Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Stormy Revival of an International University !!

Classes began in early September last year at a small new international university, called Nalanda, in Bihar in northeast India—one of the most backward parts of the country. Only two faculties—history, and environment and ecology—were holding classes for fewer than twenty students. And yet the opening of Nalanda was the subject of headlines in all the major newspapers in India and received attention across the world. “Ritorno a Nalanda” was the headline in Corriere della Sera.

The new venture is meant to be a revival of Nalanda Mahavihara, the oldest university in the world, which began in the early fifth century. By the time the first European university was established in Bologna in 1088, Nalanda had been providing higher education to thousands of students from Asian countries for more than six hundred years.

The original university at Nalanda was run by a Buddhist foundation in what was then the prosperous region of Bihar—the original center of Buddhist religion, culture, and enlightenment. Its capital was Pataliputra (now called Patna), which also served, beginning in the third century BC, as the capital of the early all-India empires for more than a thousand years. Nalanda drew students not only from all over India, but also from China, Japan, Korea, Sumatra, and other Asian lands with Buddhist connections, and a few from elsewhere, including Turkey. It was the only institution of higher learning outside China to which any Chinese in the ancient world ever went for education.

By the seventh century Nalanda had ten thousand students, receiving instruction not only in Buddhist philosophy and religious practice, but also in a variety of secular subjects, including languages and literatures, astronomy and other sciences, architecture and sculpture, as well as medicine and public health.

As an institution of higher learning, where the entry qualifications were high, Nalanda was supported by a network of other educational organizations that provided information about Nalanda and also helped to prepare students for studying there. Among the Chinese students was the well-known Yi Jing (635–713 AD), who studied in Nalanda for ten years, and wrote what was perhaps the first comparative study of different medical systems, comparing Chinese and Indian medical practices. Before coming to India, he went first to Sumatra (then the base of the Buddhist Srivijaya empire and now a part of Indonesia) to learn Sanskrit. By the seventh century, there were four other universities in Bihar drawing on Buddhism, all largely inspired by Nalanda. They worked in collaboration, though by the tenth century one of them—Vikramshila—emerged as a serious competitor to Nalanda in higher education.

After more than seven hundred years of successful teaching, Nalanda was destroyed in the 1190s by invading armies from West Asia, which also demolished the other universities in Bihar. The first attack, it is widely believed, was led by the ruthless Turkic conqueror Bakhtiyar Khilji, whose armies devastated many cities and settlements in North India. All the teachers and monks in Nalanda were killed and much of the campus was razed to the ground. Special care was taken to demolish the beautiful statues of Buddha and other Buddhist figures that were spread across the campus. The library—a nine-story building containing thousands of manuscripts—is reputed to have burned for three days. The destruction of Nalanda took place between the establishment of Oxford in 1167 and the founding of Cambridge in 1209.

2.
A proposal to revive Nalanda as a modern international university, though originating in India (particularly in Bihar), has been a pan-Asian initiative from the beginning. The idea was endorsed by all of the sixteen governments that attended the so-called East Asia Summit in January 2007, meeting in Cebu in the Philippines. They represented mostly Asian countries, including (in addition to India) China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, but also Australia and New Zealand.
The reestablished Nalanda University will eventually have its new campus in the ancient town of Rajgir, a few miles away from the old Nalanda. The design and planning of the new campus, by the well-known architectural firm Vastu Shilpa Consultants (chosen by an international competition), are now completed, and the work of construction is about to begin. Since even the first phase of the work will take a few years, Nalanda has started functioning, on a small scale, in rented premises in Rajgir, under the incisive leadership of the vice-chancellor, Dr. Gopa Sabharwal, and the dean of academic planning, Dr. Anjana Sharma.

Most of the first students at Nalanda have come from India, but there are some from other Asian countries as well (Japan and Bhutan in particular), and the teachers have been recruited not just from India, but also from the United States, Germany, and South Korea. In addition to classes now being taught in history, environmental studies, and ecology, plans are being made for teaching economics and development studies, public health, and Buddhist philosophy and comparative religions. Eventually, Nalanda will offer courses in international relations, linguistics, and literature, as well as information science and technology.

In my visits to the campus, I have been impressed by the quality of teaching and discussion among the faculty and students. In view of the deep skepticism that many critics had earlier expressed about the possibility of having a successful international university in a remote and backward part of India, there is something very reassuring about what has been achieved, and about the academic climate that has already become palpable.

