Reviving Nalanda International University - A lecture with Amartya Sen


The modern world, to be sure, has a great deal to offer from which people in the past would have liked to have learned and would have been thrilled to learn, but the past too had some great examples of intellectual great truth that can both inspire and inform us today,” Amartya Sen articulated near the end of his 45 minute lecture at Asia Society, New York. A brilliant man with a good sense of humor, Sen spoke on his efforts of reviving the oldest university in the world, Nalanda located in Bihar, India. A topic close to his heart since he was little, Sen’s compassion and deep interest for the subject was evident throughout his lecture, garnering the attention of the 250 audience members that gathered to hear him speak.

Nalanda dates back to the 5th or 6th century and was already 600 years old when the first European university--located in Bologna, Italy--was established. While there is evidence of other institutions of higher education already established in Asia, such as the ancient university of Taxila in Pakistan, Nalanda was the first university to educate society in matters not just within the field of religion, which at the time was Buddhism: “Takshilla never tried to become a higher center of education the way Nalanda succeeded.” Sen described the history of Nalanda from its growth and success to its destruction during the Turkish Muslim invasion in 1193.

Nalanda has a very rich and important history that has greatly impacted the spread of knowledge from mathematics to astronomy throughout Asia, and indeed all around the world. Sen gave a remarkable example of the lingusitcal development of the modern mathematic word ‘sine’ and ‘cosine.’ Sine is the Latin translation for the Arabic word ‘jiba’ which was translated from the Sanskrit word 'jya-ardha’, a word that was formulated at the time of Nalanda’s existence.

More intriguing is the influence Nalanda had on Chinese academics. Nalanda was the only university outside China in which the most well-known Chinese scholars and intellects went to study. In the ancient world, China and India birthed generations of innovators and pioneers who constructed the foundation of certain subjects’ imperative in the modern world, like math.

Today, as China and India become two of the most important players in the international playing field, it is more important than ever to remember the glorious history of higher learning, and the collaboration and respect that existed between the two regions, and even much of modern day Asia. Reviving Nalanda, Sen claims, is a “pan-Asian initiative.” He hopes it will honor the “long history of higher education in India that is hardly recognized,” as well as be a center for aspiring academics in Asia, “I think it will be quite an exciting thing not only for India, but for Asia and the rest of the world.
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