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Samdech Preah Sangharaja Chuon Nath Encountered Brahman Mahant in Bodhgaya in 1950

This video briefly narrates the story of “Mahants” and their occupation of the Buddhist temple Maha Bodhi Vihara in Bodhgaya, Bihar. It also tells about the Buddhist demands to control the temple. The storytelling of Samdech Chuon Nath is also included in this video.

In 1950, Samdech Preah Sangharaja Chuon Nath, the late Kana Mahanikaya Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia, and his attendants visited Bodhgaya (India) where Buddha attained enlightenment. During his visit, Samdech Preah Sangharaj met with Hindu Mahant at his Bodh Gaya Math. He later in 1960 recalled the meeting in his Khmer literature talk. It was a great encounter between the two great religious leaders though initially tensioned as they were strangers to each other.

In the 1960s audio recording of Samdech Preah Sangharaja Chuon Nath he recounted the history of his pilgrimage to India. At that time, he and the Khmer delegation paid homage to the Mahabodhi Vihara and the sacred Mahabodhi Tree, where Lord Buddha gained enlightenment. He then met a Buddhist monk called Brahman Mahant at his palace in the village of Bodhgaya, Gaya district, Bihar, who was the Hindu chief priest in the area. This Brahman lineage, who has controlled the Mahabodhi Vihara of Buddhism since the 16th century, is now privileged to be a member of the Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee (BTMC).

I have prepared a video image of the view of the Bodh Gaya Math of Brahman Mahant accompanied by a narrative of Samdech Preah Sangharaj Chuon Nath (also included at the above of this article). Before listening to his voice, I would like to mention some background of this Hindu priest.
Bodh Gaya Math, view from above with its Mandal painted in red.

The Mahant

"Mahant" means "great," which in Hindu or Hindu terms is used to refer to a monk in the religion who rules the monastery, the temple chief or the head of a monastery). The place where the Brahmans lived is called "Math". Today, the place where Samdech Preah Sangharaj met the Mahant, which he regarded as a palace, is called "Bodh Gaya Math".

Bodh Gaya Math is located next to the Neranjara river also known as Phalgu river, not far from Maha Bodhi Vihara and Mahabhodhi Tree.

Initially, this Math was prosperous because it was the residence of the Gosain Ghamandi Giri (1590-1615), who built this monastery in 1590 AD and was the first Mahant of the monastery. The Brahmin priest who ruled the Math belongs to Giri sect of Hinduism, one of the 10 Shiva sects founded by Sankaracharya, who consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta.

Mahant Ghamandi Giri was influential both economically and politically and controlled much of the area of ​​Bodhgaya, as well as Mahabodhi Vihara and Mahabodhi Tree. This Brahman was also called "Malik" because he owned more than 10,000 hectares (12,140 hectares = 30,000 acres) in Bodhgaya (1).

There were thirteen lineages of the Mahant of Both Gaya Math from the 16th to the 20th.
Mahabodhi Vihara in the old days.

The Mahant and Mahabodhi Temple Disputes

The 12th Mahant, Krishna Dayal Giri, 1892-1932, had a bitter history in the dispute over ownership of the Mahabodhi Vihara with Buddhist monks and followers, especially Anagarika Dhammapala, 1833-1933, a Sri Lankan upasak. Beginning in 1891 (during the British colonial period), Dhammapala was the first person who began to claim ownership of the temple for Buddhists and brought his mission to the world attention.

After the succeeding the previous Mahant, Krishna Dayal Giri began persecuting Buddhist monks, and in 1893, two monks who had been invited by the Dhammapala to stay in Bodhgaya were beaten (2).

Having been pioneered Dhammapala, two years after India's independence, in 1949, the ownership of Mahabodhi Vihara was transferred from the Mahant to the government of Bihar. The transfer was made with the utmost tension, with opposition from the powerful Brahmins who controlled the area, led to the intervention of India's first Prime Minister, Dr Jawaharlal Nehru, because he wanted the temple to be the international tourist site for Buddhists (1).

It was not until 1953 that the Brahmin Mahant agreed with Dr Nehru to transfer the management of the Mahabodhi Vihara to the Bihar government. The transfer of sovereignty was celebrated on the day of Visakha Day, May 28, 1953, with up to 500 attendees, including Tibetan, Sri Lankan, Burmese, Indian and Khmer Buddhists.

The Bihar government had set up the Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee (BTMC) under the "Bodh Gaya Temple Act of 1949". As joint management, the committee is made up of nine members and the majority must be Hindus, including the President.

According to the Act, the District Magistrate (DM) automatically heads Temple Management Committee, but if he is not a Hindu, the state government directly appoints a Hindu chief. The first Buddhist to preside over the Mahabodhi Temple was the Venerable Anakarika Munindra (1915 ~ 2003) who was a native of Bengal from 1953 to 1957. He was an active member of the Maha Bodhi Society and a well-known Vipassana meditation teacher.

As late as in 2013, the Bihar government in the era of Nitish Kumar as a Chief Minister amended the Bodh Gaya Temple Ac to allow non-Hindu district chiefs to preside over and administer the temple. (BJP strongly opposed the amendment to the law citing it was not necessary).

However, the composition of membership includes four Buddhists and four Hindus, including the Mahant. This shows that the amendment of this law has not benefited the Buddhists very much, as it is rare that district inspectors are not Hindus. It is unjust for Buddhists, as the Buddhist heritage is controlled by Hindus. However, Buddhist monks continue to demand the right to control the temple entirely. Due to Hinduism or Hindva ideology, Buddhists still do not have control of the temple and the voice of Buddhists remains in the minority.