3.
“Ritorno a Nalanda” was a remarkable and hopeful moment. But relations have become troubled between the newly elected government of India and the governing board of Nalanda University. The previous coalition government, with the National Congress Party as its dominant partner, initiated the revival of Nalanda University in collaboration with the government of Bihar and the East Asia Summit. When the national government lost the general elections in the spring of 2014, it was replaced by members of a very different political alignment, with a new prime minister, Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)— a part of the powerful Hindutva movement, which is dedicated to promoting India’s Hindu traditions, with Modi himself supporting not only Hindutva but also the goals of private business.

At the time of the general elections, I saw it my duty, as a citizen of India, to argue publicly against Modi’s sectarian political leadership, which posed a threat to India’s long-standing commitment to secularism. While critical of some features of the Congress-led coalition government (particularly its growing inefficiency and corruption), I strongly feared that minorities, particularly Muslims as well as Christians, would be insecure under Modi’s rule. This fear was based partly on his long history as a member—and a public advocate (or pracharak)—of the Hindu right-wing movement called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The fear was also based on the history of communal violence in Gujarat when Modi was chief minister of the state. More than a thousand people, mostly Muslims, perished in the riots there in 2002. Modi had a good reputation as an economic administrator in Gujarat but he failed to take effective action to protect non-Hindus from attack. My worries, I am afraid, have not been dispelled (despite verbal reassurances from Modi). Under the new regime, there have been sporadic occurrences of church burning and the concerted efforts of Hindutva activists to encourage conversion of non-Hindus to Hinduism, called ghar wapsi (“returning home”).

I was, therefore, not entirely surprised to find that the new government opposed my continuing as chancellor of Nalanda University. However, the larger issue concerns the academic independence of institutions of higher learning. The new government and its allies have been active in trying to impose their own views on many academic institutions, and Nalanda’s academic independence has been under considerable threat over the last year. Many of the statutes concerning the governance of Nalanda that were passed by the board (as it was authorized to do) have not been acted on or even presented by the government to the Visitor of the University—the president of India—for endorsement. (All such statutes require formal government approval before they become effective.) The government tried suddenly, without any consultation with the governing board, to make radical changes in the board’s membership—a move that did not work because the proposed changes violated provisions of the Nalanda University Act passed by the Indian Parliament in 2010.

The government has also tried, much more successfully, to remove me as chancellor, overruling the unanimous decision of Nalanda’s governing board that I should continue—a decision arrived at in the board’s meeting in January chaired by George Yeo, the former foreign minister of Singapore. While I appreciated the unanimous support, it soon became clear to me that the tension between the government and the governing board of Nalanda over my continuing as chancellor was proving to be a barrier to the work of rebuilding the school. It also became obvious that the government’s hostility would prevent me from being an effective leader. I told the board that, under the circumstances, I will not accept reappointment when my present term comes to an end in mid-July of this year.

In fact, I strongly believe that it should not be difficult to find a very distinguished candidate who understands the vision that lies behind Nalanda’s revival and appreciates what Nalanda has to offer to contemporary higher education in India and elsewhere. It is, however, extremely important to make sure that the academic independence of Nalanda under the new chancellor is respected. The university must not be subject to partisan political pressure.

The central issue goes well beyond the headline of a well-researched recent report in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica: “Il Nobel e il Premier: Sen contro Modi.” While it is certainly true that the Modi government is not pleased with the political positions I have taken, the confrontation is ultimately not about personalities. It is about the principles governing public institutions, particularly the importance of academic independence.

4.
Unfortunately, the government’s pressures on Nalanda are part of a general pattern of interference in academic leadership across the country. For example, in January of this year, Dr. Sandip Trivedi, a widely respected physicist, was appointed the director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR)—perhaps the most prestigious scientific institution in India—by a selection committee chaired by one of India’s most well-known scientists, C.N.R. Rao. But the institute was told by the prime minister’s office that Trivedi had to be removed from his post, and Trivedi stepped down. This led to a good deal of public criticism, and the government told the TIFR in June that Trivedi could return as director.

In December, Raghunath Shevgaonkar, the well-known director of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi, also resigned from his position, alleging government interference in the IIT’s decisions. In March, Dr. Anil Kakodkar, one of the leading nuclear scientists of India (and a former chair of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission), who chaired the governing board of the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, protested against meddling by the government and made it clear that he was unwilling to serve in future activities.

