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Buddhism in Bangladesh

Recently angry protesters torched at least 11 Buddhist temples and damaged over 100 homes in southern Bangladesh over a Facebook posting allegedly insulting the Quran on early morning of September 30.

According to reports, the mob of several thousand people torched temples in Cox’s Bazar district, 350 km southeast of Dhaka, before dawn after learning about the posting by a presumed Buddhist. Troops were deployed to restore order after the vandalization.

Buddhism forms an important part in the fabric of Bangladesh’s history and culture.Bangladesh has been a part of a India and was known only as Bengal prior to its independence and the history of the modern state of Bangladesh has been short.

It’s not far from Bodhgaya (in present-day India, where the Buddha reached enlightenment) to Bengal, and the region has played a huge part in the development of Buddhism, including the creation of the mystical Tantric Buddhism.

By the reign of the great Indian Buddhist emperor Ashoka (304–232 BC), Buddhism was firmly entrenched as the number one religion of Bengal and, aside from a few minor blemishes, it continued to thrive in the region until the 12th century AD, making Bengal the last stronghold of Buddhism in an increasingly Hindu and Muslim dominated subcontinent. (http://www.lonelyplanet.com/bangladesh/history)

Buddhismis the third largest religion in Bangladesh with about 0.7% of population adhering toTheravada Buddhism. As of today, followers of Buddhism are mainly 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 had been since time in memorial 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.

Legend said that Gautama Buddha came to the region to spread Buddhism, and it was speculated that one or two individuals became monks to follow his footsteps. However, Buddhism did not gain much support during the lifetime of Gautama. It was not until under the reign of Asoka when Buddhism gained a toehold.

Ruins of Buddhist Vihara at Paharpur, Bangladesh

Buddhism in various forms appears to have been prevalent at the time of the Turkish conquest in 1202. The invading armies apparently found numerous monasteries, which they destroyed. With the destruction of its centers of learning, Buddhism rapidly disintegrated.

According to the 1981 census, there were approximately 538,000 Buddhists in Bangladesh, representing less than 1 percent of the population.

Golden Temple in Bandarban district

There are several monasteries in the Chittagong Hills area, and in most Buddhist villages there is a school (kyong) where boys live and learn to read Burmese and some Pali (an ancient Buddhist scriptural language). It is common for men who have finished their schooling to return at regular intervals for periods of residence in the school. The local Buddhist shrine is often an important center of village life.

Mainamati Salbon Vihara

The Ministry of Religious Affairs provides assistance for the maintenance of Buddhist places of worship and relics. The ancient monasteries at Paharpur (in Rajshahi Region) and Mainamati (in Comilla Region), dating from the seventh to ninth century A.D., are considered unique for their size and setting and are maintained as state-protected monuments.

Atisha, (982 to 1054 CE) one of the rare Buddhist masterswas born as Prince Chandragarbha, the second son of King Kalyanasri, ruler of a small Indian kingdom in Bikrampur, modern-day Bangladesh. As a young man he had a vision of Tara in which she advised him to renounce his royal title and seek a guru in another country, an advice he heeded. He studied at Nalanda, made a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya and then travelled for 13 months to Sumatra (modern-day Indonesia) where he lived from 1013 to 1025. It is said that Atisha had more than 150 teachers, but the most prominent teacher among them was Dharmakirti from Sumatra.

Pavilion at Atisha Dipankar’s birthplace

Atisha’s birthplace

Stone plaque at Atisha’s birthplace

Atisha's return from Sumatra and rise to prominence in India coincided with a flourishing of Buddhist culture and the practice of dharma in the region. He stayed at the monasteries of Nalanda, Odantapuri, Somapuri, and Vikramasila and soon became recognized as one of the greatest teachers of his age.

In 1040 emissaries were sent from Tibet asking Atisha to come there and help re-establish Buddhism. He arrived after a two year journey in Ngari in western Tibet where he stayed for 3 years. As he grew old, he accepted an invitation from his main disciple, Dromtonpa, to explore Central Tibet. In Nyetang, a town near Lhasa, Atisha spent nine years during which he discovered Tibetan libraries with impressive collections written in both Sanskrit and Tibetan. He moved around the region for another five years before passing away in 1052 at the prophesied age of seventy-two. Because of his devotion to Tara, she became one of the two most popular deities of Tibet. Atisha was enshrined near his last permanent home in the town of Nyetang.

Atisha’s ashes were brought to Dhaka, Bangladesh on 28 June 1978 and placed in Dharmarajika Bauddha Vihara.

Dharmarajika Buddhist Monastery, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Atisha wrote and translated more than two hundred books, including the translation of many books from Sanskrit to Tibetan. He also wrote several books on Buddhism, medical science and technical science in Tibetan. The ‘Seven Points of Mind Training’ are the fundamental teaching that he gave to Tibet.

Osho speaks on mystic Atisha in “The Book of Wisdom”. Available for free download at http://www.oshoworld.com/e-books/eng_discourses.asp?page_id=2

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