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Dedicate this Vesak to the Buddhist Civilization of Afghanistan

By Senaka Weeraratna

Sri Lanka should dedicate the first Vesak of the new millennium to honouring the brilliant artistic achievements of the once glorious Buddhist civilization of Afghanistan. Though this great civilization is no more and its stone artifacts have now been turned to rubble in one of the great cultural crimes of history, the claims of the Buddhist Afghans of the past to be honoured and respected for their artistic creativity are strong and deserve to be met.

In commemorating the high achievements of the former Buddhist Afghanistan during this Vesak, we will be making a statement to the world as the citadel of Theravada Buddhism and a leading Buddhist country, that fanaticism, bigotry, hatred and destruction of Buddhist icons, under the pretext of a religious duty by the Taliban, will be resisted by the Buddhists albeit non-violently and will not be allowed to be swept under the carpet.

One Thousand Five Hundred years ago much of Asia was Buddhist. From Gandhara to Edo (Tokyo), and from Tashkent to Male, the Buddhist flag flew high. During the intervening centuries a number of Asian Buddhist countries fell to foreign incursions and other religions gained dominance. Though foreign conquests, invasions and pacifism in the face of religious persecution, played a significant role in the decline of Buddhism in these countries, the overwhelming factor that caused the death knell to Buddhism in these lands was the gullibility of the then weak Buddhist rulers and the withdrawal of state patronage to Buddhism.

Though different centuries reflect the dominance of different minds, recent events in Afghanistan have shown that religious intolerance towards Buddhism is not a thing of the past, and that iconoclastic manifestations will surface again and again having Buddhism as the target. This is already happening in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Brunei, South Korea and elsewhere.

Sri Lanka, which counts as its greatest achievement the preservation of the Buddhist Pali Canon in its pristine form, has a solemn duty to perform. We must reach out to the Buddhist Afghans across both time and space, and give them one final salute. We are still united to them by a shared past and a splendid Buddhist legacy. Their Buddhist heritage, which they had left to posterity, we have a duty to preserve if not in stone, in replicas, on paper and most importantly in our hearts and collective memory.

On this coming auspicious day of Vesak, we can pay a fitting tribute to the glorious Buddhist civilization of Afghanistan, in particular to the creators of the two magnificent Buddha statues in the Bamiyan valley, in a culturally appropriate way. The traditional Vesak cards, Vesak pandals, Vesak newspaper supplements, lanterns and other decorations should be made to carry, amongst other things, the image of the Bamiyan Buddha statues and the other Buddhist artefacts ( if the drawings are available ) that have been destroyed by the Taliban. Mini replicas of the Bamiyan Buddha statues should be manufactured either in wood or any other substance, and made available to the public so that every Buddhist household in Sri Lanka has a chance to voice its protest and moral outrage at the destruction of the Bamiyan statues, by acquiring at least one mini replica.

The grandeur of the Buddhist Civilisation of Afghanistan should be researched and published, and made a part of our public historical knowledge.

Such a step would make it difficult for people with different political agendas, to treat the pre-Islamic history of Afghanistan as obscure. We must not fail to call upon the rest of the Buddhist world to join hands with us in this commemorative endeavour.

The unrelenting assaults on the Buddha statues in Afghanistan should be turned into a rallying point for the re-vitalisation of the Buddhist spirit during Vesak, and the subsequent conduct of a searching inquiry and review of the state of Buddhism in Asia.

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