Thriving Buddhist Communities in Bangladesh: Part One

By Jnan Nanda
Buddhistdoor Global | 2013-12-16 |
Bana Vihara Monks on Alms Round, Rangamati. Taken from Supon ChukmaBana Vihara Monks on Alms Round, Rangamati. Taken from Supon Chukma
Standing Buddha at Dharmarajik Monastery, Dhaka. Taken from icwow.blogspot.comStanding Buddha at Dharmarajik Monastery, Dhaka. Taken from icwow.blogspot.com
Buddhist temple, razed during religious unrest. Taken from www.jakartapost.comBuddhist temple, razed during religious unrest. Taken from www.jakartapost.com
Indian Protests Against Attacks on Buddhists and Hindus in Bangladesh. Taken from www.demotix.comIndian Protests Against Attacks on Buddhists and Hindus in Bangladesh. Taken from www.demotix.com
Cakkra Muni Buddha Statue, Khagrachi. Taken from Mutichoddipara Vivekaram Monastery and Welfare, sskbs.blogspot.comCakkra Muni Buddha Statue, Khagrachi. Taken from Mutichoddipara Vivekaram Monastery and Welfare, sskbs.blogspot.com

Editor’s note: Jnan Nanda completed his BA Hons from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka and his MA from the University of Hong Kong where he presently teaches Reading in Buddhist Sanskrit Texts as a tutor at the Centre of Buddhist Studies. He also works for Buddhistdoor International. He starts his PhD in July 2014 at The University of Hong Kong.

This three-part article aims to provide an introductory account of contemporary Buddhism in Bangladesh. In drawing from limited resources on the subject, online newspaper articles and research papers by scholars from Bangladesh and Calcutta, the writer hopes to explain further the existence of vibrant and traditional Buddhist communities inside Bangladesh.  Although Buddhists represent a small percentage of the overall population, Buddhism is indeed deeply rooted in the history and daily lives of the people. Increasingly, with world media coverage looking into current news events in the country, this article endeavours to give some background understanding of the delicate balance in social harmony.   

Part One: Buddhists in Bangladesh

Part One discusses some early features of Buddhism in Bangladesh, demographic features of the Buddhist population, and relations with Muslim neighbours.

Jambudipa is a historical name dating back to the Buddha’s time, indicating a geographical area that extended far beyond what is present day India. What we know today as Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan, which were originally parts of ancient India, are all important areas of study in Buddhist history. There is extensive ancient Buddhist historical evidence in these countries. In Nepal, foreign and local archeologists, historians and Buddhist scholars have been able to conduct a good deal of research and archeological excavations. In Bangladesh and Pakistan, many areas of Buddhist historical significance remain closed to the outside world due to the countries’ internal problems. Fortunately, recently in Bangladesh, some excavations of ancient Buddhist sites have been permitted and a Buddhist monastery, attributed to Atisha Dipankara (1) in Bikrampur, is noteworthy.

Some claim that Buddhism in Bangladesh dates back to the Buddha’s time (2), or at the least, it is acknowledged that the area known as Bengal in a later period was a stronghold of Buddhism (3). Furthermore, the name ‘Chittagong’ (the principle business port of the country today) is said to be a phonetically corrupt form of Chattyagram, meaning ‘the village of Chetiya-s’ (Buddhist shrines), made during the colonial period. The archeological and historical evidence demonstrates Buddhism played vital roles in the daily lives of ancient people. Unfortunately, the history of Buddhism in Bangladesh is not well known. In fact, there is sadly a lack of adequate research on the subject.

At present, the Buddhist population in Bangladesh is less than 1% of the total 155 million people in the country. Even so, with this percentage, Buddhism is the third largest religion in the country (4), and its approximately 1 million followers uphold the Therav?da tradition. The Buddhist Sangha in Bangladesh is divided into four sub-sects (or Nikaya-s), namely, the Sangharaja Nikaya, the Mahasthavira Nikaya, the Sudharma Nikaya and Doara Nikaya (5). Dilip Kumar Barua writes that Bangladeshi Buddhism enjoyed unprecedented patronage from the ruling dynasty between the 7th and 12th century. Unfortunately, it is believed that the influence of tantric Buddhist (Tantrayana) practices exacerbated the growing anti-Buddhist sentiment of the later ruling dynasties. A combination of internal decay and Islamic invasions reduced Buddhism to one of the minority religions in the country (6). Nevertheless, Therav?da Buddhism survived. A recent study shows, at present, there are in fact 1,290 Buddhist monasteries in Bangladesh (7).

