So, I experienced my first identity crisis on a playground. I remember my classmates coming up to me and saying, “Sameer”, what religion are you? Are you Christian or are you Jewish?” And I remember being very confused by that question. I’d just moved back from Bangladesh, I was living in the United States – and I remember thinking, I’m not Christian because I don’t get Christmas presents, therefore, if I had to choose between these two options, I must be Jewish. So I would look up and said, “John, I’m Jewish.” And that was that, and actually went on those few months thinking that I was Jewish – mind you, I was eight years old. That is until Hanukkah rolled around and I didn’t get any presents on Hanukkah either.
My point is that identity matters. And not only does identity matter, your identity should be the story of you, and one that is fitting of your highest aspirations. So when I moved to Bangladesh two years ago, I was looking for an identity that would help me meaningfully express my connection to this land. So I began to do all of the things that I was really interested in: photography, travel, writing – and I began to find a common thread here. I began to see this vast diversity of this land – but not only that, but within that diversity laid the key to understanding what made Bengal so successful as a civilization. Here I can find an identity that I can be proud of, and it was an identity with a potential. So last year, I made a long awaited trip to Tibet. And when my Buddhist tour guide met me at the airport, he was so excited to meet a Bangladeshi. “Bangladeshi! Bangladeshi!”, he yelled out. And I couldn’t understand this, but it turns out that 1,000 years ago the Tibetan king was so taken by this Bengali monk, that he had a delegation sent down to Bengal to ask for him, to come up to Tibet and help reinvigorate and revive the practice of Buddhism there, after years of its decline and suppression. This was a tremendous task. And this Bengali monk took up this task, and he was so transformative and effective in his mission, that Buddhists today, and Tibetans all over Tibet regard him as Atisa, the super Lord, second only to the Buddha himself. And everywhere I went in Tibet, every monastery I visited, we see the statue of Atisa, a Bengali man, seated right next to the Buddha. In fact, if you go to Mongolia, Japan – even Australia and parts of the Buddhist world, you will still find centers, monasteries. and statues dedicated to Atisa – such was the profound influence. Now, how many of you here today have heard of this story? And how many of you here today know where Atisa was from? He was from right here, just a few miles outside Dhaka.
By the way this story is not mine rather one of my friends’.
And if you’re like me and you’re wondering, what kind of society gave birth to such a man – Well, 1,000 years ago, Bengal was an international powerhouse. It had an empire that extended as far west as Afghanistan, it dominated the Indian Ocean trade, and it built monastery university complexes like this at Paharpur. This would have drawn in scholars from all around the region to study at this prestigious campus. See the then version of Sky Culture was so much so prevalent in our society even in 1000 A.D.
Now, if we think of our identity in terms of the nation-state construct, then we have no option but to place so much emphasis on 1971. And in doing so, we risk losing sight of a much grander narrative of what it means to be Bangladeshi equipped with Our very own Bengali tradition and culture and values we adhere to.
See, when 1971 explains why we fought for our cultural identity, it doesn’t explain where our culture and identity came from. And the ‘where’ is critical because it gives us that critical insight into how we became such a civilization force in the first place. See, whether you believe it or not, Bengal was once known for its international prestige, its economic prosperity, and intellectual sophistication. And, so we see a pattern here that begins to emerge – that it takes an open, inclusive and pluralistic society to build the foundations for security, stability and wealth generation that we saw in Bengal. And the early rulers of Bengal seemed to have figured out this winning balance. So we see Bengal as this great diverse place and the rulers and the leaders are able to channel this great diversity towards productive means, openness, inclusiveness, and pluralism. So, if you’re wondering, where does this great diversity in Bengal come from – I’m a big fan of maps and maps can help explain a lot. So, if you see the map you notice the rivers that are coming down from the Himalayas, how they’re all coming right into the Bengal Delta – These rivers, of course, in the ancient time would’ve been early roadway systems. So, perhaps this map is a little bit clearer – you see, from China, India, Bhutan, Nepal… all over South Asia, all these rivers are going straight into Bengal. So you have, from a very early age, Bengal teeming with people, teeming with different ethnicity and cultures.
How do you harmonize this? Pluralism doesn’t just happen. You don’t just become a lovey-dovey utopia, just because you have diversity. Pluralism requires active policies that are designed to engage that diversity, and funnel that diversity towards socially progressive outcomes. It’s an active effort. So to avail more from Sky Culture we need an effective effort not to be the subjects of prejudice and not to become the victims of cultural imperialism of those
So we have, for example, during the Mauryan Empire, 2,300 years ago, King Ashoka – I’m sure many of you are familiar with him, he’s tasked with the enormous responsibility of ruling over a population of 50 million people, including the borders of present day Bangladesh — How does he do this? He would turn to what it would become one of history’s first examples of pluralistic ethic officiated as state doctrine when he inscribed this profound message on rock pillars and have them placed throughout his empire. “The faiths of all others ought to be honored for one reason or another. By honoring them, one honor one’s own faith and at the same time performs a service to the faiths of others – So concord alone is commendable.” And Ashoka – he received great points for this inspired vision. Not only do we regard him as one of South Asia’s most benevolent and greatest kings, but the Greeks and the Romans wrote about Bengal during this period, they wrote about our prosperous ports, they wrote about its quality merchandise, they wrote about our fine quality pearls and muslin, and not only that, but outside Dhaka recently a coin was found dating 300 B.C. – precisely this time period, and it was traced to Greece, so you get a sense of this early cosmopolitanism that Bengal engendered as a result of this pluralistic rule. And we see the same kind of pluralistic ethic embodied throughout the various rulers, throughout the ages of Bengal. But in the 20th century a dangerous myth began to emerge.
