A Buddhist International University Called NALANDA

Nalanda was the first residential university in the history of the world.

The Nalanda campus was an exceptionally impressive place, which included many impressive chetiyas, temples, monasteries, hostels, lecture halls, meditation halls, libraries, even parkland with lakes. The three great libraries of Nalanda were: Ratnasagara, Ratnadadhi and Ratnaranjaka. Inscriptional evidence (Yasovarmadeva) reveals that these were nine story tall buildings.

It was an great center of learning in ancient India, and is located about 72 km from Patna, which is in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. Now, all that remains is a small village called Nalanda close to the huge archeological remains of the University.

More than 1500 years ago, or in the 5th century CE, this Buddhist University became famous as a world class institution for study and learning. It was a leading world educational institution. (In terms of Sri Lankan history, this was the time of our illustrious kings such as Dhathusena who organised the building of the great Kalawewa, and King Kasyapa of Sigiriya fame).

Nalanda was a place visited by the Buddha and is near the birth places of the Buddha’s two main disciples – Sariyuth (Saraputta) and Mugalan (Moggallana) Mahatheras. Soon after the Buddha’s passing away, a temple was built at Nalanda. Later, Emperor Asoka improved this vihara and also built a monastery for Bhikkhus. This monastery evolved over time to become a prominent center of learning in the first century CE. Gradually, over time, by the 5th century CE. It had grown into the illustrious Nalanda International Buddhist University.

Fa Hien, the famous Chinese pilgrim and chronicler visited Nalanda in the first half of the fifth century and has left records of what he saw. Hieuen Tsiang, another famous Chinese traveler, at the beginning of the 7th century CE. studied for seven years at Nalanda and then became a professor. He provides us with much information on Nalanda as a university.

Several inscriptions have been discovered among the ruins of Nalanda and these give us more useful information.

It is recorded that in the 7th century, there were 10,000 students and 1500 professors in this university. The alumni, or graduates of Nalanda, were highly respected both within India and internationally.

It had gathered together some of the best scholars of the country.

Some of the many Chancellors of Nalanda were the following famous people:  Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dinnaga, Dharmakirthi, Shantharakshita, Dharmapala and Shilabhadra. (It is interesting for Sri Lankans to note that, Aryadeva, the favourite disciple of Nagarjuna, hailed from Sri Lanka!) The brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu (4th c.) were Abbots in succession at Nalanda. Tibetan sources give the names of several other famous Buddhist intellectuals associated with Nalanda. (Note that the first European University – in ‘Christendom’ was built around 1364 CE)

The resident scholar saints, all erudite monks, were the greatest attraction of Nalanda. Students from far and near flocked to Nalanda to sit and learn at the feet of these famous scholars. There were students from Sri Lanka, Tibet, Nepal, China, Central Asia, Vietnam, Sumatra and Java.  It is known that several thousands of monks taught at Nalanda and were men of the highest ability and talent. Some of those students from outside India, on becoming scholars would teach there too. The international character of Nalanda was very evident even during the time of Hieuen Tsiang’s association with Nalanda in the seventh century.

To achieve these high academic standards, strict procedures and discipline and were demanded of the students; this was at the root of the success of the institution. Because of this high standard of learning, it attracted many brilliant scholars, and its excellence made Nalanda world famous. These great scholars of Nalanda produced a vast literature in all branches of its various fields of learning.   It is said that it was in the field of logic that they made their greatest contribution. Above all, it was a leading center for the dissemination of knowledge.

Nalanda flourished up to the tenth century CE (about the end of the Classical Anuradhapura period of Sri Lanka). Thereafter, political upheavals in India had serious negative impacts on Nalanda.  Foreigners, the Turk-Afgan Muslims who invaded India from the northwest during this period, were fanatics who did not respect other people or other cultures. They took delight in destroying Indian cultural edifices and the guardians of this culture, too.

In the year 1198, the Muslim invaders led by Mohammad Bakhtiar Khilji,  attacked and burnt down this great university. They massacred its inmates, who at the time were mostly Buddhist monks, and relentlessly and thoroughly demolished its buildings, of such unique design and purpose.

The ruthless Muslim Bakhtiar Khilji flattened the university to the ground.  Mirjah, a Muslim historian has left a detailed and gruesome account of Khilji’s vandalism and violence. The gigantic libraries of Nalanda, treasure-houses of knowledge with an estimated 9 million books, were set on fire and left to burn for months. The result of centuries of scholastic studies – books and manuscripts, were burnt and destroyed.

Only a few monks managed to escape with a few manuscripts to Tibet, Nepal and other neighboring countries. Buddhism and its centers of learning, disappeared under the brutal impact of Muslim fanaticism. With the university in ruins, Nalanda became a deserted and desolate place, and the ruins were slowly swallowed up by the jungle.

Dr. Daya Hewavitharana.

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