Pardon me for cross posting, but I thought it was worth sharing! - PK
By Shashi Tharoor
"The Hindu", Online edition of India's National Newspaper
December 24, 2006
|The ideal Nalanda must be more than an exercise in constructive nostalgia. |
Photo: Ranjeet Kumar
A tradition worth restoring again: The Nalanda as it is today.
AS 2006 draws to a close, it is interesting that a year that began with the eruption of the hugely divisive reservation controversy is ending with the impetus being given, inspired by President Abdul Kalam
himself, to the endeavour of reconstructing the oldest and greatest of India's meritocratic universities, Nalanda.
Founded in 427 A.D. by Buddhist monks
at the time of Kumaragupta I
(415-455 A.D.), Nalanda was an extraordinary centre of learning for seven centuries. The name probably comes from a combination of nalam
(lotus, the symbol of knowledge) and da
, meaning "to give", so Nalanda means "Giver of Knowledge". And that is exactly what the university did, attracting prize students from all over India
, as well as from China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Persia, Sri Lanka
, Tibet and Turkey. At its peak, Nalanda played host to more than 10,000 students — not just Buddhists, but of various religious traditions — and its education, provided in its heyday by 2,000 world-renowned professors, was
The Chinese scholar
, Hsuen-Tsiang (or Xuanzang in today's Pinyin spelling), who visited India in 630 A.D. under the Guptas and stayed for some time at Nalanda
, has left us a vivid description of the university. He wrote of "richly adorned towers" with observatories "lost in the vapours of the morning". The university's architecture was remarkable, with nine-storey buildings, eight separate compounds, ten temples, several meditation halls, a great library and dozens of classrooms. Its setting, too, was full of beauty, dotted with lakes and parks. Most important, its finances were secure, since the monarch "has remitted the revenues of about 100 villages for the endowment of the convent". In addition, the villagers supplied food to the students, whose material needs were entirely met by the
university so that they could concentrate on "the perfection of their studies".
True centre of learning
The accounts of foreign travellers portray a university throbbing with intellectual excitement, a centre of learning devoted not only to the study of Buddhist texts
but of Hindu philosophy
, the Vedas
, and theology in general; logic, grammar and linguistics; the practice of medicine and the study of other sciences, notably mathematics and astronomy; and more down-to-earth subjects like politics, the art of war and even handicrafts. Contemporary visitors speak of a system of education that went well beyond the oral recitation and rote-learning normally practised in monasteries. Nalanda's teachers practised a variety of instructional methods: exposition was followed by debate and discussion, lectures featured lengthy question-and-answer sessions, and ideas were illuminated by extensive resort to parables
and stories. Admission required a strict oral examination; literally so, since strangers were not permitted to enter unless they could satisfactorily answer a number of questions from the gatekeeper testifying to their basic level of educational attainment.
An Indian contribution
The university was an Indian invention. In Hindu tradition, education emerged from the gurukul
— the teacher's home, where students went to acquire learning. The Buddhists, however, congregated in monasteries, which became centres of learning in their own right, supplanting the home of the teacher. Nalanda was, of course, not alone as a prominent Indian university. Kasi (Varanasi
) and Kanchi were particularly renowned for their religious teaching, and Taksasila (Taxila
in today's Pakistan
) placed greater emphasis on secular studies; but Nalanda combined the religious and the secular, a Buddhist university offering a non-sectarian education to young men from near and far. These were the Oxfords and Harvards
of their time, centuries before either of those universities was founded. Today, our universities, barring an IIT here and a St. Stephen's there, are a long way short of world-class. Rebuilding Nalanda must be more than an exercise in constructive nostalgia. It must involve a new level of ambition, or it will be a futile exercise.
Nalanda was destroyed three times by invaders, but only rebuilt twice. The first time was when the Huns under Mihirakula laid waste the campus during the reign of Skandagupta
(455-467 A.D.), when Nalanda was only a few decades old. Skanda's successors Puragupta and Narasimhagupta promptly undertook the restoration of the university, improving it with the construction of even grander buildings, and endowed it with enough resources so that the university could be self-sustaining in the longer term. The second destruction came a century and a half later, with an assault by the Gaudas in the early seventh century. This time the great Hindu king Harshavardhana (606-648 A.D.) restored the Buddhist university, once again upgrading the buildings and facilities.
The desire for excellence
But nearly 800 years after its founding, Nalanda was destroyed a third time and burned by Turkish Muslim invaders under Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1197 A.D. This time there was to be no reconstruction: not only were there no equivalent of the Gupta kings or Harsha to rebuild it, but the university had already been decayed from within by the cancer of corruption on the part of its administrators and by declining enthusiasm for Buddhist-led learning. If we are to rebuild it 800 years later, we will need not just money but the will to excellence, not just a physical plant but a determined spirit. A great university is the finest advertisement for the society that sustains it. If we recreate Nalanda, it must be as a university worthy of the name — and we must be a society worthy of a 21st-century Nalanda