Saṅgharāj Dr. Dharmasen Mahāthērō (1928–2020): The Life of the 12th Supreme Patriarch of Bangladesh

Saṅgharāj Dr. Dharmasen Mahāthērō (17 June 1928–20 March 2020), the 12th supreme patriarch of Bangladesh and one of the most prominent Theravāda teachers of Boṅgabhūmi, has been respected by devotees, followers, seekers, and monastics throughout the world. In the footsteps of his guru Gyaniswer Mahāthērō (20 December 1887–28 October 1974), Dharmasen relentlessly radiated the light of the Dhamma toward the Bengali and global Buddhist communities for more than eight decades. Due to his unwavering compassion and heartfelt dedication to propagating the Buddha’s profound teachings, the legacy of Dharmasen has been continued by aspirants domestically and internationally.

Saṅgharāj Dr. Dharmasen Mahāthērō (17 June 1928–20 March 2020). Image courtesy of the Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives

Dharmasen was born on 17 June 1928. On a glorious Sunday, he brought the light of joy to the village of Unainpūra, in the sub-district of Patiya and district of Caṭṭagrāma (also known as Chittagong) in Bangladesh. His parents, Mahirāj Barua and Sūrabāla Devī Barua, lovingly welcomed their newborn baby boy as Roshdhar Barua. It is worth noting that Unainpūrā, a prominent spiritual village in Bangladesh, is the birthplace of numerous Buddhist scholars and monks who, over the past few centuries, have contributed to the spread of Theravāda Buddhism in Boṅgabhūmi and the Indian subcontinent. Dharmasen is one of 16 renowned Buddhist monks who originated in Unainpūrā, according to the white-stoner rock edict of Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma, a monastery in Unainpūrā.

The 16 prominent monks who were born in Unainpūrā are listed here in chronological order:

1. Śrīmat Jaẏadharā Mahāsthabīra (1600–72)
2. Śrīmat Dhruba Mahāsthabīra (1630–90)
3. Śrīmat Cāda Mahāsthabīra (1630–90)
4. Śrīmat Krēṁlahā Mahāsthabīra (1700–80)
5. Śrīmat Thānā’i Mahāsthabīra (1720–85)
6. Śrīmat Hrepasu’i Mahāsthabīra (1725–90)
7. Śrīmat Mōhana Candra Mahāsthabīra (1730–80)
8. Śrīmat Mukulacāna Mahāsthabīra (1730–95)
9. Śrīmat Sudhana Candra Mahāsthabīra (1735–1810)
10. Śrīmat Saṅgharāja Ācārya Pūrṇācāra Candramōhana Mahāsthabīra (1838–1905)
11. Śrīmat Jagaṯ Candra Mahāsthabīra (1852–1948)
12. Śrīmat Gauracandra Mahāsthabīra (1850–1910)
13. Śrīmat Kṛpāśaraṇa Mahāsthabīra (1865–1926)
14. Śrīmat Saṅgharāja Dr. Dharmasen Mahāsthabīra (1928–2020)
15.  Śrīmat Bōdhipāla Bhikkhu (1968–2020)
16.  Śrīmat Bōdhimitra Mahāsthabīra (b. 1970)

The white-stoner rock edict of Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma gives the names of the 14 Mahāsthabīras (prominent elder monks) who were born in Unainpūrā. They are listed in chronological order. Image courtesy of Bodhipala Bhikkhu
A rare frame of Dharmasen with his mother, Sūrabāla Devī Barua, left, and his guru, Gyaniswer Mahāthērō, right. Image courtesy of the Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives

Early in his childhood, an unanticipated illness caused tremendous anguish to Dharmasen’s parents. Local physicians were unfamiliar with the young the symptoms. How could they save their beloved son from death? Without seeking medical attention and eager for her child’s recovery, Sūrabāla went to the village monastery and paid homage to the Triple Gem. In her heartache and grief, she approached the altar and made a wish before the Buddha: “If my son recovers from this unknown sickness, I will offer him to be ordained as a Buddhist monk for the sake of the Buddhasasana.” Miraculously, within several days, young Roshdhar was cured of his illness.

