Between two civilisations : history and self representation of Bangladeshi Buddhism
Buddhism is believed to have all but died out in India following the thirteenth century Muslim invasion. However, in Bengal groups of non-Bengali people have continued to practice Therāvada Buddhism, which they are said to have imported from nearby Burma, or which they were converted to from other forms of Buddhism after migrating to Bengal. Their practices were "reformed" in 1856 by Burmese monks. An analysis of the historical material reveals a tendency by non-Buddhist Bengalis to downplay any relationship between the Buddhist traditions of Burma and Bangladesh, and to represent Buddhism as a phenomenon of the past. This reinterpretation of historical data is part of the formation process of a Bangladeshi national identity. That this process is in progress is confirmed by the existence in Bangladesh of a centralised and standardised educational system, having among its aims the integration of the national population. Religious education, in Bangladesh as elsewhere, plays within this system an important role in national integration. On the other hand, certain institutions of Bangladeshi Buddhism, such as temporary ordination, and features like the importance attributed to the Mahāmuni temple (which houses a replica of a very sacred Buddha image from Burma) confirm the historical connection between the Bangladeshi and the Southeast Asian Buddhist traditions. Any remaining doubts about the nature of Bangladeshi Buddhism are dispelled by the reading of a devotional song belonging to the genre known as Bauddha pālā kīrtana. The kīrtana, a ballad originating within the Hindu devotional movements, is very popular among all Bengalis, with no distinction of faith. The subject of this text, deriving from an apocryphal birth-story of the Buddha of Southeast Asian origin, reveals once again a link between the Buddhist traditions of Southeast Asia and Bangladesh, its Indian style just indicating regional taste.