Ironic? Myanmar monk seeks to bring back the glory of Buddhism to India

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*
Kushinagar celebrates the life and achievements of Bhadant Gyaneshwar Mahasthivir, the chief monk of the main Mahaparinirvan temple. He celebrated his 85th birthday on November 10. Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh is one of the most important places for Buddhists around the world, as Buddha gave his last sermon there and met his ‘Mahaparinirvana’. Recently, Kushinagar has been connected to the circuit of international aviation as a new airport has just been inaugurated here a few weeks ago.
Bhadant Gyaneshwar is the most revered Buddhist monk living in Kushinagar and has been the President of Kushinagar Bhikshu Sangh since 21 February 2005 after the ‘Parinirvana’ i.e. the death of Bhadant Aniruddha Mahathera of Lumbini. The Kushinagar Bhikshu Sangh was initiated by Bhadant Chandra Mani Mahathera on December 18, 1952 and he remained its President until May 8, 1972. Thereafter, Bhaddant Utikheindariya Mahathera and Achutananda Mahathera became its President. In this way, Bhaddant Gyaneshwar Mahathera is the sixth president of Kushinagar Bhikshu Sangha.
Bhadant Gyaneswhar was born as Aaon Jaa Wey (childhood name) on November 10, 1936 in a village named Zibenji in Akyab District, Arakan Province of Myanmar, on the Coastal Region, where the Buddhism once flourished and is now part of Rakhine State. , which became famous for the conflict of the Rohingyas against the natives of the region who believe that demographic changes could affect the supremacy of the inhabitants if the Rohingyas are not expelled or controlled.
Of course, the crisis is of recent years and not of this period when Bhadant was growing up. On April 12, 1949, he was ordained Shramaner when his guru named him Jannisar which was interpreted in Hindi as Gyaneshwar. He learned Pali and was admitted to the University of Rangoon, now known as Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, where he learned Pali literature. On June 3, 1956, he became a Bhikkhu after six years of studying Buddhism at the University.
Burma, now Myanmar, was the region where Buddhism flourished. In 1954, Burma organized the sixth Buddhist Sangeeti in which Bhante Dharmrakshit also participated. Baba Saheb Ambedkar as well as EVR Periyar also participated in this historic conference in Rangoon. Bhadant Gyaneshwar, then 18 years old, attended and had the opportunity to listen to and meet renowned Buddhist monks and scholars.
It was here that he met Baba Saheb Ambedkar during this conference although he does not remember him much as he says he was too young to understand the socio-political importance of Dr Ambedkar as all there participated as Buddhists. For me, anyone who has had the opportunity to meet Dr Ambedkar or listen to him live has a connection to the story and it is essential to record his conversations and his understanding. Whether he was too young or not didn’t matter to me that way as a sense of understanding common history.
Bhikkhus from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and various countries where Buddhism is widely practiced have come to India to visit historical places of great Buddhist significance. Many of them were pained to see the total neglect of these sites which Buddhists revere and feel moralizing. This culminated in their decision to dedicate their lives to improving these historic places and spreading Buddhist culture in their country of birth.
Bhadant Chandramani was brought to Kushinagar by Anagarika Dharmpal, the Buddhist revivalist from the South Asian region. Before leaving to participate in the historic World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Anagarika Dharmpala asked Bhadant Chandramani to attend to his work to protect historic sites as well as strengthen Buddhist work in Kushinagar. It was the year 1893 when Bhadant Chandramani decided to stay in Kushinagar and devote his life to the mission of Buddhism.
For everyone’s information, Anagarika Dharmpala fought for the regaining of Buddhist control over the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya and it was his monumental work that helped revive Buddhism and its heritage in South Asia. He can be simply described as a worldwide ambassador of Buddhism, its thoughts and its practice. It was Bhadant Chandramani who gave Deeksha to Baba Saheb Ambedkar in Nagpur on October 14, 1956. In this way, Bhadant Chandramani became part of a historic revolution sparked by Baba Saheb Ambedkar in bringing Buddhism back to India.
Bhadant Gyaneshwar’s parents had known Bhadant Chandramani as his father was a follower. When Bhikkhu Dharmarakshit and Bikkhu Kittima Mahasthivir learned of the deteriorating state of health of Bhadant Chandramani, who had become one of the most revered Bhikkhus of his time, in 1962, they were worried and felt that someone should to be placed in Kushinagar not just to help Bhadant Chandramani but also who could take the mission for the future.

Bhadant Chandramani had looked after the Buddhist heritage very well in Kushinagar and the rest of the country, but by 1962 Bhadant’s health was deteriorating and became a matter of concern for all those close to the Buddhist movement. It was felt that he needed someone to support him as well as move the movement forward and hence Gyaneshwar, 27, was asked to come to India and immediately travel to Kushinagar to be with Bhadant Chandramani.

