Buddhist Education in Bangladesh: Challenges and Possibilities


This essay is an attempt to provide a survey on learning and teaching of Buddhistimages (9)
scriptures in the modern day Bangladesh. In this essay I will especially focus on the periods between 19th and 21st century C.E. First I will give a brief discussion on the history of the Buddhist education during Pāla Daynasty (8th to 12th century C.E.). The main focus will be put on the challenges that the Buddhist education is experiencing due to various reasons such as economic, social, and political and so on. Finally, I will make an attempt to find out the possibilities in order to meet the challenges and thus commence a new horizon to the study of Buddha’s teachings in the original languages.

Defining ‘Buddhist-Education’:

Buddhist-education means studying or learning the teachings of the Buddha and that of
his enlightened disciples. It usually refers to the teachings contained in the three baskets (tipiaka). But through extensive research scholars have come to an agreement that of the three baskets the abhidhammapiaka and most texts in the khuddakanikāya developed or added to the tipiaka later. There are also controversies with regard to the authenticity of the vinaya collections. Therefore, the first four nikāya-s – Dīgha, Majjhima, Sayutta, and Aguttara nikāya-s, which are common to all Buddhist schools, are regarded as the most authentic teachings of the Buddha. So, being educated in the teachings of the Buddha, strictly speaking, should refer to an in depth study of these four nikāya-s.

Study of Buddha’s teachings does not mean just going through the texts and understanding the words and meanings therein. One should be fully aware of the specific purpose of the teaching conveyed in a particular text or discourse. The reader should be able to establish an intimate connection to the text he/she is studying. Unfortunately, many Buddhist institutes are not concerned with this matter. We see in today’s world attempts are being made to establish Buddha as an economist, political leader, psychologist, environmentalist, social reformer and so on, and Buddhism to be a system of economy, a guide for psychology, and politics and so on. We often forget that Buddha is simply a teacher (satthā) who was concerned only about the dissatisfactoriness (dukkha) of sasāric life and its end (dukkhanirodha =nibbāna).[1] Without a thorough knowledge of this purpose a learner is far from obtaining the expected benefits.

The teaching actually is compared to a poisonous snake, which one should handle
carefully in case he/she is bitten by it and suffer from its poison.[2] The Buddha said his teaching should be regarded like a raft to cross the ocean of sasāra and reach the supreme bliss – nibbāna.[3] One should not study it just to engage in arguments or to refute others in disputation. The Buddha regarded education as the best amongst all miracles.[4] It is by proper education that one transforms from bad to good. In fact, it should be the purpose of the Buddhist education. In the words of SN Goenka, a rewound meditation master of 21st century, – ‘we should try to convert people from misery to happiness, from bondage to liberation and from cruelty to compassion’.[5] This is what is obtained by following the instructions of the Buddha. The guidelines and educations given by the Buddha throughout the Pāli Canon is on how to practice a brāhmacāriya life which will eventually lead to the freedom from all sorts of psycho-physical sufferings (dukkha). So, the study of Buddhist texts should be a practice in itself, if not, it challenges the credibility of ‘Buddhist-education’.

Vaga, Bengal and Bangladesh:

The modern Bangladesh got its name after its separation from Pakistan in 1971. Geographically it is bordered by India to its west, north and east; Burma to its southeast and Bay of Bengal to its south. Since 1947 till its separation, politically it was under the Pakistani government and was known as East Pakistan. Prior to that, during British period (1957-1947), it was part of ethno-linguistic region of the large Bengal constituting East and West Bengals.

During the 6th century B.C. it was probably part of Magadhan kingdom. Because of it being geographically close to the Magadha, it is believed that Buddha might have visited Bengal.  Also the great Vangīśa, who was one of Buddha’s great disciples, was from Bengal. Further, ‘Vaṅga’ was mentioned in the list of cities during Buddha’s time. And Vijaya, an abandoned prince of Vaṅga, was one who established his kingdom in Sri Lanka and was said to be the ancestor of Sri Lankan Buddhists. So, there is probability that Buddhism was prevalent in the present day Bengal at the time of the Buddha and also at the subsequent periods. However, here I shall focus on the study and practice of Buddhism especially in the Pāla Dynasty and in the modern Bangladesh.

