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Nalanda: Can India Revive An Ancient Buddhist University A Thousand Years After Its Destruction?

By Palash Ghosh | May 30 2013 2:03 PM
India’s Nalanda University is accepting students – almost a millennium after it was destroyed by Muslim invaders. Renowned during the first millennium of the Christian period as one of the world’s top centers of learning well before Oxford, Cambridge and Bologna universities were even established, Nalanda, in the northeastern Indian state of Bihar, is seeking a miraculous second life, partially due to the efforts of Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen, and other educators and statesmen.

Ruins at Nalanda

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The new Nalanda International University wants to attract top students and faculty from around the world in an attempt to restore the glories and grandeur of the “old” Nalanda, a Buddhist institution that drew scholars from across Asia and even as far away as Greece, prior to its destruction by Afghan Muslim invaders in 1193. According to legends, the school’s library was so vast that it took three days to burn.

In a message on the new school’s website, Sen noted that when the oldest university in Europe, the University of Bologna in Italy, was established in 1088, Nalanda had already been in existence for six centuries. At its peak, Nalanda had some 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. It may have been the first educational institution to have its own residential dormitories.


Xuanzang, a seventh century Chinese monk, wrote extensively about Nalanda, including a description of its nine-story library. "Xuanzang was looking to study with the people who knew the [Buddhist] texts best. Nalanda was already reaching the heights of its power and prestige. It was known in Korea and Japan - its reputation had spread through the Asian trade routes," said Mishi Saran, an Indian author now based in Shanghai.

"When Xuanzang was at Nalanda, it was a vibrant place, packed with scholars, with seminars, teaching and debate. It was a kind of Buddhist ‘Ivy League’ institution -- all the deepest ideas about Buddhism were explored and dissected at Nalanda.”

The Dalai Lama himself hailed Nalanda as the “source of all the [Buddhist] knowledge we have.” Indeed, the foundations of what we now call Tibetan Buddhism were formed at Nalanda.

"Nalanda was not only interested in Buddhism. Even at that time it took from universal principles. It had secular studies, public health, it was interested in logic, astrology and mathematics and languages," said George Yeo, a former foreign minister of Singapore and now chief of the Nalanda international advisory panel.

The new university will be located in Raghir, about 10 miles from the ruins of the ancient school, and will largely focus on such subjects as humanities, economics and management, Asian integration, sustainable development and Oriental languages.

According to Nalanda’s website, the Indian parliament and the government of Bihar in conjunction with officials from China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand, and other nations support the construction of a new university on the site.

BBC reported that Sen said that Yale University's school of forestry studies, Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University department of history, Seoul University in South Korea and Beijing University in China are all participating in the Nalanda project.

However, such an ambitious enterprise faces huge obstacles – not the least of which is that Nalanda is now located in one of the poorest, most backward parts of India – 55 miles southeast of the city of Patna in Bihar -- a location that is unlikely to draw much interest from prospective students or professors either from within India itself or outside of the country.

"Are top students and faculty going to be attracted to rural Bihar?" wondered Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, BBC reported.

"The site of an academic institution is important. [Nalanda] may attract a certain number of big thinkers, but academics like to be where the infrastructure is. They want culture and amenities and coffee shops, and a wider community of intellectuals than that on campus.”

Altbach also noted that "building a top-class university is extraordinarily expensive, especially in a rural and undeveloped location, even with assistance of foreign donors and the central government.”

But Sen countered that Nalanda is exactly what Bihar requires as part of its plan to upgrade its economy and infrastructure.

“Bihar needs development with great urgency,” he said. “And Nalanda can be more than an inspiration for this, and an act of active change.”

Sen added: "Our job is to get the new Nalanda University going and establish the teaching. This is just the beginning - the old Nalanda took 200 years to come to a flourishing state. We may not take 200 years but it will take some decades."

"After Nalanda was destroyed in the 1190s it lingered on for a while -- from time to time some people noticed that there was some teaching going on in the following couple of hundred years, but it wasn't anything like the university it had been. There is now absolutely nothing. We have to start from scratch."

In a broader context, the renaissance of one of India’s ancient centers of intellectualism could spark resurgence in the country’s higher education profile – a part of the economy that has been lagging in recent years and criticized for being too inward-looking.

Nalanda will be "Asian in inspiration, Asian in motivation but it is not Asian in terms of its knowledge or the range or expertise or personal involvement. If the knowledge works in Asia, it ought to work in Africa or Latin America as well," Sen stated.

Nalanda’s endorsers estimate that about $1 billion will be required to start the building of a new university. Among other donors, Singapore will design, construct and donate a library at a cost of up to $7 million; Thailand will donate $100,000; and China will initially pitch in $1 million for construction.

"I don't see any dearth of money in the region, but they are nowhere near the $1 billion endowment, so far not many countries have come forward with their huge purses," said Sukh Deo Muni, a former Indian envoy to Laos and visiting professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

But Muni emphasized that the project is worthwhile. “A country like India must jump on it. It could show that India is present in Asia not only economically and militarily but also intellectually," he said.