Dr. Ramala Sarma is assistant professor in Philosophy at Nowgong College (Autonomous). For years, she has studied the unique socio-cultural dynamics of Buddhism. In this two-part series, she unveils the Buddhist heritage of this lesser-known region of India, which has traditionally been a multicultural area encompassing Himalayan and mainland Indian influences.
BDG: Who are some Buddhist teachers of note, historically and in contemporary times?
RS: It is hard to list accurately the names of historical Buddhist teachers in this region. But we can infer from the history of this land’s Buddhist connections and the works of the early Buddhist practitioners what the practices were, as well as their meaning and significance.
The ancient name of Assam was Kāmrūpa. Around the tenth and eleventh centuries, Kāmrūpa was an important centre of tantric practices. The period may, however, be further expanded to encompass the 7th century to the 12th century, since scholars are of different opinions regarding the time of tantrism. The famous tantric Buddhist texts that guided the tantric practitioners are the Kaulajñānanirnāya, Akulavirātantra, and Kāmakhyāguhyasiddhi. These texts are said to have been written by Matsyendranātha or Minānātha, who, as Dr. Parikshit Hazarika (2007) said in his book Caryāpada (2007) is known as Buddhayogi in Nepal and is also regarded as an emanation of Avalokiteshvara by the Nepalese. History reveals that Minānātha was born in Kāmrūpa and was the originator of the Kaula doctrine, an amalgam of Buddhist mysticism and Shākta tantrism. Anangavajra is another Kāmrūpi Tantric scholar who created many Tantric works, of which the Prajñopayaviniscayasiddi and the Hevajratantra were noteworthy.
Caryāpada or Caryāgit is another text that can help identifying the ancient Buddhist teachers of this land. It is the text without which probably the Kāmrūpi Buddhist monks’ contribution to Buddhist literature would have been forgotten. Composed in an early Apabhraṁsa dialect by several Vajrayāni as well as Sahajyāni Buddhist monks, the Caryās are mystic and spiritually didactic songs that can be said to be an artistic description of the practice of Dharma and literature of the Vajrayāni Sahajiyā monks. Some of the verses in the Caryāgits delineate the Buddhist doctrines like anāttā and panchkhanda (five aggregates).
Many of these monks, also known as Siddhāchāryas, hailed from ancient Kāmrūpa. Their names are listed as: Luipā or Luipāda, Kānhupāda, Bhusukpāda, Sarahapāda, Shavarpāda, Shāntipāda, Dombipāda, Dhendhonpāda, Kukkuripāda, Mahidharpāda, Dārikpāda, and Minānātha or Matsyendranātha. The principle of ‘Vindu-tattva’ or ‘Nād-vindu-sādhanā’ practiced in the Kāmrūpi Nath tradition initiated by Minānātha has a close similarity with the shunyata (emptiness) of Buddhism.
Today, the popularity of Caryāgits has declined in Assam but they cannot be said to be extinct. Assamese villagers and their spiritual songs continue to share a connection. Many scholars say that the Assamese Deh Bisāror Gīts (Songs of the Investigation of the Body), Tokāri Gīts (violin songs), and Borgīt (a devotional song of the Neo-Vaiṣṇavite tradition) owe much to the Caryāgits in respect to their tune, melodic framework, and philosophical significance. This hints that the Buddhist Sahajiyā philosophy also had an impact on the Neo-Vaiṣṇavism of Assam propagated by Srimanta Sankaradeva in the 15th century.
As for early Theravada teachers, we can name Bhikkhu Dhitika who, as the Tibetan historian Taranatha said, came to Assam to propagate Buddhism nearly one hundred years after the Buddha’s Mahāpanrinirvāna. He delivered sermons, taught the Dharma to the people, and supported the saṅghas being established. In another account, Taranatha mentioned the name of another Buddhist monk called Ashvabhava who preached Mahāyāna Buddhism in Kāmrūpa.
In the Buddhist history of Assam, the period from the 13th to 16th century seems eventless. Due to the extensive practices of Shaktism, Shaivism, Tantrism, and Neo-Vaiṣṇavism in this region, the Therāvāda Buddhism propagated by Dhitika faced severe pressures. The practice had to remain as a solitary practice of contemplation for a small few. However, the arrival of sramanas, bhikkhus, mahātheras, and other missionaries from Myanmar (generally known as a new wave from the eastern side) in the 17th century revived the lost tradition. It started slowly but accelerated from the 18th century onwards.
