Buddhism in Bangladesh : A Brief History by Professor Dr. Dipankar Srijinan Barua
Buddhism in Bangladesh : A Brief History
Professor Dr. Dipankar Srijinan Barua
Department of Pali
University of Chittagong
The history of Buddhism in Bangladesh is unclean.There are different opinions among the scholars and historians when and how Buddhism was introduced in Bangladesh. In this article, I have tried to find out the period of preaching and expansion of Buddhism in this region. In this context, I have discussed in brief the condition of Buddhism and various sects of Buddhism are developed in the period of Pala dynasty and under the local dynasties.
In 13th century A.D. Bangladesh was occupied by the Sen and Varman dynasties, and then the Muslim soldier Iktiar Uddin Mohammad Baktiar Khilji. During the Muslim rule, The history of Bangladesh mainly concerned with rapid progress of Islam. Islam was spread here by mass conversion. A few buddhists were saved in the south-eastern part especially the Chittagong Division where the Buddhists had still some strong hold being supported by the neighbouring Buddhist Kingdom of Arakan. Infact, during the Muslim rule Buddhism was affected seriously. It was a dark age for Buddhism.
Later on, during the British rule, from the 18th century A.D. Buddhism gradually reestablished in Bangladesh.
There are three small Buddhist communities in Bangladesh, one is Barua or Bengali Buddhist, one is Chakma Buddhist and another is Marma Buddhist. I have discussed in short of their history and religious culture. I pointed out here how these small communities gradually developed themselves, although they have to faced many obstacles.
Buddhism was founded by the Lord Buddha in the 6th century B.C. In a short time it expanded in this sub-continent. In the 3rd century B.C. the great king Asoka and in the Ist century A.D. king Kaniska patronized and propagated Buddhism. By the patronization of these two great kings Buddhism spread all over the world. Now Buddhism is one of the most familiar and greatest religions in the world. It is stated that Buddhism was expanded here and abroad without any conflict or blood-shed, because Buddhism is a religion of peace, non-violence, harmony, compassion, universal love and brotherhood.
Propagation of Buddhism
There are different opinions among the scholars and the historians when and how Buddhism was introduced in Bangladesh. There is a list of sixteen Mahajanapadas in the Pali canonical text, the Anguttara Nikaya, but there is not mentioned the name of any region of Bengal. On the other hand, after the Buddha's Parinibbana, his body-relics were divided among the eight communities.There is not also found any name of community of region of Bengal. The early canonical text, Anguttara Nikaya refers that once Buddha came to the town of Setaka in Suhmabhuami and stayed for some days for preaching Buddhism. The name of Suhmabhumi or Sumhmajanapada is mentioned in Talapatta Jataka.  A famous historian Dr. Nihar Ranjan Roy mentioned that the Suhmajanapada was in the western side in the district of Habra. In the different places of Anguttara Nikaya,it is mentioned that Kajangala is in Bengal and its present name is Kakjola. A monk named Bangantaputta is found in Anguttara Nikaya. In the Samyutta Nikaya and the Theragatha there is a short biography of Vangisa Bhikkhu who was a natural poet. He said that he was born in Vanga. Scholars are convinced that Bangantaputta and Vangisa Bhikkhu were inhabitants of Bengal. The famous Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang visited Pundravardhana between 638-645 A.D. and noticed many Buddhist institutions. He also saw a large stupa near the city Po-Shi-Po or Vasu Vihara .It was erected by Asoka himself containing the body-relic of the Buddha. The pilgrim mentioned that the Buddha stayed here three months and preached his religion. Hiuen Tsang further says that he saw numerous stupas in Pundravardhana and other regions of Bengal erected by Mauryan emperor Asoka. The Tibetan monk Sumpa also supported this statement in his book Pag-san-jon-zang.
A tradition recorded in the 'Divyavadana' that Buddhism was flourishing along with Jainism in Pundravardhana during the reign of the Mauryan emperor. Two donation-scripts are discovered from Sanchi-Stupa. In these scripts two Bengali donors' name are mentioned who helped to construct the first and second gates of the great Sanchi-Stupa. The names are Dhamata (Dharmadatta) a woman devotee and Isinandana (Rishinandana) a man devotee from Pundravardhan. We have come to know from Nagarjunakonda that the people of Bengal were converted to the Buddhist religion by Ceylonese monks during the second and third century A.D.
