Revived Nalanda – the World’s Oldest Buddhist University – must be led by a Committed Buddhist as in the past
– by Shenali D Waduge –
In 1193 A.D. Nalanda, the world’s oldest Buddhist university was ransacked and destroyed by foreign invaders led by the Turkish Bakhityar Khiliji because the 14 acre “giver of knowledge” was a strong pillar of Buddhism and attracted students from all over the then known world, including countries such as Turkey and Persia. The invaders burnt to ruins the magnificent library and other architectural masterpieces of the Nalanda University.
In 2006, it was announced that Nalanda University was to be revived with the efforts and contributions of numerous countries. However, the issue is that old Nalanda was essentially a Buddhist place of learning promoting Buddhist beliefs and philosophy – the new architects are ironing out a creation of ancient Nalanda with a modern twist to include subjects that are taught in general universities thereby denying the Buddhist niche that Nalanda epitomized.
The Buddhist leaders and the Buddhist world need to make clear that if Nalanda is to be revived it must remain a Buddhist university both in its aims and objectives, promoting Buddhist idealism and not be turned into a secular one. Nalanda must remain true to its origins, attached to its moorings, and reflect its unique heritage and the set of beliefs it fostered for over 700 years until it was brought down through death and destruction by invading Islamic armies that had no respect for the others’ beliefs and the institutions that sustained and promoted such beliefs through study and learning. It would be outrageous if this new initiative of a group of people led by Amartya Sen – Professor at Harvard University were to achieve what the iconoclasts could not do; erase old Nalanda from public memory that is still kept alive by the well preserved ruins of that outstanding Buddhist University.
Why cultural heritage is important
Cultural heritage is the legacy of tangible culture (buildings, monuments, books, landscape, works of art and artifacts), intangible culture (traditions, language, knowledge, folklore) and natural heritage (biodiversity and culturally significant landscapes) belonging to a group that they inherited from past generations, to be maintained in the present for the benefit of future generations.
Preservation and Conservation become two important attributes towards ensuring that cultural heritage is unique and irreplaceable. This is why UNESCO has declared 936 World Heritage Sites, 725 cultural, 183 natural, 28 mixed properties in 153 countries.
In modern times where structural engineering cannot match the marvels of histories past, what needs to be reiterated is that cultures that left legacies for present generations to feel proud of their ancestors should not be despised or subtly desecrated because a handful of other cultures did not leave such legacies. Therefore, liberals and secularists and those who believe in iconoclasm should not use their positions to dilute the pride that cultures and heritage sites continue to provide and Nalanda is just one case in point.
It would be totally out of context and tantamount to religious sacrilege to declare the revival of a Buddhist institution where it was a seat of Buddhist learning for over a period of 700 years with 2000 Buddhist teachers and 10,000 Buddhist students, Medium of learning was in Sanskrit. Curriculum covered different forms of Buddhism including Theravada, Buddhist law, Buddhist politics. Theravada administration, astronomy etc, and then in the same breadth say that important subjects relevant to Asian integration would be taught at the new Nalanda without allocating a special place to Buddhist studies and Buddhist ideals.
Hieun Tsang, says that 100 lectures were delivered daily. It was referred to as “international” because the Buddhist students came from China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, Myanmar, Mongolia etc. The 3 libraries at Nalanda (Ratna-Sagara, Ratna-Nidi and Ratna-Ranjana) were 9 storeys high.
“When Xuanzang was at Nalanda, it was a vibrant place, packed with scholars, with seminars, teaching and debate. It was a kind of Buddhist ‘Ivy League’ institution — all the deepest ideas about Buddhism were explored and dissected at Nalanda.” (Mishi Saran, an Indian author now based in Shanghai).
The Dalai Lama himself has hailed Nalanda as the “source of all the [Buddhist] knowledge we have.” Indeed, the foundations of what we now call Tibetan Buddhism were formed at Nalanda.
Brilliant Buddhist luminaries at Nalanda
Legend has it that Nalanda was graced by the presence of some of India’s most brilliant Buddhist luminaries such as Nagarjuna and his closest disciple Aryadeva ( being a Sinhalese from Anuradhapura), Dharmapala, Silabhadra, Santarakshita, Kamalaseela, Bhaviveka, Dignaga, Dharmakeerthi among others. The works they left behind are mostly available in Tibetan and Chinese translations. The originals perished when foreign invaders under Bhaktiar Khilji, the invader of Magadha, set fire to Nalanda and beheaded the monks. When the monks were about to have their meals. This is revealed in the archeological remains which show food abandoned in a great hurry. Charred rice from the granaries also reveal this sad tale.
Mongols accept challenge
Nalanda University is no more not because Buddhists gave up learning Buddhism but because foreign invaders not only massacred the Buddhist monks and Buddhist students but burnt the books in the library. It is said that the books continued to burn over a considerable length of time with the sky turning black due to the smoke. It was in realizing the destruction that had occurred to the six great Buddhist Universities of India which had international fame being 1. Nalanda, 2. Vickramasila, 3. Odantapuri, 4. Jagaddala 5. Somapura and 6. Vallabhi, that stirred Buddhist Asia especially among the yellow race and particularly among Mongolians that accepted the challenge to free Asia from foreign domination and influence that led to counter attacks by Genghis Khan and decades later in time by his grandson Hulagu under whose leadership, the Mongols captured South West Asia, destroyed the greatest center of Islamic power, Baghdad, including the Caliphate and also weakened Damascus considerably resulting in the shift of Islamic influence to the Mamluks in Cairo. These Mongolian attacks were meant to avenge the death and destruction that invaders from South West Asia, Middle East and West Asia had wrought on central Asians and people of the Indian sub – continent through repeated and unceasing invasions.
While being grateful to the donations from various foreign Governments to revive the world’s most ancient university, what needs to be reiterated is that it should not be turned into simply a secular international university totally suppressing its Buddhist cultural identity. We like to see committed Buddhists leading dedicated Buddhist Universities. Buddhism is not a showboat religion. It is still very much a living religion and its practices and institutions must be preserved and respected accordingly. Business ventures are important but not to the extent of transforming a highly venerated historic Buddhist educational institution into something else that will hardly have any Buddhist colouring. This is simply unacceptable to the Buddhists of the world.