In late February the government asked the famous writer Sethumadhavan to leave his position as chairman of the National Book Trust, which was set up decades ago as “an autonomous body under the Ministry of Education.” The trust has had an excellent record of supporting the publication of worthy books. Following Sethumadhavan’s removal, his position was given to a Hindutva ideologue, Baldev Sharma, a former editor of the journal Panchajanya, which The Times of India described as “the RSS mouthpiece.” More recently, the government has proposed a bill that would give it direct control over India’s thirteen Institutes of Management (IIM), the country’s main institutions for postgraduate education in management. This has been sharply protested by the directors and chairmen of the institutes themselves.

It is hard not to conclude that the government has difficulty in appreciating the distinction between (1) an autonomous institution supported by the government, using state resources, and (2) an institution under the direct command of the government currently in office. For many hundreds of years universities in Europe have been helped to become academically excellent by governments that respect their autonomy. The British protect academic independence with much care in their own country even though the British rulers of colonial India very often violated the independence of public academic institutions. The government of India seems to prefer the colonial model.

This is, of course, not the first time that a ruling Indian government has interfered in academic matters. The record of noninterference of the previous Congress government was far from impeccable. And yet the extent of intervention has become both unprecedented and often politically extreme under the present regime.1

The newly appointed head of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, is perhaps more well known for his Hindutva-oriented opinions than for any historical research he has done. For example, in his paper “Indian Caste System: A Reappraisal,” Rao praises the caste system, which—we are told—is often “misrepresented as an exploitative system.” Rao’s strong links with the group called Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana (ABISY), which is known as the “history wing” of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has been a source of concern in the academic community, especially after four ABISY activists were appointed to the council of the ICHR. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, a leading historian and the chief editor of the official journal of ICHR (the Indian Historical Review), resigned in protest against the transformation of the ICHR.

The new head of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, Dr. Lokesh Chandra, appointed by the Modi government, has informed The Indian Express that “from a practical point of view [Modi] supersedes the Mahatma [Gandhi].” Chandra has also expressed the view that Modi is, in fact, “a reincarnation of God.” Chandra has said he believes that six million Koreans trace their ancestry back to an Indian princess from Ayodhya.

In view of the general record of the Modi government it was not particularly surprising that the government chose to interfere in the governance of Nalanda. But the confrontations between the governing board and the government, and the removal of the chancellor, got unusual public attention, with wide coverage in the press and editorial criticism of the government in several papers. These reactions have certainly helped to have a restraining effect on the government, unlike the case of many other academic institutions. The widespread public attention and questioning have, in effect, helped the minister of external affairs, Sushma Swaraj, to seek a solution that would be publicly defensible—rather than insisting on the unilateral extremism that characterizes many of the academic interventions by the Modi government.

The presence of intellectuals from other Asian countries on the governing board of Nalanda has also helped to protect the university from the government’s sectarian pressures. The board, which I continued to chair until July, decided in early May to name three non-Indian Asian members of the board, putting George Yeo of Singapore at the top of the list, as possible chancellor with Wang Bangwei of China and Susumu Nakanishi of Japan as reserves. Yeo has just accepted the position with the assurance that he will have the independence that will be required for running the university. Given his commitment to the principles of Nalanda, in addition to his vast knowledge of Asian traditions and remarkable intellectual and administrative skills, his appointment is a very good outcome.2 It will remain extremely important, however, for the government to give Yeo the independence he will need to make Nalanda an academic success.

5.
When the old Nalanda began functioning in the fifth century, there was no other university in the world. There are now 687 universities in India—and others are being established. Why do we need one more? What makes Nalanda so special?

The history of education at the old Nalanda, which inspires the teachers and students of the reestablished Nalanda, remains powerfully relevant here. The tradition of Nalanda insisted on high educational standards, which are certainly important in India today where there is a conspicuous lack of official commitment to improving the quality of education. But it is also important now to follow the Nalanda tradition of global cooperation, a systematic attempt to learn across the barriers of regions and countries. What the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore called “the Nalanda trail” in its remarkable exhibition during 2007–2008 (when the proposal to restart Nalanda University was being planned) emphasized the spread of knowledge and understanding from one country to another across Asia, driven by intellectual curiosity and interest rather than the pursuit of material profit.

The pedagogy that prevailed in the old Nalanda is strongly relevant here. The school regularly arranged debates between people—teachers, students, and visitors—who held different points of view. The method of teaching included arguments between teachers and students. Indeed, as one of Nalanda’s most distinguished Chinese students, Xuan Zang (602–664 AD) noted, education in Nalanda was not primarily offered through the “bestowing” of knowledge by lecturers, but through extensive debates—between students and teachers and among the students themselves—on all the subjects that were taught.

