The Buddha smiles in Afghanistan

By Kancha Ilaiah

THE BRUTAL attack by the Taliban on the historic statues of Gautama Buddha in Afghanistan is condemnable. The Buddha established a great liberative philosophy as far back as the 6th century BC and he himself was never for worshiping idols. The Buddha, who stood for non-violence, simply smiles at such acts. The attacks on his statues, hopefully, would bring back the teachings of the Buddha into a fresh global discourse. The first major anti-idol worship preacher in the world was Isaiah of Israel (around 850 BC) and the second was the Buddha himself. The third was Jesus and the fourth was Muhammad, with whose preachings Islam came to be established.

All over Asia, Buddha statues were carved out in caves and viharas not for worship but as historical symbols around which his preachings were carried to the illiterate masses. When Buddhism began to spread during the regime of Ashoka, there was no book-based spiritual worship. This became popular only after the Bible was constructed as a spiritual text. The Bible was woven into one book putting together several historical events that occurred in and around Israel over a period of centuries before and after the birth of Christ. Unlike the Bible, the Koran is a text narrated by Muhammad as the word of Allah. The Muslims became more book-centered than even Christians who have a tradition of installing statues of Christ and Mary in the churches. The ignorance of the Taliban about history is amazing. They think that all statues in the world were made only to be used as idols for worship. That is not at all true.

The statues of the Buddha are respected in all parts of the world going beyond the boundaries of religion. He has become the most respectable historical symbol of classical civilisation and culture. In the spiritual realm he is a precursor of Christ and Muhammad and in the philosophical realm he is the precursor of Socrates, Plato and Confucius. In the spiritual realm he is the ancient bridge between tribal totemism and organised religion and in the political realm a bridge between tribal republicanism and Aristotelian polity. He is the builder of egalitarian (Sangha) society. The Taliban should know that his image and preachings do not confine to the present Buddhist religion nor to Indian or Asian boundaries. His is the great legacy of non-violence.

Statues such as those in the Bamiyan region of Afghanistan have acquired the status of historical monuments as they were carved out about 2,000 years ago. Islam has a tradition of establishing monuments by constructing mosques and palaces or structures such as the Taj Mahal or the Charminar. When the RSS pulled down the Babri Masjid, which had acquired the status of a historical monument, the whole world condemned it. Now a similar vandalism is being indulged in by the Taliban. Religious bigots, whether Islamic or Hindu, should know the value of historical monuments? A historical monument is a symbol of civilisation but not a representative of a particular religion.

It appears that all religious fundamentalists do not have any concept of history. They do not seem to understand the fact that history is different from belief. Assuming that Babar did not know history and destroyed a Ram temple (if one existed there), we must understand him because there was no notion of monument at that time. But Mr. L. K. Advani is supposed to know the difference between a monument and a mosque, as he is a modern man. If Mohammed Ghazni did not know history and destroyed Somnath we should understand it, but Mullah Mohammed Omar not knowing history is inexcusable. Medievality and modernity get differentiated primarily with the knowledge of history. In history, a written document or text after 30 years acquires the status of public document and hence it becomes archival material. Similarly a structure that survives a hundred years and more acquires the status of a monument. The Taliban and the RSS/VHP have proved to be operating from the same ground of ignorance of the difference between faith and history, between a historical monument and a mosque or a statue.

The attack on the statues of such a great historical (not mythological) figure such as the Buddha would have two implications for the world. One, Buddhism, which is the biggest religion in the world, may turn anti-Islamic. Hitherto non- existing tensions between Buddhism and Islam may get formed. Second, Buddhism, which never was a communal religion, might take a communal posture. Bigotic acts of a small communal sect within any religion posits that entire religion in a negative light before the global community. When the Babri Masjid was destroyed by the RSS/VHP operating from within Hinduism, it put the entire religion to test. The present act of the Taliban will put the entire Islam also to test. The political mileage gained out of such destruction is a momentary one.

The people of the world in the context of globalisation has a choice between secularist modernity and anti-developmental fundamentalist medievality. It is a situation of a war of nerves, not only in India but at the global level, between secularism and communalism. The West, which has evolved a secular modernist development process, living within the broad contours of religion, is advancing very fast. The East, particularly the subcontinent, is likely to get caught in the vortex of fundamentalist wars, which hamper all development. The destruction of the Babri Masjid and the Buddha statues are cases in point.

Islam which brought about several reforms in human life, particularly in its first 500 years, will move backwards if it allows Taliban-like forces to emerge. The Taliban should know that Asia became a continent of great religions because of the initial steps of the Buddha. Islam owes the Buddha as much as Hinduism and Christianity do him.

The Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, very surprisingly supported the Taliban attack on the Buddhas in Afghanistan. He did so in the view that it was a retaliatory act against the Hindu communal agenda being set by the Hindutva forces in India. Such a wrong understanding is rooted in the fact that Buddhism is being projected by the Hindutva forces as part of Hinduism. Unfortunately, for many Muslim scholars Indian history starts only with the establishment of Muslim kingdoms. For them, pre-Islamic India is mono-Hinduistic. In fact, it is the Muslim writers who named India Hindustan. They never understood that Brahminic Hinduism and Buddhism were two major contending religions before the Muslim kingdoms were established in India. One version is that the attacks of Hinduism against Buddhism weakened Buddhism before Islam took shape in India. There is a serious contention of many historians that many Hindu temples (which have by now become monuments in their own historical right) are restructured Buddha-Jain viharas.

Ambedkar, who revived Buddhism and transformed it in India into a religion of Dalits, had held both Brahminic-Hindus and bigoted Muslims responsible for the elimination of Buddhism from India. The Taliban does not seem to realise that Buddhism today is a religion of the poorest of the poor in India. The RSS/VHP do not treat the Buddha with the same spiritual reverence as they treat a mythological figure like Rama. For example, the Hindutvawadis will not accept that all non-Muslims, non-Christians, non- Sikhs and non-Parsees should be declared Buddhists but not Hindus. Such a proposal does not go against the Indian nationhood, as the Buddha is the greatest ancient Indian, who is not a mythological figure like Rama. Yet the Buddha would not be acceptable to them. Such is the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism. How and why should the Buddha become a retaliatory target of the Taliban?

Afghanistan has been suffering from Taliban fundamentalism for quite some time. It could never show the signs of a mature nation. No nation can enter into a path of development if it does not produce thinkers who can understand the positive linkages of the ancient past and modern nationhood. The Buddha statues are a great heritage of all modern people of the world. The Taliban must preserve them with respect. Let the Muslim world intervene and stop such vandalism in the interests of global peace.

Referred by:Sashi Kanth
Published on: March 12, 2001
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