Nalanda University- the lost Indian Knowledge

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Nalanda University

Knowledge is a powerful gift for mankind. It can create, improve and destroy generations and generations. The world based on knowledge collected for centuries is thriving the way none imagined it to be. We live in a technically advanced world; with everything we need just a click away. Google is one of the major holders of worldwide knowledge. It’s a master library of ancient, modern, and even futuristic knowledge which we can acquire just over a single command.

But what happened before the advent of Google? How did the world manage to store an endless sea of knowledge? We had libraries of handwritten books that proved the very existence of human brain capacity. These libraries were generally a part of a university or a religious cult and one such university existed in India, which had a massive amount of ancient books stored within its library. We are talking about the second oldest University- Nalanda. It is counted among some of the greatest universities the country had even before the world understood the role of schooling within the civilization. It stored all our ancient handwritten terrain of knowledge that none else possessed and was a principal seat of learning till it was destroyed. You heard that right; Nalanda University, the Harvard of ancient India, was destroyed in 1193 CE. But who destroyed our ancient gem? What was the real reason behind the collapse of the university? Let’s check that out.

The Destruction of Nalanda University

Established in 427 CE, Nalanda University was one of the greatest universities of the time. Spread across the area of 14 hectares in the ancient kingdom of Magadha (now Bihar), it was the sole learning seat for students across the world. Several pilgrims from China, Tibet, Greece, and even Persia visited Nalanda for its glorious schooling. The name ‘Nalanda’ originated from three Sanskrit words ‘Na’, ‘Alam’, ‘Da’, meaning no stopping for the gift of knowledge.

Not much is known about Nalanda in its original years, however, the 17th-century Tibetan Lama, states that the 3rd-century BCE Mauryan Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, built a great temple at Nalanda at the site of Shariputra’s chaitya. He placed famed philosophers Mahayana, Nagarjuna, and his disciple, Aryadeva as the head of the institute. But Nalanda’s datable history comes from Gupta Empire, dating back 2100 years through evacuations that found a seal that identified a monarch named Shakraditya as its founder. Many believe that the university was built by Kumar Gupta in the 5th century. 

From 427 CE to 1193 CE, several rulers from India and beyond contributed to building the university even further. The campus contained 10 temples, meditation halls, dormitories, classrooms, and monasteries including lakes and parks. It housed 10,000 students and 2000 monks inside the campus from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, and Turkey. It is believed that the institute constitutes over 9 million manuscripts all handwritten in its library. This library was called ‘Dharmakunj’ which meant a mountain of knowledge. The institute taught a great curriculum starting from Mahayana Buddhism, Vedas, logic, Sanskrit grammar, medicine, Astronomy, and more subjects. The students who got entry into Nalanda didn’t have to pay any schooling or boarding fee, it was all completely free. The local Kings would take care of all the expenses.

Nalanda University

But this glory was soon destroyed by Muslim Invaders under the command of Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji in the 12th century. The Turkish chieftain was a service commander in Awadh. He was given two villages in Bihar that had turned into a political no-man land. Khalji began a series of plundering raids in Bihar for which he was recognized and rewarded.  Khalji also decided to attack all the forts in Bihar, and thus was successful in looting it. He attacked the gates of the university where several Brahmans were housed, their heads were shaven and all the Brahmans were slain. Noticing the huge numbers of Books, Khalji was amused with the knowledge they possessed and decided to destroy all of them in order to restrain the knowledge from getting in their way of glory. Thousands were beheaded and the burning of library hung for days (almost three months) like dark pawl of clouds.

One account is suggested in the biography of a Tibetan monk Dharmasvamin, who came to India between 1234 and 1236. During his journey, he also visited Nalanda and found a small part of it still surviving. While most of the buildings were completely damaged, there were still that remained. He says that 2 Viharas named Dhanaba and Ghunaba were still providing service at the university. A 90-year-old teacher Rahul Sri Bhadra was instructing a class of around 70 students. Dharmasvamin believed that the Mahavihara had not been completely destroyed for superstitious reasons as one of the soldiers who had participated in the massacre had immediately fallen ill.

Another legend says that Rahul Sri Bhadra, a Buddhist scholar once treated Khalji for an illness that was said to be incurable by the Hakims of Khalji’s court. Bhaktiyar Khalji was disturbed by the fact that an Indian scholar knew more than his own hakims. He invited the university to convert to Islam but the Brahmans peacefully refused him. And hence, he decided to destroy all the roots of Ayurvedic knowledge the country had. For this, he set the library of Nalanda University on fire and burned down almost 9 million manuscripts. 

The Bottom Line

Nalanda University

The library that was set on fire kept burning for three months and all this happened much before the world knew about the printing press. This meant that all the handwritten books were one of its kinds and had no copies available anywhere else in the world. Nalanda was our knowledge, the knowledge stored for centuries and hence it was destroyed. It was a barbaric act that destroyed all our ancient knowledge and ideologies to impose their own on us. The only knowledge we had from Nalanda came from Chinese monks who traveled here for education. The rest comes from the monks that fled to Tibet in 1204 at the invitation of the Tibetan translator Tropu Lotsawa. The Dalai Lama also refers to himself as a follower of the lineage of the seventeen Nalanda masters.

The loss of Nalanda was the loss of knowledge, the ancient knowledge we had even before the west knew about it. And it’s a proof in itself that seems to shed light on several Indian legends including Ashoka’s nine unknown men. It proves that India has had great minds since the very beginning and that’s the major reason why the west tried to loot it from us.   

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