It is known from Aavadanasataka and Bodhisattvavadana Kalpalata that Sumagada, daughter of Anathapindika of Savatthi was married to a follower of Janinism in Pundravardhana. Once Sumagada invited Buddha and his disciples by her power of meditation. Buddha came with his five hundred disciples in Pundravardhana and stayed some months and preached his doctrine.There was another discovery of a stone-slab from Mahasthana in 1931 bearing six lines of Asokan Brahmi inscription. It is a royal order of the Mahamatra of Pundravardhana (Pudongal) to distribute food-grains and money from the government store-house to the famine-affected people of the area and replenished the government store both in kind and coins at the time of comparative prosperity of the people. A large number of punch-marked and copper cast coins have been discovered from Mahasthana in the excavations of 1960-61 A.D. by the Department of Archaeology. Together with this the excavations have also brought to light a large collection of B.N.P. pottery whose date may be from the 4th century B.C. to 2nd century B.C. and approximately corresponds with the Mauryan rule in this subcontinent. These evidences proved that Pundravardhana was a strong and powerful Bhukti or province in Mauryan period.
It is stated that Bengal is a nearer region from Magadha, the birth place of Buddhism. So many scholars think that Bengal was a province under the Magadha Kingdom. From the above discussions, it is clear that Buddhism was introduced in Bengal during the life-time of Buddha and was well-established in the Mauryan period.
Condition of Buddhism in Ancient Period
We already have mentioned that Buddhism was introduced and well-established in Bengal before the Christian era. The first Chinese monk-pilgrim Fa-Hien came to India in 399 A.D. and stayed till 414 A.D. He visited many regions in India including Bengal. He stayed for two years in Tambralipta or the modern town of Tamluk in the district of Medinipur in West Bengal. According to his description there were 22 monasteries with residents and thus his evidence is indicative of the prosperity of Buddhism in Bengal in the early part of the 5th century A.D. During this period the kings of Gupta dynasty (319/320 - 540 A.D.) governed the Bengal.
The kings of Gupta dynasty were the follower of Brahmanism and usually they patronized Hinduism. But they were sympathetic to other religions including Buddhism. I-tsing, another Chinese pilgrim, who came to India and visited Tambralipta in 673 A.D., mentioned that Maharaja Sri-Gupta built a temple called 'Chinese Temple' and donated 24 villages as an endowment for the maintenance of the temple and a separate building was constructed for the accommodation of foreign scholars and visitors, most of whom came, obviously from Chian. So, we can imagine that Buddhism was in a rising position in the Gupta period.
The Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang said that he went from Ka-chuwu-khi-lo (= Kajangala = Kankjol) near Rajmahal, Bihar, to Pun-na-fa-tan-na (= Pundravardhana), near Rajshahi Division of Bangladesh. He described the existence of both Sthavira and Mahayana schools as well as Mahayana-Sthavira school in almost all parts of Bengal. At Kajangala (Kanjol) he found 7 Buddhist monasteries having more than 300 monks. At Pundravardhana he found 20 monasteries having about 3000 monks of which 700 were of Mahayana school and the rest of the Mahayana-Sthavira school. The biggest establishment about 3 miles west of the capital-city of Pundravardhana, was the magnificent Po-shi-po monastery which Cunningham identified as Vasu-vihara. It is near Mahasthana, 7 miles north of the present Bogra town. In Samatata (present Comilla), there were about 30 monasteries having more than 2000 monks of the Sthavira school. He found also an Asokan tope near the capital. In Karnasuvarna, northern part of western Bengal, he found 10 monasteries with about 2000 monks of the Sammantiya school. In Tambralipta (Tamluk), he found only 10 monasteries having 1000 monks of the Sarvastivada school. It is remarkable that the Acaryya Silabhadra, the famous scholar and head of the Nalanda Mahavihara (university) and the teacher of Hiuen Tsang was a prince of Rata dynasty of Samatata. 
