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Nalanda: The ancient hub of knowledge

Nalanda: The ancient hub of knowledge

Nalanda, like Rome, was not built in a day. It took several centuries to evolve, diversify and extend its civilizing influence not only to all corners of the country but to lands as distant as China, Japan, Malaysia, Java, Sumatra, Korea, Nepal and Tibet. 

Originally a mango-grove called Pavarika in the village Bargoan in Bihar, the place was sanctified by the Sakyamuni (Gautam Buddha) himself when the Enlightened One broke journey here to halt and rest, not once but several times. Ashoka built a Vihara (monastery) here and Harsha made it possible for a thousand scholars to delve deep into a hundred disciplines everyday in its numerous halls and more numerous temples.

Contemporary eye-witness accounts testify that there were so many Viharas around Nalanda, Rajgriha and Vikramsila that the whole area was called Bihara, from which the present day Indian state of Bihar derives its name. The transformation of Nalanda Vihara into the Nalanda university was the result of a rich heritage which helped it become an international center of education and culture. Nalanda stood for freedom in learning, thought, expression and action.

This heritage was both non-Buddhist and Buddhist. While the former included the Vedas and the Puranas, the latter consisted of works such as Vinay Pitaka, Dhammapada, Abhidhamma and Majhima Nikaya, with excellent commentaries by scholars such as Nagarjuna, Maiteriya, Asanga, Vasubandhu and Dinnaga, who defined and refined Buddhism in its various facets and dispensations. Nalanda, therefore, honoured thought and men of thought in the best of Indian traditions.

Nalanda was a residential university like so many others in those times, such as Taxila, Ujjaini, Vallabhi, Vikramsila and Amravati.

Yet, it was a university with a difference. The Gate Keepers of Nalanda were scholars of the highest repute, well versed in their subjects and drawn from the best in the country to examine the fresh entrants at the Gate itself. This was a novel method of ‘Entrance Examination’ and deserves admiration when we consider the historical context of Nalanda’s period. 

The Gate Examination was very tough. Seven or eight scholars out of every ten were unsuccessful. So the scholars came to the gates of Nalanda again and again, till they were selected. It must have been an extraordinary spectacle to see these scholars, from all parts of the world assemble at Nalanda seeking admission. Merit alone was the criteria and even the Vice Chancellor had no discretion.

There are records of instances where scholars either belonging to or patronized by royal families were rejected, in spite of the fact that the expenses of Nalanda were met with from royal grants of village revenues. There is evidence that the revenues of several villages were granted to Nalanda, for the maintenance of its hostels and the administration of its temples and Viharas.

Several Chinese scholars and monks visited, studied and taught at Nalanda. Their memoirs are a rich and authentic source for the reconstruction of academic life at Nalanda. According to one such scholar-monk, I-Tsing, the minimum age for admission to Nalanda was 20 years. This indicates that scholars who had already passed out from some other university were admitted to Nalanda to pursue higher knowledge.

We also have the evidence from Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim who came to Nalanda in the days of the “Good King” Harsha. He confirms that “learned men from different cities, who desire to acquire renown in discussion, come (to Nalanda) in multitudes to settle their doubts.”

The Gate-Keepers of Nalanda were in fact, the Gate-Keepers of India’s knowledge, her culture and heritage. Anyone was welcome for an open discussion on any aspect of religion, philosophy, law and life.

To be admitted to this great center of learning was a matter of great pride and prestige. Its multi-disciplinary approach to learning attracted students from far off lands. Although the subject of theology was compulsory, Nalanda was not a sectarian or a religious university imparting only Buddhist thought; other subjects were taught as fervently.

Almost all sciences, including the science of medicine were taught. So were the Upanishads and the Vedas. Panini’s grammar, the science of pronunciation (Phonetics), etymology, Indology and Yoga were all included in the curricula. Surprisingly, even archery was taught. Hiuen Tsang himself learnt Yogasastra from Jayasena. When King Harsha requested Shilabhadra to send four learned scholars to Orissa to debate with the heretics, Hiuen Tsang was chosen to be one of them.

Hiuen Tsang, who stayed at the university for 17 years, first as a student and later as a professor under the Master, Shilabhadra, came to India via the Gobi desert and entered Kashmir through the Himalayas.

