Whose Art in Heaven?

  • Share
  • Read Later

A 2,000-year-old Buddha statue in Afghanistan

It seems a shame that the Taliban did not consult us. We might have made a deal. There are so many contemporary Western works of art we would gladly have contributed to an auto-da-fé.

We might have donated millions of hip-hop lyrics to the Taliban's guns and mortars, and thrown in the porn channels. We might have rounded up every surviving video of "Dances With Wolves." We could have turned the Guggenheim and Whitney museums upside down and shaken them lightly, and — to the net gain of civilization — offered up dozens of works to the Taliban's immolation. We might have offered up Marilyn Manson, Howard Stern, Regis Philbin and the entire XFL.

But that is not the way these things work, and certainly not the dynamic of faith-based vandalism. It had to be something irreplaceable that fanaticism took.

And so the candle-snuffers of Afghanistan's Taliban have destroyed, with heavy machine guns and mortars and other explosives, the two magnificent statues of Buddha, 125 feet and 175 feet tall, that have stood for centuries in Bamiyan, an oasis town on the Old Silk Road, in a long valley separating the chain of the Hindu Kush from the Koh-i-baba range.

Here is the author Sally Wriggins' description, in her book "Xuanzang, a Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road," of what's been lost: "The first sight of the valley of the Great Buddha must have made weary travelers gasp — immense cliffs of a soft pastel color, and behind them indigo peaks dusted with snow, rising to a height of 20,000 feet. They saw the reddish cliffs in the cold, clear air; as they came closer, they could make out two gigantic statues of the Buddha standing in niches carved in the mountains. Closer still, they saw that the two colossal figures were colored and glistening with ornaments; the smaller wore blue, the larger one red, and their faces and hands were gilded."

In the destruction of these Buddha statues, the Taliban leaders claim they are merely honoring the injunctions of sharia (Islamic law) against idolatry. Other Islamic governments protested. They joined most of civilized opinion in regarding the destruction as wanton and, from an Islamic theological point of view, unnecessary. The Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was immovable.

Christians needn't be entirely smug on the subject of destroying holy images. Iconoclasm (literally, the breaking of images) was the name of an eighth- and ninth-century movement in the Eastern church against the worship of holy pictures. In 753, the Emperor Constantine summoned a great synod to forbid image-worship forever. The synod declared it blasphemous to represent, by the dead materials of paint and carved stone, those who live with Christ. The bishops damned image-worshipers as idolators (and there is a commandment about that, is there not?). Pictures of the saints in churches were replaced by images of flowers, fruits and birds. Relics were thrown into the sea. The Protestants of the Reformation expressed some of the same abhorrence of icons.

It's partly that, as Saul Bellow wrote, different minds inhabit different centuries. I suppose that if you take your beliefs seriously, and are consistent in marrying deed to creed, then you may see, with blinding clarity, the need to eliminate blasphemous inconsistencies. The statues at Bamiyan, for example.

The Mullah Omar is another good argument for the separation of church and state. The separation of church and art, however, entails a deeper tragedy: Can it be that tolerance and mere aestheticism represent a kind of spiritual death?

Some may go to Shantideva for consolation. It was in the eighth century, around the time that the iconoclastic synod gathered, that the Buddhist master composed the "Bodhisattvacharyavatara" or "The Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life," a classic of Mahayana Buddhism.

Shantideva wrote: "Should others talk badly of or even destroy holy images, reliquaries and the sacred Dharma, it is improper for me to resent it, for the Buddhas can never be injured."