Kushok Bakula and the India-Central Asia question

As a nation-state rediscovering its cultural roots and building international bonds. India must remember to hold up and learn from the experience of Rinpoche.
Image for representation purpose only.
Image for representation purpose only.

India took over the baton of the chairmanship of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) from Uzbekistan at the recently concluded Samarkand round. It will host the next SCO meeting in 2023. As a grouping of India, Russia, China, and Pakistan, its main focus is usually on strategic security and energy issues. But an equally important parallel engagement is India’s rising interest in Central Asia. Whether in energy and security, cooperation, tackling Islamic extremism or climate change, India’s engagement with Central Asia is increasing.

In light of this, it is time for the story of Kushok Bakula Rinpoche to go mainstream. There are many reasons for this. Bakula, a prominent Buddhist monk who became one of India’s longest-serving diplomats in history with a decade-long stint (1990–2000) as the country’s envoy to Mongolia, presents a best-case example of how strategic and cultural relations can go hand-in-hand with Indian diplomacy. Mongolia also has observer status in the SCO.

Bakula Rinpoche was already prominent as the undisputed leader of Ladakh before he ever stepped into Mongolia. Born in an aristocratic family and trained in Tibet, he had achieved very high standards of academic and scriptural excellence. He could have stayed on and become a high lama in Tibet but chose instead to return to Ladakh, where he was first on the frontlines of organising the resistance against the first attack from Pakistan on the region. Soon afterwards, he became the most trusted leader in Ladakh.

But what Bakula Rinpoche did in Mongolia was more remarkable than anything he had done before. He had a deep understanding of the threat from Communist China, having seen the takeover of Tibet by Mao’s forces and the persecution and fleeing of many monks, including the Dalai Lama, to India. He also understood the deep reverence for Buddhism and Buddhist teachers in Mongolia and Central Asia.

All this knowledge came of use when Bakula landed in Mongolia as India’s envoy and had to deal with Mongolians, including those looking for freedom from Communist oppression, seeking spiritual and temporal solace and guidance.

As an envoy, he was duty-bound not to take political sides, but as a spiritual teacher, he was free to offer solace. He did this with remarkable success, seeing people flock to him despite apprehensions of the Communist regime.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, leading to the end of Communist rule in Mongolia, Bakula was hailed as a hero and a revered spiritual master. People bowed before him when he walked on the streets and brought newborns to him for blessings. When I travelled to Ulaanbaatar recently, politicians told me that Bakula, still phenomenally revered in the country, probably travelled to more parts of Mongolia than most local politicians ever do.

What Kushok Bakula managed to do in Mongolia was remarkable. He became the face of the country’s return to traditional Buddhism, which had been suppressed and demolished through incessant violence during Communist rule. Kushok Bakula worked to highlight the discovery of mass graves where scores of bodies of Buddhist monks who were murdered by Communist thugs had been buried.

He worked with Mongolian leaders to restore the sanctity and primacy of Buddhist practice at the heart of the Mongolian lived experience, constantly preaching alongside his diplomatic practice.

It is because of Kushok Bakula that the relics of the Buddha were first sent from India for a tour of Mongolia, and through his efforts, and the donations that locals had given him as a monk, he established a monastery (a branch of his monastery in Ladakh) at the heart of Ulaanbaatar. The Pethub monastery is a thriving site today, a place of great reverence and worship for countless Mongolians. During my visit, I even met a local handyman who comes ever so often to provide service free of charge.

I asked him why, and he told me that he had been going blind, but after meeting Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, he believed that his eyes almost miraculously healed. It made him a believer in the divinity of the Rinpoche.

Even if one is not a believer, it is impossible to ignore what Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, a spiritual counsellor to so many leaders in Mongolia, including presidents and prime ministers, achieved. Through his piety and integrity, he was able to unite and soothe a country that had gone through tremendous turmoil and pain and at the same time, build lasting bonds of friendship between India and Mongolia. He even regularly sent young Mongolians to study in India—as monks, artists, and scholars—and today, some of his best students are lauded in Mongolian society.

As a nation-state rediscovering its cultural roots and building international bonds based on those civilisational ties, India must remember to hold up and learn from the experience of Kushok Bakula Rinpoche. Long before others, there was a practising monk, in the robes of a monk, keeping the rituals and practices of a monk, but without any difficulty in balancing his spiritual life and his professional public life.

The Rinpoche showed how spirituality could be interwoven as the foundation of integrity, which is the best asset in public life. He showed how to use that civilisational knowledge as a force multiplier to unite people, showcase compassion, and promote harmony. When the history of Indian diplomacy is written, Kushok Bakula Rinpoche will go down as one of the greatest Indian diplomats of all time—a unique man, in a unique moment, and rising effortlessly to the task.

As India renews its efforts to expand its Central Asian footprint and counter its rivals in this critical geography, the lessons from the life of Kushok Bakula Rinpoche would be vital in understanding how to take India’s greatest treasures and how to share it with the world in a manner that can win friends and influence people.

This Buddhist master should illuminate India’s path in Central Asia.

Hindol Sengupta

Chief Economic Research Officer at Invest India, national investment promotion agency of GOI

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