Historical Background (circa 8th to 12th C.E.):

During the Pāla dynasty, Buddhism was the predominant religious force especially in theimages (11) north eastern India. Bengal, which constitutes the present day Bangladesh and the West Bengal, was the main center for Buddhism. It was the Mahāyāna and Tantric form of Buddhism that was prevalent at this period. The Pāla kings were so devoted to Buddhism that they have built a number of large monasteries and centers for Buddhist studies. The Nālandā, Vikramaśila, Sompura Vihāra are some examples to mention. They had also supported to the progress of Hinduism in the country by establishing Śiva and Vaiśnava temples and so on.

Gopāla established the Pāla Dynasty in 750 C.E. The period prior to that was a period of total chaos both socially and politically.  Gopāla, the first king of Bengal, re-established the lost peace and harmony among the people and thus founded a righteous kingdom. Following him about 20 kings ruled the kingdom for about 400 years. The Pāla kingdom expanded to present day Bihar, Baranasi and Mithila. They have even reached as far as Tibet and Malay islands.

The contribution made by the Pāla kings for the propagation of Buddhism is comparedruins-of-the-buddhist to that of King Asoka.  They have contributed in literature, philosophy, and architecture and so on. ‘Charyapada’ – also called ‘Charyagīti’ – the text that became the source of Assamese, Bangla, Hindi, and Orissa language and literature, was the first text ever produced in this period. This was discovered by a great scholar Haraprasad Shastri from the National Library of Nepal in 1907.[6] The text is a collection of mystic songs by various Siddhācaryas recording the religious and socio-political situations of the Pāla dynasty.

According to J. L. Barua the Pāla kings built about fifty Buddhist temples and learning centers, of which thirty five were centers for learning Prjñāpāramitā (perfection of wisdom) texts.[7] But apart from only Buddhist texts other secular subjects such as medicine, political science, arts and crafts, fine arts, architectures were also being taught. Here I shall present brief details about a few significant Buddhist monasteries and learning centers built in this dynasty.

Sompura Mahāvihāra: It was situated in the Naoga district. It was built by the king Dhammapāla. The length and breadth of the temple is 922 feet from south to north and 919 feet from east to west. It has got a total of 177 rooms for the residents to live, study and practice their religious life. It is said that the great masters like Advayavajra, Atulyapāda and Atisha stayed in this monastery and translated a great number of Buddhist texts into Tibetan language.

Vikrampurī Mahāvihāra: This monastery was situated in the Munsiganj District. It was a center for tantric Buddhism. Close to this monastery, Atisha was born in a place called Vajrajoginī. It was one of the important centers destroyed by the Turkish soldiers.

Pandita Vihāra: It was situated in Chittagong District. It is said that most of the Siddhas or Panditas who went to different places including Tibet to propagate dhamma received education at this monastery.

Śālbana Vihāra: It was situated in the Maynamati District. The monastery was built by the king Bhabadeva in the 8th century C.E. It is said that of fifty geological sites it was the only residential learning center in Maynamati.

Apart from temples mentioned above there were many other temples like Jagaddal Vihāra, Śitakuṭa Vihāra, Bāsu Vihāra, Kanaksthūpa Vihāra etc.

Besides building Buddhist monasteries and education centers, the Pāla Dynasty is famous for its contribution to the arts and architectures. During this period a number of statues of various Buddhas and bodhisattvas were created. Among the Buddhas were Vairocana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitābha and Amoghasiddhi and among the bodhisattvas was Avalokiteśvara and so on.

