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Ācāriya Pūrṇāchār Chandramōhan Mahāsthabira (1834–1907): The Life and Work of the 2nd Saṅgharāj of Bangladesh

Ācāriya Pūrṇācāra Chandramōhan Mahāsthabīra (or Ācāriya Pūrṇācāra for short) was the second Saṅgharāj (supreme patriarch) of Bangladesh. He was born on 19 June 1834 and passed away on 5 February 1907. Ācāriya Pūrṇācāra was one of the most prominent Theravāda teachers of the region of Boṅgabhūmi (West Bengal in present-day India and Bangladesh) and was respected by laypeople and monastics throughout the world. Following in the footsteps of the historical Buddha, Ācāriya Pūrṇācāra tirelessly radiated the light of Dhamma in the region of Boṅgabhūmi, British India, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka for five decades. Thanks to his unwavering compassion and heartfelt dedication to propagating the Buddha’s teachings, along with his strong leadership in unifying monastic members under the Vinaya, he was given the epithet “Ācāriya,” which means “senior teacher,” and is known today as Ācārya Pūrṇāchār Chandramōhan Mahāsthabir.

A rare image of Ācāriya Pūrṇācāra Chandramōhan Mahāsthabīra. Image courtesy of the Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives

Chandramōhan was born on a Thursday, bringing joy to the village of Unainpūra in the sub-district of Patiya and district of Chattogram (also known as Chittagong), Bangladesh. His parents, Madhurām Barua and Kāñcanaprabhā Barua, welcomed their newborn baby boy as Chandramōhan Barua. Young Chandramōhan had two brothers and two sisters. He completed his basic education in his mother tongue, following the ancient custom of studying at his teacher’s house. During his childhood, Chandramōhan had a calm personality and spent most of his time in self-reflection in a quiet place. Since Chandramōhan was born in a Buddhist village, he grew interested in the Buddhist teachings and meditation. Unainpūra has always been a prominent spiritual village in Boṅgabhūmi, and was the birthplace of numerous Buddhist scholars and monks. Over the past few centuries, they have contributed to the spread of Buddhism in Boṅgabhūmi and the Indian subcontinent (and I have covered several of them in previous articles).

In 1850, Chandramōhan was ordained as a novice (sāmaṇera) under Śrīmat Mohanlal Mahāthērō at Ṭhēgarapuni Buṛāgōsā’i Mandir in Patiya. After entering novice-hood, Chandramōhan Sāmaṇera started to study monastic education, which consisted of reciting Buddhist texts, mastering the monastic codes, and meditating. At the age of 17, Chandramōhan received higher ordination (upasampadā) at the “Udaka Sīmā [an ordination place that is floating on water]” on the River Bhāṇḍālajuri. He was now a bhikkhu. But this ordination would encounter a major problem down the road.

After receiving higher ordination, Chandramōhan Bhikkhu returned to Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma, his monastery in Unainpūra. With the guidance of his preceptor and mentor, Ven. Mohanlal Mahāthērō, Chandramōhan Bhikkhu paid more attention to Buddhist education. In the meantime, Ven. Mohanlal Mahāthērō passed away within a few months of Chandramōhan Bhikkhu’s higher ordination.

A statue of Ācāriya Pūrṇācāra Chandramōhan Mahāsthabīra erected at Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma, a monastery in Unainpūrā. Image courtesy of the author

After Ven. Mohanlal Mahāthērō passed away, Chandramōhan faced a major obstruction in his monastic progress. He had met Ven. Madhucaraṇa Mahāsthabir, who enthusiastically taught him Buddhist texts and schooled him intensely in Bengali, Pali, and Arakanese for two years. Inspired by this teacher, Chandramōhan decided to go to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to study further. During that time, it was difficult to travel from Chattogram to Kolkata by road. Therefore, Chandramōhan began his journey by boat, and took around a month to arrive in Kolkata.