Bhikkhu Narindabhidhvaj was one among the mahātheras who came to Assam in 1882. He could be regarded as the pioneer of contemporary Buddhism of Assam. The Therāvāda tradition that this region possesses today can be said to be the legacy of this great monk who brought it to the local people and ordained many young people before he returned home in 1901. After him, many other monks from Myanmar came and worked to spread Buddhism in this region. Their list of names is long! It is another story for another day.
The ten-membered team of the Burmese Bouddha Shāsana Mission (U Panchavangsa Sthavir, U Narinda, U Tissa, U Chandawaka, U Suriya, U Weipoungla, U Tilawanta, U Tejenda, U Sheelayatna, and U Gunawantha) came to Assam at the invitation of then Chief Minister of Assam in 1953. Their group shaped to a great extent the Buddhist life of this region. U Gunawantha, the youngest of the ten-member team, worked for the establishment of solidarity and brotherhood among the people of various faiths through the organization Purvanchal Bhikkhu Sangha formed by him till he breathed his last in 2018. He took Buddhism beyond the closed boundaries of religious faith and showed people that it was applicable beyond Buddhist affiliations. He was known to almost all the people of this region, even to those who had hardly any idea about the Buddhist life. He was called “Dangor Bhante” (great teacher) by all the Assamese. It would not be wrong if I say Assamese Buddhism is inextricable from his name.
With the demise of Ven. U Gunawantha Mahathera and the few other Buddhist gurus like Warnasara Bhikkhu and Dr. Bodhipala Bhikkhu, the Buddhist society of Assam is left with only a few enlightened spiritual leaders like Dr. Sasanavangsha Mahathera. Even in his nineties, he is still contributing to Buddhist literature through his writings and translation works. Dr. Chalinda Bhikkhu is an Assam-origin monk, but being the Chief monk of the Mahabodhi Temple of Bodh Gaya, his involvement with Assamese Buddhism is more or less occasional.
BDG: How has Buddhism in Assam developed differently from the Buddhism of elsewhere in India?
RS: History tells us that the ancient Kāmrūpa extended to the present-day state of Bihar. Hence, as far as ancient Buddhist practice is concerned, perhaps the customs recorded in Bihar and West Bengal would not be too different from those of Assam. Remarkably, today’s Buddhism of Assam is as same as before, as it adheres to conventional Buddhist practices. However, in some of the North and West Indian states, the influence of Neo-Buddhism or Ambedkarite Buddhism (a modernist interpretation of Buddhist philosophy) are dominant. I do not have much knowledge about the Buddhist practices of South India.
Since the early days, Assam was the meeting ground of India’s east and west and the connected borderlands. It is the doorway through which Mongol-Indo-Chinese Burman people made their way from the east, and the Himalayan-Indo-Iranian-Dravidians from the west. This region has played an important role in spreading Buddhism from its heartland to the east. Assam’s role in building a relationship between India and the East Asian or South East Asian countries through religion and trade is well-known. As the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen said, “It is certainly correct to see religion as a major reason for the historical closeness of China and India, and to appreciate the central role of Buddhism in initiating the movement of people and ideas between the two countries.” (2005, 164)
There is no historical evidence of direct religious and trade ties between Assam and China during the Āhom regency (from the 13th to 19th centuries), yet there was a time when this region had been a mediator in communication between the Gangetic valley and countries to the east.
The main road that passes by the Brahmaputra valley through the Patkai ranges (Pangsau Pass) was known as the Southwest Silk Road. The Indian Buddhist monks had likely carried Buddhism to South China by the Assam-Burma route in the early centuries of the Christian era. (Bagchi, 1950). The mention of the Yunnan-Assam-Burma trade route is also found in the 7th-century Chinese writings including those by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang who visited Assam during that time.
The discovery of Buddhist sites at Sri Surya Pahar and Paglatek in the Goalpara district of Assam and at Rajagaon (near Bhaitbari) in Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills district indicates that these places were on the Southwest Silk Road trade route. Historical records reveal that the Bell Pagoda at Bhamo on the Irrawaddy River in northern Myanmar was linked to this ancient route. Therefore, Rajagaon (near Bhaitbari) in West Garo Hills, Paglatek, and Surya Pahar in Goalpara, Hajo and Guwahati in Kāmrūp, and Sadiya in the extreme east of Assam are all situated on the religious-economic-cultural route that goes through Bhamo in Burma to China. All these places used to be important Buddhist centers in the early days.