Nalanda: Old and New
When the most ancient European university, the University of Bologna, was founded - this was in 1088 - the centre for higher education at Nalanda was already more than six hundred years old. The Old Nalanda university - a Buddhist foundation - was located about 55 miles south east of Patna in Bihar. It was founded in the fifth and the sixth centuries, expanded rapidly thereafter, and flourished for more than seven hundred years, and then towards the end of the twelfth century, it was violently destroyed in an Afghan attack in 1193. The destruction of Nalanda happened shortly after the beginning of Oxford University and shortly before the initiation of Cambridge. To be sure, Nalanda as an educational centre was not entirely extinguished then and there in 1193, and there are records that some teaching revived over the following century, and students, particularly from Tibet, continued to come to Nalanda. But Nalanda had lost its on-going institutional base, its tradition of excellence, and not least, its reputation as a centre for higher education.
The Old Nalanda
Nalanda was a residential university, and had at its peak 10,000 students, studying various subjects, and close to 2,000 teachers or professors. Only about a tenth of the vast areas where the ruins of Nalanda can be found has been so far excavated. We know, however, that the campus had eight separate compounds in the seventh century, and a large number of class rooms and meditation halls or study rooms, and well-organized lakes and parks, and of course a remarkable cluster of dormitories. Jeffrey Garten, the former Dean of the Yale School of Management, has suggested that Nalanda might have been the first educational institution in the world to have dormitories for students.
Professor Amartya Sen
Chinese students in particular, such as Xuanzang and Yi Jing in the seventh century, wrote extensively on what they saw and what they particularly admired about the educational standards in Nalanda. Nalanda is, in fact, the only academic institution outside China to which any Chinese scholar went for higher education, in the history of ancient China.
I turn now to what can be called the Nalanda tradition. In assessing this, it is important to understand that there was a larger educational culture to which Nalanda belonged. While Nalanda was certainly very special, it was still a part of a larger nexus of organized higher education that developed in that period in India - in Bihar in particular. In addition to Nalanda, there were in the vicinity other institutions of higher learning, such as Vikramshila and Odantapura, closely aligned to Nalanda. There is evidence that these institutions interacted and collaborated - and even competed - with each other, and they formed, taken together, something like a higher educational network in ancient Bihar. We can describe that network as the Nalanda complex, not just because of Nalanda's seniority in the cluster, but also because the educational establishments founded later were all influenced by the success of Nalanda's pioneering initiatives. Nalanda not only educated and trained students, it also inspired and motivated other educational institutions.
What subjects were taught in the old Nalanda? In answering this question, we do have a problem, since the documents in Nalanda were indiscriminately burnt by the invaders in the late twelfth century. We do know, however, that the Buddhist fascination with "enlightenment" (even Buddha means "the enlightened one") made room for a multiplicity of subjects on which old Nalanda offered education. And, furthermore, Nalanda was not conceived of as just a centre only for religious instruction. The subjects on which teaching occurred in Nalanda included, in addition to religion, such fields as history, law, and linguistics, but also medicine, public health, architecture and sculpture, as well as astronomy. The tall observatory, which Xuangzang described as towering over the fog on misty mornings in seventh-century Nalanda, is a rather graphic evidence of astronomical education in Nalanda.
What about mathematics? We do know that logic was a subject that was taught in Nalanda, and this is close to mathematics proper. But no less importantly, the pursuit of astronomy almost certainly linked with studies in mathematics, in particular trigonometry. Indeed, when astronomers were recruited from India for work in China (one of the recruited astronomers, called Gautama Siddhartha, even became the head of the powerful Chinese Board of Astronomy in the eighth century), the Chinese looked particularly for astronomers with mathematical knowledge and skills. And as it happens, a number of the Indian mathematicians, including the great founder of the Indian school, Aryabhata, in early fifth century, were based in Kusumpur in Pataliputra, or Patna, only about fifty miles away from Nalanda. My expectation is that eventually evidence would firmly emerge on the mathematical components in the curriculum in Nalanda, as the unexcavated remnants - nine-tenths of the ruins - are excavated.
The New University
A new Nalanda University, close to the old site, is now being established through an Act of the Indian Parliament, on a proposal of the East Asia Summit, with the cooperation of China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and other countries included in the East Asia Summit. It has very strong support from the Bihar Government, which originally proposed the move, and which also secured the valuable support of Abdul Kalam, then the President of India, who advised the project, as the first Visitor of the planned establishment. The reestablishment of Nalanda today has several important objectives. First, even though Asia, including India, had a long tradition of higher education, the great universities of today are primarily in the West. It would be absurd to expect that Nalanda would burst into excellence within a very short time, but that is the kind of a long-run goal that the new Nalanda can pursue. The old Nalanda can be a great inspiration for that.
Second, the old Nalanda was an excellent example of pan-Asian cooperation. There was a network of educational institutions spread across Asia which had links with Nalanda. For example, some Chinese scholars learnt Sanskrit in what was then called Srivijaya, in what in now mainly Sumatra, on their way to India - and to Nalanda - by the sea route. The revival is also a pan-Asian initiative. There is already a functioning Nalanda-Srivijaya Centre in Singapore, and proposals for cooperation with universities in China, Korea, Japan, Thailand and elsewhere are being explored. Third, Asian countries have many differences in political outlook and practice, and those differences are not going to disappear any time soon. But it is also important to live with each other in peace, and cooperate in areas in which joint action is possible. This applies particularly well to cooperation in education and research, involving all the countries of the Asian region. Fourth, in addition to the broadly global perspective, new Nalanda can play a constructive role in the immediate locality and neighbourhood. Even though for nearly a thousand years, Bihar was the cradle of what we can call the Indian civilization, it is now very much a backward part of a rapidly advancing India. Bihar needs development with great urgency, and Nalanda can be more than an inspiration for this, and act as an active agent of change. This effort will be particularly helped by the teaching in new Nalanda on information technology, environmental studies, management and development studies, and other subjects of immediate relevance to the problems of Bihar.
The Vision and the Challenge
If Xuangzang was working for spreading the Nalanda tradition across geographical boundaries, the revival efforts in which we are now engaged can be seen as an attempt to spread that tradition also over time - indeed over many centuries - along with its global spread. The modern world has much to offer from which people in the past would have been thrilled to learn. But the past too has some great examples of intellectual breakthrough that can both inspire and inform us today, and contribute to our academic and social regeneration. Nalanda is one such spectacular example - that of initiative, energy, commitment, and vision. There is something truly exciting in our efforts to rise to the challenge of working for a new Nalanda University based on that grand academic vision that used to inspire such a huge part of the globe. We need the help of everyone who can contribute to the realization of this vision.
Jeffrey Garten, "Really Old School," The New York Times, December 9, 2006.
See Amartya Sen, "Passage to China," The New York Review of Books, December 2, 2005.
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