Education in Pāla Dynasty:

The Buddhist education started with the Buddha himself who for his extraordinaryAtisha teaching methods and capacity was called ‘the teacher of men and gods’ – (satthā devāmanussāna). The goal of his teachings was to lead a complete happy, healthy and peaceful life. The focus was to develop positive mental qualities such as metta (loving kindness), karunā (compassion), muditā (sympathetic joy) and upekkhā (equanimity). For the Buddha, education is the best miracle (anusāsanipathihāriya). Following this line of thoughts the Buddhist monasteries and universities in the Pāla dynasty introduced two types of education system: one for monastics and the other for laity. Basically five disciplines (pañcavidya) were taught at those monasteries. They are: 1) grammar, 2) science of arts and crafts, 3) medical science, 4) logic, and 5) philosophy. According to the records of I-tsing, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim monk,[8] there were two types of schools – one internal and the other external. The internal school was for the students who were committed to learn the texts in the tipiaka and be prepared for their brāhmacāriya life. The external school would teach secular subjects like agricultural science, business studies, and so on.[9] Each monastery and university had a huge library with great number of books.

So, it is said that during the 400 years of Pāla dynasty India became prospered in knowledge, literature, philosophy, arts and so on. This period produced a number of great Buddhist savants like Shantarakkhita, Atisha, Shilabhadra, Naropa, Tilopa and many more who travelled around the world and propagated Buddhism.[10] But after the Pāla dynasty it was a dark period for about six hundred years for the Buddhists in India as well as in Bengal.

The Dark Period (circa 13th to 18th C.E.):

The Pāla Dynasty was succeeded by the Sena Dynasty (circa 1100 to 1200) which lasted only for about a hundred years. The Sena kings were more sympathetic to the Brāhmanism. They have neglected the Buddhist monasteries and universities. As a result the Buddhist centers started becoming non-functional. Furthermore, an attempt was made to convert Buddhist temples into Hindu temples, and the images of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas into Hindu avatars and gods and goddesses. In this regard Ācarya Dinesh Chandra Sen says; “the Buddhist gods and goddesses found their place in Hindu temples and the Hindus owning them completely denied the Buddhist debts”.[11]

However, the final destruction began with the invasion of Islamic rulers in 13th C.E. In the beginning of 13th century, Ikhtiyar Uddin Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkish military general, with only eighteen horsemen, attacked Lakkhan Sen, the last King of the Sen Dynasty and established the Khilji dynasty in Bengal. Subsequently many troops from Afgan came to Bengal and destroyed the Buddhist and Hindu temples and universities. Some say, the Khilji thought the temples to be castles and the monks to be soldiers. But this remark is questionable. The Khilji not only killed the monks, but destroyed the Buddhist arts and architectures and burnt the large number of books in the libraries. It is said that the libraries had been burning for 3 months. Those who survived the attack escaped with whatever texts and statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas they could take to the neighboring states such as Tibet, Nepal, Urissa Arakan, Pegu and Pagan. Rakhal Das Bandopadhyay thinks it is due to that reason most of the texts of Pāla dynasty are found in those countries especially in Nepal.[12] One of the most famous Buddhist scholars of that period who escaped to Sri Lanka was Ram Candra Kabi Bharati.[13] He was a scholar of Śruti, Smti, Āgama, Grammar, Logic and also Astrology. Realizing his scholasticism Parakramabahu, the Sri Lankan king awarded him with ‘Bouddha Āgama Cakravarti’ and made him his teacher. During the Khilji dynasty the Hindu and the Buddhist temples were converted to mosques and dargah.[14] Dr. Md. Shahidullah, in this regard, says that ‘the large group of Hindus and Muslims swallowed the Buddhists’.[15] Thus since 13th century till the British colonization in 18th century, it was a dark period for about six hundred years for Buddhists in Bengal.