In the beginning of seventh century, king Sasanka adorned the throne of Gauda. He was a blind supporter of Brahmanism and tried his best to destroy Buddhism. After the death of king Sasanka, Hiuen Tsang came to India and recorded various accounts of the persecution on Buddhism by Sasanka, the king of Gauda. He visited the whole Bengal and saw the condition of Buddhism. He saw many temples and thousands of Buddhist monks there. There were Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism side by side in Bengal Later, the Khadga dynasty (650-700 A.D.), king Harsavardhan (606-674 A.D.), Rata dynasty (640-470 A.D.), Deva dynasty (720-825 A.D.), Chandra dynasty (900-1050 A.D.) ruled different parts of Bengal. All of them were Buddhists. So they patronized Buddhism.
The time of Pala dynasty (750-1165 A.D.) is identified as 'golden age' of Buddhism in Bengal. King Gopala (750-775 A.D.) was the founder of the Pala dynasty. He did his best for the development of Buddhism. It is mentionable that Pala dynasty subscribed to the Mahayana system of Buddhism. All kings of this dynasty patronized Buddhism although king Dharmapal (770-810 A.D.) did the best. He made many Mahaviharas (Buddhist monasteries and universities) like Odantapur Mahavihara, Vikramsila Mahavihara in Magadha, Sompuri Mahavihara in Rajshahi, Traikuta Mahavihara etc. In the reign of the long time about four hundred years, we find that the Pala kings devoted themselves whole heartedly to the service of Buddhism and Sangha.
Probably Mahayana Buddhism was introduced in the reign in the time of king Kaniska. In the reign of Pala dynasty Mahayana Buddhism changed and from the Mahayana creed formed Mantrayana, Vajrayana, Sahajayana and Kalacakrayana. Debased by mysticism and exorcism practices Buddhism lost its original significance and was reduced to Tantrik Buddhism. After the Pala dynasty, the Sena and Barman dynasty and then Muslim soldiers occupied Bengal. Under their reign, the Buddhist community was attacked by them and in the long run they have been compelled to admit Hinduism or Islamism. In thirteen century A.D. and on wards no Buddhists were found. Only a few Buddhists took shelter in Nepal and south-east side of Bangladesh i.e. present Chittagong.
Contemporary Position of Buddhism
Now a few Buddhists are living in Bangladesh. There are not more that 3 million Buddhists out of 15 crore population in Bangladesh. Major portion of the Buddhists live mainly in greater Chittagong district and Chittagong Hill Tracts and a few Buddhists are living in Comilla, Noakhali, Barguna and Patuakhali districts. Preeminently there are three kinds of Buddhist communities in Bangladesh. These are Barua Buddhist, Chakma Buddhist and Marma Buddhist (or Rakhain Buddhist). The Barua Buddhists live in plain districts and the Chakma and Rakhain or Marma Buddhists live in hilly areas. So they are called plain and tribal Buddhists respectively. All of these three communities follow Theravada Buddhism. It is stated that the religious cultures of these communities are almost same but the social cultures are different. Now we shall introduce in brief these three communities.
The Barua Buddhists or Plain Buddhists
The Barua Buddhists mainly live in Chittagong, Cox's Bazar and a few in Comilla and Noakhali districts. They follow the Bengali culture, because they live in the Bengali speaking society and they speak in Bengali. Specially they are influenced by Hindu culture. Once they observed Durga Paja, Kali Puja, Swaraswati Puja, Manasa Puja, Laskhmi Puja etc. They admitted Muslim culture and Arakanese- culture too. Still they use Arakanese words in religion, like choaing (rice for monk), Chadam (Pravarana), etc. In 18th century and 19th century the monks and the lay men followed some non- Buddhistic religio-cultue.
It is remarkable that the Baura Buddhist is an ancient community in Bangladesh. When Buddhism was propagated in this region in the early period, the present Baura Buddhist community embraced Buddhism. In the 2nd century A.D. a Magadhan prince of Vajji, Chanda-suriya by named came here with 700 followers. He established a kingdom with Arakan and Chittagong region. He and his successors ruled this region more than thousand years. Later on the Buddhist community used 'Barua' title at the end of their names. Probably Barua title came to be used in the 15th or 16th century A.D.
