Whilst there are a few Buddhists remaining in Bangladesh, amounting to less that 1% of the population, they are mostly followers of the Theravada School, and come from the small community of indigenous peoples of Tibeto/Myanmar origins.
A thousand years ago however, it was a very different story. By the 12th Century archaeologists are agreed that there were probably around 300 Vihara flourishing in the country, which was, a significant part of the Ganges Basin, described as the ‘Cradle of Buddhism’, as well as being the homeland of Jainism. It was almost certainly within this concentration of Buddhist establishments that the Mahayana School of Buddhism developed, including associated practices such as yoga and tantra, and where Jainism flourished.
|Pagoda commemorating Atish Dipankar|
Estimates for the population of these Vihara vary widely, but if we consider reports that the ‘University’ in Vikrampur left by Atish Dipankar to respond to the invitation of the King of Tibet to help restore Buddhism, was the study place of 8,000 students; and the archaeological evidence of the few Vihara excavated that they housed up to 750 monks and more, we can easily estimate the population of Buddhist clerics alone at well over 150,000. Then we also have some considerable circumstantial evidence of the early existence of Jain communities in Bangladesh, including partially identified ruined Jain temples, and some more recent reasonably intact temples.
The most intriguing evidence however is from the Journal of Ralph Fitch, the late 16th Century English merchant who visited Bangladesh in 1586. His vivid description of the wealthy merchants of Sonargaon leaves little doubt that they were Jains.
It has long been speculated who was responsible for bringing the 1,500 year history of Buddhism in Bangladesh to its close. There are those who hold the 13th Century Sena, Hindu, dynasty of kings, with their strong Brahmanic tradition, responsible, and that might well explain the demise of the many Vihara in North Bengal, though not that of the many Vihara in the South east, including the 50 or more establishments at Comilla, where Sena influence seems not to have percolated.
The proposition that ‘Peace is the natural consequence of trade’ seems to have held good in the lands of the Ganges/Brahmaputra for over 1,500 years, with clear evidence of peaceful coexistence of emerging Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, even arriving Islam, and it is hard to imagine what ended than peacefulness.
The suggestion that the Muslim Khilji raiders from Afghanistan, who raided throughout the 12th Century and then settled early in the 13th, were responsible bears consideration, but perhaps the existence of the Jain merchants in Sonargaon contradicts that view, since from Fitch’s journal it is clear these merchants operated under the benign eye of Isa Khan, the last of the Khilji rulers.
This perhaps brings us to the name of that well known militant Muslim, the 6th Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, committer of fratricide and imprisoner of his father, who famously waged war against so many Hindu rulers in the subcontinent.
Added now to the mystery is why, when Buddhism seems to have been overwhelmed in the 13th Century, Jainism apparently survived.
It would probably require a considerable effort of archaeology to begin to answer these questions, and the lack of resources and poor management of those that exist make such an effort unlikely to be undertaken any time soon.
Bangladesh is, of course, sadly, no stranger to genocide. However, the eradication of as many as 150,000 monks, or even more, within a century does conjure up some fairly gruesome images and raises fascinating questions that would be interesting to answer.