Buddhas fall prey to Taliban’s lust for power
By Claude Arpi
1965, André Malraux, the French philosopher, author and minister for culture,
told an audience at Benares Hindu University about a conversation he had had
with Jawaharlal Nehru. The French writer had asked the Indian prime minister,
"What, according to you, is the reason Buddhism was lost to India, after
India had given Buddhism to the world?" Nehru did not have an immediate
answer, but later said he thought India had gradually made Buddha into one its
gods and this had led to the disappearance of Buddhism from India.
though, it is an accepted historical fact that the main cause for the
disappearance of Buddhism in the sub-continent is the destruction of the great viharas
by the Muslim invaders. The fact that Buddhist life was concentrated
in these great centres of learning made it an easy prey for the hordes coming in
from Afghanistan and Central Asia. The decline of Buddhism had nothing to do
with the 'deification' of Buddha; this, in fact, indirectly bequeathed humanity
with some of the most marvellous art pieces that Malraux loved so much.
historian R C Majumdar quite rightly wrote: "Individuals, or even small
sects, directly or indirectly professing the religion, might be found in the
country for centuries to come and may be said to exist even now, but Buddhism as
a force in society vanished from India since 1200 AD never to return."
Tibetan monk, Dharmasvamin, who visited Nalanda in 1235 AD leaves us a very sad
picture of the plains of Bihar where the Buddha had earlier propagated his
message of compassion and non-violence. He saw only destruction at Nalanda and
could not recover a single manuscript from the once-rich library. Finally, he
met an old monk in his nineties who could teach him some Sanskrit. Dharmasvamin
studied for some time with the old monk and, on hearing that the Muslim troops
were approaching again, he carried his old master on his shoulders to safety
until the raiders had gone. It is this enduring image that symbolises the end of
would have thought the barbarian destruction of the remnants of a rich culture
could not happen again in this new millennium. But, for the past couple of
weeks, we have seen similar events occurring all over again in Afghanistan,
where the Taleban mullahs have decreed that all "idols of the
infidels" should disappear. The most famous amongst these 'false gods' are
the giant statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan.
that we are destroying false idols, the world has made a drama out of it. The
Muslims in the world, particularly the Afghan Muslims, should use their common
sense," declared Taleban chief Mulla Muhammad Omar. He tried to prove his
common sense by saying: "I would like to ask you -- do you prefer to be
called statue-destroyers or statue-sellers?" Ordinary human beings would
find it difficult to see the logic of the fanatic Afghan leader.
was not always like that.
remember with nostalgia when, as a young student, I was travelling in
Afghanistan. At that time, all the backpackers knew the Afghans were 'cool
guys.' Yes, they were Muslims -- in fact, we could see them going on Friday to
the exquisite blue mosques of Herat or Mazar-il-Charief -- but never before a
cup of light green tea was poured from their ever-smoking samovars.
also remember being told in Kabul that the 'coolest' place in this
extraordinarily peaceful country was one day away by bus from the capital. All
those who have visited Afghanistan will remember their colourful buses. I could
not stop clicking the unbelievably detailed kitsch frescos decorating the Afghan
vehicles. But these buses only had a few seats and most of the travellers --
including sheep, chickens and human beings -- had to sit on a sort of wooden
platform. If you were not happy with this arrangement or were uncomfortable, you
always had the choice to climb on to the roof and negotiate with your fellow
travellers for a seat on some stuffed bags.
day, I decided to take the plunge and, after a difficult journey, verging on
torture for French buttocks, I reached Bamiyan at sunset. It was magical. At the
end of the valley stood two unbelievable statues of the Buddha. Though some
fanatics had disfigured them, the Buddhas's bodies were so majestic, the
proportions so perfect, that it seemed to me a mirage after the nightmarish bus
next day I visited the site of the statues and I climbed to that head of the
Buddha by way of several stairs and galleries. There were still hundreds of
caves where, once upon a time, bikhshus had meditated on the great
suffering of this world and the way to alleviate it.
