Nalanda is the name of an ancient university in Bihar, India. The site of Nalanda is located in the Indian state of Bihar, about 55 miles south east of Patna, and was a Buddhist center of learning from 427 to 1197 CE. It has been called “one of the first great universities in recorded history.” Some parts of Nalanda university were constructed by the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great e.g. the Sariputta Stupa. The Gupta Dynasty also patronized some monasteries. According to historians, Nalanda flourished between 427 CE and 1197 CE, mainly on account of patronage of Buddhist Emperors like Harshavardhana and Pala kings of Pala dynasty. The ruins of Nalanda University occupy an area of 14 hectares. This university was completely built with Red Bricks. At its peak, Nalanda University attracted scholars and students from many parts of the globe e.g. China, Greece etc.
Nalanda was identified by Alexander Cunningham with the village of Baragaon.
The name is a Sanskrit word that means giver of knowledge. The Chinese pilgrim-monk Xuanzang gives several explanations of the name Nalanda. One is that it was named after the Naga who lived in a tank in the middle of the mango grove. Another – the one he accepted – is that Shakyamuni Buddha once had his capital here and gave “alms without intermission”, hence the name.
The micro analysis of the word “Nalanda” which to be broken as ‘Na Alam Da’ suggests that it was a question among the knowledge seekers literally “not giving enough”, which seems a philosophical mark.
Sariputta passed away at the village called ‘Nalaka’, which is also identified as Nalanda by many scholars.
Nalanda in the time of the Buddha (500 BCE)
The Buddha is mentioned as having several times stayed at Nalanda. When he visited Nalanda he would usually reside in Pavarika’s mango grove, and while there he had discussions with Upali-Gahapati and Dighatapassi, with Kevatta, and also several conversations with Asibandhakaputta.
The Buddha visited Nālandā during his last tour through Magadha, and it was there that Sariputta uttered his “lion’s roar,” affirming his faith in the Buddha, shortly before his death. The road from Rajagaha to Nalanda passed through Ambalatthika, and from Nalanda it went on to Pataligama. Between Rajagaha and Nalanda was situated the Bahuputta cetiya.
According to the Kevatta Sutta, in the Buddha’s time Nalanda was already an influential and prosperous town, thickly populated, though it was not until later that it became the centre of learning for which it afterwards became famous. There is a record in the Samyutta Nikaya, of the town having been the victim of a severe famine during the Buddha’s time. Sariputta, the right hand disciple of the Buddha, was born and died in Nalanda.
Nālandā was the residence of Sonnadinna. Mahavira is several times mentioned as staying at Nalanda, which was evidently a centre of activity of the Jains. Mahavira is believed to have attained Moksha at Pavapuri, which is located in Nalanda (also according to one sect of Jainism he was born in the nearby village called Kundalpur).
King Asoka (250 BC) is said to have built a stupa in the memory of Sariputta. According to Tibetan sources, Nagarjuna taught there.
Arising and establishment of Nalanda University
Historical studies indicate that the University of Nalanda was established 450 CE under the patronage of the Gupta emperors, notably Kumaragupta.
The entrance of many of the viharas in Nalanda University ruins can be seen with a bow marked floor; bow was the royal sign of Guptas’
Description of Nalanda University
Nalanda was one of the world’s first residential universities, i.e., it had dormitories for students. It is also one of the most famous universities. In its heyday it accommodated over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. The university was considered an architectural masterpiece, and was marked by a lofty wall and one gate. Nalanda had eight separate compounds and ten temples, along with many other meditation halls and classrooms. On the grounds were lakes and parks. The library was located in a nine storied building where meticulous copies of texts were produced. The subjects taught at Nalanda University covered every field of learning, and it attracted pupils and scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey. The Tang Dynasty Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang left detailed accounts of the university in the 7th century.
