- November 17, 2021
- Posted by: OptimizeIAS Team
- Category: DPN Topics
Subject – History
Context – Recent scholarship has brought about a shift in the way Nalanda, the world’s most ancient university, is seen.
- Nalanda, the ruins of one of the world’s most prestigious seats of learning, is located 95 kilometres from Patna, the capital of Bihar, and 110 km from Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
- Declared a Word Heritage Site in 2016, Nalanda is seen as the world’s most ancient university, flourishing much before Europe’s oldest university, Bologna, came into being in the 11th-12th century.
- Contemporary sources, however, describe the site as a mahavihara, a great monastery.
- Nalanda, therefore, functioned as a premier monastic-cum-scholastic establishment in ancient and early medieval India.
- Today, one can see there the remains of temples, monastic dwellings, votive structures and art works in stucco, bronze and stone dating from the 5th century C.E. to the 12th century C.E.
Literary Sources –
- As far as literary sources are concerned, most of the information on the history, functioning and, sometimes, the layout of the mahavihara comes from the accounts of Chinese Buddhist monks such as Xuanzang(also known as Hiuen Tsang) and Yijing (also known as I Tsing), primarily the former.
- Both travelled to India and stayed in the great monastery complex in the 7th century.
- Xuanzang’s account links both the Buddha (6th century BCE) and the Mauryan king Asoka (c. 268-232 BCE) with Nalanda.
- The Chinese monk likewise credits Asoka with the construction of a stupa/temple in honour of Sariputra, one of the Buddha’s closest disciples.
- Further, the archaeological findings—the material remains at Nalanda belong to the Gupta period/5th century C.E. onwards—do not support Xuanzang’s pre-Gupta history of the site.
- The rulers of the Gupta dynasty (c. 300-600 C.E.) were usually known for patronising Brahmanical cults, but some of them also supported Buddhism.
- Buddhist sources indicate that the Gupta King Vikramaditya sent his queen and son Baladitya to study under the famous Buddhist scholar Vasubandhu, who was based at Nalanda.
- Some texts mention that King Narasimhagupta became a Buddhist monk and gave up his life through meditation. Xuanzang also talks about the Guptas’ royal connection with Nalanda. He reports that shortly after the Buddha’s demise, a king called Shakraditya built a monastery at the site.
- Scholar Heras identifies Shakraditya with Kumaragupta I, Buddhagupta with Skandagupta, Tathagatagupta with Puragupta and Baladitya with Narasimhagupta.
- Nalanda seemingly continued to enjoy royal patronage in post-Gupta times as well: during the reign of Harshavardana (606-648 C.E.), the King of Kannauj (in Uttar Pradesh); and the Palas, who ruled over modern Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh from the 8th through 12th centuries. Xuangzang visited Nalanda during Harshavardana’s reign.
- The Palas were known to be Buddhists.
- Dharmapala (c. 781-821 C.E.), the second Pala king, is known to have supported the establishment of two monasteries: Somapura (better known as Paharpur, now in Bangladesh) and Vikramshila (in Bhagalpur in Bihar).
- An inscription from Nalanda records his gifting of a village for the upkeep of the great monastery.
- Another inscription from the site describes Devapala (c. 821 to 861 C.E.), Dharmapala’s successor, as helping the ruler of Suvarnadvipa (Sumatra), Balaputra, build a monastery at Nalanda and acquire five villages to support its maintenance.
- It is also known for several gifts to the mahavihara, again independent of the Pala kings.
- It is widely held that Nalanda started declining in the late-Pala period and was given a death blow around 1200 C.E by the invasion of BakhtiyarKhalji, the Afghan military commander of Delhi’s Turkish ruler QutbuddinAibek.
The mahavihara as a university
- Most of the information on the functioning of Nalanda as a university—its student strength, curriculum and buildings—comes from Chinese and Tibetan texts, which also emphasise the purity of its monastic discipline.
- Nalanda attracted students from China, Japan, Korea and from countries in South-East and Central Asia.
- Some scholars argue, though not on the basis of any direct evidence, that Nalanda’s curriculum went beyond religious texts to include literature, theology, logic, grammar, medicine, philosophy, the arts and metaphysics.
Decline of Nalanda
- The two major theories that explain the decline of Nalanda both talk about a possible destruction of the mahavihara and of a somewhat sudden or cataclysmic decline.
- The most common theory for the decline of Nalanda says the site was ransacked and destroyed by BakhtiyarKhalji.
- This theory is entirely based on a Persian work by Minhaj al-SirajJuzjani (1193-1260) called Tabaqat-iNasiri, which forms an elaborate history of the Islamic world during the reign of the Delhi sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah (1246-66).
- It is important to note that the word “Nalanda” is mentioned nowhere in Minhaj’s account.
- The second theory broadly locates the decline in the context of the animosity between Brahmins and Buddhists. It finds expression in the writings of historians such as D.N. Jha, B.N.S. Yadava, R.K. Mookerji and SukumarDutt.