Nalanda : The Ancient Seat Of Learning

Credit: Hermann Wittekopf/ unsplash

More than 500 years before Oxford University was founded, India’s Nalanda University was home to nine million books and attracted 10,000 students from around the world.

Source Of All Knowledge

Founded in 427 CE, Nalanda is considered the world’s first residential university, a sort of medieval Ivy League institution home to nine million books that attracted 10,000 students from across Eastern and Central Asia. They gathered here to learn medicine, logic, mathematics and – above all – Buddhist principles from some of the era’s most revered scholars. As the Dalai Lama once stated: “The source of all the [Buddhist] knowledge we have, has come from Nalanda.” 

In the more-than seven centuries that Nalanda flourished, there was nothing else like it in the world. The monastic university predates the University of Oxford and Europe’s oldest university, Bologna, by more than 500 years. What’s more, Nalanda’s enlightened approach to philosophy and religion would help shape the culture of Asia long after the university ceased to exist. Interestingly, the monarchs of the Gupta Empire that founded the Buddhist monastic university were devout Hindus, but sympathetic and accepting towards Buddhism and the growing Buddhist intellectual fervor and philosophical writings of the time. The liberal cultural and religious traditions that evolved under their reign would form the core of Nalanda’s multidisciplinary academic curriculum, which blended intellectual Buddhism with a higher knowledge in different fields. 

Profound Legacy

Perhaps Nalanda’s most profound and lingering legacy is its achievements in mathematics and astronomy.  Aryabhata, considered the father of Indian mathematics, is speculated to have headed the university in the 6th Century CE. “We believe that Aryabhata was the first to assign zero as a digit, a revolutionary concept, which simplified mathematical computations and helped evolve more complex avenues such as algebra and calculus,” said Anuradha Mitra, a Kolkata-based professor of mathematics. “Without zero, we wouldn’t have computers,” she added. “He also did pioneering works in extracting square and cubic roots, and applications of trigonometric functions to spherical geometry. He was also the first to attribute the radiance of the moon to reflected sunlight.” 

The university regularly sent some of its best scholars and professors to places like China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Sri Lanka to propagate Buddhist teachings and philosophy. This ancient cultural exchange programme helped spread and shape Buddhism across Asia. The archaeological remains of Nalanda are now a Unesco World Heritage site. In the 1190s, the university was destroyed by a marauding troop of invaders led by Turko-Afghan military general Bakhtiyar Khilji, who sought to extinguish the Buddhist center of knowledge during his conquest of northern and eastern India. The campus was so vast that the fire set on by the attacker is said to have burned for three months. 

Foreign Students

The acclaimed Chinese Buddhist monk and traveler Xuanzang studied and taught at Nalanda. When he returned to China in 645 CE, he carried back a wagonload of 657 Buddhist scriptures from Nalanda. Xuanzang would go on to become one of the world’s most influential Buddhist scholars, and he would translate a portion of these volumes into Chinese to create his life’s treatise, whose central idea was that the whole world is but a representation of the mind. His Japanese disciple, Dosho, would later introduce this doctrine to Japan, and it would spread further into the Sino-Japanese world.

In Xuanzang’s description of Nalanda, he had mentioned the Great Stupa – a huge monument constructed in memory of one of Lord Buddha’s chief disciples. I stood in front of the ruins of the imposing structure, shaped like an octagonal pyramid. Open-brick staircases wound their way up to the top of the edifice, also known as the Great Monument. More than eight centuries after its demise, some scholars contest the widely held theory that Nalanda was destroyed because Khilji and his troops felt its teachings competed with Islam. While uprooting Buddhism may have been a driving force behind the attack, one of India’s pioneering archaeologists, HD Sankaliya, wrote in his 1934 book, The University of Nalanda, that the fortress-like appearance of the campus and stories of its wealth were reasons enough for invaders to deem the university a lucrative spot for an attack.

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Source: BBC


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