With India’s diplomatic outreach centered on principles such as global peace, non-violence, and tolerance, New Delhi views Buddhism as a crucial factor in strengthening ties with Southeast Asian nations like Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam
Continuing the momentum of re-establishing cultural bonds with predominantly Buddhist nations, India recently extended its gesture of goodwill by transporting relics of Lord Buddha and his disciples to Bangkok on February 23. This endeavour follows successful relic exchanges with Mongolia in 2022 and Sri Lanka in 2018. The relics will be exhibited across four cities in Thailand over a span of 25 days.

Upon arrival in Bangkok via a special Indian Air Force flight, Bihar Governor Rajendra Vishwanath Arlekar ceremoniously presented the Lord Buddha relics to Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin. Similarly, Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Virendra Kumar entrusted the relics of Arahants Sariputra and Maha Maudgalayana to Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somsak Thepsutin and Thai Culture Minister, respectively.

Before their public display in a resplendent red-and-gold pagoda for 11 days, the relics were accorded a dignified guard of honour. The significance of this cultural exchange was underscored by the visit of the Thai king and queen to the relic exhibition site on February 26, where they spent nearly an hour paying their respects.

Throughout the event, which attracted nearly 100,000 visitors on certain days, devotees from Thailand and neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam flocked to Bangkok to honour the relics and partake in the spiritual experience.

Diplomatic significance

India's cultural engagement with Southeast Asian nations, as part of the Act East Policy since 2014, has been deep and multifaceted. Special emphasis has been placed on promoting India's soft power through Buddhism.

However, the recent exchange with Thailand holds particular diplomatic significance as it marks India's proactive stance against Beijing’s efforts to leverage Buddhism for soft power projection in Southeast Asia.

Following its occupation of Tibet in the early 1950s, China has systematically sought control over Tibetan monasteries, presenting itself as Buddhism’s guardian, despite its origins in India. While it is true that Buddha was born in Nepal, he attained enlightenment and spent his final years in India.

Consequently, India boasts numerous Buddhist sites and played a pivotal role in spreading Buddhism, including to China, through its ancient rulers. The presence of significant Buddhist cultural assets in India, coupled with the Dalai Lama’s leadership of Tibetan Buddhists in India, presents a considerable challenge to China’s narrative.

China’s efforts to assert control over Buddhism post-Dalai Lama and establish a Chinese Buddhism presence in the Himalayas and Southeast Asia aim at undermining Tibetan Buddhist aspirations for autonomy. This agenda is evident in Chinese state-controlled media’s attempts to depict Buddhism as an “ancient Chinese religion.”

Recognising Buddhism’s integral role in India’s cultural heritage and diplomatic outreach centered on principles such as global peace, non-violence, and tolerance, New Delhi views Buddhism as a crucial factor in strengthening ties with Southeast Asian nations like Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Buddhism as soft power

Since 2014, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has strategically utilised its cultural ties, particularly through Buddhism to reconnect with both immediate and extended neighbours, and promoting peace-building initiatives worldwide.

In September 2015, PM Modi inaugurated Samvad, the Global Hindu-Buddhist Initiative on Conflict Avoidance and Environment Consciousness in Bodh Gaya, India. Subsequently, his proposal for a Buddhist circuit at the BIMSTEC leaders retreat in 2016 garnered significant support from Southeast Asian countries.

In addition to these initiatives, India has hosted numerous national and international conferences aimed at raising awareness and fostering global cooperation on Buddhism:

·On March 14, 2023, the first international conference on Shared Buddhist Heritage commenced in New Delhi, focusing on India’s civilizational connections with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) nations.

· On April 17, 2023, a major conference on Buddhism was held at Zeminthan in Arunachal Pradesh.

· On April 20, 2023, the Ministry of Culture, in collaboration with the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC), organised the Global Buddhist Summit (GBS) in New Delhi, attracting over 171 delegates from nearly 30 countries.

· On August 12, 2023, a national conference on Nalanda Buddhism in the 21st century took place in Ladakh, aimed at revitalising Buddhism in the Himalayas.

· On January 17, 2024, India hosted the 12th General Assembly of the Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace (ABCP) in New Delhi, enhancing connectivity for international travellers seeking access to India's rich Buddhist heritage sites.