I have been impressed to find that the emphasis on debate is already strong in the pedagogy of the new Nalanda, not just on the topics in the syllabus, but also on more general subjects. For example, when I visited Nalanda last October—a month after classes started there—we discussed the respective roles of “the Silk Route” and “the Nalanda trail” in the development of intercountry connections. There has been much historical discussion of the trading links between Asia and Europe, and particularly the Silk Road linking China with regions in the West. Originally established between the third century BC and the third century AD, during the Han dynasty, the Silk Road was of great importance not only for trade and commerce, but also for the intermingling of people and ideas.

A critical question can be asked, however, whether an exaggerated focus on trade of commodities, and related to that, an excessive emphasis on the role of the Silk Road, may result in the neglect of intellectual influences—in religion, science, mathematics, art, and architecture—that were not dependent on trade. If trade is a big influence in getting people to take an interest in one another, as David Hume famously noted, so is the sheer pursuit of human curiosity, as Hume also observed. The “Nalanda trail” is, in this sense, a kind of rival to the Silk Road. The rightly admired exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum during 2012–2013, called “Buddhism Along the Silk Road, 5th–8th Century,” merged the two; but the disparate elements in the two types of routes in that grand history can be usefully distinguished.3

Unlike Yi Jing, who journeyed to Nalanda by sea in the seventh century, Xuan Zang came, in the same century, on the land route, which coincided in some parts with the Silk Road (even though Nalanda is quite far away from that route). But what motivated Xuan Zang—no less than Yi Jing—to undertake that long voyage (and to spend a decade in Nalanda) was his huge curiosity about Buddhism, Buddhist enlightenment, and the subjects taught at Nalanda, in all of which the influence of trade and material pursuit was minimal.

Knowledge of arts, culture, mathematics, science, and engineering, along with religious and ethical reasoning, has moved people across regions for thousands of years. In our divisive world today, the need for nonbusiness and nonconfrontational encounters is extremely strong, and here Nalanda has an important vision to offer.

6.
It is not hard to see how profoundly the intellectual commitment reflected in the pursuit of the Nalanda Trail was inspired by Gautama Buddha’s emphasis on enlightenment without borders—for all people, irrespective of caste, class, and nationality.4 The issue of the spread of knowledge was raised in a conversation in the seventh century when Xuan Zang completed his studies and was considering going back to China. The professors at Nalanda asked Xuan Zang to stay on as a member of the faculty. He turned them down, observing that Buddha had taught the world not to enjoy enlightenment by oneself. If one learns something, it is one’s duty to share it with others, and therefore Xuan Zang believed he must go home to do just that. (He was in fact very warmly welcomed back in China.)

Indeed, it can be argued that the vast sweep of Buddhist enlightenment across China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and much of East Asia was so successful because it was not just an imposition of foreign ideas, but was mainly based on cultural interests and intellectual engagement.5 Buddha himself was eloquent on that subject, and yet in recent years, some Buddhist groups have been much occupied in fomenting prejudice, for example against Rohingya Muslims in Rakine in Burma. As a result of such persecution, and the violations of human rights by the militarist government, there has been a huge flight of Muslim refugees seeking a new home. Some formally Buddhist institutions badly need to learn from Buddha’s advocacy of reasoning and dialogue instead of confrontation and violence.

The town of Rajgir where the campus of the new Nalanda is being built is exactly where the first “Buddhist Council” met two and half thousand years ago, not long after Buddha’s death, “to resolve differences by discussion,” including divergent views on religious beliefs and social practice. A later Buddhist council, the third, was very large and met in Pataliputra (now Patna) at the invitation of Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC. It was the most famous of these councils, but the approach of resolving difference through discussion had been already established three hundred years earlier in Rajgir.

Nalanda has thus been revived near the site of the very first attempt at what John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot would celebrate in the nineteenth century as “government by discussion.” The powerful vision behind Nalanda is important for India, for Asia, and for the rest of the world. It must be free of authoritarian and sectarian pressures.
Subir Halder/India Today Group/Getty Images
George Yeo, Singapore’s foreign minister at the time, and Amartya Sen at a meeting about the reestablishment of Nalanda University, New Delhi, August 2010
The aim of the founders of the new Nalanda was not only to have a first-rate university but to encourage cooperation and interchange of ideas across national borders (again, reflecting the traditions of the ancient Nalanda). They endorsed a “vision” of a new university that would be “open to currents of thought and practice from around the globe.”

