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 in the belief that they were military fortresses. With the destruction of its centers of learning, Buddhism rapidly disintegrated. In subsequent centuries and up through the 1980s nearly all the remaining Buddhists lived in the region around Chittagong, which had not been entirely conquered until the time of the British Raj. In the Chittagong Hills, Buddhist tribes formed the majority of the population, and their religion appeared to be a mixture of tribal cults and Buddhist doctrines. According to the 1981 census, there were approximately 538,000 Buddhists in Bangladesh, representing less than 1 percent of the population.
The ethical teachings of the Buddha, Siddartha Gautama (ca. 550-486 B.C.), stress a middle path between physical indulgence and ascetic mortification. The practice of Buddhism is concerned with salvation rather than with metaphysical speculation. Salvation consists of freeing oneself from the cycle of rebirth into lives of evil, pain, and sorrow; to accomplish this, one must renounce society and live a simple life of self-discipline. Those who renounce society often are organized into one of the many monastic orders.
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.
Essentially tolerant, Buddhism outside the monastic retreats has absorbed and adapted indigenous popular creeds and cults of the regions to which it has spread. In most areas religious ritual focuses on the image of the Buddha, and the major festivals observed by Buddhists in Bangladesh commemorate the important events of his life. Although doctrinal Buddhism rejects the worship of gods and preserves the memory of the Buddha as an enlightened man, popular Buddhism contains a pantheon of gods and lesser deities headed by the Buddha.
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.
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