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Comment: The Upcoming Nalanda University

September 2, 2010

P. K. Gautam
Institute of Defence (IDSA India)
August 31, 2010

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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