Revival of Buddhism (circa 18th to 21st C.E.):

In 1757, the East India Company of British, defeating the last Nawab of Bengal, Sirajuddaula,[16] established its reign in Bengal. One of the contributions made by the British in Asia is establishing education centers. In 1784 they established Asiatic Society. They also funded the researchers who discovered different social, cultural and historical resources. They discovered different Buddhist archeological sites in India as well as in Bengal.  Among the people, although there were mainly two groups: Muslims and Hindus, there were some people who were alienated from them. They might be Buddhist, but most of their practices were similar to that of the Hindus. But soon it became clear that they were the descendants of the Buddhists. So even after the British colonization begins it took one hundred years for the Buddhists to be completely aware of their identity and thus work for reestablishing it.

In 1857, the Arakanese monk Sāramedha Mahāthera, with the request of Radhacaranmahasthavir Mahāsthabir, came to visit Chittagong and observed the existing Buddhists and their practices which were not so different from the Hindus. So, he decided to introduce a correct form of Buddhism by re-ordaining the existing ‘Buddhist monks’. Since he did not have a complete sagha to call for the upasamada, he went back to Arakan. Before leaving he was honored and probably requested by the Chakma Queen Kalindi, leading the Buddhist community of the time, to come again and protect the Buddhism in Bengal. During this time there was a monk from Chittagong called Candamohan who was eager to learn Buddhism. So he first went to Calcutta and then to Arakan and was re-ordained under Sāramedha. In 1963, Candramohan received the title ‘Punnācāra Dhammadhārī’ from the Burmese sagha. Afterwards he went to Sri Lanka where he studied Buddhism and returned to Bengal in 1964 with a group of Sri Lankan monks from Rāmāññā Nikāya and established a proper Theravāda monastic sagha. In the same year Sāramedha from Arakan came to Chittagong with a group of monks and re-ordained the existing Buddhist monks and established the Saṅgharāja Nikāya which is functioning till now. However, there was another group of monks who did not join this sagha is now known as Mahāsthabir Nikāya. Practically the practices in both the Nikāyas are the same. So, the form of Buddhism that was started in Bangladesh was a mixed Theravāda Buddhism.

Buddhist Education:

The Buddhist studies began in Bengal in the mid-19th century C.E. with thedownload
establishment of first ever Pāli school (tole) in Pahartali, Chittagong by Ācarya Punnācāra with the financial support from Haragobinda Mutsuddi in 1885. In 1902, Sarananda, a Sri Lankan monk, established a second Pāli school in the same area. Subsequently many similar Pāli schools were established in different parts of Chittagong – Rajanagar, Satbaria, Unainpura, Mirjapur etc. Thus the study of Pāli Buddhism set off its journey in Bengal. Fulcandra Barua and Pandit Dharmaraj Barua are two of the pioneer Bengali Buddhist scholars who composed texts like Pādimukh (Pātimokkha), a text of monastic discipline, and Maghā-khamujā, a text of Apādāna literature. These were the first two texts written in Bengali language. The types of texts produced in this period were mainly Bengali translations of important Pāli texts both philosophical and ethical, Pāli grammars, and some handbooks indicating the Buddhist way of life. Following chart will give an idea of the kind of Buddhist studies that was prevalent during mid-19th to mid-20th century. Here I present some selected writings of a few scholars.

author n texts

Apart from them there were other scholars who have contributed significantly in the study of Buddhism in Bangladesh. Kabi Sarbananda Barua, Agrasar Mahasthabir, Bangshadip Mahasthabir, Dharmabangsa Mahasthabir, Bhagabancandra Mahasthabir, Pandit Shilacar Shastri, Pandit Dharmadhar Mahasthabir, Shilalankar Mahasthabir, Jotipal Mahasthabir, Shantapada Mahasthabir are but some to mention.

Buddhist studies have been continued at three different levels: 1) at Pāli schools, 2) at monasteries, and 3) at the secular institutions. Only a small number of monks and laity went to the Pāli schools and received the textual knowledge. Most people received their Buddhist ethical knowledge from monks in monasteries. And those perusing degrees joined secular institutions.