30 years later, Bamiyan reamains -- thanks to the statues -- the most stunning
and peaceful place I have ever seen. And, today, those statues do not exist
anymore! It was reported on March 8 that, using 'large amounts of explosives,'
the Taleban militia had managed to destroy the top parts of the statues.
question comes to mind, "Why this senseless destruction?" Can a
religion which is supposed to take its followers to God, direct them to destroy
something which, in a way, represents the pinnacle of humanity's art and genius?
few years ago, I was working on a book on the Karma Of Tibet and, in
this connection, I nterviewed a respected Tibetan lama. He was explaining to me
what he and his fellow countrymen had to go through in Tibet during the Cultural
Revolution and he kept repeating, "Why this destruction? Why this
destruction?" His question remains unanswered till today.
image comes to my mind: teenaged Red Guards sent by Mao Zedong entering in the
house of Lui Shaoqi, the President of the People's Republic of China and
destroying every single art object after having insulted and beaten him. And all
this for what? Because a leader (Mao) wanted to remain in power and could not
accept another direction for Red China. In the process, several million Chinese
and Tibetans died, a generation was traumatised forever.
many ways, the events in China between 1966 and 1976 are similar to what is
happening in Afghanistan today. The triggering of the Great Proletarian Cultural
Revolution by Mao had nothing to do with the proletariat. Yet Mao, after the
catastrophic Great Leap Forward, had to re-establish his supremacy over Lui
Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, his rivals in the politburo. To achieve his political
goals, he realised that the most convenient (and efficient) way was to use a mad
ideology and the most extreme elements. His wife, Jiang Qing, and her colleagues
(the Gang of Four) were promoted as cultural tsars. They had only one motto: to
wipe out a thousand year old culture and replace it by a 'proletarian' one.
according to some reports, Afghanistan is witnessing a power struggle between
the more moderate factions -- which would be happy to hand over Osama bin Laden,
resume contact with the rest of the world and eventually start rebuilding
Afghanistan -- and Omar's faction which, like Mao 35 years ago, unleashed terror
to stick to power. It was recently reported that a fight broke out between the
different factions during a meeting to decide on bin Laden's fate.
should not forget that, when the Taleban took over the Bamiyan valley from the
Northern Alliance in 1997, they had threatened to destroy the statues. Later,
the same Mullah Omar vowed to safeguard them. Today, he has destroyed them.
must also keep in mind Bamiyan's strategic location; it controls the way to the
north. Located on the east-west road along the central mountain range which
divides the country, the valley is of extreme strategic importance, which
explains why, every spring, the Northern Alliance forces try to regain control
of the valley.
having destroyed the Buddhas as well as statues of the saints of the local
Islamic sects (as reported in the Russian press), the extremists led by Omar can
restate their supremacy by thwarting every possibility of opening negotiations
with the West.
commentators wrote that, because the Taleban leadership had not been accepted by
the international community, they had no alternative but to destroy the statues
to attract the world's attention (In much the same way, Vaijaylakshmi Pandit had
declared in the UN in November, 1950, that communist China was forced to invade
Tibet because the Western powers did not accept them in the UN). This is nothing
if not nonsense. It is probably the other way around: because a section of the
Talebans want to reintegrate into the international community that the
extremists have acted swiftly to stop them.
like in China, extremist views cannot last for long. The reasonable elements are
bound to return. After Mao's death, for example, Deng returned to power with his
theory, "It does not matter if a cat is white or black as long as it
catches mice." However, for the Afghan nation and for humanity as a whole,
something will be lost for ever.
PS: We should not forget that
the Taleban is a creation of the Western powers, particulary the CIA, which, at
the end of the eighties, promoted and armed the militia for its own selfish
Claude Arpi is author of The Fate Of Tibet (HarAnand), which has also
been translated into French.