An NYC yogi
Devyani Khobragade

NEW DELHI — Despite India's recent progress, its international influence is not commensurate with its size, might and tradition. India is often criticized for being unable to punch above its weight, or even according to its weight. Time and again, we have noticed that economic strength and military might have their limitations. The potential for Indian soft power, however, is enormous, but has remained underutilized. On the occasion of Gautama Buddha's birth anniversary, I posit that India should reclaim Buddha and his philosophy, including his practice of Vipassana, as an Indian ideological, philosophical and lifestyle export to the world at large.

Vipassana is one of the oldest forms of meditation, dating back nearly 2,500 years. It was developed by Buddha himself and is an integral part of the Buddhist philosophy and practice. It doesn't ask you to believe in anything, but to test ideas first. Vipassana, as a concept, is also secular in nature and is a technique not bound by any religion.

To put it simply, Vipassana is based on two main tenets – concentration and self-observation. During Vipassana, a person sits down and focuses on her breathing, which is the most natural and continuous process. The individual then observes the pleasant and unpleasant sensations in the body, realizing the impermanence of such sensations, in turn realizing the impermanence of happy and sad feelings and thoughts that lead to these sensations.

In this realization, a person embarks on the path to equanimity, happiness and joy. Scientific studies have acknowledged the numerous benefits of mindfulness and linked it to the reduction of stress, better emotional strength, intelligence and a peaceful state of mind.

To propagate Vipassana effectively, there needs to be an adequate framework to support its popularization

It is therefore crucial that India assert Vipassana as the most holistic, sophisticated and ancient form of meditation, as opposed to ‘mindfulness' which represents only a superficial part of Vipassana. It should be primarily marketed as a niche Indian practice, with the highest level of authenticity and effectiveness, and publicised as a gift from Buddha's land to the world.

India now possesses the fastest-growing ‘wellness tourism industry", ranked 12th in the world as of July 2017. As of 2016, the Indian wellness industry was worth Rs 490 billion, with wellness services comprising 40% of this market. Following the widespread popularity of yoga in the last few decades, there is enough momentum for ancient Indian traditions and practices. Meditation is now a valuable ‘commodity" with immense commercial value. India also has the highest number of Vipassana centres in the world, along with the most popular and credible ones. However, in the list of top ten meditation center in the world ranked by CNN Travel, only one Indian center was included.

A statue of Buddha in India Photo: Ratana Limnararat

To propagate Vipassana effectively, there needs to be an adequate framework to support its popularization. The inspiration for this can be taken from the framework made by the Ministry of Tourism for wellness and health tourism, and Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) for propagating yoga internationally, and on aspects such as certification and quality control.

However, a Vipassana initiative cannot be completely state-managed. The founding of a state-supported ‘Vipassana Association of India", formed by stakeholders (individuals and organizations) that are engaged in research, practice etc, can serve the purpose of connecting private and voluntary organizations with the government. Other ways could be organizing summits and global conferences involving leading Buddhist scholars and practicing monks. Similar to organizing various events on International Yoga Day, Indian embassies and Indian associations abroad could organise Vipassana sessions, especially on occasions such as Buddha Jayanti. India could move for recognition of Vipassana as World Intangible Cultural Heritage at the UNESCO. Vipassana could also be supported through universities focusing on Buddhist studies and research in the science of Vipassana and its effect on mental and psychological wellness.

A suitable framework built for Vipassana as a concept with global relevance and prominence can not only reap commercial benefits, but also offer its great potential for expansion of India's underutilized soft power. It is time for India to also take the lead to incorporate Vipassana, Buddhism and its philosophy of social justice, equality and non-violence into the country's normative framework or worldview, thus underscoring the country's rightful place in the world as an ideological pioneer.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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