Thursday 4 August 2011

The Glory of Nalanda

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  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 Oxfords and Harvards of those times, centuries before either of these universities was founded.
 Founded by Buddhist monks about 2,500 years ago, 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 the Nalanda University did for 700 years, attracting prize students from even such far off places like China, Indonesia, Korea, Persia, Japan, Sri Lanka, Tibet and Turkey.
At the peak of its fame  Nalanda played host to nearly 10,000 students—not just Buddhists but of various religious traditions. In its heyday, Nalanda had on its role nearly 2,000 world renowned teachers in its faculty. 
The education was completely free. That is why even while naming the place as Nalanda, the word ‘Daa’ was used which is a shortened 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  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 the different aspects of Indian culture were accommodated, assimilated and disseminated from one generation to the other through several centuries.
However, for whatever information about Nalanda is now available 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). The recordings of these Chinese pilgrims have given us an inestimable character of Nalanda during its glorious epoch.    According to Dr.Ravindra Pant who heads the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara today and who was interviewed by The Hindu  sometime in December 2007,  “Today we know only 10% of Nalanda. We have to find the remaining 90% 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, was a sincere seeker of knowledge who toured India from 673 A.D. to 687 A.D. and he is our foremost recorder since he studied at Nalanda as a student and subsequently worked as a teacher spending about 6 years in Nalanda. 
When he returned to China he carried several copied texts with him. It is learnt that he took back with him 657 volumes of sacred texts and spent the last years of his life translating them and interpreting them.
Even today he is highly respected as a great scholar in China and all his works and writings are carefully preserved by the Chinese Government.
According to the present Director of Nalanda Campus, China has now agreed to present the resurrected Nalanda University, Hiuen Tsang’s Chinese translations and some original volumes that he had taken with him.
 Nalanda’s site was possibly 35 acres or 10 sq.miles, according to  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-Tsang’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 centres were erected in the premises 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 purely being a monastic university to one that includes non-monastic students. In addition, the University introduced the study of non-secular 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  patronised by several of its 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 freely the requirements of ghee, butter, milk and such other daily needs 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 2 or 3 could get selected out of 10 candidates who applied for admission. Before the  final admission, every eligible student had to appear before the Chief Examiner called ‘Dwara Pandita’ (Guardian of the Entrance Gate) and satisfy him. In spite of this hard and rigid test.
In its heyday Nalanda had on its role nearly 10,000 students from all over the world. The teacher student ratio was 1:5.
Even ladies were admitted and they stayed in 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 even a single case of misbehaviour or breach of rules and regulations.
This speaks for  the high moral fibre of the students who studied at Nalanda.
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  compulsory subjects which included: 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 without the use 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).
Nalanda contributed to Indian thought and culture throughout the three periods  of its development namely, its  rise  during 325 B.C to 320 A.D., its eminence  between 320 A.D and to 750 A.D and decline 750 A.D. to 1250 A.D.
By about 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 fibre, 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 a period of six months. With the advent of the Muslim force, some monks fled abroad while some were slaughtered.
The Persian    historian Minhaz has corroborated in 1243 A. D. through his account of an eye-witness, to the slaughter of the monks and the burning of the libraries.
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 world-class 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 for the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara on  November 20, 1951 which was formally inaugurated by the then Vice-President Dr.  S. Radhakrishnan on  March 20, 1956. This institution is founded on a site close to 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   magazine 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’.
“Some day perhaps the great Universities of the West may deem these voices of the dim and distant past from India yet worth attention. They are more than curiosities of literature. They are the witness of the East to abiding principles that the first condition of the quest of Truth is Liberty.”
Article by : B.M.N.Murthy
Source: Bhavan's Journal 31 August 2010
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