India and Buddhist countries

The enduring legacy of Buddhism in India constitutes a cornerstone of its civilizational heritage, representing a significant cultural export throughout antiquity. Since 2014, India’s foreign policy has accorded heightened prominence to Buddhism, recognizing its pivotal role in fostering diplomatic relations.

This strategic emphasis is particularly notable in ten nations where Buddhism holds sway, namely Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Laos, Mongolia, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, predominantly situated in the Southeast Asian region. Additionally, Taiwan, Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Hong Kong (China), Northern Mariana Islands, and Nepal stand as other nations boasting substantial Buddhist demographics.

On a global scale, the Buddhist populace exceeds 500 million individuals, with approximately 90 percent concentrated within Southeast Asia and East Asia. 

As the largest religion globally, India places a paramount emphasis on fortifying its ties with these nations. Upon assuming office in May 2014, Prime Minister Modi embarked on his inaugural foreign visit to Bhutan, signaling a strategic commitment to bolstering regional relationships.

During his subsequent visit to Nepal in August 2014, PM Modi articulated the theme of "Yuddh se Buddh ki ore" (From Conflict to Buddhism), underscoring the transformative potential of Buddhist ideals in promoting peace and harmony.

In August 2014, Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Japan was marked by significant gestures towards Buddhism, including visits to two ancient Buddhist temples and the incorporation of Buddhist themes in the joint statement issued during his subsequent visit to Japan in November 2016.

Notably, Japan played a pivotal role in convening a joint Buddhist and Hindu conclave, highlighting the interfaith dialogue facilitated by cultural diplomacy.

Continuing its proactive engagement with Buddhist nations, PM Modi paid an official visit to Mongolia in May 2015. During this visit, PM Modi addressed the Mongolian Parliament, emphasising the contemporary global significance of Buddha and Buddhism. As a testament to the enduring spiritual ties between the two nations, India pledged to provide a Buddha statue to the Gandan Tegchenling Monastery, symbolising the shared spiritual heritage.

Moreover, in a gesture of goodwill towards the people of Mongolia, India facilitated the transfer of four Holy Relics of Lord Buddha to Mongolia for an 11-day exposition, coinciding with the celebrations of Mongolian Buddha Purnima on June 14, 2022. This gesture exemplifies India’s commitment to fostering cultural exchanges and nurturing enduring bonds with Buddhist nations.

Similarly, during his second official visit to Sri Lanka in May 2017, Prime Minister Modi participated in a ceremonial lamp-lighting ritual at the renowned Seema Malaka Temple in Colombo, marking the eve of Vesak Day celebrations, a significant event in the Buddhist calendar.

Subsequently, in April 2018, India facilitated the transfer of Holy Relics of Lord Buddha to Sri Lanka as part of the Buddh Purnima celebrations, marking the first such occurrence in nearly a century, signifying the deepening cultural ties between the two nations.

In September 2019, Prime Minister Modi underscored India’s commitment to promoting the teachings of “Buddh” (Lord Buddha) as a counterpoint to the message of “yuddh” (war) while addressing the United Nations General Assembly on the topic of terrorism.

He emphasised the enduring relevance of Buddha’s teachings in contemporary global discourse, a sentiment he has articulated on numerous occasions. Since 2015, the international community has commemorated Buddha’s birth anniversary through Vesak or Buddha Poornima celebrations, highlighting the universal appeal of his teachings.

Furthermore, recognising the potential of tourism from Buddhist-majority nations, India’s Ministry of Tourism allocated ₹100 crore for the development of the Buddhist circuit encompassing Kushinagar, Sravasti, and Kapilavastu as part of the Swadesh Darshan scheme in 2014-2015.

Additionally, in October 2021, an allocation of approximately ₹325 crore was sanctioned for the enhancement of Buddhist circuits in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh, indicative of India’s concerted efforts to promote cultural tourism and strengthen ties with Buddhist nations.


Cultural diplomacy has emerged as a cornerstone of India’s foreign policy, fostering stronger bilateral and regional ties. Beyond South Asia, Buddhism has become a strategic tool for India to enhance its global image as a trusted and reliable development and cultural partner.

With over 97 percent of the world’s Buddhist population residing in Asia, India views Buddhism as a potent soft power tool to assert its presence on the global stage.

*** The writer is a Research Fellow at the MP-IDSA, New Delhi; views expressed in this article are personal.