Following the summit decision, the project to reestablish Nalanda was led by a “mentor group,” formally appointed by India but with members drawn also from other Asian countries. Distinguished intellectuals, serving as members, come from India as well as China (Wang Bangwei), Japan (Susumu Nakanishi), Singapore (Wang Gungwu and George Yeo), and Thailand (Prapod Assavavirulhakam). The university was established by an act of the Indian Parliament in 2010, and following that, the mentor group became the governing board of the revived Nalanda University. I have until recently been serving as chair of the board and chancellor of the new university.

The funds for rebuilding Nalanda have come mostly from the government of India, which made a further financial commitment in January 2014 to meet the basic costs until 2021. However, the citizens and governments of a number of other countries have also made contributions, including China, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, and Laos. All the land for the university has been donated by the government of Bihar, which is also assisting with ground and other facilities.

Source: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/08/13/india-stormy-revival-nalanda-university/

Nalanda University a Textbook Case of How Not to Build World-Class Universities !!

Building great – even good – universities is hard. In their 2011 book The Road to Academic Excellence, Philip Altbach and Jamil Salmi examined the efforts of 10 universities around the world, including IIT-B’s, to rise to the top. Their conclusion was that a lot of of ingredients go into making a successful university. This includes resources, autonomy, leadership and good governance, vision and planning, ability to attract competitive students, luck and persistence.

However, the quality of faculty is particularly crucial. The recruitment of high-quality faculty, they argued, induces a virtuous cycle such that the institutions attract the brightest and the best students – and other good things follow. So universities aspiring to become good or great institutions must be able to retain the high-quality faculty they worked hard to hire in the first place.

According to a recent report on Nalanda University, several students have left it over the last few months. Among the main reasons is that several teachers have left – some because their contract was not renewed and others because their expertise (as foreign faculty) on Indian themes was frowned upon by the administration and by some leading ideologues of the ruling party.

Perhaps Nalanda’s crisis, if it can be labelled as such, is temporary and will be resolved soon. However, there are several big obstacles (politics and university administration are just two of them) that Nalanda University faces and most will be quite difficult to address for many years. One is whether the institution will be able to attract and retain well-qualified faculty, without which its aspirations to count as a good university will not succeed.

It is hard to understand how the supporters and sponsors of Nalanda University, included among whom are many accomplished individuals and the governments of several Asian countries including China and Singapore, believe that it is possible to replicate the glory of the ancient Nalanda University at the same location. Rural Bihar is not rural Goa. No ‘expert’ who mattered in the planning of the modern Nalanda University seems to have considered that Rajgir – the site of the ancient university – is about two hours from the state capital Patna and poorly connected to the city. Other than the Nalanda ruins, there is literally nothing useful or interesting at Rajgir for students, faculty and other employees.

If building a good university requires capable faculty, one wonders whether the wise women and men who championed the cause of Nalanda University paused to think whether Rajgir was going to be an attractive location for potential faculty. Did they consider if adequate healthcare services and schools for faculty members and their families would be available? Did they wonder whether potential faculty would move to Rajgir without, as in many cases, their working spouses?

It was not as if sceptics were not expressing such doubts in the early stages of the university’s rebirth. Writing in July 2012, well the first academic session commenced in 2014, Altbach wrote:

Are top students and faculty going to be attracted to rural Bihar? Perhaps, unfortunately, this option is not likely. The best minds want to be in the centre of intellectual, cultural and political life. They want to be able to easily mingle with peers and value easy travel connections. … They value amenities, not only good libraries and laboratories, but also art museums and even an array of attractive restaurants and coffeehouses.”

Such concerns were not heeded. It also seems that the irony of reviving a great ancient university in a state where higher education has been ground into dust, as is evident from the outflow of hundreds of thousands of students to study at colleges in NCR, Pune and just about everywhere else but Bihar, was lost on Nalanda’s supporters.

Location aside, it is also true that the cause of Nalanda University was not well-served by the actions of Chancellor Amartya Sen, especially his insistence on appointing Gopa Sabharwal, a sociologist and then associate professor at the Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi, as the university’s first vice-chancellor, and stubborn justification of that decision thereafter. The process of selecting the vice-chancellor appears to have been informal and, to that extent, whether or not Sabharwal was appropriately-qualified (in terms of her rank) for the job or that she provided “incisive leadership” became irrelevant.

Sen correctly observed that there is “an obsession with rank and status” in India whereby people are judged not by their qualities “and particular qualifications for a very specific job” but by their “position in the social hierarchy”. However, nowhere in the world – not even in Western universities where Sen has spent most of his time – is the practice of hiring vice-chancellors both informal and without regard of rank and status.

