Book Review: The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas by Amb. Phunchok Stobdan

Ambassador Stobdan writes an interesting and I daresay a controversial book. The main theme of the book, is the game of cultural and philosophical influence building that the Tibetans (and the Chinese) are playing in the Buddhist Himalayan region of India with a view to undermine Indian Buddhist philosophical traditions. What makes this book controversial is that he considers the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan Buddhism as an active instrument being used by China, to further its agenda of cultural domination.

My main takeaways;

1. Ambassador Stobdan is one of the few Indian diplomat and strategic expert who understands the different schools/sects of Buddhist traditions in the Himalayan region. He also has a keen understanding of the historical relationship/engagement between the Chinese court and the Tibetans. While the dominant Buddhist sect in Tibet is the Gelugpa, headed by the Dalai Lama, which was founded in the 15th century by Tsongkhapa, in the Southern Himalayas (which encompasses Indian Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan), the older tradition that of Guru Padmasambhav is revered and is in vogue. The Nyingmapa sect has been associated with this tradition as had been other older sects/traditions like the Kagyu sect headed by the Karmapa, and Sakya sect based in Dehradun. Amb. Stobdan laments that these older traditions of Indian Buddhism are gradually being overshadowed and taken over by the Tibetan Gelugpa Sect. Historically the Tibetans have always been on a constant drive to entrench their Gelugpa sect in the southern Himalayas with many monasteries of Indian sects and traditions being taken over by them. He argues that this is being done with the tacit acceptance of New Delhi and blames New Delhi for its failure to understand the future geo strategic implication of this. While many think that Tibet is the vulnerable underbelly of China, he argues that if and when the Dalai Lama and the Chinese reconcile, or when the Chinese take over that institution (as they are likely to do after the Dalai Lama passes away), this could well lead to a Chinese sphere of influence in the strategic and sensitive Himalayan region of India.

2. Amb. Stobdan considers the stay of Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees in India as having been disruptive for India China relations. A study of history reveals that the Tibetans have regularly used the Chinese court to further their geo political interests. For example, while the Tibetan delegation had signed the treaty defining the Macmohan line in 1914, at the Shimla convention, later they refused to ratify it on the ground that the Chinese, who were their suzerain authority, had not ratified it. Soon after Indian independence in 1947, the Tibetan authorities wrote a letter to Nehru (who the author says was quite stunned to receive the letter) asking him to return all those territories to Tibet that the British had incorporated into India. This included parts of Ladakh and also Tawang. This demand preceded even the establishment of Communist China. In the initial years of his exile in India, the Dalai Lama was ambivalent on the question if the areas of Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh were indeed a part of the Indian Union. It was only later that he affirmed that they were, only after his negotiations with the Chinese had broken down.

3. An important assertion made by the author is that while the Chinese have understood the important role that Buddhism could play in the furtherance of their geo-political interest and soft power, India, despite being the place where Buddha attained enlightenment, has failed to use Buddhism as a potent instrument in the fostering bonds/connectivity with the Buddhist world. President Xi is not only focusing on building the OBOR, but has also embarked on the path of making China the world leader in Buddhism. It seems that he has been influenced by his father Xi Zhengxun, who while presenting his 11,0000 word in Document 19, had warned the party against banning religious activity in China for such a ban ending up alienating people. One of his signature line was, ‘If people have faith, the nation has hope, and the country has strength’. Not only has President Xi built several temples but also taking a cue from the practices of the Chinese imperial era, he has started using Tibetan cultural connectivity to expand Chinese influence in the Indian Himalayan Belt, Mongolia, and other South East countries. The OBOR in Nepal is sought to be linked with Buddha’s birthplace of Lumbini and in Pakistan it is the Gandhara Trail which seeks to link Lahore, Taxila and Peshawar. China has reactivated the Buddhist Association of China (BAC). In 2006 China held the World Buddhist Forum, drawing monks from across the world. Almost all prominent Buddhist institutions in the world have now fallen in BAC’s fold. The World Buddhist Sangha Council, founded in Sri Lanka is run by Chinese teachers. Similarly, the prestigious WFB, (founded in Sri Lanka in 1955 by 25 nations), headquartered in Bangkok is currently headed by Masters Hsing Yun and Yi Chen from China and Taiwan. So, while China has taken a cue from the Buddhist globalization and diplomacy, as was originally practiced by Ashoka and Kanishka, India has failed to revive and support larger Indian Buddhist traditions and their philosophical heritage. In this book he suggests several steps for doing so.

4. Where I disagree with Amb Stobdan is his assertion that India extended support to the Dalai Lama as a part of an American conspiracy against China. The anti-American sentiment of the author comes through openly in the book. While it is true that the Americans did support the Dalai Lama, but to assert that they wanted to use the Dalai Lama to foster animosity between India and China (China had been getting more and more antagonistic towards India much before the Dalai Lama made his escape) is slightly farfetched.

5. The author also points out to the future complexities that the Chinese may face on the Tibetan issue. Though China had managed to keep the Tibetan issue from boiling over, and with its rising power profile around the world, most countries have downgraded their support/relationship with the Dalai Lama, the situation inside may change with the death of Dalai Lama. With his moderating influence gone, maybe we might see a new wave of radicalization sweeping among the Tibetan youth, many of whom feel that the path of peaceful struggle espoused by the Dalai Lama has failed to achieve much. Also the issue of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama after his death may become another complicating factor.

All in all, a very good read, though the book could have done with some better editing. Many a times the facts mentioned have been repeated, either in subsequent paras or in the chapters that follow.

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