Rediscovering Buddha [in Bangladesh]

Dhaka Tribune
Tim Steel
13 December 2013

A new history of Buddhism in Bangladesh may emerge after the latest discovery in Nepal

Opportunities like this, to reopen received wisdoms, are rare in the heritage world, but when they open, they can be more easily seized, and used to reflect previously ignored and unpublicised realities

A new history of Buddhism in Bangladesh may emerge after the latest discovery in Nepal

A hundred years here, a hundred years there, as Senator Everett Dirksen might have said, and soon we are talking real history.

Much of the history of the development of social, economic and cultural history of south Asia, remains somewhat obscured by the mists of time. However, slowly, more substantial evidence, facts, emerge, and, as a consequence, it becomes necessary to rewrite the history.

And every rewrite can bring with it not simply new insights, but also new opportunities to encourage and inform exploration by those who are interested.

The news that excavation work at Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini in Nepal has revealed wooden remains – believed of Buddhist origin, carbon dated earlier than 550 BCE, and will force reappraisal of the dateline of Buddhist development – is a fascinating revelation. And it is a revelation that potentially opens another door of opportunity for the development of high quality, international inbound tourism into Bangladesh.

The potential of a quality tourism market sector, that of better educated, more sophisticated tourists for whom heritage, cuisine and shopping are the three main attractions in determining destination, is enormous. This sector of international tourism that is capable of being worth up to $10bn dollars of foreign exchange, and creating 4 million skilled jobs all across the country, is one that, alone in south Asia, Bangladesh has failed to attract.

Those Bangladeshis who seem to enjoy, even almost relish, the common world view of their country that there is nothing to see and no history worth mentioning are revealing an astonishing ignorance, and subverting the enormous economic potential of the country that could match the achievements in the sector of neighbours such as Nepal, Bhutan, India, Myanmar and Thailand. For all these countries, heritage tourism especially represents a large sector of their inbound tourism, and certainly the most valuable.

Amongst the unique heritage attractions of Bangladesh is its extraordinary, and largely unappreciated, Buddhist history, with an estimated 400 or so Vihara and Temples for visitors to explore.

The revelations in Lumbini, by UNESCO archaeologists led by Professor Robin Coningham, Pro Vice Chancellor of Durham University, one of the UK’s oldest and most famous academic foundations, offer the opportunity to force a reappraisal of received wisdom about Buddhist heritage across Asia.

And such a reappraisal could well, whilst attention is focussed on the history, be a unique opportunity for Bangladesh to assert its own role in the evolution and dissemination of the faith group comprising, worldwide, nearly half a billion adherents, and many more very interested parties.

That much of the interest is located in well-established markets from where the “heritage” group originate such as Japan, Singapore, and China offers particularly promising opportunity because of ease of access and proximity to Bangladesh. Across a wider world, such groups as Yoga practitioners (and what middle class woman has never been one?) also offer real prospects for the country where it almost certainly originated, before being taken to Tibet.

Until now, it has been accepted that the Prince Gautama, who became “The Enlightened One,” was born about 550 BCE. It seems inherently unlikely that a place of pilgrimage like Maya Devi Temple, believed to be the site of his birth, would have developed simultaneously with his birth.

The timber structure revealed has been carbon dated to the middle of the sixth century BCE, and, as Professor Coningham says: “What we have for the first time is something that puts a date on the beginning of the cult of Buddhism.” Until now, there have been estimates and speculations, but a substantive date of a place of pilgrimage suggests that perhaps Prince Gautama’s birth may have been at least 50 years earlier than the foundation of the Temple.

This, of course, does not necessarily change the view that the Magadha King, Bimbisara, was the first influential convert to the faith group, but might suggest a late-in-life conversion of the monarch who ruled over the Kingdom, based on Patna, close to where The Buddha is said to have found enlightenment beneath a banyan tree.

It has long been suggested that, under Bimbisara’s patronage, The Buddha was free to travel his realms, which are believed to have extended to, at least, the banks of the Old Brahmaputra River, half way across the lands that are now Bangladesh.

