Right from the Vedic Age, ancient India has been a trend setter and role model in moulding the character of its citizens by training them in established universities of excellence called ‘Gurukulas’, analogous to modern universities. In fact, the very first university in the world was founded at a place called Takshashila (now in Pakistan, about 35 Kms from Rawalpindi), followed by the second university in the world at Nalanda, about 90 kms from Patna in Bihar, nearly 2,500 years ago. Both Takshashila and Nalanda were the Oxford and Harvard of those times, centuries before either of these universities were founded.
The gift of knowledge
Founded by Buddhist monks, Nalanda was an extraordinary centre of excellence for learning, and remained so for nearly 700 years between the 6th century A.D and the 13th century A.D. The name ‘Nalanda’ is a Sanskrit word which is a combination of three words Na+ Alam+ Daa which means ‘no stopping of the gift of knowledge’. In other words, it meant that the spreading of knowledge should be eternal. This is exactly what Nalanda University did for 700 years, attracting prize students from China, Indonesia, Korea, Persia, Japan, Sri Lanka, Tibet and Turkey.
The education imparted was completely free which was provided by 2,000 world renowned teachers during its prime days of glory. That is why even while naming the place as Nalanda, the word ‘Daa’ was used which is a short form for ‘Daana’ which means ‘gift’. Nalanda’s aim was to create the most intellectually and spiritually mature individuals who would become qualified to contribute to every aspect of the society for its overall being.
Unfortunately there is no systematic historical account from which we could glean the different stages of its growth. Even to this date, archaeological research has been unable to fully explain how different aspects of Indian culture were accommodated, assimilated and disseminated from one generation to the other through several centuries. However, we are primarily indebted to the Chinese pilgrims Fa-Hien (5th Century A.D.), Hiuen Tsang (7th century A.D.) and I-Tsing (7th century A.D) for whatever information on Nalanda is available today.
The recordings of these Chinese pilgrims have given us an inestimable character of Nalanda during its glorious epoch. In an interview to ‘The Hindu’ newspaper in December 2007, Dr.Ravindra Pant who heads the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara said, “Today we know only 10 percent of Nalanda. We have to find the remaining 90 percent of the campus. We have to properly map it to rebuild. Right now these mounds are like a jigsaw puzzle”.
Fa-Hien, a Chinese monk, who toured India from 673 A.D to 687 A.D is one of the first ones to have any recordings of Nalanda, since he studied there and subsequently worked as a teacher there. When he returned to China it is learnt that he took 657 volumes of sacred texts with him and spent the last years of his life translating and interpreting them. According to the present Director of Nalanda Campus, China has now agreed to present the University, some original volumes and Chinese translations which Hiuen Tsang had taken with him.
From spiritual pursuit to educational excellence
Nalanda’s site was possibly 35 acres or 10 sq.miles according to the archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham who first identified the ruins at Bargaon in 1861-62. His location of Nalanda corresponds exactly with ancient Pali texts, Jain literature and Hiuen-Tsng’s description. Its vast population of around 15,000 lived in seven monasteries and eight great halls, with their upper rooms towering above the clouds like pointed hilltops, according to Hiuen –Tsang.
As Nalanda was founded by Buddhist monks it was started with the basic purpose of making it a fit place for meditation. At the instance of Lord Buddha various education centers were erected in the premises so as to provide the monks with a congenial and conducive environment for meditation.
From such conceptual and humble beginnings where the monks spent their earthly existence meditating in the safety of the Viharas, emerged the patent nuclei of the later Buddhist University destined to play its glorious role in the intellectual and spiritual life of India. In course of time, Nalanda expanded the scope from being a purely monastic university to one that includes non-monastic students. In addition, the University introduced the study of nonsecular subjects and threw open its doors to all philosophical studies and several schools of thought and belief. The admission was open to all seekers of knowledge irrespective of sect, religion and belief.
The rise of the Gupta dynasty in the 4th century A.D. brought royal patronage to Nalanda and heralded the Golden Age of Indian History and Culture. Besides royal patronage, the University was also patronised by several enlightened citizens who contributed, both in cash and kind, towards the development and growth of the University. According to Hiuen-Tsang, “Two hundred villages in and around Nalanda University contributed ghee, butter, milk and such other daily provisions free to the entire population of the University”.
