March 12, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Claude Arpi

In 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.

Today, 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.

The 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."

A 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 an era.

One 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.

"Now 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.

Afghanistan was not always like that.

I 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.

I 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.

One 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 journey.

The 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.

Today, 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.

One 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?

A 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.

Another 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.

In 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.

Today, 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.

One 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.

One 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.

Symbolically, 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.

Some 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.

But, 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.

Was this necessary?

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 reasons.

Claude Arpi is author of The Fate Of Tibet (HarAnand), which has also been translated into French.

Design: Uttam Ghosh

You might also like to read...
Will destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas recreate the Babri Masjid?
India ready to accept Buddha statues Bamiyan Buddhas blown up with dynamite
Your Regression, My Honour, We All Fall Down
Egypt envoy in Afghanistan to save Bamiyan Buddhas
Pak minister to try to stop demolition of Buddha statues
Afghan minister defends destruction of statues
Advani condemns Taleban's iconoclasm
Breaking idols is not Islam
PM condemns destruction of statues by Taleban: PTI
Taleban uses drug money to fund military operations: US
Indian archaeologist laments Taleban edict on statues
M M Joshi ridicules Taleban's 'Buddha for Babri' remark
Parliament condemns destruction of Buddhist relics in Afghanistan
Taleban presses cannons, tanks to destroy Buddhist statues
India calls Taleban's idol-breaking an 'absolute outrage'

External links...
Vandals From The Dark Ages: Understanding The Taleban
Afghan Taleban Say they demolished Buddhist statues
Taleban: Most statues destroyed
Taleban to demolish Buddha statues
Afghanistan's forgotten past
The colossal Buddhas at Bamiyan and their influence on Buddhist sculpture
The Bamiyan
The plunder continues

You might also like to read Claude Apri's earlier articles on
India must take advantage of Beijing's 'sweet amiability'
The Graded Path to Rumtek

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