Multiple Minority Modalities: Bengali-speaking Buddhists in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar

March 5, 2021 @ 11:00 am – 1:00 pm

with D. Mitra Barua, 2020–21 Research Fellow, Robert H. N. Family Foundation Program in Buddhist Studies

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My presentation derives from a case study on Bengali-speaking Buddhists now dispersed in three countries: India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Modern history of the group suggests that the community used to embody a Hindu-Buddhist syncretic religiosity in the Chittagong region (now Bangladesh); however, since mid-nineteenth century, it gradually emerged as an exclusively Buddhist group. Around the same time, the community also spread out from Chittagong toward northwest (India’s West Bengal and northeast states) and southeast (Myanmar’s Arakan and Rangoon). Consequently, they are now found in three countries living as an ethno-religious minority side by side with their majority neighbours: Muslims in Bangladesh, Hindus in India, and Burmese/Arakanese Buddhists in Myanmar. With a comparative analysis of the community in these three countries, I argue that Bengali-speaking Buddhists have developed two-fold strategy to sustain as a minority group. On the one hand, they have sought out for assistance from their respective governments; on the other hand, they have strived to win the sympathy of the surrounding majorities. This two-fold strategy has manifested themselves differently in three countries contributing to their relative harmonious relationship with their respective majorities. Therefore, the strategy may have a greater implication for growing tension in religious minority-majority relationships in South and Southeast Asia.

Mitra Barua is a 2020–21 Research Fellow funded by the Robert H. N. Family Foundation Program in Buddhist Studies, administered by the American Council of Learned Societies. Currently, he is working on a monograph project provisionally entitled Staging Bengali Buddhism with Transnational Connections. Broadly, focusing on the Bangladesh-India-Myanmar border region. Mitra investigates how a linguistically diverse, culturally tolerant and religiously syncretic society has been plagued by ethnic and religious bigotry, intolerance and violence. With a PhD in religious studies, Mitra received trainings in both textual and social scientific study of religion. His recent monograph Seeding Buddhism with Multiculturalism (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) explains what being Buddhist means in Sri Lankan Buddhism across three distinct times and spaces: colonial Ceylon, postcolonial Sri Lanka and immigrant-friendly Canada. Previously, he taught and conducted research at Cornell University, Rice University and the University of Saskatchewan.

This event is presented by the York Centre for Asian Research and the Religious Studies Program, York University.

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