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

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*

Kushinagar is celebrating the life and achievements of Bhadant Gyaneshwar Mahasthivir, the Monk in Chief of Mahaparinirvan main temple. He completed his 85th birthday on November 10. Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh is one of the foremost prominent places for the Buddhists all over the world as Buddha delivered his last sermon here and met his ‘Mahaparinirvana’. Recently, Kushinagar was linked with international aviation circuit as a new airport has just been inaugurated here a couple of weeks back.
Bhadant Gyaneshwar is the most revered Buddhist monk living in Kushinagar and is President of Kushinagar Bhikshu Sangh since February 21, 2005 after the ‘Parinirvana’ i.e. passing away of Bhadant Aniruddha Mahathera of Lumbini. The Kushinagar Bhikshu Sangh was initiated by Bhadant Chandra Mani Mahathera on December 18th, 1952 and he remained president of it till May 8, 1972. Afterwards Bhaddant Utikheindariya Mahathera and Achutananda Mahathera became the president. That 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 as Zibenji in the district of Akyab, in Arakans province of Myanmar, on the coastal region, where Buddhism once thrived and now part of Rakhine state, which has got famed for the conflict of Rohingyas verses the natives of the region who feel that demographic changes might affect the supremacy of the locals if the Rohingyas are not thrown out or controlled.
Of course, the crisis is of the recent years and not that period when Bhadant was growing. On April 12th, 1949, he got ordained as Shramaner when his Guru named him as Jannisar which got interpreted in Hindi as Gyaneshwar. He learnt Pali and got admission at the University in Rangoon, now known as Yangon, capital city of Myanmar, where he learnt Pali literature. On June 3, 1956 he became a Bhikkhu after six years of studies in Buddhism at the University.
Burma, now Myanmar, was the region where Buddhism was thriving. In 1954, Burma organised sixth Buddhist Sangeeti where Bhante Dharmrakshit too participated in it. Baba Saheb Ambedkar as well as EVR Periyar too participated in this historical conference in Rangoon. Bhadant Gyaneshwar, 18 years of age that time, participated in it and got opportunity to listen and meet renowned Buddhist monks and scholars.
It is here that he met Baba Saheb Ambedkar in this conference though he does not remember much about him as he says that he was too young to understand the socio-political importance of Dr Ambedkar as all were participating as those who were Buddhists. For me, any one who got an opportunity to meet Dr Ambedkar or listened him live, has a link to history and it is essential to record their conversations and understanding. Whether he was too young or not did not matter for me that way as a sense of understanding shared history.
Bhikkhus from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and various countries, where Buddhism is practiced largely, have been coming to India to visit historical places of great importance from the Buddhist perspective. Many of them were pained to see the utter neglect to these sites which Buddhists worship and feel sanctimonious. This resulted in their decision to dedicate their lives for the betterment of these historical places and spread the Buddhist culture in the country of its birth.
Bhadant Chandramani was brought to Kushinagar by Anagarika Dharmpal, the Buddhist revivalist in the South Asian region. Before leaving to participate in the historic World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Anagarika Dharmpala asked Bhadant Chandramani to look after his work to protect the historical sites as well as strengthening Buddhist work in Kushinagar. That was the year 1893 when Bhadant Chandramani decided to stay back in Kushinagar and dedicate his life for the mission of Buddhism.
For, the information of all, Anagarika Dharmpala fought for reclamation of the Buddhist control over Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya and it is his monumental work that helped revive Buddhism and its heritage in South Asia. He can be simply called a global ambassador of Buddhism and its thoughts and practice. It was Bhadant Chandramani, who gave Deeksha to Baba Saheb Ambedkar in Nagpur on October 14, 1956. That way, Bhadant Chandramani was part of a historic revolution unleashed by Baba Saheb Ambedkar by 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 came to know about the deteriorating health condition of Bhadant Chandramani, who had become one of the most revered Bhikkhus of his time, in 1962, they were concerned and felt that somebody need to be put there in Kushinagar not merely to assist Bhadant Chandramani but also who could take the mission for future.
Bhadant Chandramani had looked after the Buddhist heritage in Kushinagar and the rest of the country very well but by 1962 Bhadant’s health was deteriorating and became a matter of concern for all near dear ones in the Buddhist movement. It was felt that he needed someone to support him as well as carry forward the movement further and hence 27 years old Gyaneshwar was asked to come to India and straightway go to Kushinagar to be with Bhadant Chandramani.
