A voluminous and timely book published by Dr Pintu Kumar of the Department of History, Motilal Nehru College (Evening), University of Delhi, calls into question some flawed assumptions of fraughtful consequences relating to an important aspect of the early history of Buddhism at the place of its origin (Buddhist Learning in South Asia: Education, Religion, and Culture at the Ancient Sri Nalanda Mahavihara, Lexington Books, 2018). The author moves away from simplistic modern day categorisations of the historic Nalanda Mahavihara in Bihar, either as “half monastery, half university” or more megalomaniac international university — formulations which ascribe modern meanings on an ancient institution for advanced training in Buddhist religion and philosophy. Instead, the setting up and functioning of the large Buddhist monastic institution of learning is studied in terms of its ideological orientation and physical expansion in relation to politics of patronage.

This is an important theme in the history of Buddhism, which has recently acquired topical significance. The richly detailed monograph by Dr Kumar is a must read for those misled by ill-informed assertions in the service of modern politics of religion or secularism with a misplaced sense of pride in the past. The recent attempt to revive the Buddhist Vihara at Nalanda as an International University has run into political difficulties. The assumption that there was an international university at the site functioning through the first millennium CE, and which should be revived in all its glory is no less preposterous.

It has been argued that an international university of worldwide reputation was set up at Nalanda way back in the 5th century and it flourished over the next seven centuries before it was destroyed by a marauding Turkish force led by Bakhtiyar Khalji at the end of the 12th century. The learned Professor Amartya Sen has often suggested that a nine-storied university building serving aspiring international students was attacked by an army of invaders which also devastated many cities on their way to Nalanda. The irony is such a fictitious narrative fits well with the right-wing fabrications of the past, which Professor Sen is seemingly combating. Thus, the revived Nalanda University project can feed the canards on destructions and havoc created by medieval Muslim rulers, with the assertion that this was the time for course correction and even revenge.

The Turkish-Muslim conquest of Punjab, Hindustan and Bengal involved little violence and no dislocation of general population. In Bihar, the army landed up and ransacked a Buddhist monastery without knowing what it was: fortress, Hindu temple, Buddhist monastery or educational institution? By the end of the 12th century, beforeTurkish conquest and forced by Brahmanical reassertion, Buddhism was reduced to some monasteries even in Bihar where it originated. It had to either assimilate itself into a broader Brahmanical-Hindu tradition or relocate to eastern frontiers of Bengal, Myanmar, further east into South-East Asia, besides China and Japan, where inroads were already made for a millennium. Monks and pilgrims from those countries took arduous journeys to visit the places of pilgrimage in Buddhism’s original home. Those important sites and monasteries are now being glorified as international universities. Meanwhile, the tragic history of Buddhism in Bihar has reached its climax with the Census of India reporting that there only 0.02% Buddhists are left in the state today, a mere 25,000 out of a whopping 10 crore.

In this connection, mention may also be made of the horrible violence involving the Rohingya. The current attempt to convert the Rohingya issue into Buddhist-Muslim struggle is an unfortunate spin to long-standing ethnic conflict. The attackers happen to be Buddhist chauvinists unleashing gruesome violence on “Bengali” Rohingya, the majority of whom might have embraced Islam from possible Tantric-Buddhist antecedents—probably originating in early medieval Bihar and undergoing a process of cultural accretion over the past several centuries even as they moved eastward. That ethnic struggle takes a violent religious turn and goes out of control is well reflected in an appalling political position and attitude of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.

As the very sensible Dalai Lama has frequently observed, Buddha would indeed not have approved the kind of violence the world is confronted with today. The abuse of the past in the politics of religion or seeking to revive it, even if for a noble venture, is fraught with all kinds of consequences. In such matters, men in positions of power need to act responsibly and understand that discretion is the better part of valour. Planning to build new institutions of higher education with facilities and infrastructure at par with world-class universities is a commendable idea, but this should not be linked with any symbolic revival of a glorious past without a proper understanding of what that past might have been like.

Replies to “Assumptions on Nalanda questioned”