At Nalanda, he was received at the Gate with a thousand lamps, his erudition and reputation having travelled faster than him. Here he studied to obtain the degree of Master of Law and became the Vice-Principal of this great University. The head of the University was called ‘Pandita’ and Shilabhadra occupied this position when Hieun Tsang came to join as a student. In no time, the new entrant rose in the estimates of Shilabhadra who sent him out on difficult assignments involving long and perilous journeys.

According to Hieun Tsang’s description, the daily schedule at Nalanda was packed with rituals. The day began with a call for the morning bath. It seems that a morning bath was compulsory for every inmate; at least it was obligatory to bathe at the prescribed hour. The bath was followed by the ablution of the holy image of Buddha, by furnishing heaps of flowers and incense, a fairly prolonged ritual accompanied by recitation of stotras and singing of hymns.  Afterwards, the inmates had their meagre breakfast.

Thereafter, they went to their respective halls for discussion. In the afternoon, another ritual called ‘Caitya Vandana’ was held, wherein priests assembled at the main mate of the monastery and sang songs in praise of Sakyamuni. They could go out in the evenings and the night was meant for repose.

Knowledge of Sanskrit was essential and it meant having a complete mastery over Sanskrit grammar, literature and correct pronunciation. The method of teaching was tutorial followed by discussions.

Listening to the discussions was education. It is extraordinary that the discussions continued throughout the day and, indeed, the night. Nalanda scholars never tired of discussions; rather, they welcomed them. Hieun Tsang was deeply impressed with the discipline at Nalanda. In its existence of about 700 years at the time of his visit, there had not been a single case of any strike or disturbance or even commotion (except intellectual ferment) at the University. Besides, there were discourses open to all where all subjects from life to death were discussed.

According to I-Tsing: “They arrange every day about hundred pulpits for preaching, and the students attend these discourses without fail, even for a minute.” There was no writing work for Nalanda scholars except the copying of manuscripts and texts. It may be recalled that both Hiuen Tsang and I-Tsing carried huge loads of such texts back to China upon their return.

Nalanda was an example of the Guru-Shishya parampara, a great Indian tradition. The authority of the Guru (teacher) over the shishya (student) was absolute, and yet, dissent was permitted in academic matters. The tradition, although going back thousands of years, flourished at Nalanda more than elsewhere.

Describing the Guru-Shishya relationship, I-Tsing says: “He (Shishya) goes to the teacher at the first watch and at the last watch in the night. First the teacher bids him to sit down comfortably. Selecting some passages from Tripatakas, he gives a lesson in a way that suits the circumstances and does not leave any fact or theory unexplained. He inspects his pupil’s moral conduct, and warns him of defects and transgressions. Whenever he finds his pupil at fault, he makes him seek remedies and repent. The pupil rubs the teacher’s body, folds his clothes and sometimes sweeps the apartment and the yard. Then having examined the water to ensure there are no insects in it, he gives it to his teacher. Thus, if there is anything to be done, he does all on behalf of the teacher.”   

No fees of any kind were charged at Nalanda for the studies. No price was paid for food or clothes or accommodation. There was no punishment of any kind.

For the faults or the defects of the students, the teachers punished themselves. The teacher-pupil relation was like that of the father and his son. The greatest delight and the highest reward of the teacher came when his pupil outshone him.

Sakyamuni had even laid down detailed duties and responsibilities of the teachers and the pupils, from early morning till might when the teacher went to sleep. In the words of Gautama the Buddha, “the pupil is also to act as a check, as it were, upon the preceptor, in keeping him steadfast in the faith.”

The fall of Nalanda at the hands of the Turks is a story too deep for tears. The City of Knowledge, which took several centuries to build, took only a few hours to be destroyed. Legend has it that when some monks fell at the feet of the invaders to spare at least its world-famed library, Ratnabodhi, they were thrown in the fire along with the books. The rest fled, and Nalanda was relegated to a memory.

Thus ended the story of Nalanda till it was re-told first by Hamilton and later by Alexander Cunningham. The excavations started in 1915 and continued for twenty years.

Yet much remains to be done. At the Nav Nalanda Mahavihara, which stands close to this ancient site, Sakyamuni seems to beckon all men of knowledge to restore the glory of this greatest center of learning of the yore.

~ Pranav Khullar, Freelance Writer

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  • I heard a lot about Nalanda in some references about Sriwijaya kingdom (Sumatra) history. Lots of Sriwijaya youths came to Nalanda for study at that time and it’s a long distance they took to find knowledge. One thing we should learn from our ancestors is we can find good things from others. Our knowledge is one reason why we should stand for something, even if we have to stand alone for what we believe.