Nalanda’s first step takes it to China

The reborn Nalanda University may not have its campus built as yet, but it renewed its historical links with China here today. A two-day workshop inaugurated by professor Amartya Sen at Peking University this morning marked new Nalanda’s first-ever academic activity.

“Old Nalanda flourished without borders, so will new Nalanda,” Sen told a distinguished gathering of academics and scholars who attended the workshop on “Historical and cultural interactions between China and India”.

The symbolism of new Nalanda’s first academic partnership with a Chinese university was highlighted by the former’s first vice-chancellor, Gopa Sabharwal.

But Sen’s inauguration of the workshop added a modern-day dimension to the historical links between India and China in higher education that Xuanzang’s visit to old Nalanda in the 7th century symbolised. The Nobel laureate was here to chair a meeting of the Nalanda University’s governing board.

Wang Bangwei of Peking University recalled that Sen’s grandfather, Kshitimohan Sen, had accompanied Rabindranath Tagore on his visit to China in 1924.

Sen’s inaugural speech at the workshop on “Higher Education in History: Asia and Europe” dwelt at length on ancient links between India and China in the fields of scholarship and pedagogy. Old Nalanda offered courses in higher education of which there was no parallel in Europe.

He, however, began his speech by presenting a very different picture of the state of higher education in Asia, Europe and the US today.

Quoting a report on the top 200 universities and other centres of learning today, he noted that only a few Asian universities — from China and Japan — figured on that list. There was none from India.

Yet, in history, Asia once led the way. Old Nalanda, which had 10,000 students at its peak and where students came from many countries, including present-day Turkey, represented “borderless knowledge”.

Nalanda of the 7th and the 8th centuries offered studies in a wide range of fields including religion, history, law, linguistics, public health, astronomy and medicine. Circumstantial evidence suggests, Sen said, that mathematics too was taught there.

Nalanda’s links with China were special as it was the only centre of monastic and higher learning outside China where Chinese students studied. “Education has to fight parochialism and (old) Nalanda was committed to it.” And, an Indian official was made the head of astronomical studies in China in the 8th century.

The idea behind reinventing Nalanda was not to “beat the West but to learn from its successes”. Global co-operation was key to new Nalanda’s success and Sen suggested that Peking University could serve as a collaborator for new Nalanda.

George Yeo, former foreign minister of Singapore and a member of the Nalanda international advisers’ panel, who also spoke at the inauguration of the workshop, said that there was hardly any conflict between India and China during their long and historical relationship. The “minor” conflict of 1962 was “largely forgotten” in China, although it remained a scarred memory in India.

Today, the interactions between China and the US have attracted global attention. But in the future, the “critical relationship”, Yeo said, would be between India and China. And this would be not just because of the large populations of the two countries or their economies but also because of their “intellectual firepower”.
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