The home of Mahayana Buddhism is often regarded as being Tibet. In fact however, there is growing evidence that a hitherto unconsidered location may be where this more ‘liberal’ school of Buddhism first emerged. Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest Islamic states with a strong cultural tradition in its Sunni majority, has long been recognized as having a considerable Buddhist background that was, almost literally, wiped out by the 12th and 13th Century raiders and invaders from Afghanistan and Persia.
|Varendra Research Museum|
A survey of the Buddhist collection of the Varendra Museum reveals art, sculptural and architectural detail from over 50 locations in North Bangladesh alone. Such a large concentration of sites in such a small area of the world certainly justifies consideration.
Early investigation of the Buddhist history of Bangladesh commenced in the mid and late 19th Century, largely under the influence of British archaeologists. With partition in 1947 and the very emotive environment surrounding that process, and later, the disastrous and genocidal Liberation War in 1971, meant there was neither the incentive, not the resources to continue the work that was first effectively formalized in 1910, with the foundation of Varendra Research Museum in Rajshahi
There is little doubt that Prince Gautama, the Buddha himself, while under the patronage of King Bimbisara the Magadha ruler, preached in North Bengal the north western province of Bangladesh. Indeed Early Chinese visitors in the Common Era noted Ashokan Pillars erected to mark the places of the Buddha’s preaching as well as a stupa, also erected by the great emperor, built over a bodily remain of the great prince.
It was about the same time, in the 5th and 4th Centuries BCE, that the earliest of the Aryans are believed to have followed the Dravidians into the largely forested lands of the Ganges Delta, bringing with them early Vedic Hindu beliefs. These beliefs show a considerable merging with more traditional and pagan beliefs, not least the worship of Saura, the Sun God, the worship of whom is believed by some historians to have motivated the flow of the great Aryan diasporas, including the Celts, who are said to have travelled in search of the resting place of the Sun God during his nocturnal disappearances, and the famous Mother Goddess, whose worship continued in Europe through Roman times.
The result, in these Gangetic lands, was fusion of a number of developing faiths and philosophies. Much of the evidence of that fusion as the foundation of Mahayana Buddhism lies in the art recovered from the many ruined Vihara that are numerous across the vast plains of the delta.
Those who describe Mahayana Buddhism as ‘originating in India’ are, perhaps, being a little disingenuous; ancient India comprised the entire subcontinent, including both Pakistan and Bangladesh. The ‘rediscovery’ of the extent of Buddhist archaeology, particularly in northern Bangladesh, and suggested reason for its heartland around the wealth and communications, as well as the peaceful environment around the great trading routes, reinforces the view that the ‘power house’ of development was less limited geographically than previously thought.
The Mahayana School, of course, is actually a collection of philosophical approaches to attaining enlightenment: Zen, Pinyin (Pure Land), Tendai and Nichiren, as well as the ‘esoteric’ traditions that are regarded as associated with Shingon and Tibetan Buddhism.
Zen, the attainment of enlightenment through experience rather than theory, seems very likely to have found early expression in Bangladesh, where Buddhism is so clearly part of a strong commercial and trading tradition.
Pinyin, or Pure Land, derives from the example of Amitabha Buddha, who is said to have been a king who gave up his throne after attaining enlightenment. The location of this origin is unknown, though theorized across the Buddhist world. The assortment of ‘realms’ or kingdoms surrounding the South West Silk Road must clearly widen the field of contenders, at the very least. But, once again, the intensity of the concentration of monasteries/vihara in Bangladesh, together with the identification of Vihara such as Paharpur(Somapara) and Jagaddala as both major centres of learning, and with evidence such as the reproduction of Paharpur design in Cambodia, Java and Sumatra, suggest that there was, at least, considerable development from within the area.
|Ruins of Jagaddala Vihara|
Tendai, or ‘Lotus School’, is in many ways, even more interesting since the unearthing of a 3rd/6th Century Lotus Temple in the great trading centre at Wari Bateshwar on the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh. The 13th Century development in Japan of Nichiren, based on the Lotus Sutra, surely derives from such centres of international study as that at Vikrampur in Bangladesh, known, in the middle of 11th Century to be a very considerable centre of study, from which Atish Dipankar left to travel to Tibet.
|Pagoda built by the government of the People's Republic of China to to commemorate Atish Dipankar|
The emerging evidence of the existence of a further ‘Silk Road’ which passed between West, South and South East utilizing the Brahmaputra for access towards the Himalayan passes through Tibet, and Myanmar/Yunnan, a route accessed by Grand Trunk Road from Indus and Arabian Sea, and by Ganges, as well as, of course, the sea itself, that carried Malaysian Tin to the developing Bronze Age in China, and such as Money Cowries from Bay of Bengal and Southern Ocean, centuries before the Common Era, explains, too, both the wealth that financed the development, and the routes by which early Buddhism spread across Central, East and South East Asia.
|Buddhist Vihara Somapura, Paharpur, Naogaon|
The art recovered includes an astonishing number of Hindu images from Vihara, as well as early Bodhisattva images commonly associated with Tibetan Buddhism. It is widely accepted that Vajrayana and associated exotic practices such as Tantric and Yogic meditations derive from the Mahayana school, and represent this very close fusion with other and more ancient beliefs and practices.
It is, under the circumstances of identifying this unique environment of history, study, peace and wealth, unsurprising that it may now be thought likely that, after all, the cradle of these beliefs, still so strongly held and practiced, especially amongst Buddhist followers in East and South East Asia, as well as amongst the huge diversity of others seeking de-stressing practices in their lives, across the world, has finally been identified, in Bangladesh!