Most of us have grown up believing that: (a) Nalanda was the first organised university in the world; and (b) Turkic raiders burnt it to the ground in the 12th century. Historian Anirudh Kanisetti challenges both of these conventional notions in this punchy piece for The Print.

Mr. Kanisetti does not dispute Nalanda’s 1500 year old vintage nor its pedigree as a seat of high learning. However, he highlights that Nalanda was more a giant monastery than a university:

“Trekking across deserts, passing through glittering Central Asian cities, and braving hostile mountain passes, the 7th-century Chinese monk Xuanzang arrived at Nalanda. The site has often been described as a university, but in reality, it was a vast complex home to multiple Buddhist monastic orders—a Maha-vihara, or Great Monastery. Xuanzang spent several years studying and collecting texts at Nalanda before returning to China. He left the clearest-surviving account of how Nalanda operated in its heyday…

According to Xuanzang, entering the Great Monastery required clearing an oral examination conducted by its gatekeepers. Historian RK Mookerji, in his monumental study of ancient Indian education, described these gatekeepers as “expert religious controversialists, who were always ready with difficult problems to try the competence of the claimants for admission.” Serious applicants needed a command of Buddhist and Vedic scriptures, commentaries, and logic. Most Nalanda applicants already came from elite backgrounds, equipped with royal or monastic connections that facilitated such knowledge. Even among this erudite pool, Nalanda’s admission rate was about 20 per cent…

Getting into the Great Monastery was just the beginning. Similar to PhD programmes today, students needed a master to accept them as a disciple. Foreign students at Nalanda were generally there to refine their understanding of complex and esoteric subjects, with much learning conducted through argument and debate. Xuanzang claims there were nearly 10,000 resident disciples and 1,500 masters—about six students per teacher…

Nalanda’s low student-to-teacher ratio meant that most studies were conducted through memorisation, discussion, and argument rather than lectures and notes. There were no “semesters” or “grades,” just a rigorous daily eight-hour schedule. Time was kept by water clocks and announced through drums and conch-shells. Students had to take ritual baths and assist in religious ceremonies. Discipline was no laughing matter at Nalanda; even eating outside designated hours could result in expulsion. It was a monastery first and a university second…

For many centuries, Nalanda attracted the brightest minds in northern India and beyond, equipping them with knowledge and skills to work as ritual masters and preceptors in other courts and monasteries. But for all of its achievements, it was not a “university” in the modern sense. Much of its curriculum focused on sacred texts, both Buddhist and Vedic. While it conducted research in linguistics, mathematics, philosophy, astrology, and ritual, its masters and disciples did not recognise “science” as a separate discipline. To them, developing complex rituals based on rigorous metaphysical reasoning was more likely to ensure prosperity than investigating and harnessing natural principles.”

Secondly, Mr Kanisetti highlights that long before the Turkic raiders arrived in the 12th century, Nalanda had lost relevance both in the context of high society in India and in the broader context of influence across Asia. Even a millennia ago, politics and religion in Asia was simply too dynamic for one giant monastery in eastern India to hold on to mindshare for an extended period of time:

“By the 11th century, Nalanda and other Buddhist monasteries were losing importance in eastern India. Indonesian and Javanese masters had become pre-eminent . Meanwhile, the rulers of present-day Bengal and Bihar found that Brahmin settlements were more useful than Buddhist monasteries.

This trend wasn’t unique to eastern India. Across South Asia in the 11th century, royal patronage shifted from concentrated Buddhist centres to dispersed Brahmin settlements to control the countryside. Buddhists and Brahmins both knew how to manage and administer properties. But Buddhists applied this knowledge to their own monasteries, while Brahmins did so for kings as well.

In 1020, for example, the Chola emperor Rajendra I (1012–1044) gave land to 1,080 Brahmin families, praising them as “unequalled in courage, stability, penance, greatness and humility.” Not coincidentally, many of Rajendra’s senior officials were Brahmins. One of them, Krishnan Raman, worked as a general and chief secretary. Historian Y Subbarayalu, in South India Under the Cholas, notes that three of Raman’s sons and one of his grandsons also worked as senior Chola officials.

Rather drily, Subbarayalu notes that “nepotism played a not insignificant role in the recruitment for Chola officialdom.””

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