A brief history of Buddhism in Bangladesh

Author: Lionel Wijesiri | Source: Daily News

04 January 2011

For much of its history, the country that we today as Bangladesh has been a part of a greater India and was known only as Bengal: what happened elsewhere on the subcontinent in the twentieth century had a serious effect on Bengal. The history of the modern state of Bangladesh has been short.

Buddhist monk in Bangladesh. The borders of present-day Bangladesh were established with the partition of Bengal and India in 1947, when the region became East Pakistan, part of the newly formed nation of Pakistan.

Political and linguistic discrimination as well as economic neglect led to popular agitations against West Pakistan, which led to the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 and the establishment of Bangladesh. Today, Bangladesh is a secular, democratic republic.

Strange though it may now seem in such an overwhelmingly Muslim country, Buddhism in Bangladesh is no small player in the nation’s history and culture. Countrywide it’s the third major religion but in certain areas, such as Chittagong, Buddhists make up an impressive 12 percent of the population.

It’s not mere numbers though that makes Bangladesh important in the Buddhist world, but its history. It’s not far from Bodhgaya to Bengal, and the region has played a huge part in the development of Buddhism. The Buddhist scholars in Bangladesh believe that the Buddha preached in the Majjhimadesh of Indian Kingdom which was extended up to the town of Kajangal, beyond which was the city of Mahasal in today’s Bangladesh. They believe that the Buddha came to Kajangal and gave two discourses to His followers there. However, there is no tangible record that Buddha came to any part of Bangladesh during His life to deliver any discourses

Recently research scholars have found one Asokan Pillar in Damrai near Dhaka and they are now trying to find out how it came to Bangladesh. There are number of other discoveries such as two Votive inscriptions found at Sanchi recording the gifts of two inhabitants of Purnavardhan (Pundravardhan) to guess the existence of Buddhism in Bangladesh before the Christian era.

By the reign of the Emperor Ashoka (304—232 BC), Buddhism was firmly entrenched as the number one religion of Bengal and, it continued to thrive in the region until the 12th century AD, making Bengal the last stronghold of Buddhism in its increasingly Hindu and Muslim dominated sub-continent. .
Inscriptions

Bangladesh was an integral part of Vanga or ancient Bengal. Based on the Pali texts’ records, one of the foremost disciples of the Buddha, Vangisa was hailed from this part of the subcontinent. The Nagarjuna inscriptions dating from 3rd century AD indicate that Buddhism was followed in Bangladesh under Anoka’s rules. The name Vanga is mentioned in the inscriptions in several instances.

Ruins of Buddhist Vihara at Pahapur. In the fifth Century AD, the Chinese pilgrim, Fa Hsien visited Tamralipti (west Bengal, India) and found 24 Buddhist monasteries. In the Seventh Century, Huen –Tsang visited different parts of Bengal. In Samatata (in Noakhali district of present Bangladesh), he found 30 monasteries with over 2000 monks and in Karnasuvarna (Northern Bengal) 10 monasteries with 2000 monks. In addition, in Tamralipti he found 10 monasteries with 1000 monks. In Pundravardhana (Mahastan, in modern Bogra district), he found 20 monasteries with 3000 monks. Archaeological excavations at Mainamati in the Comilla district led to the discovery of Salvana Vihara which constitutes the ruins of the historic Kanakastupa Vihara witnessed by Huen Tsang.

These facts are also corroborated by many others’ accounts recorded by many Chinese pilgrims who visited Bengal in the later years. Some of these monasteries were turned into world famous universities such as Taxila, Udantapuri and Vickramasila.

Between 750 AD and 1150 AD Buddhism reached the pinnacle in the history of Bangladesh under the guidance of Pala Kings such as Gopala, Dharmapala and Devapala. They were devout Buddhists and under their patronage several world famous monasteries such as Somapura Mahavihara, Shalban Vihara, Paharpur Maha Vihara, Vickrampuri Mahavihara, Pandit Vihara were established in Bangladesh.

Between 1150 AD and 1760 AD, Buddhism began to disappear from the Bangladeshi soil. Following the decline of the Palas, Hindu senis (armies) came to rule Bengal, and crushed Buddhism. Surviving Buddhists retreated to the Chittagong area. In less than a century later, the senas were swamped by the tide of Islam

The Muslim invaders destroyed many monasteries with the establishment of their rule in Bengal. They killed many Buddhist monks and carried out force conversion. Even today, some Muslim prayer halls in Chittagong are called Buddher Mokkan (Buddhist house or temple). These are considered to be Buddhist temple established during the Palas rule. Today, Buddhists constitute a little over one million in Bangladesh.
British period

On September 1760, the British East-India Company established their rule in Bangladesh. The liberal policy of the British enabled the Buddhists, though a smaller number, to re-establish themselves in Bangladesh on a solid foundation.

Golden Temple in Bandarban District. However, by that time, Buddhist religious texts were not available in Bangladesh. Even Buddhist monks and monasteries were very few in number. The Buddhists were influenced by Hinduism and performed various categories Hindu rites and rituals instead of Buddhist ceremonies.

In the meantime the Chakma Kingdom was a feudal state under the British government and its ruler was Queen Kalindi (1830 – 1873). She also invited Ven. Sangharaj Saramedha Mahasthavir from Arakan State In Burma to come to Bangladesh. In 1864 Ven. Sangharaj Saramedha came to Chittagong and brought with him a full chapter of trained monks in order to give higher ondination to those who were willing.

He was then staying at Pahartali Mahamuni in Chittagong. During the annual “Mahamuni Fair” many Buddhists assembled there and on that auspicious occasion he gave higher ordination afresh to seven monks of Chittagong in the Udaka-Ukkhepa.

Sima of Hancoar-Ghona near Mahamuni village. This was the first historic Upasampada ceremony in Chittagong by which Theravada Buddhism was officially inaugurated. The ancient kings of Arakan had created a precedent of honouring pre-eminent Bhikkhus, who had served the causes of religion with marks and titles of distinction. Ven. Saramedha was honoured with a high title by the British Government.

This is why he was widely known as “Sangharaj” and his followers established the institution of Theravada Buddhism which is popularly known as “Sangharaj Nikaya”.
Pakistan period (1947 –1971)

When the British rule came to an end in 1947, Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan. In 1959, a Buddhist religious association named Parbatya Chattagram Bhikkhu Samiti (Chittagong Hill Tracts Bhikkhu Association) under the leadership of Ven. Aggavansa Mahathero was formed. It played a significant role in spreading Buddhism in Chittagong. Based on this organization, a considerable number of Buddhist monks and Buddhist monasteries were increased in this part. It is still prevalent in Chittagong and playing the same role. The revival of forest meditation took place in this period.
Bangladesh period

In 1971, the East Pakistan came into being to be Bangladesh through a bloody war. In 1972, a Buddhist temple named Dharmarajik Bouddha Vihara was established in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. In addition to this, Shakyamuni Buddhist Vihara, in Dhaka was also established. At present, there are 4 Buddhist temples in Dhaka.

Today Bangladesh is admittedly a commendable country of interfaith harmony though some occasional qualifiers are to be added to such a statement. Nevertheless, The Government maintains that there is enough history and tradition to make Bangladesh a land of interfaith and intercultural harmony.

The best example of interfaith and intercultural harmony is to be found in the observance of Pahela Baisakh (Bangla New Year’s Day). This is an occasion which draws people from all walks of life, and the day wears a festive look more than any other religious festival of any community.
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