Influenced by Ambedkar, Guruji has special concern for the poor and the marginalised and their education, particularly girls
Bhadant Gyaneshwar came to serve his Guru in Kushinagar on August 5, 1963 and since then he has been living here and has completely merged himself in the Indian Buddhist traditions including the local language. He has been working for the upliftment of the marginalised people here.
Bhadant has sharp memory and enormous strength to sit with you and share his vast treasure of experience and understanding. He meets disciples and peoples from various walks of life and discusses issues with them. Language was a big issue when he came here but now, he is fluent in not only Hindi but Bhojpuri too. He is also looking after many charitable activities initiated by Bhadant Chandramani Mahasthivir. After coming to India, he did not leave his roots though he could not visit Myanmar.
It is fascinating to hear him and how he rebuilt the historical places where lots of fighting happened to control the places as well as for the land. To get acquainted with India and the language, Bhadant Gyaneshwar got himself registered at the 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 here and got a degree in Pali Sahitya Ratna as well as in Law too.
This year, the Myanmar government gave its highest religious award for great services and understanding to Bhadant Gyaneshwar. Due to Covid restrictions, he could not go there hence the Ambassador of Myanmar came down to Kushingar to handover the title ‘‘Abhidhazammahrathguru’ to him in June 2021. Prior to this, 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 towards 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 organisations and was a member of Bodhgaya Mahavihar Administrative body appointed by the government of Bihar from 1990-2018. When I asked him the question whether Bodh Gaya should not be handed over to the Buddhists as this is the holiest shrine for the Buddhists, he reflected and said, all the Buddhist places should be handed over to Buddhist.
He was also disturbed that most of the Buddhist shrines in India are under Archaeological Survey of India, which is perfectly fine given their importance but he feels that people from world over come to visit these places not because of their archaeology but because for Buddhist’s world over, India is the land of Buddha and they want to visit all the holy shrines based here.
Many of his followers and disciples have become important Bhikkhus themselves and are working to strengthen the Buddhist movement in India. Dr Nand Ratan Bhante Thero, came in touch with him in 1995 when he used to live in Shravasti. He got his higher education under Guruji, as Bhadant Gyaneshwar is referred to by his followers and disciples. Guru ji sent him to Myanmar in 1998 to study at International Theravada Buddhist University. He returned to Kushinagar in 1999.
Dr Nand Ratan Bhante says: “Guru ji has special concern and association with the poorest and marginalised people and their education particularly of the girls. He is worried about the caste discrimination and untouchability and has condemned it. There are thousands of his followers all over the country as well as abroad. Under the Maitri Association, Buddhists devotees from Japan contributed for the education of hundreds of children within the periphery of 10 kilometres at the behest of Guruji. He is still very active and concerned about Kushinagar and its development”.
Every year Guruji has been organising Deepakotsava in Kushinagar when thousands of his Buddhist followers come and celebrate the Buddhist way of doing it. I asked this question whether Deepawali ever was a Buddhist festival and he claimed that originally, it was a Buddhist festival. Ofcourse, this has been an issue of great contention among Buddhists in India as many feel it is a Brahmanical infiltration in Buddhism however Guruji has a different view on it and he says it with authority.
Bhadant Gyaneshwar has dedicated his life for the cause of Dhamma and has taken it to the most marginalised. He has felt the impact of caste identities in India and says he was never aware of it as his country might have different ethnic identities and groups but no hierarchy among them. Hailing from the 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 hope that his work will further strengthen the cause of Buddhist movement in India which will help us realise the dreams of Baba Saheb Ambedkar for building an enlightened India or what could be termed as Prabudhha Bharat. 
How ironic it is that it is the monks and dedicated followers from outside India who have taken the task of bringing back the glory of Buddhism here. Bhadant Gyaneshwar remains one such stalwart whose life is an inspiration for all of us who want to see the growth of Buddha's path in India.
---
*Human rights defender. Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/vbrawat. Twitter @freetohumanity

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