  1. The Muslims did not destroy only Nalanda and other centres of high learning in India but they destroyed also the Buddhism of Indonesia, a Buddhism which produced the wonder of Borobudur, now a world heritage under UNESCO patronage. They destroyed the Buddhism of Afghanistan. The Buddhism of Central Asia, a Buddhism which invented Zen, which developed as Chan in China. The Chinese Buddhist missionaries subsequently transmitted Chan to Japan where is is known as Zen. The Muslims destroyed the Buddhism of Den Huang, in North Western China. Paul Peliot, the French archeologist brought dozens of crates of Buddhist manuscripts from Central Asia and are now preserved at the National Library in Paris, waiting to be edited and published. These manuscripts were saved by the monks who wrapped them in silk cloths, then walled the doors of the rooms in order to save them. The walls still bear the smoke stains of the fires lit by the Muslim hordes. Historian K. N. Panikkar writes movingly of the fact that if someone were to ride a horse from Peshawar up to Calcutta, he would not come across a single temple, or monument belonging to the Hindus, of Buddhists, or Jainas. The Guimet Museum in Paris has a section dedicated to the Buddhist art pieces retrieved from Central Asia. René Grousset, the French Historian, laments the disappearance of Central Asian Buddhism which had flourished for more than a 1000 years before it got destroyed by the Muslims who put nothing in the void which they created. Just as the Arab Muslims themselves got nothing from the Ottomans who colonized them and held Mecca and the Kaba under their rule for 6 centuries. In India the Muslims destoyed centres of learning like Vikramshila, Sarnath, Nalanda where Muhammad Bakhtiyar and his murderers killed off the hundreds of resident monks. The Library of Nalanda – of manuscripts in Pali and Sanskrit – burned for 9 days. The Muslims also obliterated Byzantine Christianity, the Zoroastrian civilisation of Persia. The monumental loss of the arts of Buddhism, of Byzantiusm, of Persia has been a catastropic misfortune wrought by the Believes, of which no a single Muslims has expressed the least regret. Lahore has a collection of Buddhist artefacts which Pakistan now considers as its national treasure. These artefacts are remnants of the art of Taxila which got the usual iconoclastic destructiveness dear to the Muslim faith. The world has been impoverished in art works, in the loss of libraries, in the loss of high learning. Muslims still practise their iconoclasm, as they did in the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhist statues, of great beautiful monuments recently in Afghanistan, in Tunisia, in Syria. All the Jewish communities in the Muslim countries in North Africa have been reduced to Zero during the past decades. Raziuddin Aquil brushing aside these colossal destructions of so much art, of so much learning, without the Muslims putting anything in the emptiness which they produce with their abundance of iconoclasms is one more pitiful example of Muslims being incapable of owning the effects of their fanatical practice of iconoclasm. Jinnah’s unleashing the Direct Action was a continuation of Muslim iconoclasm. I never read any Muslim writing about the History of Indian Islam making the least allusion to Islamic iconoclasm and its immense genocidal consequences. R. Aquil may perhaps rue the fact that the Hindus have been the only culture which has survived Muslim hegemony – and how? with what intensity of creativeness ! Four and a half centuries of Ottoman Islam gave nothing to the Balkans. India had everything before the first Muslim hordes came to interrupt a period of four centuries of absolute peace. India had, still has: architecture, literatures, philosophies, the fine arts, urban organisation, laws, and infinite tolerance. What has Islam contributed to Indian civilisation, beside iconoclasm, intolerance, violence? The Christians wiped out the Inca and the Mayan cultures. But they replaced them with a rich language and literature, with a religion and its art forms, medical science, universities and a three-tiered education, laws, architecture, philosophy. Aquil ought to compare the genocides of the Incas and the Mayans by the Spaniards and to what extent the latter have compensated their fanatical destructiveness with what have Muslims compensated their destructiveness of Buddhism, of Byzantian Christianity, of Zoroastrianism . Compare whatever he thinks Muslims have given to India with what has been British contributions. The Brits took a lot. But they gave a great language and literature, laws, universities modelled on Oxford and Cambridge, medical science, the institution of hospitals, they revived Sanskrit learning which had gone underground due to Muslim intolerance., they established the science of archeology and revealed the past of Indian civilisation of Harappa and Mohendaro, all gifts which the Muslims themselves have appropriated. Compare now Muslims whining and ranting over the Babri mosque, over the Rohingyas with their indifference to the monumental catastrophes caused by the application of their faith in the revelations of Allah. They even gloat over all that destruction as their heritage, as their glory. No, Aquil, what you say about Nalanda is one more example of Muslim self-righteousness despite all the harm they have done to Indian civilisation. You may know that I have surrendered all, literally all, the royalties of my last book to the fund for the reconstruction of the Nalanda Centre of Buddhist Studies. Some Buddhist classics have survived in the translations from Sanskrit into Chinese by Hiuan Tzang who spent 12 years studying at Nalanda. The Sanskrit originals have not been found as yet. They could have been burned in the Nalanda library as a homage to the glory of Allah.

    1. Thank you so much, Prof. Aquil, for a serious comment on my book. My recent book emphasizes process, ways, and methods of teaching-learning happened at Sri Nalanda Mahavihara, aimed to prepare devoted Buddhists and to spread Buddhism. Simultaneously, it questions the imposition of modern word ‘University’ due to politics of glamour on this spiritually oriented home of Buddhist monks. The question of revival is interesting in modern politics and history. There is mostly a problem in deciding what to revive and how to revive and I do not want to go into this debate. I would like to put forward a brain-teaser for academics to comment on which is the right form of a revival of Sri Nalanda Mahavihara whether Nalanda University (established in 2001) or Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (established in 1953). Prof. Aquil rightly opined that we have to deeply understand the nature of past before any attempt of its revival. My book paramountly presenting the real nature of Sri Nalanda Mahavihara in terms of reflected the best possible connection between religion and education.
      I have also raised some traditional issues related to Sri Nalanda Mahavihara. One interesting issue is its destruction by Muslims, which is more or less based on historical customs. As far as I came across about Sri Nalanda, it was functional after the attack of Bakhtiyar Khilji for sure.

  2. Typical insulting attitude od a muslim, whose philosophy considers all non muslims as kafir.
    Sad that a writer of this caliber is desoerately trying to rationalise Nalanda vandakusation by muslims army

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