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Nalanda: The Seat of Ancient Learning – Part 2

Nalanda: The Seat of Ancient Learning – Part 2

Thangka image depicting Shakaymuni Buddha and 17 Nalanda Pandits.

In this concluding part of the article, the author, Prasanta Paul, throws a light on the high academic standard Nalanda university sought to ensure during its era which brought it name and fame in Asia and beyond

Nalanda was the largest residential centre of learning the world had ever known during the time it had flourished. There were thousands of students and teachers.

The subjects taught at the Nalanda university covered every field of learning. The courses offered included the study of scriptures of the Mahayana and Hinayana Schools of Buddhism, Brahminical vedic texts , philosophy, logic, theology, grammar, astronomy, mathematics and medicine.

A long succession of kings from the 5th to the 12th century including the great emperor Harshavardhana of Kannauj and the Pala kings, extended their royal patronage to ensure the progress and prosperity of the university.

The town is depicted as prosperous and accounts for numerous buildings. One of them was a bathing hall supported by a hundred pillars.

Sariputra’s statue

Buddha’s favourite disciple, Sariputra, was born here and he died preaching in this place. In the third century BC, Mauryan emperor Ashoka honoured the famous monk with a grand stupa. Individual monks and scholars often gathered for ecclesiastical discourse.

Since the time of Buddha, Bhikkhus were encouraged to study various arts and sciences. Learning was greatly encouraged as it served the dual purpose of knowledge gain and practice.

Monks from across the world came to the university seeking admission. They took to learning so that they might practice it, understand nuances of Dhamma (religion) and thereby enrich the academic and religious standard of the masses.

The old and incapable were suggested to attach more importance to the practice of meditation.

Following Hie-un-Tsang’s departure, eleven Chinese and Korean travellers are known to have visited Nalanda.
I-Tsing who travelled to India by sea and spent over ten years in the same monastery, observed that learned priests of Nalanda used to ride in sedan chairs and never on horse back.

I-Tsing mentioned that eight monastic buildings and over 300 apartments were there and their sizes widely varied. Small and rectangular cells served as single and double-bedded rooms for students.

The depiction of I-Tsing (Yi Jing) 7th century pilgrim that visited Srivijaya. Displayed in Kedatuan Sriwijaya temporary exhibition, November 2017, in the National Museum of Indonesia. Photo & caption Credit : Wikipedia

From these accounts, we learn about the craze of the Asian students to qualify for admission to Nalanda.

Normally, not more than two or three out of ten candidates were selected after routine screening that lasted for weeks. All the admission seekers were lodged in guest houses and Dwar Pandits(gate professors) who guarded entry to the institute’s numerous courses, assessed the personality, behavior and intellect of the students.

Close scrutiny of candidates was necessary to maintain the high standard of learning for which the university was famous for.

Students seeking admission were supposed to have attained a degree of proficiency in Sanskrit grammar, Vedas, Upanishads and of course, the cannons of Buddhism.

The Nalanda method of teaching was based on the concept of discussion and debate among the scholars under the guidance of respective teachers, something akin to modern day tutorials.

Freshers were lectured by teachers, but more advanced students worked in smaller groups and there are even references of one teacher for a single student.

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The student teacher relationship was based on reverence, respect and affection. In case of sickness, students and teachers took care of each other. Students were responsible for the overall care and maintenance of the university.

Sweeping the floor, organizing the kitchen, maintaining discipline, allotment of rooms, and residential arrangements were responsibilities of the monks.

Sariputra Stupa
Sariputra Stupa which was built by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC

On completion of their studies, pupils paid as much as they wished, to their teachers. Award ceremonies were periodically organized to honour meritorious students.

After finishing their education in the university, scholars proceeded to the king’s court and presented themselves for appointments or assignments. Scholars from Nalanda went to far-off places to preach and propagate Buddhism.

Sometimes, these scholars were invited to countries like Ceylon, China, Tibet, Java and Korea to translate the leading works of Buddhism into foreign languages, to establish monasteries or simply for royal consultation.

A walk through the ruins of the ruins of this excavated place takes one to an era that saw India leading in imparting knowledge to the world, an era when India happened to be one of the most coveted places of study and learning.

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