Along with the resurgence of Buddhist activity in the Bodhgaya region and the independent government of India had abolished Zamindari system (landlord), the influent of Brahman Mahant had been considerably reduced. The Mahant of Sankaracharya sect is not so powerful like before and the Bodh Gaya Math, which was once the centre of Hinduism, became less active.

Significantly, the influence of the Brahmins on Buddhism in the past is easily visible: we always find Hindu temples located nearby/inside almost every Buddhist historical site.
Samdech Preah Sangharaja Chuon Nath, third from left, with his two Cambodian attendants and an Indian monk venerable Dhammajota as a guide, paying homage to Mahabodhi Vihara and Maha Bodhi Tree, Bodh Gaya.

Samdech Preah Sangharaja Chuon Nath Encountered Brahman Mahant

Back to the meeting between Samdech Chuon Nath and Brahman. At that time, the Mahant was very powerful as Samdech Preah Sangharaja recalled in his literary conversation. Indeed, the initial non-welcome to him by the Brahman was due to the bitter disputes with Buddhist monks demanding the right to control Mahabodhi Vihara for many decades since 1891.

The Brahman Mahant with the arrogant attitude whom Samdech Preah Sangharaja encountered was Harihar Giri, 1932–1958. Mahant hardly welcomed any visitors to his Math. The Math was a large monastery like a royal palace. He sat on tiger skin with its head as a seat. It was a great encounter between the two great religious leaders though initially tensioned as they were strangers to each other.

As a part of his pilgrimage to Bodhgaya, Samdech Preah Sangharaja with his two attendants and a tourist guide venerable Dhammajota, an Indian monk, visited Bodh Gaya Math. As soon as, they arrived at the Math, Mahant asked them where they were from.

Samdech Preah Sangharaja replied, with help from venerable Dhammajota, that he and his companions came from Cambodia. He further asked where Cambodia was, and Samdech Preah Sangharaja told it was in Indochina. When Mahant wondered if it was Vietnam, Samdech Preah Sangharaja pressed that it was not Vietnam but Khmer or Cambodia. Still, Mahant was not able to get where Cambodia really was.

Samdech Preah Sangharaja then smartly explained that "Now you see the geographical map and if you see the Tonle Sap lake and Angkor Wat, that is where Cambodia located."

Finally, Mahant understood it and exclaimed "Oh! It is there".

This happened due to the fact that before Independence, Cambodia was not known to many parts of the world.

As the conversation continued, Mahant asked "Why do you come here [India]?

"It is a pilgrimage to pay homage to Buddhist site where Buddha gained Enlightenment," Samdech Preah Sangharaja replied.

"But why do you dress differently?" asked Mahant.

Samech Preah Sangharaja tried to explain in Sanskrit. "Thes pabbajitas (monks) and this is grihasthas (laymen)."

"Is there a king?" Mahant further asked about Cambodia, and Samdech Preah Sangharaja replied, "yes, there is."

"What religions do you practise?" Mahant asked.

"We followed Hinduism as well as Buddhism," Samdech replied.

"Why followed two religions?," Mahant wondered.

"Before, we followed Hinduism just like you. When Buddhism spread to Cambodia, we turned to practise Buddhism, but Hinduism was not completely abandoned. When there is a grand ceremony, our kings always display [Hindu gods] Maheshwari, Ganesh, Iso (Siva), Narayana..." Samdech explained.

While Mahant was silent, Samdech said, "if you don't believe we follow Hinduism, I will recite Mantras for you." He, then, started reciting Saraswati Mantra fluently in Sanskrit (video timeframe: 00:17:22):

[transcription in progress: Natwa Saraswati Devim Pita Parama Bhuswa Padma...]

"Ah, achha! achha!" Mahant surprised, which means "oscharya" or "good", and then stood up and called his disciple telling him to bring chairs for Samdech and his attendants to sit down. While sitting, Samdech continued reciting many other mantras.

Mahant Harihar Giri was so much impressed by Samdech's talent in Sanksrit which is considered sacred in Hinduism. Again he asked his disciple to bring a basket of mangoes to offer to Samdech. Harihar also asked if laymen could eat mangoes and then he asked his man to bring another basket of mangoes for them as well. When Samdech returned to his resident near Mahabodhi Temple, Mahant Harihar's man brought the two baskets of mangoes there too.

Samdech Preah Sangharaj recalled that venerable Dhammajota was also very impressed by the way in which he made Brahman Mahant changing his attitude and offering him the mangoes. Given his privilege as a Hindu high priest, this was very rare. It was said that he had never stood to greet any visitors, even Governor-General of India.

But this is not the case with Samdech Preah Sangharaja. Brahman Mahant even allowed him to take photos with him as well. However, according to Samdech, the photos had probably been deleted by Hindu who was not happy to see Brahman Mahant taking pictures with him when they were submitted for printing out in Kolkatta, West Bengal.

Tellingly, the retelling of the story about his meeting with Mahant of Bodh Gaya Math illustrated the significance of Sanskrit, which was in the 1950s favoured by Cambodian Buddhist scholars. He said that the Cultural Committee was criticised for having known only Pali-Sanskrit and later on they might speak it with Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India.

Indeed, Samdech could impress Mahant with his Sanskrit skill, being paid off with two baskets of mangoes at least.


(1) Geary, D. (eds.) (2014), Cross-disciplinary Perspectives on a Contested Buddhist Site: Bodh Gaya Jataka, London: Routledge, pp. 111. 
(2) Kemper, S. (2015), Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World, Chicago, IL, Chicago University Press, pp. 258.
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