Admission to Nalanda was strictly based on merit and the aptitude of the student. The minimum age of admission was 20 years and the admission was based on a test and oral interview. According to the Chinese pilgrims only two or three could get selected out of 10 candidates who applied for admission. Before final admission, every eligible student had to appear before the chief examiner called ‘Dwara Pandita’ (Guardian of the Entrance Gate) and convince him. In spite of the hard and rigid test, during its heydays Nalanda had nearly 10,000 students from all over the world. The teacher student ratio was 1: 5. Even women were admitted and given separate accommodation.
According to both Hiuen-Tsang and I-Tsing, even though there were several men and women in the University, and belonging to different nations, there was not a single case of misbehaviour or breach of rules and regulations. This shows the high moral fibre of the students who studied at Nalanda.
Curriculum, a blend of philosophy and religion
The curriculum for study included both sacred and secular learning (Para and Apara Vidyas as they are known in Sanskrit) Study of Sanskrit grammar was compulsory. In addition, there were five more compulsory subjects: 1. Shabda Vidya [Science of sounds and words; otherwise called Grammar and Lexicography] 2. Shilpasthana Vidya [Arts and Crafts] 3. Chikitsa Vidya [Science of Medicine] 4. Hetu Vidya [Logic] and 5. Adhyatma Vidya [Philosophy]. According to I-Tsing, there was an additional compulsory subject namely spinning and weaving since the students felt bored in the absence of some handicraft. Hence, they were given access to looms and had to weave their own cloth. Besides, other trades like carpet-weaving, painting, sculpture were also taught.
The unparalleled distinction of Nalanda lies in the realisation of its custodians and teachers that the ideal education is a happy and harmonious blend of philosophy and religion. The pervasive notion at Nalanda was that education was not merely the conveyance of information but the transmission of spiritual, moral, intellectual and aesthetic values combined with the opportunity for full physical development. This notion and the inspiring example set by the holy sages who were their teachers-monks gave the students at Nalanda an ideal, morally oriented and well-rounded education. This enabled them to adopt and live the life of a world citizen under the concept ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (The whole world is one family) The beginning of decline Nalanda contributed to Indian thought and culture throughout the three periods of its development namely, its rise from 325 B.C to 320 A.D and its eminence from 320 A.D and to 750 A.D and decline from 750 A.D. to 1250 A.D.
By the 12th century A.D when there was political instability in the country after the end of the Gupta and Harsha dynasties. Nalanda’s slow decline started, particularly with the deprivation of royal patronage. Muslim invaders from Turkey, taking advantage of India’s weakest political fiber, destroyed many of Nalanda’s monasteries, burnt most of the libraries and all the books they contained. One of the Chinese pilgrims has written that the soldiers used the books and manuscripts of the library as cooking fuel for six months. With the advent of the Muslim force, some monks fled abroad, while some were slaughtered.
Plans to resurrect Nalanda
Nalanda is not completely lost to posterity. Though its libraries and the manuscripts were destroyed, the Chinese and Tibetan translations remain. Plans are on to resurrect the ancient University and make it a worldclass institution, under the Indo-Chinese Friendship Project. The Archeological Survey of India has already begun excavations to unearth the campus.
The first President of Indian Republic, Dr.Rajendra Prasad laid the foundation stone of the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara on 20 November 1951, which was formally inaugurated by the then vicepresident Sir S.Radhakrishnan on 20 March 1956. This institution is founded on a site close to the ancient Nalanda, about 100 kms from Bodhgaya and Pataliputra. For the past six decades, this institution is sparing no efforts to re-establish the glory of Nalanda.
It is no wonder that the world famous ‘Hibbert Journal’ from London which is a quarterly journal on religion, theology and philosophy, published from 1902, wrote in one of its issues regarding Nalanda under the title ‘An Experiment in Liberty of Teaching.’
Someday perhaps the great Universities of the West may deem these voices of the dim and distant past from India still worthy of attention. They are the witness of the East to abiding principles that the first condition of the quest of Truth is Liberty.