In 1953, when Ven U Gunawantha Mahathera came to Assam, people were busy in understanding the pros and cons of the bill of NRC (National Register of Citizens) passed in 1951. At that time the Chief Minister of Assam was Bishnu Ram Medhi who is popularly known as the Iron Man of modern Assam.
It is said that he was moved by the serene practice of Buddhism in his visit to Myanmar. This inspired him to invite the Burmese Bouddha Shasana Mission to Assam so that the people of this multi-religious and multi-ethnic land could get some enlightenment through the Buddhist teaching of non-violence and peace.
On his invitation, a ten-member team came to Assam of which Mahathera was a distinguished member. It sets the backdrop to how the monk came to this naturally abundant land. Of the ten monks, nine left their mortal bodies long before. But the venerable worked as the senior most monk of Northeast India till yesterday (for which he is known as Dangor Bhante or Great Bhante to all). Sadly, he breathed his last today at 6 p.m. at Rontix hospital of Margherita after battling long with his old age ailment.
Born on November 12, 1918, at Toungoo in then Burma and now Myanmar, Mahathera was ordained as a novice monk at the age of 18 by U. Rajinda Mahathera. His early name was Mong Chie Yen. And his parents’ names are U. Ngwe Mhim and Dawayetin. Soon after his ordination, he devoted himself to understanding the teachings of the Buddha deeply and spreading the same to the people. His sincere learning and devout practice of the Buddhist path rewarded him with full ordination merely at the age of early 19.
Though he initially started his service in his native land, he thought to inflate it later to the neighbouring countries, particularly in India. Coincidentally, his wish was materialized when he received a warm invitation from the then Chief Minister of Assam, Bishnu Ram Medhi, who was up and doing for the all-round development of the people of this land. Thus in 1953, under the aegis of Burmese Bauddha Shasana Mission, he came to Assam with nine other monks. He was the youngest among them.
On his arrival at Assam, he stayed at Inthem and Pomoung of Tinsukia district briefly. Then, in 1962, he shifted permanently to Mounglang—a home to Tai Phake, Tai Khamti, and Ponthai people— which is 6 km from Ledo in Tinsukia district. There he established a Buddhist monastery named Mounglang Khamti Buddhist Monastery. Far away from the hustle and bustle of city life, though it was a suitable place for his meditative practice, Mounglang lacked basic infrastructures of life at that time.
Another challenge before the venerable was the lack of a common communicable language with the local people, for they couldn’t speak English. But any of these challenges could not stop him from continuing his wholesome practice, for he believed in the momentariness of everything and no temporary thing can leave a permanent effect on anyone. His service towards the people of various communities just taught him the local languages. He learned Tai, Hindi, Assamese, Bengali, and Singpho etc.
He bonded with the local people through the principle of love and compassion. And a pure bond, by its nature, always keeps expanding its horizon. Thus his welcoming nature attracted people from Northeast India and beyond. Devotees come to him for various purposes— learning Buddhism and meditation, overcoming distress, and like a sojourn to a peaceful stay.
Those who come to him never return empty-handed. Even if the visitors do not receive anything materially, they will surely take home some humorous experience. In my first meeting with the monk, when I said I am an Assistant Professor, he said with a gesture of fun, “ABCD bhi najane, kenekoi Professor hoise(?)” (You don’t know even ABCD. How have you become a Professor?)
He has always been empathetic towards the poor and destitute. He has brought up a lot of poor children many of whom have become engineers and doctors today. By the way, the Venerable likes doctors! In this way, the seed of connection that U. Ven. Gunawantha Mahathera planted at Mounglang in 1953 sprouted in a strong tree that has branched out to connect this small place to other places within and outside the country. It won’t be wrong if it is said he is the person who has changed Mounglang from an interior uninhabitable place to a serene liveable village.
To enable the devotees to attain peace through meditative practice, he established International Meditation Centre in his monastery at Mounglang. To continue his altruistic service, he formed Purvanchal Bhikkhu Sangha under the banner of which he organized many occasions that aimed at establishing solidarity and brotherhood among the people of various faiths. One such occasion is the yearly observation of ‘Poi Kanta Sangha’ in which people of all faiths are invited to take part.
Though he does not want any return of the service he renders (for the only return he loves to get is peace and happiness of the mass), he was conferred a honour titled Agga Maha Saddhamma Jyotika Dhvaja by the Government of Myanmar in 1994 for his dedicated service to the people beyond his native country and thus building a Maitri-bridge between these two countries through the Buddhist practice of peace and non violence. Again, in 1996, the members of Purvanchal Bhikkhu Sangha conferred him the title Sangha Nayaka for showing them the righteous path of peace and enlightenment.
Today on the day of his parinirvana, let us put our hands together to take pledge of carrying forward his legacy, the path of ahimsa and maitri.
Ramala Sarma is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy in Nowgong College.