Most of the followers of Buddhism in Bangladesh live in the south-eastern region, especially in the Chittagong district. Also, there are people of Arakanese descent living in the sub-tropical Chittagong Hill Tracts. Most of these people belong to the Chakma, Chak, Marma, Tenchungya and the Khyang, who since time immemorial have practiced Buddhism. Other tribals, notably those who practice Animism, have come under some Buddhist influence, and this is true in the case of the Khumi and the Mru, and to a lesser extent on the other tribals.
Bangladesh (historical Bengal) has a unique place in the history of Buddhism, mainly for two reasons. Firstly, Bengal was the last stronghold of Indian Buddhism where it could survive as a socio-cultural force until the 12th century, despite its disappearance from other parts of the Indian subcontinent. Secondly, it is generally claimed that Bengal was the home of a form of Buddhism, namely, the Tantric Buddhism. Tantric Buddhism is a later development in Bengal and therefore it remains to be seen what specific factors are responsible for turning the pure form of Buddhism into tantricism and whether the mystic and esoteric practices in the Buddhism of Bangladesh are of distinctively Bengali origin.
In the early days of Buddhism, many kings and rulers like Bimbisara, Ashoka, Kanishka patronized the spread of Buddha’s teaching. This continued until the Palas and Chandras of Bengal in the 12th century. Of course, Buddhism faced hostility from some of the rulers, but throughout the first millennium and beyond, Buddhism thrived in Bengal.
It is possible that Buddhism entered Bengal before Asoka’s time. After attaining enlightenment, the Buddha is said to have delivered his first sermon at Saranath and then moved to Magadha, Koshala, Vaishali and other places within what was known as Majjhimadesha or Madhyadesha. In the Divyavadana, the eastern boundary of the Majjhimadesha is said to have extended as far as pundravardhana (North Bengal). Furthermore, the Buddha is said to have received considerable support from King Bimbisara of Magadha who not only dedicated Venuvana as a residence for monks, but also remained his close friend and a great patron of his Dhamma throughout his life. Since Bengal was adjacent to Magadha, it is possible that the Buddha had visited parts of Bangladesh as suggested by Hiuen Tsang, who notes that Asoka had erected stupas at various places in Bengal and Orissa to commemorate these visits.
Asoka’s Reign and the Post-Maurya Period Epigraphic and other sources reveal that Buddhism had established a powerful footing in Bengal during Asoka’s reign. The discovery of a Mauryan inscription in Brahmi characters at Mahasthangarh in the district of Bogra bearing the name Pudanagala (Pundranagara) and the recovery of many Mauryan coins and other artifacts dating from the fourth and third centuries BC suggest that the Gangetic delta was under the control of the Mauryan empire. The Chinese traveller, I-tsing, is said to have noticed Asoka’s stupas near tamralipti (Tamluk) and Karnasuvarna (modern Burdwan and Murshidabad districts) in current West Bengal, in Pundravardhana (North Bengal) and in Samatata (Bangladesh). The port of Tamralipti to the west of the Bhagirathi-Hooghli river, in particular, played an important role during Asoka’s rule. It was from here, according to Mahavangsa, that the Buddhist mission from Asoka’s capital city, Pataliputra, sailed for Sri Lanka to spread the message of the Buddha.
With the decline of the Maurya Empire, Buddhism lost the royal patronage which it once enjoyed. Pusyamitra, after killing his master, Brhadratha, declared himself the emperor and ascended the throne of Magadha. He founded the Sunga dynasty in the 2nd century BC. With the resurgence of the Sungas, Buddhism met with its first major setback. Buddhism, once a thriving religion, declined in the absence of the royal patronage, as also because of the unfavourable attitude of the Sunga kings towards Buddhism and the Sangha.
Contrary to this position, some Indian scholars are of the view that the orthodox Sunga kings were not intolerant towards Buddhism, and that Buddhism continued to prosper even during the time of the Sunga kings. During the Sunga period, Buddhism was in existence in Bengal, and this can also be inferred from a terracotta tablet that was found at a place called Tamralipti. This terracotta tablet is currently on exhibit at the Asutosh Museum, University of Calcutta.
The Kushana period (around 1st century) gave further impetus to Buddhism when Kanishka raised Buddhism to the status of the state religion , erected stupas and chaityas, built monasteries and, like Asoka, sent missions abroad. The discovery of Buddha images, copper and gold coins and inscriptions, belonging to this period, indicate the flourishing status of Buddhism during the reign of Kaniska.
Kings of the Gupta dynasty were devout adherents of a Brahminical faith, sometimes called as Parama Bhagavatas, and they patronized and revived Brahminism, but they also possessed a tolerant outlook which allowed Buddhism to flourish. In the meantime, rise of the two powerful Hindu cults of Saivism and Vaisnavism, brought Buddhism closer to Hinduism. In its spiritual nihilism, Buddhism was approximated to the Bhakti movements so much so that, by the middle of the 6th century, the Buddha was accepted as an avatar of Vishnu.