The Emperor Ashoka, in the 4th century, famously became a convert, too, and dedicated much of his later life to supporting propagation of the beliefs. His Empire, also based on Patna, probably spread even further eastward that Bimbisara’s, reaching, possibly, deep into Arakanese territory.

There are, unquestionably, at least three respects in which the history of Buddhism is inextricably linked with Bangladesh.

First, that the development and propagation required financial and human resources, not least in the construction of the substantial Vihara and temples that abound across the Buddhist world.

We know that the Ganges delta, especially, was a flourishing centre of manufacturing and trade from before the time of the Buddha, and the wealth generated there must have played a part in financing the development, whilst the trade routes through the delta will certainly have been the means of propagation.

Propagation along the great trade routes that converged on the delta lands from across north India, from the lands of the Himalayas; from ancient China down the Brahmaputra River; from the countries of southeast Asia, and from Arabia and the countries of the Mediterranean.

Second, Buddhism became the first of such groups in the age of writing. Writing, especially the development of Sanskrit, so closely associated with both Hindu and Buddhist groups, certainly evolved in “north east India.”

We can probably be more definite in suggesting the development derived as much from commercial interests as from philosophical ones. Philosophy can be taught, verbally; business transaction require recording. It seems probable, therefore, that writing developed in major centres of trade, of which the Ganges delta was certainly the largest east of the Mediterranean.

Third is the history and archaeology, of which Bangladesh, a largely Islamic nation, seems embarrassed. The Holy Prophet may have injuncted his followers, “Seek ye knowledge, even unto China,” which, as the great Malaysian, Dr Mahatir, has pointed out clearly suggested knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but it is not, it seems, an injunction taken seriously in Bangladesh.

In fact, with clear evidence of the history of the Ganges delta as one of the world’s greatest and earliest trading centres, certainly generating the wealth that attracted, from the 4th century BCE onwards, such would-be predators as Alexander the Great, it is one of the few places in the world, such as ancient Egypt, where civilisations would develop both wealth and philosophies.

That evidence is reflected in the enormous number of Buddhist sites, of which the UNESCO site at Paharpur is just one of four hundred or more. It is also reflected in the development of such “Buddhist Schools,” as those of Mahayana as Vajrayana, with evidence of a unique geopolitical environment that probably fostered these two schools of Buddhist philosophy.

Finally, of course, it is said of the 12th century, Bangladesh born Buddhist monk, Atish Dipankar, became known as “The Second Buddha” for his work in leaving his Vikrampur Vihara, and travelling to Tibet to restore the Buddhism there which had fallen into disrepair.

These facts, of course, represent myriad other, less significant contributions by the lands that are now Bangladesh, to the health, and probably the wealth, of worldwide Buddhism.

Sharing this history with both devotees, and the interested and curious, requires well-informed and experienced guides, as well as internationally experienced tourism and hospitality service providers.

The fact that not even comparative religions are taught in Bangladeshi schools will certainly prove a difficulty in delivering informed and educated services to such visitors. But this is not an insuperable difficulty.

On-line research into the history of Buddhism reveals remarkable amounts of speculation, rather than fact, and often some contradictions.

What, as a result of this Lumbini revelation, we can expect is a move to rewrite at least some of that history. And that may be a rare window of opportunity for the academic world of Bangladesh to stand by a real history of their lands, and ensure that the reality of Bangladesh as having had at least a significant role, but more probably a leading role, in nurturing and propagating this great faith group in its cradle here in the lands that are now Bangladesh.

What a prospect, for a Muslim academic in Bangladesh to undertake the work required to assist in rewriting a history of Buddhism!

Opportunities like this, to reopen received wisdoms, are rare in the heritage world, but when they open, they can be more easily seized, and used to reflect previously ignored and unpublicised realities.

If only tourism and culture in Bangladesh were as closely linked in management, and practice, as they need to be to realise the opportunities that stand at the door of the country.


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