Pakistan's Buddhist Legacy Under Threat

The Buddhist Channel, 14 Oct 2023

Lahore, Pakistan -- In the heart of what is now Pakistan, nestled within the Gandhara region, once thrived one of the world's most ancient religions - Buddhism. With a legacy of Buddhist art and culture, Pakistan should be a haven for Buddhists, a site of pilgrimage and a living testament to history. However, the stark reality reveals a different narrative — one of near-extinction, persecution, and fading heritage.

Rock carvings of Buddha at Manglawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; the face of
the Buddha was damaged by the radical group Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan.

State-Sponsored Radical Elements

A significant force driving the decimation of Buddhism in Pakistan is the presence and influence of state-sponsored Islamic radical elements. These extremist groups, often with tacit support from certain government quarters, have relentlessly targeted religious minorities, including Buddhists.

The consequence has been the forced exodus of many Buddhists from the region, escaping violence and persecution. In Pakistan, radicalism's rise has also resulted in the destruction of invaluable Buddhist heritage sites and artifacts. The infamous demolition of the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan shook the Buddhist world, yet similar acts of vandalism have occurred in Pakistan with little global outcry.

Zero Percent Buddhist Population

Despite the historical significance of Buddhism in the region, Pakistan's current Buddhist population is minuscule—hovering around zero percent. This alarming decline is not the result of natural demographic shifts but rather a harrowing outcome of persecution, discrimination, and violence inflicted upon Buddhists.

The dwindling Buddhist community in Pakistan paints a somber picture of how religious extremism has managed to obliterate a once-vibrant religious and cultural group. Those Buddhists who remain in Pakistan live in perpetual fear, often compelled to conceal their religious identity.

Government's Deceptive Actions

The Pakistani government's actions pertaining to Buddhism often create a deceptive façade for the international community. They orchestrate events such as Buddhist monk tours, Varsa Vassa celebrations, and the Gandhara Symposium to project an image of commitment to Buddhist heritage preservation. However, closer examination reveals that these activities often amount to little more than token gestures, diverting attention from the grim realities faced by the Buddhist community.
  • Buddhist Monk Tours: Occasional tours for Buddhist monks, highlighting Gandhara's historical sites, provide momentary visibility but do little to address the systemic issues confronting the Buddhist community.
  • Varsa Vassa Celebrations: While Varsa Vassa, a traditional Buddhist practice, is celebrated in Pakistan with fanfare, it lacks authenticity, as it is observed by an almost nonexistent Buddhist population. It is more of a cultural display than a genuine religious observance.
  • Gandhara Symposium: The international Gandhara Symposium serves as a platform for discussions on the preservation of Gandhara's Buddhist heritage. Yet, these conversations often appear superficial when contrasted with the stark realities of Buddhist persecution within Pakistan.

Wither Pakistan's Buddhist Legacy?

The government's efforts to portray an image of tolerance and respect for Buddhism ring hollow when the very people they claim to protect continue to face discrimination and violence.

The destruction of Buddhism in Pakistan constitutes an immense tragedy. This region once stood as a thriving center of Buddhist civilization, with numerous monasteries, stupas, and artifacts bearing witness to its rich history. Today, these remnants are under grave threat, while the Buddhist community remains marginalized and persecuted.

State-sponsored radical elements and a near-zero Buddhist population paint a grim picture for the future of Buddhism in Pakistan. The government's token actions, such as organizing tours and symposiums, cannot veil the harsh realities on the ground.

Pakistan's ongoing financial crisis has dire consequences for the preservation of its rich Buddhist heritage. Limited resources for cultural preservation have led to neglect and a lack of maintenance for historical Buddhist sites, monasteries, and artifacts.

The financial strain also increases the risk of theft and vandalism, as underfunded security measures leave these treasures vulnerable to illegal excavation and looting. This can potentially fuel the illicit trade in Buddhist artifacts, driven by individuals desperate for income.

Moreover, the decline in tourism, a result of reduced infrastructure and promotional activities, further impacts the local economy and disincentivizes the protection and preservation of these historical treasures.

It is imperative for the international community to hold Pakistan accountable for its treatment of religious minorities, including Buddhists. Genuine efforts to protect and preserve Buddhist heritage sites and ensure the safety and well-being of the remaining Buddhist community are urgently needed.

Only through a sincere commitment to religious tolerance and cultural preservation can Pakistan hope to reverse the tragic trend of Buddhism's destruction within its borders.
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