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Book Extract: Tree Of Learning

...Nalanda had many famous teachers who were experts in their fields and wrote books. Several also helped establish viharas in India and around the world

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Nalanda Vihara, between 629 and 645 CE: Xuánzàng, a renowned scholar from China, arrived in India. The objective of his historic visit was to learn about the Buddhist principles and doctrines, see India’s famous shrines, and gather sacred texts. He traveled extensively and spent several years at Nalanda University. Xuánzàng was one of many scholars who visited India from around the world, especially China, Indonesia, Korea, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and Tibet, who were attracted by India’s religious and intellectual advancements and higher education institutions such as Nalanda University.

During this time, Nalanda University was the centre of higher learning in the country and the world. The University of Bologna, one of the earliest universities in the western world, would be established in 1088, over four hundred and fifty years after Xuánzàng’s visit to India. The University of Oxford was established in 1096. Xuánzàng was famously preceded to India by Faxian, a Chinese scholar, who traveled in India between 399 and 414 CE. Upon arrival at Nalanda, Xuánzàng was received with honor and respect and escorted by four of its most distinguished teachers, as was the practice when welcoming well-known scholars. He formally met Shilabhadra, the head of Nalanda, and expressed a desire to learn Yoga Shastra from Shilabhadra. He was admitted to Nalanda and given appropriate residence, food, supplies, and assistants befitting his stature as a respected scholar.

Sixteen years after first arriving in India, Xuánzàng returned to China carrying with him 657 sacred books of Buddhism and images of the Buddha and his saints in gold, silver, crystal, and sandalwood. Twenty horses were needed to carry all of this. Thanks to scholars such as Xuánzàng, Faxian, and Yijing, we have a recorded history of ancient and medieval India, including Nalanda University...

Nalanda University: Ancient Indian and Buddhist Roots: Nalanda University’s history can be traced back to Buddha and the empires of Magadha, Maurya, Gupta, and Harsha. According to Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, Nalanda, the ancient village, is the modern Baragaon, seven miles north of Rajgir in Bihar.

Gautama Buddha was born in sixth century BCE. He renounced his royal privileges to find the meaning of life. Subsequently, he founded Buddhism and spent a number of years in Rajgir, where he is known to have given many important sermons. The land where Nalanda University was established was initially a gift to the Buddha by five hundred merchants.

Around the time of the Buddha, in Northern India, the Kashi, Koshala, Magadha, and Vajjan confederacies were important. After nearly a hundred years, Magadha emerged victorious and became the centre of political activity in northern India. With its capital in Pataliputra, the Magadha Empire reigned supreme through 400 BCE. After Magadha came the Shishunaga and Nanda dynasties. Chandragupta Maurya became the founder of the Mauryan dynasty in 321 BCE. ...Chandragupta was succeeded by Bindusara and then by Ashoka. Shortly after the Kalinga War in 260 BCE, Ashoka converted to Buddhism and stopped all of the wars. His encouragement fuelled the growth of Buddhism around the world.

Ashoka gave significant gifts to promote Buddhism, including the first grant to establish a vihara or “monastery” in Nalanda. However, not much is known about Nalanda University until the fourth century CE, when it most likely gained prominence as a university. R.K. Mookerji, historian and author of Ancient Indian Education, estimated that Nalanda was most likely established after the beginning of the Common Era and the advent of Mahayana Buddhism. This estimate is supported by Xuánzàng’s account of his visit to India between 629–645 CE: “The priests dwelling here, are, as a body, naturally or spontaneously dignified and grave, so that during the 700 years since the foundation of the establishment, there has been no single case of guilty rebellion against the rules.”

After Ashoka’s and the merchants’ initial land grants, several merchants and kings provided lands and gifts to Nalanda University. Harsha is one of the last famous kings to have supported Buddhism. It is believed that the university at its high point received revenues from two hundred villages, which along with the royal patronage enabled the monks and students to focus on their teaching and learning.

During the time when Buddhism was growing in popularity, Buddhist monasteries were the centres for higher education in the country. During Xuánzàng’s time in India, there were five thousand monasteries and close to two hundred thousand monks. The higher education system was connected to a well-developed elementary education system. Anywhere from three thousand to ten thousand students were enrolled at Nalanda. At ten thousand, it would be larger than most colleges or universities in today’s India. It attracted students from all over the country and many parts of the world. Its preeminence was such that only 20 percent of those who took the entrance exam were admitted to the university. Only ordained students did not have to take the entrance examination.

By then in India, there were several sects of Buddhism and many schools of Vedic philosophy. Students included monks of different schools of Buddhist thoughts, and people of all creeds and faiths. These also included unordained students, including householders. Thus, there was a lot of diversity among students on the campus.