By mid-2014, Chancellor Sen had already become a divisive figure, even more so because the BJP and its allies swept to power in the general elections. Sen subsequently quit as chancellor in February 2015 even though the governing body had approved a second term for him since it was evident that the government was stalling the confirmation. He was succeeded by George Yeo, a former foreign minister of Singapore, who quit only a few months later when the government constituted a new governing board and overruled the previous board’s decision on the extension of Sabharwal’s term; Yeo was consulted on neither matter.

The odds that the modern Nalanda would succeed in becoming a ‘world-class’ institution were in reality slim. It was never going to be easy to lure sufficient numbers of qualified faculty members to Rajgir at the expense of their families. A majority of India’s best colleges and universities are located in cities. But the politicisation of Nalanda in its formative years and the charges of nepotism, even arm-twisting by Sen, has created a legacy that is hardly favourable for the institution’s future development.

Source: https://thewire.in/education/nalanda-university-textbook-case-not-build-world-class-universities

Friday, July 27, 2018

Rise and Fall on Old Nalanda University !!

Foundation of the Nalanda International University may be attributed to the “bhadra vichara” (noble idea) of former president of India, A P J Abdul Kalam. He proposed it on 28 March 2006 in the Bihar assembly. This university is now, thankfully, a reality. It came into existence on 25 November 2010 through a special act of Parliament. Today, a dynamic vice-chancellor, Professor Sunaina Singh, is at the helm of affairs. Even though a young sapling, quite like the seedlings we planted in the commemorative vatika (garden) on 12 January 2018, Nalanda International University, I hope, will become a mighty tree of knowledge under her stewardship, as do some the actual trees we were privileged to root.

The new Nalanda, however, has a huge reputation to live up to. Its very name reminds us of the outstanding, world-renowned educational institution which flourished for nearly a thousand years. Nalanda Mahavihara was patronised by several kings and dynasties from the Guptas in the fifth to the Palas in the thirteenth century CE.

The most detailed account of its functioning is from the Chinese traveller, pilgrim, monk and scholar, Xuanzang (602–664). A grand pavilion built in his memory near the excavated and reconstructed site attests to his extraordinary feats. He travelled overland, covering some 25,000 kilometres, leaving a fascinating and invaluable account of what he experienced and encountered nearly 1,500 years ago in India.

Xuanzang’s Nalanda

Xuanzang was following in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor, Faxian (337-c. 422), who, nearly a hundred years before, had travelled on foot from China. Over 15 years, he visited the great Buddhist centres of pilgrimage and learning in what is now Xinjiang, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, all the way down to Sri Lanka. Xuanzang himself travelled over 17 years, trying to get accurate texts from India for doctrines he thought had got corrupted in China. His explorations inspired what many regard as China’s greatest pre-modern novel, the 100-chapter Journey to the West, written during the Ming period, several centuries later.

From Xuanzang’s account, we know that all the major schools of Buddhism were taught at Nalanda, in addition to the Vedas, Sanskrit, grammar, logic, medicine, and the other customary disciplines of the time. Xuanzang stayed in Nalanda for two years, studying Sanskrit, grammar, logic, and attending the Yogachara school of Buddhism.

According to historian RenĂ© Grousset, Xuanzang became the disciple of the monastery’s rector, the venerable Silabhadra: “The Chinese pilgrim had finally found the omniscient master, the incomparable metaphysician who was to make known to him the ultimate secrets....” Xuanzang, recognised as an adept in his own right, was conferred the name “Mokshadeva.” He thus became the inheritor of the most illustrious wisdom-lineage of Mahayana Buddhism, going back to Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dignaga, Dharmapala, and to Nagarjuna himself. In that sense, Nalanda lived up to its name, one of whose interpretations is “unending gift.”

The End of Nalanda

But the old Nalanda was finished by Islamic invaders. Around 1200 CE, it was reportedly looted and burned by a local Turkic-Afghan chieftain-adventurer, Bakhtiyar Khilji. Legend has it that Khilji and his 18 horsemen went on to capture Bengal. So popular is this view that Al Mahmud, the Bangladeshi writer, not only reprises it in Bakhtiyarer Ghora (Bakhtiyar’s Horses), but, some would argue, glorifies Khilji. Yet, 18 horsemen is an attenuation. When it comes to Nalanda, the more accurate figure going by historical accounts seems to be 200 horsemen. Even so, to imagine that such a small force could subdue such a large area is astounding.