According to Chinese sources, Maharaja Gupta, also known as Shri Gupta, the first ruler of the Gupta dynasty, built a Buddhist temple and offered it to Buddhist monks from China along with a gift of twenty four villages. This temple is believed to have remained a sacred place till the 7th century. Samudra Gupta, although a devout worshipper of Vishnu, also proved to be a great patron of Buddhism. It was during his reign that cultural relations between India and Ceylon were established. His teacher and guide, the celebrated Buddhist scholar Vasubandhu, was appointed minister, and, with the permission of the Ceylonese King Meghavanna, a monastery was built at Bodh Gaya for the monks and pilgrims of Ceylon. Chandra Gupta II who, like his father Samudra Gupta, was a devout Vaisnava by faith, gave full freedom to the practice of other faiths in his empire.
During his visit to Bengal, Fa-hien is said to have travelled eastward along the course of the Ganges river, and during his journey, he came across Buddhist stupas and monks at several places. In a place named Tamralipti, Fa-hien is said to have spent two years, and visited twenty-two monasteries, inhabited by monks who lived in accordance with the Buddhist Vinaya.
Archaeological evidences also support Fa-hien’s account about the thriving state of Buddhism in the Gupta period. An inscription found at Gunaigarh near Comilla, bearing the year 188 of the Gupta era (corresponding to 506 or 507 of the Christian era), records a gift of land by Maharaja Vainya Gupta in favour of the Buddhist Avaivarttika Sangha of the Mahayana sect. The Sangha, founded by the Acharya Shantideva and housed in a monastery called Ashrama Vihara, was dedicated to Avalokiteshvara. The inscription also refers to other Buddhist monasteries, one of which was known as Raja Vihara, which literally translates into Royal Vihara. Two Buddhist sculptures, a standing image of the Buddha found at Biharail in Rajshahi district and a gold-plated bronze image of Manjushri discovered at Balai Dhap mound at Mahasthana in Bogra, also bear testimony to the flourishing state of Buddhism during the rule of the Gupta kings.
Both the Hinayana and Mahayana sects of Buddhism flourished during the Gupta period. A number of Buddhist inscriptions, seals, images and manuscripts in Gupta characters, discovered at various archaeological excavations sites, testify to the thriving state of the early Hinayana schools, namely, the Sarvastivadins, the Sammatiyas (or the Vatsiputriyas) and Sthavirvadins. Gradually, Hinayana lost its hold, and Mahayana took ascendancy over Hinayana. Mahayana, with its ultra-altruistic principles, its scope for devotion and worship, and its opening of the state of Bodhisattvahood began to capture the imagination of common people, and acquired the status of an important religious movement. As Mahayana grew popular, Bodhisattvas such as Manjusri, Avalokitesvara and the goddess Prajnaparamita rose to occupy important positions. The Adi Buddha and Amitabha Buddha also received special attention. Worship of Bodhisattva images along with the image of the Buddha turned into a common practice. The Mahayanists are said to have revered the Prajna texts just as the Hinayanists revered their Vinaya and Abhidharma books. The Mahayanists are also said to have practised spells (dharanis) for religious purposes.
Hiuen Tsang visited India in the 7th century and visited almost all the major places associated with Buddhism in Bangladesh. According to him, there were six or seven Buddhist monasteries at Kajangala near Rajmahal, housing over three hundred monks. In the northern part of the country, he also claimed to have seen a belvedere built of stone and brick, with a broad and high base, artistic ornamentation and distinct carved images of the Buddha and the devas. At Pundravardhana he is said to have found twenty Buddhist monasteries with more than 3,000 monks who practised both Hinayana and Mahayana. The magnificent Po-shi-po, with spacious halls and storeyed chambers, occupied by over 700 monks, was located in the vicinity of the capital of Pundravardhana. There is also mention of a temple with an image of Avalokitesvara not far from this establishment, which attracted visitors from far and near.
Fa-hien visited India in the 5th century, and found that some of the old Buddhist centres like Kapilavastu and Saraswati were in a neglected and ruinous state, while Pataliputra, Mathura, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Nalanda were flourishing as active centres of Buddhism. The great monastery of Nalanda, which was founded by Kumara Gupta Mahendraditya, rose to prominence in the Gupta period and in course of time turned into a university and became the greatest centre of Buddhist learning in Asia. From an early date, the Buddhists of Bengal were closely linked with this great institution, although it was situated in Magadha. Prior to Hiuen Tsang’s visit to Nalanda, Acharya Dharmapala had been the high priest of its monastery. He was succeeded by his disciple Acharya shilabhadra, a scion of a Brahmana king of Samatata. It was under Silabhadra’s guidance that Hiuen Tsang studied Buddhist philosophy, including the vedas and Sangkhya Shastras, for five years. Not only scholars from Bengal but also its kings, the Guptas, the Palas etc., contributed to the development of the great institutions at Nalanda.
