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.
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: