Āryaśrābaka Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir (1887–1974): The Life and Legacy of a Seminal Bangladeshi Theravada Master

- through Francois Leclercq

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In late colonial to post-colonial Bangladesh, Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir (20 December 1887–28 October 1974) was a pioneering Theravāda teacher who transmitted Buddhist teachings to Bengali-speaking devotees. Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir tirelessly taught the Dhamma for more than six decades, worshipers honoring him with the title of aryaśrābakam (a noble disciple of the Awakened). He has also been respectfully acknowledged as a mahāyōgī (great meditator) not only by his disciples, but also by his students, the Buddhist scholar Sīlānanda Brahmacārī (1907–2002), and the 12th saṅgharāj (Supreme Patriarch) of Bangladesh, Dr. Dharmasen Mahāthērō (1928–2020).

A rare image of Āryaśrābaka Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir. Image courtesy of Dr. Dharmasen Mahāthērō

Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir was born in Mukutnait village in Patiya sub-district of Chattogram division, present day Bangladesh. The newborn's delighted parents, Harirāj Barua and Tārādēbī Barua, have lovingly welcomed their fourth child as Lalita Chandra Barua. The Bengali word lalita denotes "a tender heart" and Chandra translates to "the moon". According to the Bengali-English dictionary, Lalita Chandra refers to “a person whose face resembles the beauty of the moon with a heart full of kindness and compassion”. The child's parents probably assumed that he could become a selfless and compassionate practitioner in the future, so they gave him a name that means "kind-hearted boy who shines like the moon."

A rare image of Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir with his disciple, Dr. Dharmasen Mahāthērō. Image courtesy of Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives

As a child, Lalita Chandra was sent to a local primary school. He was admitted to a reputable institution, the Sanskrit Chatuspati school. After observing how well Lalita Chandra was doing, her teachers suggested that she study with better teachers. Lalita Chandra's father sent his son to study with an eminent teacher, Ācāriẏā Rajanīkānta Kābyatīrtha. Under his mentor, he studied poetry, literature, philosophy, Indian grammar and contemporary issues. Lalita Chandra also studied the science of Ayurveda.

At the end of her studies, Lalita Chandra began her career as an expert in Ayurvedic medicine. At 22, he opened a private clinic in Safar Ali Munsi Haat, Chattogram. Needless to say, in a matter of months, Lalita Chandra has become a kabiraj or physician among the locals for his caring treatment of patients.

A portrait of Āryaśrābaka Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir. Image courtesy of Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives

As Lalita Chandra was doing well in her career, her parents decided to arrange a bride for their beloved son. As part of the Bengali family tradition, arranged marriage is a popular custom. Despite her parents' desire for their son to marry and start his own family, Lalita Chandra was not interested in family life. During this time, Lalita Chandra saw something that greatly influenced her decision to leave family life behind. Once, while returning home from his clinic, he saw a thief being punished by a group of people. Having observed the thief's punishment, Lalita Chandra thought that this man was probably in deep pain because he did not have enough resources and therefore resorted to stealing.

Deeply moved, Lalita Chandra decides to enter monastic life. His father initially disagreed with his son's decision. Lalita Chandra called her closest relatives and friends to convince her father, one of whom, Hīrāsing Barua, eventually convinced Harirāj Barua. With the permission of his father, young Lalita Chandra began his monastic journey, which continued until the end of his life.

A rare image of Āryaśrābaka Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir. Image courtesy of Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives

In 1909, Lalita Chandra was ordained a novice (sāmaṇeralisten)) under Śrīmat Jagaṯ Candra Mahāsthabir, monk and abbot of the village monastery. Jagaṯ Candra Mahāsthabir was a disciple of the legendary Theravāda monk Ācārya Pūrṇācāra Candramōhana Mahāsthabir (1834–1907), the second saṅgharāj from Bangladesh. Having observed Lalita Chandra's increasing devotion to monastic life, Jagaṯ Candra Mahāsthabir arranged a higher ordination (upasampada) in Tegarpuni, Patiya sub-district of Chattogram. Preceptor (upajjhāya), Fri. Jagaṯ Candra Mahāsthabir, granted Lalita Chandra the formal monastic (bhikkhus) name Gyaniswer Bhikkhu.

The term reply is composed of two parts: gyana means "knowledge", while further refers to "master". The name Gyaniswer therefore means "master scholar".

A statue of Āryaśrābaka Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir erected at Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma, a monastery in Unainpūrā. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

After receiving full ordination (bhikkhu upasampada), Gyaniswer Bhikkhu focused on his monastic education, which was based on the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka. Gyaniswer Bhikkhu received a letter from his spiritual friend Pranahari Bhikkhu (1880–1970), who would later become renowned as Banśadīp Mahāsthabir. In the letter, Banśadīp Mahāsthabir wrote that he resided in Baijaẏanta Bihāra, in the city of Moulmein, Myanmar, where he had studied with a prominent Theravāda monk, Ven. U Sagara Mahasthabir. Stimulated by this letter and this information, Gyaniswer Bhikkhu went to Myanmar in 1910. He decided to receive full ordination for the second time under Ven. U Sāgara Mahāsthabir, his new tutor.

A rare image of Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir with the seventh saṅgharāj from Bangladesh, Abhayatissa Mahāsthabir and his spiritual friend, Banśadīp Mahāsthabir. Image courtesy of Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives

Encouraged by Banśadīp Mahāsthabir, Gyaniswer Bhikkhu decided to travel to modern Sri Lanka. In 1912, he arrived on the island of Ceylon and began studying canonical and exegetical literature at Panadura Sad'dharmadōẏa Paribēna, under Upasēna Mahānāẏaka Sthabir. While residing in Sri Lanka, he was impressed with the monastic practices of the monks, including his teacher. Gyaniswer Bhikkhu received full ordination for the third time under the eminent preceptor Ven. Sumana Mahāsthabir, who was also a teacher of Upasēna Mahānāẏaka Sthabir.

After being exposed to several Vinayas and acclaimed masters in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, Gyaniswer Bhikkhu returned to his native land in 1916. He spent his first two retreats in the rain (vassa) in Mukutniat and Chorkanai. In 1919, Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir began to reside at Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma, a monastery at Unainpūrā, Patiya, Chattogram, where he remained for 55 long years. This monastery was one of the most important Theravāda monasteries in Boṅgabhūmi and the Indian subcontinent, where eminent spiritual masters came to teach and practice.

Cover page of Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir's masterpiece compilation, Pāli Prabeśa (Tickets to study the Pali language), first published in 1937. Image courtesy of the author

Once he started his spiritual career at Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma, Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir tirelessly taught the Dhamma to monks and lay devotees. He also tried to spread the knowledge of ancient Indian languages, such as Pali and Sanskrit. For beginners of the Pāli language, Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir has compiled his monumental text Pāli Prabeśa (Tickets to study the Pali language) in 1937. Pāli Prabeśa is still used today as a textbook for Pali studies in Bangladeshi and Indian institutions, including the University of Dhaka, Chattogram College, Noapara College, and the University of Chittagong in Bangladesh, as well as the University of Kolkata in India.

Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir positioned himself as a leader to eliminate erroneous views from Buddhist society, as well as to facilitate ecumenism and reconciliation among Theravāda Buddhist monks at Boṅgabhūmi. In Theravāda Buddhism in Bangladesh, there are two Vinaya groups among the clergy: the Saṅgharāja Nikāya and the Mahāsthabir Nikāya. The supreme patriarch of the Saṅgharāja Nikāya is known as the saṅgharājwhile the supreme monk of the Mahāsthabir Nikāya is known as the Saṅganāyaka. Both groups follow the same monastic codes; there is no difference in practice between these two schools. In 1966, the annual Saṅgharāja Nikāya congregation was held at Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma, organized by the Bangladesh Saṅgharāja Bhikkhu Mahāsabhā organization. The order of the day was for all monks to be united under one umbrella instead of having two fraternities. This reconciliation was led by none other than Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir.

A rare image of Āryaśrābaka Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir accompanied by his disciple, Dr. Dharmasen Mahāthērō; Satyapriya Mahāthērō and other noble members. Image courtesy of Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives

Accompanied by his spiritual friends Banśadīp Mahāsthabir and Prajñālōka Mahāsthabir (1879–1971), Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir not only taught insightful meditation (vipassana) but also reintroduced traditional Buddhist events to the community, such as Buddha Puja and the robe-offering ceremony (katina cībar dāna). The latter included the offering of honey and medicine to the monastic community during Madhū Pūrnīma, the day of the full moon in modern Bangladesh. His visionary ideas and teachings had a profound impact on Buddhist society and enriched local cultures. Therefore, a whole generation followed him as a leader. Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir traveled to many places and villages to propagate the Buddha's teachings, his noble intention to suppress religious dogma, correct wrong opinions and defeat superstitions.

The end of the 12 saṅgharāj from Bangladesh, Dr. Dharmasen Mahāthērō, paying homage to his late master, Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir. Image courtesy of Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives

Besides providing spiritual guidance to the community and fostering Buddhist scholasticism, Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir trained a number of Buddhist monks and scholars, who later became leaders of Theravāda Buddhism in Bangladesh and India. One of them was Sīlānanda Brahmacārī (1907–2002), who became a pioneer scholar in postcolonial India. He has translated many Pali texts into Bengali and a number of books in Bengali and English. His monumental translations and compilations include the Samyutta Nikaya, Visuddhimagga, Mahasanti Mahaprem, Karmayogi Kripasaran, Vipassana Yoga, Abhidharma Darpan, Abhidhamma, Dhammapada, Lord Buddha's Eternal Message, mangalatattha, Vipassana Sadhana, Amrita Dharaet Antorlok Jatri Rabindranath.

The two monastic disciples of Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir became supreme patriarchs in two separate countries. Dr. Dharmasen Mahāthērō (1928–2020) was the 12th saṅgharāj of Bangladesh, while Dharmapāl Mahāthērō became the saṅganāyaka from India.

A white stone statue of Āryaśrābaka Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir is erected at Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma, a monastery in Unainpūrā, Patiya, Chattogram, Bangladesh. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

Āryaśrābaka Gyaniswer Mahāsthabir died on October 28, 1974, at the age of 87. His legacy had a profound impact on the spread and preservation of Theravāda Buddhism across Bangladesh and the Buddhist world. Her light of joy rests in the hearts of Bengali-speaking monks and devotees, and the Buddhist community across South Asia and the world.

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Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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