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Buddha battered, dharma grounded 
Sandhya Jain


The most distasteful aspect of Taliban's military offensive against the Bamiyan Buddhas and other pre-Islamic relics in Afghanistan is the ill-disguised glee of our predatory radical secularists who have worked overtime to subvert the significance of this civilisational assault and provide an alibi to its perpetrators.

Delighted at this unexpected exoneration of Islamic fundamentalism, Muslim intellectuals have jumped on the bandwagon to unjustly equate Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism. Worst are the puerile jokes about Buddha smiling. 

By justifying the ballistics at Bamiyan in terms of the reclamation of the Ram Janmabhoomi by Hindus, secularists have taken unacceptable liberties with truth. But in their haste to absolve the Taliban, they have ceded valuable ground on the very issues they seek to fudge. Thus, by linking Bamiyan with Ayodhya, they have held Hindus responsible for Taliban's retribution and placed the Sakya muni firmly on the Hindu/Indic firmament, contradicting their own canard that Buddhism is a faith separate from and opposed to Hinduism, that was "driven out" of India by scheming Brahmins. After all, if Buddha statues can be battered in response to Hindu misdeeds, he must have a contemporary relevance to the community.

The Hindu tradition (scholars prefer the term Indic) reveres Buddha as an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu. Buddhism is rooted in India's dharmic tradition and constitutes an essential part of the invisible yet tangible unity of the Indic narrative. Dharma is natural (cosmic) law, and has, through the ages, assumed various forms. It is not a static notion espousing values of a bygone era, but accepts and adapts to change. Moreover, just as India is a living nation, so Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism are strands of its living civilization - the sanatan dharma (Eternal Tradition).

This civilisation is now in peril - in Kashmir, in Kerala, in the environs of Kabul. It is in acute danger of being cannibalised by marauding hordes armed with more deadly weapons, and even more lethal intent, than ever in the blood-splattered past. This is why there is a stark difference in the perception of Indians and non-Indians to the destruction of the statues. Buddhist countries have reacted with anguish, viewing it as a humiliation of their creed; they wish to save and retrieve the icons. The western countries, including the United Nations, are concerned at the loss of valuable cultural heritage.

have failed to perceive Taliban's action as a new, more vicious chapter in the old civilisational conflict with India. This is why, even in the absence of a Buddhist community there, Taliban feels sufficiently deranged by the lingering sanctity of the images to take up cudgels against them. I hope Taliban's unpaid envoys will not insult us with the claim that Afghanistan's miniscule Hindu-Sikh community enjoys full freedom of religion and worship, when even today Indians working in Gulf countries cannot carry images of their Gods with them for private worship. 

For India, Bamiyan cuts much deeper. For us, civilisation, culture and religion are a continuum; a strike against one is violence on the whole. When you dynamite an icon, you wage war on Dharma itself. At Bamiyan, the wheel of Dharma (dharma chakra) set in motion by Buddha when he proclaimed his new teaching to the world has been grounded; the monetary or artistic value of the relics being destroyed stands belittled before this grim truth. The Taliban and its secular allies can claim that the desecration is retaliation for the Masjid-i-Janmasthan (Janmabhoomi Masjid) only because Buddha is inseparable from our living spiritual tradition. This is a universal tradition; it stands and strives for Consciousness, Truth, Beauty, Wisdom and Compassion, and is India's true, eternal legacy to mankind. The West - which takes its religion from Palestine and culture from the Graeco-Roman world - must learn to appreciate this; it will need India to combat the threat Islamic fundamentalism poses to the civilised world.

If the West is serious about such an endeavour, it must prove its credentials by withdrawing funds and patronage to Christian missionaries and the questionable practice of conversions; these, too, outrage dharma. Without labouring the point, I would like the US to introspect about the status of Native Americans living like wild game on sanctuaries (called reserves), and the situation of Blacks since the days of Uncle Tom's Cabin. As for European nations, the horrendous destruction of Latin American civilisations and peoples has few parallels in history. By the time wisdom dawned, even the most strenuous efforts by the white man himself could not recollect the lost traditions (not save or revive, mind you), so complete was the devastation. Octavio Paz has written of the identity crisis gripping his society, Christianity having failed to compensate for the loss of the old way of life. The efforts of Carlos Castaneda and his nagual (mystic) masters do not amount to the recovery of the tradition; it is gone forever. As for Africa, it does not even bear thinking about.

I may add that Muslim nations and intellectuals who formally condemn Taliban's action as "un-Islamic" are engaging in subterfuge as they are addressing an exclusively non-Islamic audience. None of them can dare raise the issue of the destruction of Gods of another faith within the Islamic world (with the clergy and civil society), which is where it must be debated and decided if the world is to be spared such sacrilege again. Scholars of Islam are aware that the community closed the doors on ijma (consensus) and ijtihad (interpretation) centuries ago; that no dialogue has taken place in the Islamic world since, while the clergy has intensified its stranglehold over the faithful. As the clergy recognises only the reign of the Prophet and the first four pious Caliphs as valid, it can hardly be persuaded to respect other faiths. Islamic society has no secular space in which so-called liberals can operate and prevail; their role is only to deflect attacks on and negotiate space for fundamentalists.

Before the bogey of Hindu fundamentalism is raised, let me state that in the modern period, there is not a single issue concerning Hindu society that its leaders have not confronted directly. Even setting aside the centuries-old tradition of Bhakti saints and their efforts to uplift lower sections of society, Hindus from the days of Raja Rammohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar have not hesitated to take entrenched orthodoxy head-on - be it sati, widow re-marriage, child marriage, female infanticide, education and emancipation of women, or more modern evils such as dowry, bride-burning, and now female foeticide. In fact, by the time Mahatma Gandhi launched his public crusade against Untouchability, the orthodox had already lost the capacity to fight against reforms on the hitherto secure ground of tradition and shastric (scriptural) sanction.

This is not to say that Hindu society has become perfect. However, all debates and reforms in Hindu society are internal to itself and consistent with the demands of dharma, which must renew itself in every age. We also have our share of obscurantists. But we know how to sideline even Shankaracharyas if they defend sati or any practice repugnant to modern sensitivities. I do not know of a single Islamic scholar, religious divine or political leader who can debate upon modern-day sensibilities with mullahs in Cairo (which has a pro-west benign despotism that deals harshly with fundamentalism), leave alone Kabul. 

This is what makes the equation of non-existent Hindu fundamentalism with doctrinaire Islam so obnoxious.



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