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Buddhist Nalanda: Oldest residential university of the world
Edwin Ariyadasa, Daily News (Sri Lanka), Saturday, January 31, 2009
To some pilgrims, visiting sacred sites in India, Nalanda may not, at first, impress as a place, possessing a direct 'Buddhist significance'. It is widely known as the site of the Nalanda University. But it was a Buddhist University.
Besides, it was the earliest residential university of the world. The stupa enshrining the sacred relics of Ven. Sariputta, one of the chief disciples of the Buddha is located at this site, adjacent to the university complex. This too makes it a Buddhist site.
We arrived at Nalanda from Rajagaha. Immediately our motor coach stopped at the site, an interesting sight - partly humorous - met our eyes.
A group of urchins a ubiquitous tribe, frequenting tourist sites displaying an admirable ingenuity, hastily staged a little drama. They spread a mat by the side of the road. Some children sat on it. A slightly elder child assumed the role of teacher and a class began.
After engendering interest in the visitors, they gathered round them. They stated their grievance. "These children are keen to study. But, they do not have the means. Can the visitors please help?" They enacted this minor play, fully aware that visitors to Nalanda would have a keenness for education.
The significance of the name Nalanda is variously interpreted. According to one etymological explanation, Nalanda implies the giver of knowledge ('Nalan' is lotus, 'da' is giver, lotus is symbolic of purity - pure knowledge). Others describe it as 'non-stop giving' (nalan - non-stop, da - giving).
Nalanda, which has been called 'one of the first great universities in recorded history', existed from 427 to 1197 AD.
In the days of the Buddha too, Nalanda had a reputation as a centre of learning. When the Buddha visited Nalanda, his favourite place of residence was Pavarika's Mango Grove. He had philosophic dissensions with householder Upali, Digatapassi, and with Kevatta.
Nalanda Buddhist Residential University accommodated over 10,000 students in its heyday and had a faculty of about 20,000. It was a massive and complex structure and was reputed as an architectural marvel.
It was protected by a lofty wall with one gate. Nalanda was organised in separate compounds and ten temples. Its functional efficiency was ensured by meditation halls, lecture rooms, storage facilities, stages, refectories. The complex included lakes and parks.
The University had four door-ways. Each of these was presided over by a learned Professor - described as 'The Professor at the Door' (dvara-acharya). A scholar seeking entrance to the University, will be extensively examined by the Professor at the Door. If he is happy about the scholar's potential to benefit for the University, he will be admitted. It was literally an 'Entrance Test'.
Hardly anyone was turned away. If it was felt that a given scholar was wanting the expected skills, he will be directed to an Auxiliary Institution. With sufficient intellectual maturity he will receive placement at the main University. Scholars from Tibet, Korea, Japan, China, Indonesia, Persia and perhaps from Sri Lanka too, sought admission.
Its academic curriculum included all fields of knowledge in the contemporary world - Buddhism, Hinduism, sciences, astronomy, medicine, logic and philosophies.
Nalanda Library, known as "Dharma Gunj (Mountain of Truth)" possessed hundreds of thousands of volumes. The Library had three main buildings, each as high as nine-storeyed.
The three were named 'Ratnasagara', 'Ratnodadhi' and 'Ratnaranjaka'. The University dealt with both Theravada and Mahayana, in-depth. The Chinese Pilgrim monk Xuanzang, who visited Nalanda in the 7th century, left copious accounts of the University. He records that in addition to theory, the practice of rites and rituals was also taught.
After tragedy befell to this great and prestigious seat of learning in 1193, a cruel and inhuman ruler named Bakhtiyar Khilji, destroyed the University, massacring thousands of monks in cold-blood.
The enormous collection of books was set to fire, along with the buildings that housed them. They burnt for months, darkening the hills around. After a while, the inhuman, cruel and vicious ruler asked his men, "What did we burn?"
Excavations at the site, have unearthed an extent of land of about 150,000 square metres. But, almost 90 per cent of the site remains unexcavated.
In a highly significant cultural initiative, a one-billion-dollar plan is ready to revive Nalanda University. This effort is being made by a consortium led by Singapore. Among those other nations supporting this revival are China, Japan and India. Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, former President of India, will be one of the stalwarts, lending support for the revival of Nalanda University.
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has stated that the Foundation of the University, will take place probably this year.
Although, it may not be quite possible to restore the original glory of Nalanda the world's oldest residential university, the revival is a noble gesture, symbolizing the potential of cultural urges to unify people and lands.
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Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa.
Buddha sāsana.m cira.m ti.t.thatu.