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04/30/2018

The Ancient University of Nalanda in Bihar, India

One of the greatest universities of ancient times was the Buddhist University of Nalanda near Bihar, India. A lot of the information on this centre of Buddhist learning comes to us through the writings of a Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, and traveller, Xuanzang.

As far as can be ascertained, it is believed that the university at Nalanda was built by the Gupta emperors in 450 CE. It consisted of separate compounds with dormitories, temples, and lecture halls. With over ten thousand students and two thousand lecturers, Nalanda was famed for its learning across South-East Asia, Tibet, Turkey, Iran, and China. Nalanda was already known as a place visited by the Buddha in 500 BCE so it was fitting that as an institution of Buddhist scholarship its influence proved to be significant to the Buddhist world. It is said that Mahayana Buddhism has its origins in Nalanda and Tibetan Buddhism was greatly influenced by scholars who taught at Nalanda together with the traditions of the Tibetan Bon religion.

One of the major activities in the nine story library was the copying of important texts and when Xuanzang returned to China after his seventeen year sojourn in India he took hundreds of Sanskrit texts with him plus translations of Buddhist texts. Translation was yet another activity of this formidable scholar.

The subjects taught at Nalanda also covered philosophy, grammar, medicine, and mathematics as well as Buddhist and Vedic texts. The area has been excavated and a museum built to house many of the artefacts found. These include statues of the Buddha, coins, and inscriptions. Although the excavated area covers many thousand square meters the writings of Xuanzang suggest an even larger extent of the university still remains unexcavated. The decline of Buddhism in India is related by historians to the demise of Nalanda which was destroyed by Turkic invaders in 1193 CE. Today a plan is in progress, instigated by Japan, to build a new, international university close to the site of the ancient university.

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