During the post-Gupta period, Harsavardhana gave Buddhism a new impetus. But, in the 6th century, Shashanka came to the throne, who was hostile to Buddhism. According to Hiuen Tsang’s account, Shashanka ordered the extermination of the Buddhist monks in and around Kushinagar; he cut down the holy Bodhi tree of Bodh Gaya and threw into the Ganges a sacred stone bearing the footprints of the Buddha. He is also said to have removed a Buddha image from a temple close to the Bodhi tree and replaced it with an image of Hindu god Lord Shiva.
Contrary to this, the reign of Emperor Harsavardhana (606-647) was one of resurgence and renewed progress and development. Despite being a worshipper of Shiva and Surya, Harsavardhana had great leanings towards Buddhism, and his elder brother, Rajyavardhana, and sister Rajyashri both were being devout Buddhists. Harsa was at first a follower of the Hinayana sect, but, in later life, became an ardent follower of Mahayana. Some of his notable contributions to the cause of Buddhism include erecting stupas on the banks of the Ganges, building monasteries at places sacred to Buddhism, and forbidding the slaying of animals. Another of his important contributions to Buddhism was his convening regularly the quinquennial convocation in which he gave away in religious alms everything he possessed. Harsa used to summon Buddhist monks once a year for religious discussions. Harsa was specially attached to Nalanda and extended help liberally.
After Harsavardhana, the Khadga dynasty is said to be the first Buddhist dynasty to rule an independent Bengal between the 7th and 8th centuries AD. The discovery of two copperplates, one at Ashrafpur, 30 miles north-east of Dhaka and another at Deulbari, 14 miles south of Comilla, gives valuable information about this royal dynasty. These copperplates mention the names of three kings, Khadgodyama, Jatakhadga and Devakhadga, and include the names of the queen and the son of Devakhadga, Prabhavati and Rajaraja or Rajarajabhata. I-tsing’s account notes that as many as fifty-six Buddhist priests from China visited India and its neighbouring areas in the latter half of the 7th century AD. One of these monks, Sheng-chi, who visited Samatata, mentions Rajabhata as its king and describes him as an ardent worshipper of the three gems (Triratna), that is, the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. There were 30 monasteries with more that 4,000 monks in Samatata alone during the pilgrim’s visit. It is clear from all these that during the reign of the Khadga kings, Buddhism continued to flourish in Bengal during the 7th century AD.
The Pala Dynasty ruled Bengal from 8th century to 12th century, and this period is regarded as the golden age of Buddhism in Bengal. The Pala rulers were devout Buddhists (Parama-saugata), and were also equally sympathetic to other religious faiths. Palas invoked the Buddha at the beginning of their official records and proceedings. Under the royal patronage of the Pala kings, Buddhism and all institutions associated with Buddhism continuously flourished and thrived in Bengal for four centuries under the patronage of the Pala kings. During the same period, Buddhism was almost wiped out in other parts of the Indian subcontinent, and at the same time, it also became a dominant force in neighbouring regions, extending its influence to Tibet in the north and the Malaya peninsula in the south.
Archaeological and epigraphic discoveries indicate the generous support of the Pala rulers towards Buddhism, and instances of the Palas’ patronage of Buddhism are numerous. According to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, King Gopala (750-770) built a monastery at Nalanda and established many schools for dissemination of Buddhist principles. According to Taranatha, many distinguished Buddhist teachers flourished during the reign of King Gopala, prominent among them were Danashila, Vishesamitra, Sura and Prajavarman. The Odantapuri Vihara was an example of rare architectural beauty. The famous Sam-ye monastery of Tibet is believed to have been built on the model of this great Vihara.
King Dharmapala (770-781) continued the religious policy of his father, and he also extended liberal support to Buddhist establishments. He founded the famous Vikramshila Vihara on a hill top on the bank of the Ganges river in Magadha. This Vihara soon rose to prominence as an international centre of learning and emerged as a university, second only to Nalanda. Vikramshila University maintained contact with Tibet and several Tibetan scholars participated in the affairs of the university throughout the rule of the Pala dynasty. Several of Vikramashila scholars, who once numbered 3000 in the 12th century, composed numerous books in Sanskrit, and also translated them into Tibetan. The curricula of the university included logic, metaphysics, grammar, tantras, and rituals. Importantly, the reigning monarch of the land awarded degrees to the students.