In 1856 A.D. the then Sanghanayaka Rev. Radhacaran Mahathera went to visit the holy place Buddha-Gaya. On the way, at Kolkata, he met Rev. Saramedha Mahasthavir, an Arakanese renowned Bhikkhu. It is stated that Sangharaja Saramedha Mahasthavir was born in a respectable Rakhain Buddhist family in 1801 A.D. at the village Harbang in Chakaria, Cox's Bazar. He took ordination from Rev. Saralankar Mahasthavir in his early life and took higher ordination (Monkship) in 1821 A.D. He left Harbang with his Upadhayya (teacher) for Arakan in 1826 A.D. and began to live there permanently.
Rev. Radacharan Mahathera invited Sangharaj Sharamedha to visit Chittagong. According to the invitation of Rev. Radhacaran Mahasthavira, Rev. Saramedha Mahasthavira came to Chittagong in 1856. At this time he stayed two years at Mohamuni Pahartali Sakyamuni Vihar. In this time he visited many Buddhist villages with Rev. Radhacharan Mahathera and delivered lectures on Buddhism in Burmese language and Rev. Radhacharan Mahathera interpreted them into Bengali. It is stated that Rev. Radhacharan Mahathera was efficient in Bengali, Pali, Sanskrit, Hindi, Burmese and Urdu languages. In the first occasion, Sangharaj stayed in Chittagong for about two years.
Next, Rev. Saramedha Mahasthavir came to Chittagong in 1864. At this time some Bengali monks took discipleship under Sangharaj Saramedha, but some monks did not take discipleship. Those who took discipleship are called 'Sangharaja Nikaya' and the rest are called Mahastavira or 'Mahathera Nikaya'. From this time the Bengali Buddhist monks are divided into two Nikayas although there is no difference between them. Both the Nikayas follow the Hinayana or Theravada Buddhism. There is no difference among the lay Buddhists too.
The Chakma and the Marma Communities or Tribal Buddhists
The Chakama and the Marma community mainly live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It is difficult to indentify when and how Buddhism was propagated in this region. Once Bangladesh was under the spell of tremendous Buddhist influence which has already been testified by numerous archaeological discovery of stupas, monasteries and large number of other archaeological discovery from different sides of Bangladesh. But such no findings have been discovered in Chittagong or Chittagong Hill Tracts. Neither the travel accounts of Fa-Hien, Hien Tsang or other give any indication about Buddhism. There are no historical documents regarding Buddhism during what is regarded as the golden age of Buddhism in Bengal from 7th to 12th century A.D. Buddhism spread and developed in Chittagong Hill Tracts. The researchers think that in this period of history Chittagong Hill Tracts was probably simply a tangled mass of hill and a boundless sea of inaccessible dense and creeper forest without any human settlement. The Buddhists of Chittagong Hill Tracts, the Chakmas and the Marmas are believed to have migrated from Arakan. Dr. Niru Kumar Chakma says, from the histories of Arakan (Arakan History Dengyawadi-Aradafung) and Burma and other sources it is known that the Chakma, before immigrating to Bangladesh, were in Arakan where they had a kingdom of their own. Unable to withstand the severe repression of the Arakanese king, and finding no other way, the Chakma king fled the country with his people and took refuge in the hands of Jalaluddin Mohammad Shah, the then Sultan of Gouda in 1418. They first settled themselves on the plains around Cox's Bazar to in the south of Chittagong and in course of time moved to the north and established their present homes in Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The Chakma Buddhists, like Barua Buddhists are influenced by the Hindu socio-religious cultures and other alien cultures. Most of them are used to worshipping many Hindu gods and goddesses, such as Durga, Kali, Swaraswati etc. In the temple the image of the Buddha was placed side by side with those of Siva, Brahma and Visnu. 
The reformation moment among the Chakma was started, from the second half of 19th century, when the then Chakma Rani (queen) Kalindee took personal interest and set herself upon the task of reforming degenerated Buddhism of Chittagong. In 1857 she invited Ven. Saramedha Mahathera, a great Arakanese monk to her Rajanagar monastery to teach the monks the tenets of Theravada Buddhism. Many monks took ordination again and since then they have been following the Theravada system.
The Marma Buddhists also have their own history. Ahamed Sarif thinks that up to forth-fifth century, Arakan and Chittagong were one region and ruled by Arakanese rulers. In 10th century king Anorhata (1044-77) uprooted the Mahayana doctrine and introduced Theraveda doctrine in Arakan and Chittagong. Chittagong was ruled by Arakanese rulers up to 1666 A.D. From the southern side of the Sanka river they ruled Chittagong up to 1756 A.D. So the historians think the Marma have been living here from ancient time. The Marmas follow the Theravada Buddhism.