As he sought an instructor in Kolkata, Chandramōhan met with a British gentleman named Paul, who worked for the survey department under the British Raj. Paul was an insightful person who knew various Asian languages, including Pāḷi, Hindi, and Sinhalese. Since Paul had expertise in the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka, Chandramōhan decided to study under him. While Chandramōhan was studying the Bhikkhu Pātimokkha [rules and regulations for Buddhist monks], he learned that a candidate could not receive a higher ordination (upasampadā) until he reached the age of 20.

Having learned these rules, Chandramōhana realized that he did not receive a higher ordination (upasampadā) properly. He was ordained as a bhikkhu when he was 17, which was invalid according to the following Bhikkhu Pātimokkha. Consequently, Chandramōhan decided to go to Myanmar and be re-ordained following the authentic monastic code of the Theravāda tradition. Soon after, Paul passed away.

A statue of Ācāriya Pūrṇācāra Chandramōhan Mahāsthabīra erected at the village of Mukutnait, located in Patiya Subdistrict, Chattogran, Bangladesh. Image courtesy of Jitu Chowdhury

In order to travel to Myanmar’s Arakan state and receive his second higher ordination (upasampadā), Chandramōhana left Kolkata and returned to his native village of Unainpūra. Unfortunately, his physical condition declined severely, and he grew ill for over a year. When Chandramōhan was fully recovered, he started his trip to Myanmar. He was accompanied by three Jumma people, who were experts in knowing the proper travel route and the Arakanese language.

Having arrived in Arakan, Chandramōhan met Sāramēdha Mahāsthabir (1801–82), who subsequently became the first Saṅgharāj of Bangladesh’s Theravāda Buddhist community. After Sāramēdha Mahāsthabir learned of Chandramōhan’s noble intentions, he arranged a higher ordination ceremony in the “Udaka Sīmā [an ordination place that is floating on water]” in Arakan. Under his new preceptor, Chandramōhan Bhikkhu received his second higher ordination in the proper manner, at the age of 25, in 1859.

Having received his second and legitimate higher ordination, Chandramōhan renewed his vigorous study of the suttas and the Vinaya from Ven. Sāramēdha Mahāsthabir. Two months later, he fell seriously ill again. He left Myanmar and returned to Unainpūra, and since the illness was crippling his monastic practice, Chandramōhan made the difficult choice to disrobe and leave the monastic life. He had done his best, but his body did not seem able to meet his aspirations.

After Chandramōhan returned home, he began learning traditional medicine from his father, Madhurām Barua. Madhurām Barua was a village doctor (kabirāj), and in a short period Chandramōhan became an expert in traditional medicine. In 1860, he decided to move to Kolkata to practice traditional medicine. Upon his move to the big city, he regularly kept in touch with his old well-wishers, who had been his supporters and friends during his earlier monastic journey. Despite the death of his former mentor Paul some years earlier, he continued his friendship with his family. The British family was supportive of Buddhism, and so monks, novices, and devotees frequently visited Paul’s house. Once, two monks, three novices, and three lay devotees visited Paul’s family. These visitors were from Sri Lanka, and their destination was Mandalay, in Myanmar. As Paul had died, his wife took the opportunity to become a host for visitors from Sri Lanka. At that time, Chandramōhan was also invited to visit Paul’s family and met with these Sri Lankan visitors.

During their conversation, the visitors’ leader, Ven. Śaraṇaṅkar Sthabir, told Chandramōhan that he was worried about his spiritual practice. Śaraṇaṅkara Sthabir said that he was planning to visit Myanmar to purify his monastic journey. Having learned of the noble intentions of this senior monk, Chandramōhan recalled his past, when he also went for proper monastic ordination in Myanmar. Śaraṇaṅkara Sthabir and his fellows were impressed by Chandramōhan’s humility and yearning to return to monastic life and proposed that he travel to Myanmar with them. Chandramōhan agreed to follow the trip to Myanmar with the Sri Lankan pilgrimage team.