In 1868, three Buddhist model schools were established – at Mahamuni Pahartali, Satbaria and Harbang – where Pāli and Buddhist studies were must.[17] Dr. BM Barua, a renowned ideologist from Bengal, received his first Pāli lesson from Dharmavangsa Mahasthabir at the Mahamuni Anglo-Pali High School in Pahartali. In 1899, a Pāli department was opened in Calcutta University. Dr. Barua together with Dr. Nalinakkha Dutt again received their Buddhist education from the same Dharmavangsa Mahasthabir in Calcutta University in 1908. Pāli was introduced at the Chittagong Government College in 1906. Subsequently departments of Pāli studies were opened at the University of Dhaka (1921), Rajshahi (1955), and Chittagong (1968). They provide BA, MA and PhD degrees. At present many schools and colleges in Bangladesh provides Pāli and Buddhist education. But due to lack of learned professors in the field the quality of education is subject to question.

Further, besides the Pāli and Buddhist Studies at secular institutions, a new horizon began in 1969 with the establishment of ‘Bangladesh Sanskrit and Pali Education Board’. It introduced a nine year course for Pāli Studies. The course includes the study of tipiakasutta, vinaya and abhidhamma – each of which is studied for three subsequent years as ādya (preliminary), madhya (advanced) and upādhi (title). Completing sutta studies in three years one obtains a certificate titled ‘suttavisārada’ (skilled in suttas). Similarly with the completion of vinaya and abhidhamma one receives the titles ‘vinayavisārada’ (skilled in vinaya) and ‘abhidhammavisārada’ (skilled in abhidhamma) respectively. Currently there are about 50 centers under this boar all around the country.

One significant feature of the Buddhists in Bengal, since the revival of Buddhism in the 18th century, was that, they had been publishing different Buddhist magazines, journals, and periodicals. Two of the oldest Buddhist journals that had been set off in the early 20th century are ‘Jagajjyoti’ and ‘Sanghashakti’. ‘Jagajjyoti’ was founded by the Kripasharan Mahasthavir (1865-1927) in 1908 in West Bengal[18] and ‘Sanghashakti’ was founded by Pragyalok Mahasthavir (1879-1971)[19] in 1928 in Rangoon (present Yangon), Myanmar. Both the journals had had published innumerable substantial essays and articles on Buddhist studies done by many internationally reputed scholars. The two Mahasthavir had also established centers like Baouddha Dharmankur Sabha and Bouddha Mission Press where Buddhist seminars had been held frequently.

Challenges and Possibilities:

Even though there are a number of centers for Pāli and Buddhist studies, the Buddhist education in Bangladesh is experiencing a great many challenges and difficulties. The challenges may be identified as social, political and economical. The first and foremost challenge may be economical. Buddhists in Bangladesh have to straggle constantly for their survival. Being a minority community they have to fight for even their basic needs. Even though a Buddhist is well qualified it is not at all easy to get a suitable job. So, most Buddhists live on farming. Thus it is difficult for them to support the Buddhist education.

Secondly, there are very few possibilities of job after finishing Buddhist education in temples or even in universities.

Most of the texts that have been produced since mid-19th century are not available now. Some of them that exist need to be re published. But due to lack of enough financial support it is not being possible. In most secular institutions where there are Buddhist subjects, they are usually taught by a Hindu if not a Muslim teacher. The posts in the institutes are limited. So, there are no much opportunities for a Buddhist teacher to join. The temples are occupied with different rites and rituals. At present there is no independent Buddhist institute that is totally devoted to the study of Buddhism. The social situation is such that the young generations do not have any interest in the Buddhist studies.

However, there is still hope for positive changes. Like Ācarya Punnācāra, who went to study Buddhism in Burma and Sri Lanka in the mid-19th century, now also many young Buddhist monks from Bangladesh went abroad to pursue their Buddhist studies. To my knowledge there are a number of students studying in the Pāli, Sanskrit and Buddhist fields in India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Canada and USA. Most, if not all, of them have been doing their studies with lots of financial difficulties. Because like the Buddhist monks from other countries, they are not supported by either their families or temples. So, if there were scholarships offered depending on merits, many of them would probably do much better in their studies. And if, in future, there is international support they will be able to establish an independent Buddhist institute in their motherland and go back to the country to teach Buddhism to the upcoming generations.   


