Comments on the upcoming Nalanda University

by P. K. Gautam, IDSA, August 31, 2010

New Delhi, India -- The new Nalanda University now being planned to be rebuilt will soon provide momentum to the systematic study of Buddhism in India of various shades and nuances.

Two events led to the near extinction of Buddhism from the plains of India. One account as given by Hiuen Tsang showed that crusades of Kumarila and Sankaracharya for revival of Hinduism in the 8th century was a potent factor in rendering Buddhism unpopular.

The second event or the final blow was delivered by Muslim invaders. Muhammad Bakhtiar Khalji at the end of the 12th Century destroyed Buddhist religious infrastructure such as Nalanda. However, the knowledge and literature of Buddhism rather than being available in India was preserved or we can even say became ingrained and further developed in Tibet before it was eliminated in India. This lost literature is available in Tibetan and Chinese and not in Sanskrit.

Besides, in recent times, a new trend is emerging with international dimensions: more and more Westerners are getting attracted to Tibetan Buddhism. One Chinese author has estimated about two lakh American and European converts in the last 25 years. Buddhism is getting truly globalised. What is unique is that we are now at a stage where we can facilitate the consolidation of this great religion – which was the result of the hard work and influence of Indian monks, philosophers and travellers in the past such as Santaraksita, Padmasambhav, Kamalsila, Atisha Dipankara, Tilopa, Naropa, Dharmaraksa, Kasyapa Matanga , Anand and Bodhidharma and others.

There is a new momentum. Institutes as centres of learning and preservation of the Buddhist culture exist in the Himalayas, like The Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Ladakh, the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, Gangtok, and the Central Institute of Himalayan Culture Studies in Arunachal Pradesh. In mainland India in the plains, many universities have departments of Buddhist studies like Delhi University, Banaras Hindu University, Shantiniketan and so on. The Varanasi (Sarnath) based Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies (CIHTS) envisioned by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in consultation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama was established in 1967 with a view to educating the youth of Tibet and Himalayan border students of India.

It is now an autonomous body under the Department of Culture, Ministry of Education, Government of India. The institute is achieving its goal of excellence in the field of Tibetology, Buddhology and Himalayan Studies. Another university of repute is the Sampuranannd Sanskrit University at Varanasi. This university has a number of Buddhist seats of learning accredited to it for grant of degrees like Nalanda Institute of Buddhist Studies (Dharma Chakra Centre), Rumtek, Gangtok, Institute of Higher Nyigma Studies, Gangtok, Central Institute of Himalayan Culture Studies, Dahung (West Kameng District), Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Choglamsar, Ladakh, and so on. One can say that Indian and Tibetan institutes are “networked”. A synergy exists with other seats of learning set up or under consideration by the Tibetans in India.

The Indian principal of Central Institute of Himalayan Culture Studies in Dahung, Arunachal Pradesh, Shri Geshe Ngawang Tashi Bapu (Lama Tashi), was born in Kameng District and had his Lama education in the Tibetan establishment at Drepung Loseling Monastery at Mundgod, Karnataka which he calls as the “ Harvard of India” . He is also the former Principal Chant Master of the Dalai Lama’s Drepung Loseling Monastery in India—one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world with over 3,000 monks. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for his path breaking Tibetan chants in 2006 (available in CD).

The new Nalanda University now being planned to be rebuilt will soon provide momentum to the systematic study of Buddhism in India of various shades and nuances. According to Shashi Tharoor, Nalanda was destroyed three times by invaders, but only rebuilt twice. The first time was when the Huns under Mihirakula laid waste to the campus during the reign of Skandagupta (455- 67CE), when Nalanda was only a few decades old. Skanda’s successors rebuilt it. The second destruction came a century and a half later, with an assault by the Gaudas in early seventh century. This time the great Hindu king Harshavardhana (606-48) restored the university. Nearly 800 years after its founding, Nalanda was destroyed a third time and burnt by Turkish Muslim invaders under Bakhtiar Khilji in 1197. This time there was no reconstruction. Tharoor argues that if we are to rebuild it after 800 years, we will need not just money but the will to excellence, not just a physical plant but a determined spirit. A great University is the finest advertisement for the society that sustains it. If we recreate Nalanda, it must be as a university worth its name – and we must be a society worthy of a twenty- first century Nalanda.

It may be admitted that unlike the PRC which, according to some accounts, is “fast assuming the leadership role of the Buddhist world,” no comprehensive long- term strategic thought has been given to India nurturing and using this spiritual and cultural power to its advantage.

Through its Look East policy and the upcoming Nalanda University, India will take its rightful place in the Buddhist world. At present, Indian scholars on Buddhism in general and Tibetologists in particular are rare or if they exist are barely known. Rather the best scholars who also undertake painstaking field work in remote Indian border region are foreigners like Prof. Toni Huber, Professor of Tibetan Studies, Humbolt University, Berlin (Germany), Prof. Alex McKay, formerly of University of London, and Indo-Tibetan Historian, affiliate fellow, International Institute of Asian Studies, Lieden, the Netherlands. Scholars such as Melvyn C. Goldstien and Mathew T. Kapstien of the US have no matching contemporaries in India.

High calibre and motivated professionals need to be appointed to the university. At the same time, a network with Namgyal Institute of Tibetlogy (Gangtok), Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies Sarnath, Sampurnanand Sanskrit University, Varanasi, Central Institute of Himalayan Culture Studies, Dahung, Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Choglamsar (Ladakh), Delhi University and other universities in India must also be established rapidly. India will need to catch up with Buddhist studies and Tibetology as it has progressed in many Western universities.

I conclude by drawing a parallel with the state of international studies in India. Indian political scientists and those in the strategic community lament that like in the West there is no India-specific international studies in India or its important off shoot - international relations. India is branded as a consumer of ideas. The Nalanda initiative may go the same way if the government does not step in to create and support the human resource needed for such an enterprise. It should not be a sinecure for retied bureaucrats in any case.

A former Principal of the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Choglamsar (Ladakh) had felt that “historically we need to understand that it is the ‘Nalanda System of Religion’ that informs Buddhism in these parts (Buddhist Indian Himalayan Region and Ladakh). The top managers of the forthcoming university have no deep knowledge about Buddhism and its nuances. The climate, terrain and environment have to be conducive for Buddhism. People also must be living and practicing it. In the plains the impact and influence gets diluted. The best place for a centre of this knowledge is Ladakh. Further, we need to have practitioners to make the Nalanda school fully operational. Though both faith and academic knowledge have their roles, absence of practitioners is lacking and is a key issue.”

It may be good idea to have the Nalanda University’s extensions in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. The ideal place to encourage scholars to be involved or be recruited for present and future is from the Buddhist belt all along the Himalayas. Other regions and scholar also must be encouraged. Many non-practising Buddhists are indeed in various department of India, but their number is less. The government, therefore, must also revive studies linked to Nalanda with departments of Buddhist studies in various Indian universities. Jobs must be created to encourage a young generation of Indian scholars to master Prakrit, Pali and other aspect of Buddhist studies which originated in India. Nitishstra also needs to be rediscovered. In the departments of IR at Nalanda, Chanakya studies must be encouraged and in the environmental department India-specific traditions of caring for the environment must be theorised vigorously.

Finally the naxal threat deters one to undertake travel by rail and road. Trains are generally late. The infrastructure for visitors must also be improved by involving the local communities of Rajgir and Nalanda.

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