The text that probably records Nalanda’s sacking is Tabaqat-i-Nasiri by the Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj, written just a couple of decades after Khilji’s death. A colonial period translation by Major H G Raverty published in Calcutta in 1881 is easily available. Khilji, who possessed only two villages to begin with, began plundering Bihar, earning both respect and rewards from his superiors. Eventually, he went on to capture much of Bihar and Gaur (Bengal). But his ambitions knew no bounds. He mounted an assault on Tibet, but his forces were defeated in Kamrup (Assam). As he lay ill in Devkot in Gaur, he was murdered by his deputy, Ali Mardan Khilji, in 1206.

The first volume of the translation of Tabaqat-i-Nasiri chronicles what might have happened in Nalanda: “Muhammad-i-Bakht-yar, by the force of his intrepidity, threw himself into the postern of the gateway of the place, and they captured the fortress and acquired great booty.”

The next lines indicate that the “fort” was actually a fortified university, which some historians have identified as Nalanda, others as Odantapura:

“The greater number of the inhabitants of that place were Brahmans, and the whole of those Brahmans had their heads shaven; and they were all slain. There were a great number of books there; and, when all these books came under the observation of the Musalmans, they summoned a number of Hindus that they might give them information respecting the import of those books; but the whole of the Hindus had been killed. On becoming acquainted (with the contents of those books), it was found that the whole of that fortress and city was a college, and in the Hindui tongue, they call a college Bihar.”

The Persian word used, “madrese”, from the Arabic “madrasa”, current to this day, means school or college, suggesting that the place referred to was likely to have been Nalanda Mahavihara. Some years ago, Arun Shourie had argued that the lack of definite reference to Nalanda in Tabaqat-i Nasiri had led “eminent” Leftist histories to fudge history, alleging that Brahmins, not Muslims, had destroyed Nalanda. D N Jha, named as one of the guilty by Shourie, tried to defend himself through the columns of a leading newspaper with all kinds of whataboutery, but even common sense tells us that the shaven-headed inhabitants whom Khilji slaughtered are more likely to have been Buddhist monks than Brahmin priests, since the latter would have retained their tufts or top-knots (shikha). Whatever the truth or however contested its interpretations, the destruction of Nalanda was in keeping with the practices of Muslim conquerors throughout the history of the subcontinent, indeed true to their tried-and-tested template of invasion, conquest, vandalism, loot, and enslavement of subjugated people elsewhere as well. Why would Nalanda be an exception? While reading the Tabaqat-i Nasiri, I was struck by the number of times the word “intrepid” was repeated. Khilji was anything if not audacious, bold, doughty and fearless. That cannot be taken away from him or the tradition of conquistadors that he belonged to.

Minhaj-i-Siraj’s account also shows how the whole state got its name, Bihar, from the viharas, the monasteries, colleges, and libraries that dotted it. Apart from Odantapuri and Nalanda, the other Hindu-Buddhist seminaries nearby, namely Vikramshila and Jagaddala, were also similarly pillaged and destroyed. It is to be noted that all the monks and Brahmins were slaughtered, to the extent that none was left to explain the import of the books. Buddhist accounts also corroborate that the viharas were demolished and the libraries, with lakhs of manuscripts, burned for months. Especially of interest is the biography of Dharmasvamin or Chag Lotsa-ba Chosrjedpal (1197-1264), who went there shortly after the destruction of Nalanda (1234-1236). When he visited, Nalanda was only a shadow of its former glory, barely functional.

Making meaning of the loss

At its peak, Nalanda had over 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students, both drawn from many parts of India and abroad. Viharas like it dotted the landscape of what is today called Bihar, which means that it was a great hub of educational, cultural, and intellectual activity for centuries. It is impossible to fully make sense of its loss. It is not just that a great institution of learning and an even greater tradition of philosophical and academic inquiry shattered, but that an entire civilisation was smashed and pulverised.

Thousands of teachers and students were killed, millions of manuscripts and books charred to ashes. Sanskrit, which was the main language of instruction and research, also suffered a body blow. Some of the knowledge of the Nalanda tradition of Buddhism was preserved because several monks and precious manuscripts made their way to Tibet. With the exile in India of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, some of this precious knowledge has returned to the country of its birth and from this very soil, spread all across the world, especially welcoming in North America and Europe.

The damage to India, to put it mildly, was incalculable. We have, in fact, no way even to know what we knew then and therefore what we lost in that cataclysm. Though the conquest of Delhi by Muhammad Ghori in 1192 is considered a historical watershed, Indic civilisation had already been under continuous attack for over 600 years, from the time of the Umayyad Caliphate. Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, the powerful governor of Iraq, sent Muhammad bin Qasim on the first Muslim expedition against India. Qasim conquered Debal (probably derived from “Devabal” or the strength of the gods), an important seaport, in 710. He destroyed the main temple, looted the city, extracted tribute, took slaves, and converted many of the conquered.