Thanks to generous endowments and gifts, Nalanda took care of all the clothing, food, supplies, residence, medicine, and related needs of its teachers and students. Non-Buddhist students had to take care of their tuition fees. Some received charitable contributions to study. Those who could not pay worked in the university-owned villages or the university itself. This suggests a well-developed financial model for sustaining excellence at the university and encouraging student enrollment.

Nalanda had about 1,500 teachers. According to one of the accounts, “There are 1,000 men who could explain twenty collections of Sutras and Shastras; 500 who can explain thirty collections, and perhaps 10 (including Xuánzàng) who could explain fifty collections.” The university offered over one hundred lectures per day.

It also had a well-equipped library. Yijing, the Chinese scholar who visited India in AD 672, collected 400 Sanskrit texts amounting to 5,000 shlokas or “verses.” Based on archaeology and additional written commentary, there were three library buildings, one of which was nine stories tall.

Scope and Method: Multidisciplinary, Holistic, and Demanding: Nalanda was a Buddhist monastery. Its official seal was the dharma wheel flanked by two gazelles. The dharma wheel has eight spokes representing the eightfold path of Buddhism, and gazelles are supposed to be the first witnesses to the Buddha’s preaching. Yet, Nalanda University offered opportunities to learn in fields that were comprehensive at the time—Buddhist and Vedic philosophy, logic, grammar, practical sciences, and arts.

At Nalanda, oral instruction and oral examinations were the norm. Reciting texts and understanding their meaning was the principal method of study. Sanskrit was the main language for literary expression. Meeting in assemblies and debating conflicting thoughts and philosophies was one of the high points of the Nalanda University experience. Thus, winning public debates was highly prized and rewarded. Knowledge was tested periodically through oral examinations and also rewarded.

Education at Nalanda was holistic. In addition, there was an emphasis on physical health, moral development, and discipline. All monks were expected to do menial work. Walking to improve health and stamina was part of their daily ritual. All the distinguished teachers were renowned for their character as well as for their learning.

Students’ daily routines were disciplined. Time was measured by velachakras (time-wheels), a sundial, and clepsydra (a water clock.) Different points of time were noted by different strokes of a drum. Daily routine included doing basic chores for the teachers, saluting their seniors in nearby apartments, taking a bath, reading scriptures, attending lectures, reflecting on lessons old and new, and walking. The pace of learning and living was intense, and many students complained about not having enough hours in the day.

Excellence: World-renowned
...Nalanda had many famous teachers who were experts in their fields and wrote books. Several also helped establish viharas in India and around the world. For example, Shantarakshita, on invitation of the king of Tibet, established the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet in 749 CE.

According to Yijing, the rules and regulations governing life were stricter at Nalanda than anywhere else. The monks and students governed them-selves. “Thus all the priests submitted to their own laws without giving any trouble to the public court.” Room assignments, which were an important distribution of privilege, were done by the great assembly of monks. Students administered the rules and regulations for themselves.

The excellence also manifested itself in Nalanda’s buildings, which were massive and beautifully decorated. According to Cunningham, the sculptures found there were the finest in all of India. Also, known to be at very high levels of intellectual and moral standards, the students of Nalanda, according to Xuánzàng, “were looked up to as models by all of India.”

As a result, the highest academic degree or distinction of the times was a fellowship at Nalanda. Nalanda became a meeting ground in India for warring sects and creeds. ...Kings from within the country and elsewhere frequently invited Nalanda teachers to share their wisdom and address disputes in understanding Buddhism or a particular school of thought. Xuánzàng and Yijing, both from China, were among the most famous scholars who visited Nalanda University. Such was Nalanda University’s impact and fame.

Lessons from Nalanda University: For Building a Golden India
We built the first few universities in the world. These were built over one thousand years before the first universities in the western world were built. Thus, a university is not a western concept. It has Indian roots. There are many lessons that we can draw from Nalanda University’s excellence, reputation, and impact. Some of the key lessons include:

* Scope and scale matters. Nalanda had fifteen hundred teachers and three thousand to ten thousand students. The scale of the teachers to the students enabled the university to offer over a hundred lectures per day in several fields of study. The depth and breadth of fields attracted students of various interests and backgrounds to Nalanda. Thus, Nalanda became a hub of intellectual learning and growth for the best and the brightest teachers and students in India and around the world.

* Excellence matters. Outstanding teachers, moral standards, intellectual rigor, and mental discipline were foundations for excellence. Reputation and financial support followed.

* Community engagement and impact matters. Kings, merchants, and two hundred village communities supported Nalanda. The students and teachers were engaged with the villages. They also helped address disputes and build monasteries. Thus, their importance and impact was tangible and visible.

* These lessons are as timely and relevant now as they were fourteen hundred years ago.

With permission from ONS Group Press