A monastery, built by King Dharmapala at Somapura Rajshahi district, and now better known as the Somapura Mahavihara (Naogaon) and which became a model for many such monasteries in South-east Asia, stands as a magnificent testament to the Pala patronage of Buddhism. King Dharmapala is also said to have established at least fifty religious schools designed to teach Buddhist philosophy, and to study Prajnaparamita in particular. He was a great patron of the Buddhist writer, Haribhadra, and, during his reign, as in his father’s, many distinguished Buddhist teachers, such as Purnavardhana, Prabhakara, Kalyanagupta, Sagaramegha, Bhuddhaj apada, flourished.
Under King Devapala (810-850), the Pala empire reached the zenith of its glory, and Bengal became a paramount power. King Devapala is said to have granted an endowment of five villages for the upkeep of a monastery founded by King Balaputradeva of Java, Sumatra and Malaya. Not only did he complete the Somapura establishment, he also showed keen interest in the well-being of the Vikramshila Vihara. Mahipala I, the ninth king of the Pala dynasty and rightly called the founder of the second Pala empire, is responsible for the revival of the past glory of the Buddhist establishments. He repaired the Buddhist monuments at Nalanda and constructed two new temples at Bodh Gaya. Many famous monasteries were built during the Pala period of which mention may be made of Jagaddala, Traikutaka, Pandita, Devikota, Pattikeraka, Sannagara, Phullahari and Vikramapuri.
Buddhism flourished during the reign of the Chandra dynasty in Harikela (eastern and southern parts of Bengal). The discovery of a large Buddha stupa, Salbana Vihara and other inscriptions at the Mainamati hills, four miles to the west of Comilla, still bears testimony to the condition of Buddhism during the Chandra kings. According to Tibetan sources, Buddhist tantricism flourished under the Chandra rule. The famous Buddhist scholar of Vikramapura, Atish Dipankar Srigyan, is believed to be related to the Chandra dynasty.
The Pala Kingdom was not only the last stronghold of dying Buddhism in India, it was also responsible for the rise of Tantric Buddhism. This new phase of Mahayana Buddhism has been variously designated by Charles Eliot and others as ‘late’, ‘degenerate’, and ‘corrupt’. Such allegations are based on the assumption that when Buddhism entered Bengal, it gradually came under the powerful influence of tantric beliefs and practices, including what are known as sexo-yogic practices, which made it fall away from the purity of its early form and eventually develop into what came to be known as esoteric or magical Buddhism.
Professor Trevor Ling opines that in Bengal from the time of Asoka to the Pala period, both the Hinayana and Mahayana, not the tantric, forms of Buddhism were practised. He describes the classical pattern of Buddhism as a three-cornered relationship between Sangha, king and people and emphasizes that the Buddhism of the Pala period was a true representative example of this classical pattern. Trevor Ling and many others believe that the Pala rule in Bengal heralded an era of progress in culture, religion, education, literature, art and sculpture. Amongst other achievements of the Palas, Ling has particularly mentioned their active patronage of Bangla language and literature. It was in a popular new language, a proto-Bangla form, that the Buddhist poets composed what are known to be the first poems of Bangla literature, the famous charyapada, a Tantric work of twenty-three Buddhist Tantrikists known as Siddhas.
Decline and Revival
The Sena Dynasty gained prominence after the decline of the Palas. The Senas were orthodox followers of Saivaism or Vaisnavism. Under them, the royal support for Buddhism ended. As a consequence, Buddhism soon began to decline and disintegrate. Another contributing factor was the coming of Islam through the subsequent defeat of the Sena dynasty at the hands of Muhammad bin Bakhtyar Khalji. After that, many of the surviving Buddhist monks fled to Nepal, Tibet or Bhutan. The Buddhist laity were either converted to Islam or were integrated into the fold of Brahmanism. Buddhism, as a separate entity, was almost extinct, surviving in many debased forms of popular practices such as dharma thakur puja or the puja of jagannath.
The decline of Buddhism, however, did not result in its total disappearance from the land of its birth, and it continued to survive in various forms of popular worship, rites and rituals until its resurgence in modern India. With its rediscovery in its parent country, the traditions of Buddhism were significantly recognized so that the Asokan pillar, the sacred Wheel of Law (Dharmachakra) and the Singhanada sculpture from Saranatha are now a part of Indian national life and heritage. The renewal of Buddhism in India today is attributed to Dr BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, who led the mass conversion of millions of untouchables or ‘Scheduled Castes’ to Buddhism in 1956. In Bengal, however, the revival of Buddhism seems to have taken place centuries before Dr BR Ambedkar’s introduction of the neo-Buddhist movement in Maharastra and other places. In the districts of Chittagong and the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the south-eastern parts of Bangladesh, a Buddhist minority had been practising Theravada long before the Moghuls and the British arrived in Bengal. In course of time, these Buddhists reformed their Sangha and in 1887 founded the Chittagong Buddhist Association, believed to be the first Buddhist society to be formed in the South Asian sub-continent.
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