Along with the Sri Lankan monks and laypeople, Chandramōhan arrived in Mandalay in 1860. He met with senior Theravāda monks, including the supreme patriarch of Myanmar and King Mindon Min (1808–78), the former ruler of then-Burma. While he met with monastic elites and the king, Chandramōhan told of the ongoing conditions of the Buddhist community and practices in Chattogram. Impressed with his in-depth knowledge of Buddhism and his sincerity in Buddhist practice, senior monks requested Chandramōhan that he receive a higher ordination in Mandalay.

Encouraged and heartened by this support, Chandramōhan decided to become a monk again. Patronized by King Mindon Min, Chandramōhan was ordained a third time in 1861, in the presence of 76 mahāsthabīras (senior monks). During his higher ordination ceremony, he was given the prestigious title of “Pūrṇāchār Dhammadhārī.” Since then, he has been known as “Pūrṇāchār Dhammadhārī Chandramōhan.”

Chandramōhan and his Sri Lankan compatriots had achieved their goal of re-affirming their monastic practice. With this accomplishment, the group left Mandalay and headed to the port of Galle in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1861. He settled at a monastery called Bijaẏānanda Bihāram, but quickly noticed that Ceylonese monks were not following monastic orders properly. Candramōhana proposed to the elders to reform their practice regarding monastic codes. Inspired by Candramōhana, a senior monk called Ambagahawatte Saranankara returned to Sri Lanka and established the “Rāmañña Nikāya” order in 1864 (Rāmañña is the Pāli name for the region of southern, coastal Burma). The “Rāmañña Nikāya” was established not only in response to caste discrimination but also as an attempt to reform the practices of the Sri Lankan monastic practitioners. After the establishment of the Rāmañña Nikāya, Candramōhana traveled to various Buddhist sites in Ceylon.

The stūpa of Ācāriya Pūrṇācāra Chandramōhan Mahāsthabīra, where his body was cremated in 1907. Image courtesy of the author

In 1865, Chandramōhan decided to return to his hometown of Chattogram, accompanied by a Sri Lankan monk and a lay practitioner. After he arrived, he observed that several monastic practitioners had re-ordained under the leadership of Sāramēdha Mahāsthabir, as they had realized the importance of following the Vinaya properly. The monastics reconstituted themselves as the “Saṅgharāj Nikāya,” with Sāramēdha Mahāsthabir becoming their first Saṅgharāj. Since Chandramōhan knew about the refined practice of Sāramēdha Mahāsthabir, he joined the Saṅgharāj Nikāya. Led by Sāramēdha Mahāsthabir and Chandramōhan, the Saṅgharāj Nikāya finally implemented the legitimate Buddhist teachings and the monastic codes and spread them throughout Bengal. In 1882, Chandramōhan was appointed as the new Saṅgharāj and continued to serve as its leader until his last breath.

This great Buddhist leader died on 5 February 1907. Chandramōhan Mahāsthabīra’s legacy contributed significantly to the propagation and preservation of Theravāda Buddhism throughout Bangladesh and West Bengal. His light of joy rests in the hearts of Bengali-speaking monks and devotees and of the Buddhist community across South Asia and the world.

References

Mahāsthabīra, Dharmādhār. 2009. “Bānlādēśe Sad’dharma Punarut’thānē Pradhāna Ācāryagana” In Brahmanda Pratap Barua (ed.). Buddhism in Bengal, 169–80. Kolkata: Barun Kundu.

Mahāsthabīra, Dharmasen. 2009. “Yugasraṣṭā Saṅgharāja Ācāriẏā Pūrṇācāra” In Sathipriya Barua (ed.). Mahājñānī mahājana, 16–19. Chittagong: Gandhara Art Press.

Mahāsthabīra, Dharmasen. 2021. “Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma” In Sajib Barua Diamond, Sanjoy Barua Chowdhury, et al. (eds.). Jyōtirmaẏa, 436–37. Chattogram: Purba Publishing.

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The Legacy of Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma: A Historical Monastery of Theravāda Buddhism in Boṅgabhūmi
The History and Heritage of the Buddhist Diffusion in Boṅgabhūmi

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