No one is disputing that Buddha was born in Lumbini, Nepal. But no one can deny his legacy belongs to India, where he attained enlightenment, gave his first sermon and eventually, died.
Where was Buddha born? This is the question I asked a host of Indian tourists at Lumbini in 2016 – a query aimed at putting the records straight over Nepal’s misplaced claim that India believes Buddha was born in India.
Most of the Indian tourists either frowned or laughed at me for posing this question when we were all, right there, at Lumbini – Buddha’s birthplace. To further tease out their opinions, I suggested, “Wasn’t it India where Buddha was born?” At this, while most just laughed or scoffed and brushed me away, some scolded me and went on to educate me on Buddha’s life. Not one Indian visiting Lumbini said that Buddha was born in India. I repeated the experiment about Buddha’s birthplace on people around me when I came back to India from Nepal two weeks later. Other than a fraction of people high on cultural extremism, almost everyone gave the same answer: Nepal.
However, recently, Nepali Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli said that there should be no debate about Buddha’s birthplace. He also said that the government would follow diplomatic channels with ‘a foreign country’ to clear the confusion regarding the same. While the Prime Minister did not take any name, it was clear which country he was referring to: India. This comment came in the wake of a popular belief among a large number of Nepalis that Indians believe that Buddha was born in India. But is this really the case?
But why does Nepal hold this opinion? The answer to this question is not simple. It is deeply rooted in a misinformation campaign there that fuels the anti-India sentiment and rhetoric. The anti-India sentiment is quite understandable, since the Indian state has long been seen as a regional bully interfering in Nepal’s internal affairs. This sentiment has only strengthened since the 2015 blockade. While such feelings against the Indian government is understandable, it is its extension to the Indian population at large that is disturbing. What is even more disturbing is how groups with vested interests capitalise on this sentiment. I have witnessed it first-hand.
It was at a hill-retreat of one of my father’s friends that I was first acquainted to this misinformation campaign against India. We were sitting around a bonfire at night when one of the guests started to narrate how the Indian relief operations after the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal were just a ploy to spy on China. Another joined in accusing India of deliberately ruining the Kathmandu airport’s runway and delaying operations there. One of them even said that the United States Marine Corps helicopter that crashed in relief operations was actually shot down by the Chinese because the Americans were also spying on them in the garb of relief operations!
Such rhetoric has been relentlessly built in Nepal. It is, in fact, a common practice everywhere. In the process of nation-building, it is often essential to have a force to rally against, in order to assert one’s nationalism. In colonial India, it was the British. In independent India, it has often been our western neighbour Pakistan. In Nepal, India has often been roped in for this role.
Prime Minister Oli is said to have capitalised on this anti-India rhetoric in the wake of the 2015 blockade that deeply strained the India-Nepal relations. In the wake of the blockade, the anti-India sentiment in Nepal reached new heights and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has since been highly unpopular in the eyes of a large section of Nepalis. Modi is also linked to the narrative about Buddha’s birthplace.
There are numerous videos on the internet which allege that Narendra Modi said that Buddha was born in India. These videos are from his early years of prime ministership. A video uploaded on YouTube in 2015 was titled ‘Modi Said - Buddha was Born in India’. Another video has two clippings. In one, Modi is addressing the Nepali parliament in 2014 and in two, he is interacting with students in Japan. The video, which is apparently aimed at calling out Modi’s hypocrisy, claims while addressing the Nepali parliament, the Indian Prime Minister said that Buddha was born in Nepal, and speaking to students in Japan, he said that Buddha was born in India. Both of these videos have thousands of views and hundreds of comments.
However, when the video clippings are seen carefully, it emerges that Modi never said that Buddha was born in India. In both, he referred to India as ‘the land of Buddha’ when he said ‘ye Buddha ki bhoomi hai’. This sentence does not mean that Buddha was born in India, simply referring to India as the land of Buddha. The backlash that Modi and Indians at large have received because of these videos is indicative of the anti-India sentiment fuelled by the misinformation campaign.
Also, Modi is not at all wrong in saying that India is the land of Buddha. To understand this, here’s the story about Buddha. Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautam to Suddhodana and Maya of Shakya clan at Lumbini in present-day Nepal. Till the age of 29, he lived like a prince as Siddhartha Gautam. Then he left his home and it was in Gaya in present-day India’s Bihar that he attained enlightenment at the age of 35 and became Buddha. He delivered his first sermon in present-day India’s Sarnath, near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. For the rest of his life, Buddha travelled and preached in the plains of North India and southern Nepal. He died in Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh.
Even though he was born in Nepal, Buddha spent a great part of his life living and preaching in India. It was also here that he achieved enlightenment. It was also here that he died. How is it that India is not the land of Buddha? Buddha’s ideal of ahimsa, also preached by Mahatma Gandhi, is enshrined at the core of modern India. Buddha’s teachings have been the route to social emancipation in India for ages, most notably adopted in recent times by Dr B R Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism along with a large number of his followers in protest against the Brahmanic system. India is thus very much the land of Buddha.
People who mock Indians or take offence at Indians referring to India as the land of Buddha are therefore grossly misinformed. The Nepali belief about Indians’ perspective on Buddha’s birthplace is, therefore, incorrect and is not rooted in realities, but in the rhetoric of a lobby with vested interests that benefits from the strained relations between the two countries.
Now when both the countries seem to be cautiously getting their relations back on track after a long time, this lobby has become restless. This can be seen in the spate of violent attacks on Indian establishments in Nepal lately. Therefore, rather than raising the issue through diplomatic channels with ‘a foreign country’, the Nepali Prime Minister should take efforts to curb the anti-India lobby that is building antagonism against India and consistently fuelling not just anti-India sentiment there, but also adversely affecting people-to-people relations.