Founded in 427 CE, Nalanda is considered the world’s first residential university, a sort of medieval Ivy League institution home to nine million books that attracted 10,000 students from across Eastern and Central Asia: It is located in the Indian State of Bihar. They gathered there to learn medicine, logic, mathematics and, above all, Buddhist principles, from some of the era’s most revered scholars. As the Dalai Lama once stated: “The source of all the Buddhist knowledge we have, has come from Nalanda.”
In the more-than seven centuries that Nalanda flourished, there was nothing else like it in the world. This monastic university predates the University of Oxford and Europe’s oldest university, Bologna, by more than 500 years. What’s more, Nalanda’s enlightened approach to philosophy and religion would help shape the culture of Asia long after the university ceased to exist.
I must admit I had never heard of it, which is why I found the article describing it so fascinating.
Interestingly, the monarchs of the Gupta Empire, that founded the Buddhist monastic university, were devout Hindus. However, unlike most religions that teach exclusivity, they were sympathetic and accepting towards Buddhism, and the growing Buddhist intellectual fervor, and philosophical writings of the time. The liberal cultural and religious traditions that evolved under their reign would form the core of Nalanda’s multidisciplinary academic curriculum, which blended intellectual Buddhism with a higher knowledge in different fields.
The ancient Indian medical system of Ayurveda, which is rooted in nature-based healing methods, was widely taught at Nalanda and then migrated to other parts of India via alumni. Other Buddhist institutions drew inspiration from the campus’ design of open courtyards enclosed by prayer halls and lecture rooms. And the stucco produced here influenced ecclesiastical art in Thailand, and metal art migrated from here to Tibet and the Malayan peninsula. But perhaps Nalanda’s most profound and lingering legacy is its achievements in mathematics and astronomy.
Aryabhata, considered the father of Indian mathematics, is speculated to have headed the university in the 6th Century CE. “We believe that Aryabhata was the first to assign zero as a digit, a revolutionary concept, which simplified mathematical computations and helped evolve more complex avenues such as algebra and calculus,” said Anuradha Mitra, a Kolkata-based professor of mathematics. “Without zero, we wouldn’t have computers,” she added. “He also did pioneering work in extracting square and cubic roots, and applications of trigonometrical functions to spherical geometry. He was also the first to attribute radiance of the moon to reflected sunlight.”
The university regularly sent some of its best scholars and professors to places like China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Sri Lanka to propagate Buddhist teachings and philosophy. This ancient cultural exchange program helped spread and shape Buddhism across Asia.
The archaeological remains of Nalanda are now a Unesco World Heritage site. In the 1190s, the university was destroyed by a marauding troop of invaders led by the Turko-Afghan military general Bakhtiyar Khilji, who sought to extinguish the Buddhist centre of knowledge during his conquest of northern and eastern India. The campus was so vast that the fire set on by the attackers is said to have burned for three months. Today, the 23-hectare excavated site is likely a mere fraction of the original campus.
The library’s nine million handwritten, palm-leaf manuscripts was the richest repository of Buddhist wisdom in the world. One of its three library buildings was described by Tibetan Buddhist scholar Taranatha as a nine-storey building “soaring into the clouds”. Only a handful of those palm-leaf volumes and painted wooden folios survived the fire – carried away by fleeing monks. They can now can be found at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the U.S. and Yarlung Museum in Tibet.
The acclaimed Chinese Buddhist monk and traveller, Xuanzang, studied and taught at Nalanda. When he returned to China in 645 CE, he carried back a wagonload of 657 Buddhist scriptures from Nalanda. Xuanzang would go on to become one of the world’s most influential Buddhist scholars, and he would translate a portion of these volumes into Chinese to create his life’s treatise, whose central idea was that the whole world is but a representation of the mind. His Japanese disciple, Dosho, would later introduce this doctrine to Japan, and it would spread further into the Sino-Japanese world, where it would remain as a major religion ever since. As a result, Xuanzang has been credited as “the monk who brought Buddhism East“.
Over the next six centuries, Nalanda would gradually sink into oblivion and remain buried, before it was “discovered” by Scottish surveyor Francis Buchanan-Hamilton in 1812, and later identified as the ancient Nalanda University by Sir Alexander Cunningham in 1861.
Nalanda ranks maybe even higher than the Library at Alexandria as an enormous loss of knowledge for mankind. We can only speculate what advances might have taken place had Nalanda not been destroyed by three invasions, and had then gradually declined as Buddhism lost influence in the Eastern world. The least we can do is visit this Unesco World Heritage site to pay our respects. A significant addition to Bucket lists.