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Very recently, a strong 11-member Sri Lankan Buddhist delegation met PM Imran Khan and appreciated Pakistani efforts in preserving and renovating Gandhara civilization’s religious and architectural historical sites. Relatedly, the University of Kohsar in Murree has been inaugurated to encourage tourism.

Earlier last month, the Prime Minister concluded a successful visit to Sri Lanka. Besides seeking economic cooperation (trade, investment and inviting Sri Lanka to join CPEC), he had under-scored the importance of religio-recreational tourism between the two South Asian nations.

As a multi-ethnic, multilingual and multicultural nation, Pakistan has the fifth largest global population and is endowed with abundant natural and manpower resources. Lying on the crossroads of South and West Asia it has historical- cum- cultural links with Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

In fact, ‘soft power’ as a concept is derived from neo-liberal theory, which like realism, acknowledges an anarchic world; yet it admits the state as a unitary actor despite forces of globalization and inter-connectedness. Many scholars think that the demise of the Soviet Union, liberation of Eastern Europe, post-9/11 events and EU enlargement came about as a result of effects of Western soft power.

Nearer at home, contemporary Chinese policies are also geared to soft power-related ideas and focus on the use of cultural resources for building a likeable and strong China. National security, according to China, is achieved besides development of economy by diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance and civic action.

Sri Lanka, like Pakistan, has faced years of terrorism and violence and came out successfully in overcoming the scourge. Commonly known as a ‘Pearl Island’ in the Indian Ocean, it has done admirably well in dealing with terrorism and promoting tourism. This holds important lessons for Pakistan specially in encouraging Buddhist religious tourism.

Buddhism forms a common historical link between the two countries. It has a history of almost 2,500 years. Originating in Nepal, it spread over large swath of territory – present day Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia, China and Japan. Then it spread into Southeast Asia, East Asia and Sri Lanka and formed part of the Buddhist cultural complex. All SAARC countries, except the Maldives, bear Buddhist legacy. The old Silk route was frequented by Buddhist monks: Buddhist conversions and trade took place in different periods.

Some observers question the need for historical nostalgia and advise looking ahead instead of ruminating over the ‘murky’ past. But it is easily forgotten that a healthy sense of nostalgia frames national identities and cultural strength of nations. The British French, Chinese, Turks, Iranians, Indians and now Chinese remember their cultural heritage with pride.

In north-western Pakistan, e.g., round Mardan district in north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province there is a treasure trove of Buddhist sites: monuments, sculptures, and relics. The most famous is Takht Bhai with clusters of architectural sites. These discoveries are still continuing in Shangla, Buner, Malakand, Upper and Lower Dir and Bajaur in other neighbouring former tribal regions. The ancient Bamiyan sculpture of Buddha, vandalized by Taliban in 2001, but is being restored for world tourists. Even during the phase of terrorism in the last decade many Buddhist pilgrims including Sri Lanka visited Pakistan - defying all odds.

The western part of KP and adjoining eastern Afghanistan are neighbouring regions which formed part of the once-famous Gandhara civilization where Buddhism flourished. Many empires sympathetic to Buddhism, i.e., the Asokan, Kushan and Pala empires contributed positively to economic life of the people in South Asia. Taxila, as an example, is a famous site depicting many Buddhist places; it had a university in olden times where scholars congregated from the region to study. It is near Islamabad (about 30 km) and has a well-preserved museum depicting many Buddhist artifacts.

History records that emperor Asoka after the famous bloody battle of Kalinga suffered from pangs of remorse due to mass killings and decided to embrace Buddhism; his inscriptions on Buddhist teachings of compassion and love are still found etched on rocks and old trees. Historians claim that Buddhist influence radiated to northern India, Sind and East Bengal.

Pakistan is building a Buddhist university and many Buddhist archaeological sites are being renovated. Today, interest in Buddhist ethics, philosophy and dogma are increasing in Western universities. For instance, meditation and mindfulness techniques are have become vogue and practiced in many walks of life in mental health and physical wellbeing.

Existential global issues, such as, global warming, outer space, global viruses and diseases, refugee rehabilitation, post-war reconstruction and cyber-space - all need to be managed by employing soft power - where military instruments could be either inefficient or insufficient. This needs allocation of more funds, improvement in infrastructure and tourist-friendly environment.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021