Influenced by Ambedkar, Guruji has a special concern for the poor and marginalized and their education, especially girls

Bhadant Gyaneshwar came to serve as his Guru in Kushinagar on August 5, 1963 and since then he has been living here and has completely blended into Indian Buddhist traditions including the local language. He worked for the upliftment of marginalized people here.

Bhadant has a vivid memory and tremendous strength to sit with you and share his vast treasure of experience and understanding. He meets disciples and people from various walks of life and discusses problems with them. Language was a big problem when he came here, but now he is fluent in not only Hindi but also Bhojpuri. He also takes care of many charitable activities initiated by Bhadant Chandramani Mahasthivir. After arriving in India, he did not leave his roots although he was unable to visit Myanmar.
It’s fascinating to hear him and how he reconstructed the historical places where many fights took place for control of the places as well as for the land. To familiarize himself with India and the language, Bhadant Gyaneshwar enrolled in local schools and passed his High School in 1968, Intermediate in 1970, BA in 1973 and MA in 1975 from Buddha Degree College, Kushinagar. He did not stop there and obtained a degree in Pali Sahitya Ratna as well as in law.
This year, the government of Myanmar bestowed its highest religious honor for excellent service and understanding on Bhadant Gyaneshwar. Due to Covid restrictions, he couldn’t travel there, that’s why Myanmar Ambassador came down to Kushingar to award him the title ”Abhidhazammahrathguru” in June 2021. Prior to that, the Myanmar government gave him other honorary titles of Abhidaja Aggamaha Thaddamma Jotika in 2016, Aggamaha Pandita in 1993 and Aggamaha Thaddamma Jotika Daza in 2005 for his services to Buddhism. Bhadant Gyaneshwar has been an Indian citizen since 1978. Currently, he is the President of Kushinagar Bhikshu Sangha, Main Temple Kushinagar.
Bhadant Gyaneshwar has been associated with various Buddhist religious and charitable organizations and was a member of the administrative body of Bodhgaya Mahavihar appointed by the Government of Bihar from 1990 to 2018. When I asked him whether Bodh Gaya should not be handed over to Buddhists as it is the holiest shrine for Buddhists, he reflected and said, all Buddhist places should be handed over to Buddhists.
He was also troubled by the fact that most Buddhist shrines in India come under the Archaeological Survey of India, which is perfectly fine given their importance, but he thinks people from all over the world come to visit these places not not because of their archaeology, but because for the Buddhist world. , India is the land of Buddha and they want to visit all the holy shrines based here.
Many of his followers and disciples have themselves become prominent Bhikkhus and are working to strengthen the Buddhist movement in India. Dr. Nand Ratan Bhante Thero came into contact with him in 1995 while living in Shravasti. He had his higher education under Guruji, as Bhadant Gyaneshwar is mentioned by his followers and followers. Guru ji sent him to Myanmar in 1998 to study at Theravada International Buddhist University. He returned to Kushinagar in 1999.
Dr Nand Ratan Bhante says, “Guru ji has a special concern and association with the poorest and most marginalized people and their education, especially that of girls. He worries about caste discrimination and untouchability and has condemned it. There are thousands of his followers all over the country as well as abroad. As part of the Maitri Association, Buddhist devotees from Japan have helped educate hundreds of children in the 10-kilometre periphery at the request of Guruji. He is still very active and concerned about Kushinagar and its development”.
Every year Guruji holds Deepakotsava in Kushinagar when thousands of his Buddhist followers come to celebrate the Buddhist way of doing it. I asked this question to find out if Deepawali was ever a Buddhist festival and he claimed that originally it was a Buddhist festival. Of course this has been a matter of great contention among Buddhists in India as many believe it to be Brahmanic infiltration into Buddhism but Guruji has a different view on this and he says so with authority.
Bhadant Gyaneshwar has dedicated his life to the cause of Dhamma and brought it to the most marginalized. He felt the impact of caste identities in India and says he was never aware of them, as his country may have different identities and ethnic groups, but no hierarchy between them. Hailing from Rakhine State, he knew poverty and gave various examples of different ethnicities in Myanmar and their differences, but there was no hierarchy or caste system.
As we all celebrate his 86th birthday, we wish him more strength and good health in the hope that his work will further strengthen the cause of the Buddhist movement in India, which will help us realize Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s dreams for the building an enlightened India or what might be called Prabudhha Bharat.
How ironic that it was monks and devoted followers from outside India who took on the task of bringing back the glory of Buddhism here. Bhadant Gyaneshwar remains one of those pillars whose life is an inspiration to all of us who want to see the growth of the Buddha way in India.