Buddhist Monks and Monasteries
There are at present about 3000 monasteries and about 3500 monks in Bangladesh which Barua monks are about 1500 and about 1200 monasteries in Chittagong, Cox's Bazar, Noakhali, Comilla, Dhaka and other plain districts and there are about 2000 monks and about 1800 monasteries in Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The monks have always been greatly revered for renouncing the worldly pleasures and extending valuable services to the society. Every village of the Bengali Buddhists, Chakma Buddhists and Marma Buddhists has at least one monastery which is housed by a senior monk and his disciples. The daily alms is offered to them by one or two families of the village alternately.
Buddhist monks play a vital role during the time of marriage, the birth of a child and the death of a man. The marriage ceremony is performed by a competent person normally, an elderly man, according to social customs. But it is normal practice that monks are invited to bless the bride and bridegroom. In either case the monks, after administering Trisarana recite some suttas to suit the occasion. In the Mangala Sutta occasion the monks are invited by the willing persons .They recite some suitable suttas for their welfare. They are also invited in the funeral rites and they recite Aniccasutta for the welfare of the dead. All the Buddhists generally go to the temple to observe the Buddha Purnima, Asadi Purnima, Madhu Purnima, Aswini Purnima, Maghi Purnima and Bengali new yera's day. The Kathin Civara Dana is one of the most remarkable festivals for the Buddhists of Bangladesh.
Buddhist religious study is taught in schools and colleges and in the Department of Pali in the public Universities too. There are about 100 Pali tols and Pali colleges which are recognized by the government. Free instructions in Pali are given to the people in these institutions and regular examinations are conducted by Sanskrit and Pali Education Board of the Government of Bangladesh.
Although there are several sects among the Bangladeshi monks, there is no difference between their vinaya rules (discipline), besides the monk-ordination. They follow the same principles like all other monks of the Theravadin countries. The lay followers in general do not make any discrimination in the selection of monks for their religious performances. They equally respect the monks without making any distinction. The monks and the lay men of both hill and plain observe the same kind of religious festivals. Their rituals are almost same although they have their own social cultures.
- Majumder, Gayatri Sen, Buddhism in Ancient Bengal, Calcutta- 1983, P. 10
- Jataka No. 96.
- Bangalir Itihas (Beng), Calcutta, 1404, B.S P.117.
- Ibid. P.P. 100 & 494.
- Malalasekera, G.P. Dictionary of Pali Proper Names, Voll- ii Delhi, 1994 P. 803.
- Ahmed, Nazimuddin; Mahasthan, Dhaka 1975, P.6
- Epigraphia Indica, 11, P. 108 ingc. No-109, P-380 ingc. No 217
- Ibid. xx, P. 42.
- Das, Sarat Chadra, (trans), Kolkata, 1328, pp. 265-71
- Journal of the Department of Pali, Calcutta University, Voll no- 12, 2003.
Article: Buddhism in Bengal: The period of Propagation by Prof. Dipankar Srijnan Barua, ed by Dr. Bela Bhattachariya. P. 42.
- Ahmed, Nazimuddin; ibid P.P 5-6
- Majumder, Gayatri Sen; ibid p-12
- Chaudhuri, Sukomal; Contemporary Buddhism in Bangladesh, Calcutta, 1987, P.P. 5-7
- Roy, Nihar Ranjan; Bengalir Itihas, ibid, P.503
- Majumder, Gayatri Sen; Ibid. p.26
- Chakma, Nuru Kumar; Chittagong Hill Tracts and Buddhism ,Dhaka, 1981, 8-19.
- Mahamahopadhyya, Haraprasad Shastri; Haraprasad Shastri Racanabali, Vol. III, Kolkata, 1980, P.P. 492-493
- Barua, Rabindra Bijoy; The Theravda Sangha, The Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Dhaka, 1978. PP.283-84
- Chakma, ibid, P.18
- Ibid, P. 19
- Chattagramer Itihas, Agamani Prakasani, Dhaka, 2001,P.29
- Chakma. ibid, P.21