Killing the Buddha in Pakistanís Swat Valley

by Gary Leupp,, November 21, 2007

The Bad Karma of Imperialism

Swat Valley, Pakistan -- The Swat District in Pakistan’s Northwestern Frontier Province, dominated by the Swat Valley, watered by the River Swat, surrounded by snow-capped mountains rising as high as 20,000 feet, has been compared to Switzerland in its breathtaking beauty.

<< Buddha of Jenanabad, before the destruction

Only 684 square miles in area (two-thirds the size of Rhode Island), with a population of 1.5 million, it has little commercial agriculture or industry but is rich in history as well as natural scenery. Until recently, it has been a mecca for the archeologist and for the tourist.

Both are drawn largely by the presence of Buddhist artifacts, including great Buddhas carved into the mountainside, similar to those crafted 1500 years ago in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

Conquered by Alexander the Greek and his Macedonians in the 320s BCE, this region became part of the Mauryan Empire. Emperor Ashoka in the mid-third century BCE promoted the spread of Buddhism here, and in the second century BCE the local Greek King Menander may have been a convert.

(The Questions of Menander—supposedly a conversation between the king and a Buddhist monk—is unique among ancient Buddhist texts in its dialogue form, characteristic of Greek philosophical texts, and may have actually been composed originally in Greek.)

Later the Kushan Empire centering on the Gandhara region encouraged the emergence of an Indo-Greek Buddhist style of sculpture. The Swat Valley was at the cutting edge of one of the most extraordinary syntheses in art history: Buddhist content and classical realistic western sculpture. The Buddha, earlier represented symbolically (as a footprint), came to be depicted as a Greek deity or king, standing or seated in meditation.

This, for example, is the 23-foot high Buddha of Jenanabad, one of the finest examples of Gandharan art, as it appeared until recently.

<< Buddha of Jenanabad on 8 October 2007

Here’s how it has looked since October 8:

Remember how the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, in March 2001? Well, this Buddha in Swat was attacked twice last September by forces led by a local cleric named Maulana Fazlullah, who heads the “Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law,” aligned with the Taliban. On October 8, the Pakistani Talibs succeeded in obliterating its face with dynamite.

This was not widely reported in the U.S. press, perhaps because it would have so dramatically demonstrated how Taliban influence far from waning has spread outside Afghanistan, and is even leading some Pakistanis to attack their national treasures.

The Buddhist law of karma states that willed actions have inevitable consequences. Evil actions produce more evil. There is a strange karma at work nowadays, making everything worse everywhere in Southwest Asia.

Mullah Fazlulah, whose “Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law” dates back to the early 1990s, reportedly now has some 4,500 militants under his influence. He inveighs against UNESCO-administered polio inoculations, CD shops, and girls’ schools, and apparently spearheads the effort to erase Swat’s non-Muslim past.

Anyone advocating U.S. strikes against Pakistan (a number of neocons have done so over the last nine months) will mention all these things in order to emphasize the enemy’s caveman otherness. But we should ask such people: Why are the Mullah Fazlulahs on a roll right now? What is the cause, what is the effect?

Why do these religious fanatics want to target priceless, irreplaceable Buddhist art? Why have some Muslims in this region, who have lived contentedly in the shadow of these images for many centuries, only within recent years started blowing them up? (The last effort to destroy them was in the seventeenth century, during the reign of the uncommonly intolerant Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb.)

According to Peshawar Museum archeologist Zainul Wahab, “the militants say [the statues] are ‘symbols of evil.’” The Swat Islamists are aware that the Qur’an forbids the depiction of the human or animal forms in religious art (although some “miniature paintings” showing these in books has been allowed, notably in Shiite Persia) as a safeguard against idolatry. (See Qur’an 6:74, 14:35, 22:30, etc.) But why these actions, now?

The Bamiyan episode may hold some clues. In July 1999, Mullah Omar actually ordered that the Buddhas be preserved. They were not being used as objects of worship (there being no Buddhists in Afghanistan in centuries).

Moreover, “The government considers the Bamyan statues as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors. The Taliban states that Bamyan shall not be destroyed but protected.”

But in March 2001 a new decree called for the destruction of all such images. Mullah Omar explained to a Pakistani journalist in April 2004:

“I did not want to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings - the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddhas’ destruction.”

It sounds entirely illogical. The westerners, Omar reasons, were more concerned with saving a statue than with saving people in a country at war for sixteen years, vying with Ethiopia as the world’s most impoverished state—and so the Bamiyan Buddhas must be destroyed. Totally irrational.

So other Buddhist sites in Swat, including the Butkara stupa and Takht-i-Bahi Buddhist monastery ruins, remain under threat, at the mercy not only of religious fanaticism but the absence of a state apparatus preoccupied elsewhere.

Both of these problems are aggravated by the U.S. invasion of the region. The current wave of Islamist violence was unleashed by U.S. imperialism, itself born out of capitalist competition between states dating way back to the nineteenth century.

Outrage at military strikes, the growing civilian death toll in Afghanistan, and the lack of jobs and income in Swat combines with religious passion to attract young men into pro-Taliban groups.

Now these groups are defying neocon plans for the region, rebelling against the Pakistani state, and attacking Buddhist images. But these Pashtun assaults are only the proximate cause of the Jenanabad Buddha’s defacement.

The deeper karmic causes lie, in time and space, far outside the beautiful Swat Valley.

This article was edited from the original published on

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