One, therefore, wonders what the scholars, teachers, intellectuals, not just the kings, courtiers and soldiers were doing during his half-millennium. They had no effective answer to such repeated and devastating assaults. To me, this was as much an intellectual and academic as it was a military or political failure. No real renaissance is possible without understanding, coming to terms with, and learning from the breakdown of the ancient Indian civilisation or the desolation of what A L Basham called The Wonder that Was India.
Source: https://goo.gl/oL27AY

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Buddhist devotees to visit Nalanda, Bodh Gaya, Rajgir in August 2018 !!

Hundreds of Buddhist followers from across the country and abroad will visit Bodh Gaya and Rajgir as part of the International Buddhist Conclave on August 24. This year, the four-day conclave will be held at Aurangabad in Maharashtra.
Bodh Gaya occupies centre stage in the global Buddhist pilgrimage as it is believed to be the place where Lord Buddha had attained his enlightenment.
Leaders and followers of all three main Buddhist traditions which are in existence – Theravada (Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, India), Bodhisattvayana (China, Tibet, Mongolia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) and Vajrayana (India, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan) are expected to participate in the conclave.
State tourism minister Pramod Kumar said the Buddhist conclave, organized by the Union ministry of tourism, is a biennial event to promote Indian Buddhist heritage on a global platform. “The event will be attended by Buddhist spatula leaders, monks and followers from several Buddhist countries,” the minister said.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

A brief and Incredible History of Nalanda University

India has always been revered as a land of learning. From ancient sciences to arts, philosophy, and literature, the country has always been a destination for learners from all over the world. Ancient universities and institutes have drawn travelers and philosophers who sought knowledge and wisdom from this rich Asian region. The Nalanda University is one such place that stood as an education hub from 500 CE to 1200 CE. Even today, after centuries of invasion and depletion of the structure, the ruins and the site still stand as a symbol of India’s illustrious past. If you are inclined towards ancient Indian education and architecture, then a visit to the Nalanda University must be on your travel list.

How to reach 

Nalanda University site is easily accessible from Patna city by road. The site is located at a mere 67.3km from the city and takes about an hour and a half to reach by car. You can book a cab with Savaari Car Rentals to Nalanda campus.

Scholastic Connection

Developed under the patronage of the Gupta dynasty, Nalanda University was the first international residential university in the world. The institute was known among scholars and students who traveled from different parts of Sri Lanka, Tibet, China, Korea and Central Asia. It is said that the university hosted about 1,500 teachers and scholars, and about 10,000 students, in its peak years. The Institute engaged in imparting education and knowledge about philosophy, politics, law, science, and arts. Famous Chinese traveler, Hiuen Tsang was also a student at this reputed university.

Ancient Magadha (modern-day Bihar) was largely influenced by Buddhism. With more than 10 Buddhist temples on campus, Nalanda University was recognized as the largest Mahaviharaor a Buddhist monastery. In the 7th century, Nalanda saw pilgrim monks from East Asia like Xuanzang and Yijing. If you explore the archeological evidence you would discover that the kings of Shailendra dynasty built monasteries on this academic campus. The place was also considered as a sacred place for the Jains of that era.

Architectural wonder

The ruins of Nalanda speak of the architectural distinctiveness of the Gupta period in India. The structures depict iconic statements of the periodic design aesthetics and skilled craftsmanship. Archeological excavations have revealed evidence of construction on this site over different periods, with an attempt to restore the campus.

The premise of this ancient institute stretches across 1.5 KM in length and 0.75 KM in width. Being the largest educational center of its time, Nalanda University housed 11 monasteries, an expansive library spread between three towers and an astronomical center - a sign of an advanced academic culture. For residential students and travelers, there were 300 rooms and eight halls to host meetings and events. The highlight of the entire structure is the SariputtaStupa, with multiple flights of stairs leading to the center and an apex to hold a Buddha shrine.

To see

Universities, especially the ancient ones, are wonderful places to discover the knowledge of the eras gone by and the lessons they left behind for the future generations to come. The Pali inscriptions on stone tablets and walls of Nalanda are evidence of how erudite the community was in its time. Explore the Nalanda Archeological Museum near the heritage site to see a rich display of sculptures, coins, seals and inscriptions that were conserved from the ruins.

Source: https://goo.gl/8dj97s

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