. However, the university has yet to take off properly in India, due to the absence of proper infrastructure, academic apathy and financial constraints (although courses started in 2014). Meanwhile, in 2017, China launched the Nanhai Buddhism Academy in Hainan province as a global Buddhist university in partnership with Buddhist centres in Sri Lanka, Nepal,Thailand and Cambodia.The cultural links which such educational connections could provide might also be used to promote faith-based tourism, as India is home to some of the best-known Buddhist sites - Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Bodh Gaya (the place where Buddha is supposed to have attained enlightenment), Nalanda - both UNESCO World Heritage sites - and Sarnath (where he gave his first sermon).
Yoga and ayurveda as soft power
A related aspect of Modi’s religion-based diplomacy is the promotion of yoga and ayurveda as part of soft-power projection, in which his government has been very active. Soon after taking office, the Modi government engaged in intense lobbying within the United Nations General Assembly, gaining the support of 175 member states for the resolution proposing an international day of yoga. Since 2015, International Yoga Day is celebrated by the UN on June 21. Today yoga is practised around the world and in 2018 even the conservative and deeply Islamist Saudi Arabia recognized yoga as a sport. Drawing on an ancient Hindu spiritual tradition to promote an Indian ‘alternative’ lifestyle fits in well with a Hindu nationalist leader who is himself a devoted yoga enthusiast and a very public practitioner (Mazumdar, 2018; Gautam and Droogan, 2018). Another key part of India’s spiritual soft power project is promotion of ayurveda - the knowledge (Sanskrit: vedd) needed for longevity (ay«s) - the classical system of Indian medicine. The earliest surviving ayurveda texts date from the second century ad: the Caraka Samhita (Caraka’s Compendium) attributed to the renowned physician and medical theorist Caraka, and the Susruta Samhita (Susruta’s Compendium), composed in the fourth century ad (Wujastyk, 2003).
That such traditional knowledge should be protected and promoted has been on the agenda of the Indian government since 1995 when a department for the Indian System of Medicine and Homeopathy was created, renamed in 2003 as the Department of Ayurveda,Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH). Soon after assuming office in 2014, Modi’s government elevated the Department into a Ministry to ‘ensure the optimal development and propagation of AYUSH systems of healthcare’. The Ministry’s Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences, the apex body is tasked with ‘coordinating, formulating, developing and promoting research in ayurveda on scientific lines’, as the Ministry website states. The Indian healthcare industry is aligning with the government vision to globalize this traditional healing method and the global ayurveda market is expected to grow to $10 billion by 2022, according to a recent industry report by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) (CII/PwC, 2018). As the Chair of the CII’s ayurveda core group noted, promoting Indian expertise could bring in foreign exchange and has ‘soft diplomacy’ benefits, introducing foreigners to Indian traditions (quoted in Doshi, 2018). According to one commentator, ‘the Modi government has raised the bar on the relationship between India’s soft power potential and its foreign policy. For the first time, the Indian state is beginning to make systematic use of the rich cultural and human resources that have previously developed quite independently of its policies’ (Martin, 2015).