Dharmasen. Image courtesy of the Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives
Dharmasen at Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma, in the sub-district of Patiya and the district of Caṭṭagrāma, Bangladesh. Image courtesy of the Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives

Having fully recuperated from his illness, Sūrabāla kept her promise and requested that her son Roshdhar become a Buddhist monk under the most respected Ven. Gyaniswer Mahāthērō at Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Buddhist Monastery. Thus, at 14, during Asalha Full Moon Day, young Roshdhar was ordained as a novice monk in 1942. While serving as his preceptor (upajjhāya), Ven. Gyaniswer Mahāthērō bestowed Roshdhar’s formal monastic name Dharmasen Sraman (sāmaṇera).

Dharmasen with his devotees and followers at Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma, in the sub-district of Patiya and the district of Caṭṭagrāma, Bangladesh. Image courtesy of the Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archive

Throughout his 72 rain retreats (vassa), Dharmasen diligently studied the Tipiṭaka, Pāli, and monastic discipline (Vinaya). It is noteworthy that his preceptor and monastic teacher, Ven. Gyaniswer Mahāthērō, was a prolific Buddhist scholar and an accomplished meditation practitioner. His monumental compilation, Pāli Prabēśa (Entrances to Study Pāli Language), is a prominent textbook at Dhaka University, Chattogram College, and Chittagong University in Bangladesh, as well as Kolkata University in India.

On the occasion of Katīna Cībar Dāna (the annual robe-offering ceremony), Dharmasen received his higher ordination (Upasampadā) at the Saṅgharāj Ācārya Pūrṇācāra Sīmālaya Ordination Hall at Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Buddhist Monastery in 1947. As his preceptor, the Gyaniswer once more presided at Dharmasen’s higher ordination. Dharmasen sincerely and diligently served as an attendant to his most respected teacher, Gyaniswer, throughout his life. Kolkata University conferred the title of “Tripiṭaka Biśārada” on Dharmasen in recognition of his brilliant understanding of the Three Baskets of the Tipitaka and for his expertise in Pāli texts in 1953.

Dharmasen with the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, and senior saṅgha members, Satya Priya Mahāthērō (10 June 1930–4 October 2019) and Sunandapriya Bhikkhu at Ramu, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Image courtesy of Sunandapriya Bhikkhu

Dharmasen’s Dhamma talks instilled a sense of harmony for the villagers of Unainpūrā and Bangladeshi society. The notable features of his teachings emphasized monastic order and noble lay teachings and their use as a vehicle for Dhamma practice in daily life. Ven. Dharmasen contributed numerous books and articles in the Bengali language. He is the author of monumental Buddhist works of literature, including Triratna Bandanā (1962); Vinaya Saṅgraha (1978); Baudhō Dharma Śikṣā (1981), and Tri-Mahājībana (1990).

Under his spiritual leadership, Ven. Dharmasen firmly established guidelines and codes of conduct, which created a sense of unity for the monastic community. For the propagation of the Dhamma in Bangladesh, he fostered relationships with prominent Buddhist organizations, including the Bangladesh Saṅgharāj Bhikkhu Mahāsabha (The Supreme Saṅgha Council of Bangladesh) and Saṅgharāj Pūrṇācāra Bhikkhu Sangsadh (The Saṅgha Council of Saṅgharāj Pūrṇacār). A spiritual visionary, Ven. Dharmasen generously offered Dhamma scholarships for the preservation of the Buddha’s teachings.

Dharmasen and the 14th Dalai Lama in New Delhi, India, 15 January 2004.  Image courtesy of the Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives

According to a tradition found in Theravāda Buddhist countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, “Saṅgharāj” or “Saṅgharāja,” an honorific title of the highest honor, designated the Supreme Patriarch. Following the passing of the 11th Saṅgharāj, His Holiness Śasanaśrī Mahāthērō (23 November 1921–12 May 2003), Bangladesh Saṅgharāj Bhikkhu Mahāsabha appointed Dharmasen as the 12th Saṅgharāj of Bangladesh on 29 January 2004. Despite being appointed Saṅgharāj, Ven. Dharmasen Mahāthērō remained a resident of Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Buddhist Monastery until the end of his life.

