It is remarkable that our country which, unlike Ceylon or Burma, does not profess to be a Buddhistic country, has yet become very enthusiastic about the celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of Bhagavan Buddha. A phenomenon like this can take place only in India, not in other countries -- the celebration of the birthday of a great teacher whom we are not supposed to be following as professed adherents. But it is this very fact that invests this celebration with a significance which we would do well to understand -- how India and the vast body of Hindus could enthusiastically enter into this great celebration and make it a nationwide affair. The answer to this question will be found in the nature and scope of the faith of the Hindus and the place which Buddha holds in that faith.
For centuries together, we had entirely forgotten Buddha, and his doctrines and creed had become almost alien to us, while they had been taken up by peoples outside India and made the religion of their own countries and societies. It is only for the last hundred years ever since the recovery of Buddhism and its literature by the western scholars and of archaeological finds in India that our people have begun to love and appreciate the great personality of Buddha and his teachings. But once the discovery was made that there was such a great period in Indian history which was dominated by the personality of Buddha, our national mind reacted to this fact with enthusiasm and devotion; we felt elated at the uncovering of a period of our ancient history which had been dark to us, but glorious at the time at which it was lived, and dominated by this great teacher and his sublime message of unity, holiness, renunciation, and love for one and all; and that period of our history is today accepted by us as the greatest period of Indian history. When the great message of Buddha throbbed in the hearts of millions of our country, the whole nation rose morally, spiritually, as also politically; and with that accession of strength, our nation became the centre for a wide and rich cultural diffusion in the world outside.
Greater India of the historic period is the gift of Buddha to us and the world. Till then India was self-contained, though there are evidences of her thought and people influencing her neighbouring countries in an unorganised way; organised work of this type was largely confined to India itself. Whatever cultural values we had evolved, whatever religions we had developed, we had tried to diffuse them only within the Indian continent. But with Buddha started that organised expansion of Indian culture and Indian thought outside India for which half the world is grateful to this country today. It is in this context that we are viewing the great work of Buddha and what it can do to enrich and ennoble our spiritual and cultural life in this age.
Swami Vivekananda is one of the most prominent leaders of our country in recent times who has called our attention to the great work of Buddha in the past and the greater work that the Buddha spirit can do to us today. In his lectures and discourses he has beautifully expressed his conviction that modern India requires to assimilate the great intellect of Sankara and the great heart of Buddha, the great heart for which, somehow or other, in the latter development of philosophy in this country, we had practically found no place.
That the human mind cannot only think high, but also feel deeply and work energetically from that high point of view was something which was continually forgotten for centuries together, and it was Swamiji who pointed out to us that the origin of almost all the social maladies in our time, all those things which made us immobile as a people, leading to the accumulation of all sorts of evils in our body politic, all these experiences of recent centuries can be traced back to the banishment of the Buddha spirit, of the Buddha heart, from the thought and practice of our country. In the same breath, he exhorted us to turn back once again to that great heritage, to call back Buddha to our nation and to our hearts; and he also added that until we did that, our country could never hope to develop that internal strength which we all wish and pray for.
— Excerpt from Dynamic Spirituality for A Globalized World, a commemorative volume of selections from the works of Swami Ranganathananda, late president of RK Math & Mission