The seal of Nalanda University set in terracotta on display in the ASI Museum in Nalanda
The library of Nalanda, known as Dharma Gunj (Mountain of Truth) or Dharmaganja (Treasury of Truth), was the most renowned repository of Buddhist knowledge in the world at the time. Its collection was said to comprise hundreds of thousands of volumes, so extensive that it burned for months when set aflame by invaders. The library had three main buildings as high as nine stories tall, Ratnasagara (Sea of Jewels), Ratnodadhi (Ocean of Jewels), and Ratnaranjaka (Delighter of Jewels)
In an unattributed article of the Dharma Fellowship (2005), the curriculum of Nalanda University at the time of Manjusrimitra contained …virtually the entire range of world knowledge then available. Courses were drawn from every field of learning, Buddhist and Hindu, sacred and secular, foreign and native. Students studied science, astronomy, medicine, and logic as diligently as they applied themselves to metaphysics, philosophy, Samkhya, Yoga-shastra, the Veda, and the scriptures of Buddhism. They studied foreign philosophy likewise. Berzin (2002) outlines the “four systems of Buddhist tenets” or “four doxographies” (Tibetan: grub-mtha) taught at Nalanda, the Vaibhashika (Tibetan: bye-brag smra-ba) and Sautrantika (Tibetan: mdo-sde-pa) of the Sarvastivada (Tibetan: thams-cad yod-par smra-ba); and the Chittamatra (Sanskrit: sems-tsam-pa) and Madhyamaka (Tibetan: dbu-ma-pa) of the Mahayana:
In the Indian Mahayana Buddhist monasteries, such as Nalanda, monks studied four systems of Buddhist tenets. Two Vaibhashika and Sautrantika were subdivisions of the Sarvastivada school within Hinayana. The other two Chittamatra and Madhyamaka were subdivisions within Mahayana.
Influence on Buddhism
A vast amount of what came to comprise Tibetan Buddhism, both its sutric Mahayana traditions and its (Vajrayana) traditions, stems from the late (9th–12th century) Nalanda teachers and traditions. The scholar Dharmakirti (ca. 7th century), one of the Buddhist founders of Indian philosophical logic, as well as and one of the primary theorists of Buddhist atomism, taught at Nalanda.
Other forms of Buddhism, like the Mahayana followed in Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan, found their genesis within the walls of the ancient university.
Theravada Buddhism was also taught at Nalanda University, but its teachings were not developed further there, as Nalanda was not a strong center of Theravada.
The last throne-holder of Nalanda, Shakyashribhadra, fled to Tibet in 1204 CE at the invitation of the Tibetan translator Tropu Lotsawa (Khro-phu Lo-tsa-ba Byams-pa dpal). In Tibet he started an ordination lineage of the Mulasarvastivadin lineage to complement the two existing ones.
When the Tibetan translator Chag Lotsawa (Chag Lo-tsa-ba, 1197-1264) visited the site in 1235, he found it damaged and looted, with a 90-year-old teacher, Rahula Shribhadra, instructing a class of about 70 students.
Ahir considers the destruction of the temples, monasteries, centers of learning at Nalanda and northern India to be responsible for the demise of ancient Indian scientific thought in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, and anatomy.
A number of ruined structures survive. Nearby is the Surya Mandir, a Hindu temple. The known and excavated ruins extend over an area of about 150,000 square metres, although if Xuanzang’s account of Nalanda’s extent is correlated with present excavations, almost 90% of it remains unexcavated.
Nalanda is no longer inhabited. Today the nearest habitation is a village called Bargaon.
In 1951, a modern centre for Pali (Theravadin) Buddhist studies was founded nearby by Bhikshu Jagdish Kashyap, the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara. Presently, this institute is pursuing an ambitious program of satellite imaging of the entire region.
The Nalanda Museum contains a number of manuscripts, and shows many examples of the items that have been excavated.
India’s first Multimedia Museum was opened on 26 January 2008, which recreates the history of Nalanda using a 3D animation film narrated by Shekhar Suman. Besides this there are four more sections in the Multimedia Museum: Geographical Perspective, Historical Perspective, Hall of Nalanda and Revival of Nalanda.