Rare photograph of Dharmasen with the 10th Saṅgharāj, Jyōtipāla Mahāthērō (5 January 1914–12 May 2003) and the 11th Saṅgharāj, Śasanaśrī Mahāthērō (23 November 1921–12 May 2003) in Patiya Kendriya Boudho Bihar, Patiya, Chattogram, Bangladesh. Image courtesy of Saṅghapriya Mahāthērō
Dharmasen with the 27th Saṅghanāẏaka, Dr. S. Dharmapāla Mahāthērō (1 February, 1933–9 July, 2012) and Śaranasēna Mahāthērō at Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma, Patiya, Chattogram. Image courtesy of the Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives
Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn (Princess Debaratana Rajasuda) of Thailand pays respect to Dharmasen at Mahidol University in 2009. Image courtesy of the Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives
Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU) in Thailand confers the second honorary doctorate to Dharmasen on 24 May 2010.  Image courtesy of the Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives

Dharmasen represented the Bangladeshi Buddhist community in attending many congregations, symposiums, and seminars at home and abroad. His breadth of Buddhist knowledge, wisdom, and deepened practice were imparted through Dhamma talks and daily guidelines for monastics and laypeople. Dharmasen was awarded numerous accolades and has been given a number of honorific Buddhist titles, including “World Peace Model” and “World Buddhist Outstanding Leader Award” (2017) from Thailand; “Supreme Buddhist Leader” (2008) from Japan. His long list of awards from Buddhist countries include the “Suṣama Award” (2016) from India, and the “Atiśa Dīpankara Śrījñāna  Peace Award” (2021) and and Bimalendhu Peace Award ” (2016) from Bangladesh.

Moreover, Dharmasen’s tireless contributions to Dhamma propagation were acknowledged by world universities. Vietnam Buddhist University (VBU) conferred his first honorary doctorate on 8 August 2009. Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU) of Thailand bestowed upon him a second honorary doctorate on 24 May 2010.

The late Bodhipala Mahāthērō (20 December, 1968–27 July 2020) with Dharmasen (17 June 1928–20 March 2020) in Baud’dha Dharmāṅkūra Bihāra in Kolkata, India. Image courtesy of the Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma Archives

During the last few years of his life, Dharmasen’s unstable health led to frequent hospitalization. Because of his rapid decline, he was hospitalized at the Royal Hospital in Chattogram on 1 January 2020 for three months. On 20 March 2020, at 12:58am, Dharmasen Mahāthērō drew his last breath at the Royal Hospital in Chattogram, Bangladesh. A large number of disciples, beloved relatives, and devotees from Bangladesh and throughout the world mourned the loss of their dearly loved spiritual leader.

A warm moment between Dharmasen  and Phra Khru Baitika Dr. Barton Yanathiro (28 January 1936–22 June 2011) at Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma, Patiya, Chattogram, Bangladesh. Image courtesy of the author

The legacy of Dharmasen deeply impacted the propagation and preservation of Theravāda Buddhism throughout Bangladesh and the Buddhist world. His light of joy rests eternally in the hearts of the village of Unainpūrā, of Bangladesh, and of the global Buddhist community. The Association of Buddhist Students of Bangladesh (ABSB) produced a documentary to pay tribute to the legacy of Dharmasen.*

A moment between His Holiness Saṅgharāj Dr. Dharmasen Mahāthērō (June 17 1928–March 20 2020) and his devotee, Sanjoy Barua Chowdhury, in Bangkok, 2015. Image courtesy of the author

May the legacy of Dharmasen inspire us on the path to liberation. May the 12th Saṅgharāj of Bangladesh attain the bliss of Nibbāna.

* জীবনচরিত ।। পর্ব ৭ ।। শ্রীমৎ ধর্মসেন মহাথের (YouTube)


Chowdhury, Sanjoy Barua. 2022. Walking Into The Light of Dhamma. Songkhla: International Buddhist College, Thailand. Accessed April 28 2022. http://ibc-elibrary.thanhsiang.org/node/981

Diamond, Sajib Barua; Barua, Bipul; Chowdhury, Sanjoy Barua; Titu, Samudra; Chowdhury, Rijoy, eds. 2021. Jyōtirmaẏa Dharmasen. Chattogram: Purba Publishing.

Dharmeswer, Bhikkhu. 2010. “Saṅgharāj Dharmasen: Jībana ō Karmo”. In Hironmoy Dharmasen, edited by Prof. Abhijit Barua Manu, 32–47. Chattogram: Purba Publishing.

Manu, Abhijit Barua. 2010. Hironmoy Dharmasen. Chattogram: Purba Publishing.

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

Mahāsthabīra, Dharmasen. 2021. “Unainpūrā Laṅkārāma” In Jyōtirmaẏa Dharmasen, edited by Sajib Barua Diamond, Bipul Chowdhury, Sanjoy Barua Chowdhury, Samudra Titu, Rijoy Chowdhury, et al., 436–37. Chattogram: Purba Publishing.

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