— Sky Culture is deteriorating our social values. Irony is in this 21st century we’re still blaming that myth to avoid facts and thus further deteriorating our moral values, significantly harming our social security.
However historically, these narrow identifications did not exist in Bengal, in fact, Bengal was converted as a majority to Islam under the rule of the secular Mogul regime – a regime who could care less about what religion you belong to. So we see during the Bengal sultanate, when Muslims ruled over Bengal, poets described, for example, in the 1,500s how there were a Mahabharata in every home, how whether or not you were Hindu or Muslim, it didn’t matter – you read it. We also hear great stories from that same century from another poet, who talks about Muslims weeping when they heard about Rahma’s loss of his beloved Sita in readings from the Ramayana. These Bengali sultans also patronized Hindu works, so the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were translated into Bengali for the first time in this period. Also, Hindu humanist movements were supported by these Bengali sultans. And we see these Bengali sultans during public ceremonies using water – holy water from the Ganges, to purify themselves. So in essence, while these Muslims came to the region as foreigners, with the foreign religion in the 12th century, they essentially became Bengali Rajas as they were known affectionately by their subjects. So you see this great source of strength and unity that comes from this religious synthesis of the history of Bengal.
So when the British in 1905 wanted to partition Bengal in two based on religious lines in the first time in its history, you see people like Tagore taking a stand for unity – for religious and political unity, and you know what his response was when he first heard about this plan? He composed the words that would become, 65 years later, Bangladesh’s National Anthem, “Amar Shonar Bangla” – My Golden Bengal, How could you divide us? And he went out to the street and he tied a rakhi, a hindu band symbolizing kinship and fraternity, on the hands of every Muslim he came across on the streets. And then in the 1940s, when we had this partition of India, we see an existential threat to the Bengali culture come in the form of replacing the Bengali language with the Urdu language. And it was also proposed that the Bengali script would be changed to the Arabic script over time. And this began to rouse the masses, all of the sudden, Bengalis began to see the issue that comes with narrow religious identifications. It was an existential threat to the Bengali culture. So you see at this time – the Language Movement emerged. And one of the heads and founders of this Language Movement was Muhammad Shahidullah, who took a stand at Dhaka University and declared the ancient and syncretic origins of the Bengali language as a confluence of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian influences throughout the ages. And in the similar spirit, you see Kazi Nazrul Islam echoed the national consensus of Bengal when he sang the song – “I sing the song of equality, where all barriers have crumbled, all differences have faded, and Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians have come together and merged.” And you see posters like this posted throughout Bengal during the revolutionary wars. Once again, Bengal was driving its strength and unity from this great pluralistic history. So when we finally gained our independence in 1971 – sure it was about economic differences, sure it was about political differences, but really it was the culmination of a 2,500-year-history of pluralism that was crying out, that was refusing to be ignored any longer. And now, once again, we are in charge of our own destiny.
And while loving thy neighbor may seem like good ethics, good moral ethics, it”s also good business, especially when you consider the rising opportunities that have come up all around us with this new Asian century. For example, you have India surrounding us on three sides and its meteoric rise. You see China to our north and the east, the world’s second largest economy, to the south, you have the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean – the Indian Ocean being the world’s largest hub of international trade.
And this opportunity is further described by Robert Kaplan when he said, “This ocean is once again at the heart of the world, just as it was in antique and medieval times… ” So, what’s our excuse for not tapping into this dynamic growth? We know the solution, and we have a profound history that serves as a precedent that we can live up to. And if you look around yourselves today, and you see this devastating reality of poverty that we’re surrounded by, know too that that poverty is a recent phenomenon. See, in the history, the grand history of Bengal, Bengal was always being written about in terms of its immense wealth, its grandeur, its beauty – So please, think about that, as you go out there, and you become those ambassadors of change.
What you’re seeing here is actually all the civilizations and all the peoples that Bengal has touched throughout its long history – and in turn, been touched by. So again, as you go out there and become those ambassadors of change for a more open, inclusive and globally engaged Bangladesh, know that history is on your side because the history of Bengal is the history of plurality and prosperity and that there’s no reason why our future does not hold that same promise.
My point- it’s the lack of conviction, not having a vision, and failure to take bold and subtle action may be the causes.
Education and Knowledge of one’s identity of oneself as a Bangladeshi Muslim/Hindu, above all as the part of The Holy Divine, must to be the core…