Thursday, July 23, 2009

Namit Arora on Nalanda University

Namit Arora has a very informative essay on the splendors and historical context of the ancient Nalanda University. Exceprts:
Nalanda University arose in early 5th cent. CE during the reign of Kumara Gupta, though references to precursor sites associated with teaching and learning go back a thousand years to the time of the Buddha and Mahavira. Between Hiuen Tsang and I-Tsing, we have a compelling portrait of the university’s curriculum, the life of the monks, buildings, and other general features of the community.

Nalanda was more like a school of higher learning than an undergraduate college. Prospective students had to be at least 20 years old and submit to an oral exam at the university entrance. They had to demonstrate deep familiarity with a host of subjects and with old and new books in many fields. No more than two or three out of ten were admitted, and even they were promptly humbled by the caliber of their teachers and co-students.

When Hieun Tsang visited Nalanda, there were 8,500 students and 1,500 teachers in 108 residential monasteries, which often had two or more floors. Excavations thus far have revealed many exquisitely carved temples and a row of ten monasteries of oblong red bricks directly across a row of stupas in brick and plaster. Each monastery has rooms—either single or double occupancy, with wooden doors back then—lining four sides of a courtyard, a main entrance, and a shrine facing the entrance in the courtyard. Rooms typically had chairs, wood blocks, small mats, and utensils stored in niches cut out in the walls.

[...]

Buddhism began waning in India after 800 CE. By then, Hinduism had assimilated many of its features—vegetarianism, insider critiques of the caste system, ending animal sacrifices—and embraced the Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. A bigger factor was the rise of Bhakti, or devotional Hinduism, and its great appeal to the masses. One could say that the religious market was shifting to a more user-friendly product, and as a result, Buddhism lost much of its royal patronage. The Palas were the last major royals to support Nalanda as a center of learning and the arts (stone and bronze sculpture in particular). A museum on-site, which houses many finds from Nalanda and the nearby region, has many curious sculptures from this period: Buddhist deities trampling on Brahmanical ones, such as Shiva, Parvati, and Ganesh. A Buddhist goddess has mighty Hindu gods like Indra, Vishnu, and Shiva as her ‘vehicle bearers,’ while she carries the severed head of Brahma in one hand. A plausible explanation is that the Buddhists were on the defensive—they had to resort to more dramatic imagery to assert their religious superiority to the ambivalent.

In 1193 CE, Nalanda was put to a brutal and decisive end by Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkish Muslim invader on his way to conquer Bengal. He looted and burned the monastery, and beheaded or burned alive perhaps thousands of monks. The shock of this event lives on in local cultural memory; during my visit, I too heard the legend that the three libraries of Nalanda—with books like the ones Hieun Tsang and I-Tsing carried back to China—were so large that they smoldered for six long months.

4 comments:

Krishnan said...

Fascinating stuff indeed. And this was centuries before Oxford, Cambridge. We ought to be really proud of our glorious heritage but alas we Indians give two hoots to history :-(

Hari, as an aside, what are your cherished books on history/travel. What are the books you own ? I would be interested very much to know.

Hari said...

Hi Krishnan,

That’s a loaded question, but here's an attempt! Most of the books of history I cherish are not on Indian history. I am trying to change that now, but the reason is that I began studying history seriously only when I got to the United States, when I was about 22 or 23. At the time, it was the history of the United States – Native American history specifically – that interested me, since I traveled frequently to many different Native American reservations. As you may have noticed, I write a lot about it. I am fascinated also by the history of Mexico -- which is why I traveled there.

In the process I’ve also learned the broad outlines of what happened in other parts of the world and am slowly trying to build my knowledge. My favorite history books are: Guns, Germs and Steel, the book that tries to answer why the world is the way it is today; 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles Mann; Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler; Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden; and India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha.

Among travel books I like Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana; VS Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now, Among the Believers, Beyond Belief, and A Turn in the South. I own all these books and constantly return to them for interesting excerpts and analysis. The India travel books I am really looking forward to are Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus, and MG Vassanji’s A Place Within. Vaasanthi’s Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars which I have written about, is also a great book – for me at least, since I had up to this point no overarching view of 20th century Tamil Nadu history.

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