Buddhists in Bangladesh left behind a glorious past in the Pāla Dynasty. It had suffered grave decease in the Sultan Dynasty. It had revived in the 19th century. At present Buddhist studies and practices are just about a hundred and fifty years old. It cannot be said that we have accomplished enough in the study of Buddhism; however, we are proud of our achievements in such a short period of time. But we are worried about the future of Buddhism in Bangladesh because of the recent challenges that we have been facing. If there is cooperation from the neighboring Buddhist communities and countries we will definitely be able to overcome all the challenges.



  • বড়ুয়া, জিতেন্দ্র লাল, বাংলাদেশ বৌদ্ধধর্ম ও বৌদ্ধ সম্প্রদায়, (Buddhism and Buddhist Community in Bangladesh) ঢাকাঃ বাংলা একাডেমী ঢাকা, ১৯৯৯।
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  • বড়ুয়া, নূতন চন্দ্র, চট্রগ্রামে বৌদ্ধ জাতির ইতিহাস, (History of the Buddhists in Chittagong) চট্রগ্রামঃ কনিকা অ্যাড, ২০১১।
  • মুচ্ছদ্দী, উমেশচন্দ্র, মাতৃপূজায় মানবধর্ম, (Humanism Through Mother-worship) চট্রগ্রামঃ উত্তরন প্রিন্টার্স, ২০১৩।
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  • মো. আবু সালেহ সেকেন্দার, পাল যুগে বৌদ্ধ বিহার কেন্দ্রিক শিক্ষাব্যবস্থা, (Buddhist Monastic Education in the Pāla Dynasty): http://nirvanapeace.com/bangla/history-heritage/Bangladeshi-history-heritage/429#.VAsjScKSzZJ, accessed on 4th September 2014.
  • বড়ুয়া, বেণীমাধব, বাংলা সাহিত্যে শতবর্ষের বৌদ্ধ অবদান: (Hundred Years of Buddhist Contributions to Bengali Literature): http://sougataonline.com/?p=410, accessed on 4th September 2014.
  • বড়ুয়া, ডঃ দীপঙ্কর শ্রীজ্ঞান, চট্রগ্রামে বৌদ্ধদের অবস্থানঃ ধর্ম ও সংস্কৃতি, (Buddhist in Chittagong: Religion and Culture): http://nirvanapeace.com/bangla/history-heritage/3#.VAsfj8, accessed on 4th September 2014.
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[1] M I 140.

[2] M I 133.

[3] M I 135.

[4] D I 217.

[5] http://www.dhamma.org/en/about/goenka, accessed on 2nd September 2014.

[6] J. L. Barua, p. 51.

[7] Ibid, p. 58.

[8] http://www.banglapedia.org/HT/I_0144.htm, accessed on 2nd September 2014.

[9] J.L. Barua, p. 71.

[10] Ibid, p. 65.

[11] Quoted by J. L. Barua, p. 88.

[12] J. L. Barua, p. 93.

[13] Sarkar, Jayanta (et al), ed. ‘Populations of the SAARC countries – bio cultural perspectives’, New Delhi: Sterling publishers privet limited, 2004, p. 79.

[14] A Dargah is a Sufi Islamic shrine built over the grave of a revered religious figure, often a Sufi saint or dervish (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dargah).

[15] J. L. Barua, p. 97.

[16] A native governor of Mogul Empire. See: http://www.banglapedia.org/HT/S_0492.htm.

[17] Dr. Sukomal Barua, p. 139.

[18] See Kripasharan Mahasthavir at http://www.banglapedia.org/HT/M_0069.htm, accessed on 3rd September 2014.

[19] See Pragyalok Mahasthavir at http://www.banglapedia.org/HT/M_0070.htm, accessed on 3rd September 2014.

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