Buddha Bashing: a Lesson in Intolerance

(March 14, 2001)

The recent destruction by the "Taliban" -- the Muslim fundamentalists who rule most of Afghanistan -- of the huge fourteen- century-old statues of the Buddha carved out of the sandstone cliffs in the eastern part of their country, has outraged a good part of the civilized world. How can, we ask, people be so stupid or ignorant?

Yet the answer is obvious. Muslims, like Jews and Christians, take the Tanach or "Old Testament" very seriously, and there it is written very clearly (see Exodus 20:4; Leviticus 26:1, etc.) that it is forbidden to make or have "graven images", not just of "gods", but also of humans, and beasts of any sort. Likewise following the commands such as that in Deuteronomy 7:5, we find numerous instances down through history where not only Jews, but Christians (as well as Muslims) have systematically destroyed whatever they took to be other people's "idols" wherever they were found. In fact, even the destruction of Christian religious images by Christians has had an equally long history, beginning with the "Iconoclasts" of the eighth century right up through the puritan zealots of Reformation times. Add to this the latest desecration of churches (as well as mosques) carried out by warring sides in the Balkans, India, and Indonesia.

Some of this vandalism is inspired by pure maliciousness. Some of it has also been due to ignorance (the assumption that other people were so ignorant to mistake their statues or images for the real thing) but a lot of it, let's face it, has been due to the theological conviction that being right, that is, to possess "the truth", gives one the right to destroy whatever, or even whomever, is in "the wrong".

It is perhaps this aspect of religion (of which iconoclasm or image-smashing is only a symptom) that alienates more people from religion than any other number of reasons combined.

And yet how unnecessary is all this violence. Experience as well as logic tell us that genuine faith can never be compelled. Nor does force usually destroy another's beliefs: more often it simply hardens them or drives them underground. We might add, as well, that any psychologist can explain that a good part of such behavior is prompted by insecurity -- the fear that the other side may be right after all.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about this latest outburst of intolerance (besides the fact that it was the US that first armed the Taliban extremists in our haste to make an already tottering Soviet Union fall) is in its object, the memory of the Buddha, "the Enlightened One". He was among the first great religious leaders to teach that all statues, rituals, doctrines, or leaders (including himself) were nothing more than symbols or pointers to a much greater or ultimate reality beyond.