Most Buddhists in Bangladesh live in the Chittagong division, which is divided into two administrative areas: Chittagong (plain) and Chittagong Hill Tracts in the south-eastern part of Bangladesh. In these two divisions, Buddhists are again divided into two major communities, namely, the Barua-s, living mostly in the Chittagong (plain) and Sinha-s in Comilla, and the indigenous Buddhists of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In these communities one can find a contrasting variety of cultures where Buddhist teachings play important roles. Barua-s believe in the traditions that their forefathers came from Magadha (Bihar) (8), while it is believed that the Sinha-s in Commila are related to Sinhabahu, whose son, Vijayabahu, was the first king of Sri Lanka, a traditional stronghold of Theravada. Both Barua-s and Sinha-s, who are also known as Bengali Buddhists, are said to represent the earliest Buddhists in Bangladesh. 

There are 11 indigenous communities living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. They are: Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Mro, Lushai, Bawm, Chak, Khyang, Pankuya and Khumi. Chakma-s, Marma-s, Tanchangya-s and Chak-s follow Buddhism, while Tripura-s follow a combination of Buddhism and Hinduism. Mro-s follow Buddhism and Animism; Khyang-s and Pankuya-s follow Buddhism and Christianity; Lushai-s and Bawm-s follow Christianity, and Khumi-s follow Animism. Unlike the Baruas and Sinhas in Chittagong (plain) and Commilla who live in communal and religious harmony (9), the indigenous communities, including the Buddhists, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts face difficulties such as communal/sectarian, religious and political conflicts and violence. 

The indigenous communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts have been demanding political autonomy for some time. However, the central government has instead responded by sending Bengali Muslims from other regions of the country to settle in this area. Unfortunately, this adds a new dimension of conflict which leads to continuous violence and tension between indigenous communities and the Bengali Muslim settlers. Often, the latter are backed by the Bangladeshi military forces stationed in the region. Indigenous communities suffer despair from the ensuing violence when religious structures and homes are looted and razed, and indigenous girls and women are raped (10).

Sadly, most atrocities go unreported in both the local and international media, as  journalists are not allowed into these areas. Thanks to social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, indigenous people are able to protest and relay these news items to their expatriate networks. According to one report, after the partition of India and Pakistan, the Muslim population in Chittagong Hill Tracts was 2.5%. However, the 1991 census report showed that the Muslim population in the region had increased to 49% (11). This means, by now, the settlers’ population might have overtaken the numbers of indigenous people in the region.

Part Two of this series will discuss Buddhist culture and practices to be found in Bangladesh.

[1] For more on this archeological site, see ‘Ancient Buddhist Vihara found in Munshiganj’ in bdnews24.com (March 24, 2013).
[2] E.g., see ‘Buddhism in Bangladesh’ by M.A. Taher in The Independent, (November 1, 2011).
[3] ‘Buddhism in Bengal: A Brief Survey’ by Niru Kumar Chakma in Bangladesh e-Journal of Sociology, Volume 8, Number 1, 2011. 
[4] See ‘Buddhism in Bangladesh,’ by OWF in Osho World.
[5] See note 2 of ‘Ecclesiastical Punishment in Bangladeshi Monastic Life – A Case Study of Patimokka’ by Dilip Kumar Barua in Journal of Pali and Buddhist Studies.
[6] See ‘Ecclesiastical Punishment in Bangladeshi Monastic Life – A Case Study of Patimokka’ by Dilip Kumar Barua in Journal of Pali and Buddhist Studies.
[7] ‘Statistics of Buddhist Temples in Bangladesh as par Districts and Thanas’ by Upali Sramon in Vangabodhi.
[8] Sukomal Chauduri, (1982). Contemporary Buddhism in Bangladesh. p. 52. Calcutta.
[9] The Barua and Sinha Buddhists have maintained communal and religious harmony with other religious groups. However, in September 2012, it turned to a different direction, when hundreds of Muslims led by Islamic fundamentalists destroyed many Buddhist monasteries and houses in Ramu in protest against a fake photo diminishing the Holy Koran, which was tagged on a Facebook profile of a Buddhist.
[10] See ‘World Directory of Minority’ in Minority Rights Group International. http://www.minorityrights.org
[11] See ‘Population in CHT’. http://pcjss-cht.org
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