And Thus Fell Nalanda

by Makarand Paranjape - Mar 9, 2018 09:10 PM +05:30 IST
And Thus Fell NalandaRuins of Nalanda University (Mrityunjay.nalanda/Wiki Commons)
  • The helplessness of the Indic civilisation against Muslim invasions was as much an intellectual failure, as it was a military or political one.

As we saw in the previous column, the foundation of the Nalanda International University may be attributed to the “bhadra vichara” (noble idea) of former president of India, A P J Abdul Kalam. He proposed it on 28 March 2006 in the Bihar assembly. This university is now, thankfully, a reality. It came into existence on 25 November 2010 through a special act of Parliament. Today, a dynamic vice-chancellor, Professor Sunaina Singh, is at the helm of affairs. Even though a young sapling, quite like the seedlings we planted in the commemorative vatika (garden) on 12 January 2018, Nalanda International University, I hope, will become a mighty tree of knowledge under her stewardship, as do some the actual trees we were privileged to root.

The new Nalanda, however, has a huge reputation to live up to. Its very name reminds us of the outstanding, world-renowned educational institution which flourished for nearly a thousand years. Nalanda Mahavihara was patronised by several kings and dynasties from the Guptas in the fifth to the Palas in the thirteenth century CE.

The most detailed account of its functioning is from the Chinese traveller, pilgrim, monk and scholar, Xuanzang (602–664). A grand pavilion built in his memory near the excavated and reconstructed site attests to his extraordinary feats. He travelled overland, covering some 25,000 kilometres, leaving a fascinating and invaluable account of what he experienced and encountered nearly 1,500 years ago in India.

The most detailed account of Nalanda’s functioning is from the seventh century Chinese traveller Xuanzang.
The most detailed account of Nalanda’s functioning is from the seventh century Chinese traveller Xuanzang.

Xuanzang’s Nalanda

Xuanzang was following in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor, Faxian (337-c. 422), who, nearly a hundred years before, had travelled on foot from China. Over 15 years, he visited the great Buddhist centres of pilgrimage and learning in what is now Xinjiang, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, all the way down to Sri Lanka. Xuanzang himself travelled over 17 years, trying to get accurate texts from India for doctrines he thought had got corrupted in China. His explorations inspired what many regard as China’s greatest pre-modern novel, the 100-chapter Journey to the West, written during the Ming period, several centuries later.

From Xuanzang’s account, we know that all the major schools of Buddhism were taught at Nalanda, in addition to the Vedas, Sanskrit, grammar, logic, medicine, and the other customary disciplines of the time. Xuanzang stayed in Nalanda for two years, studying Sanskrit, grammar, logic, and attending the Yogachara school of Buddhism.

According to historian René Grousset, Xuanzang became the disciple of the monastery’s rector, the venerable Silabhadra: “The Chinese pilgrim had finally found the omniscient master, the incomparable metaphysician who was to make known to him the ultimate secrets....” Xuanzang, recognised as an adept in his own right, was conferred the name “Mokshadeva.” He thus became the inheritor of the most illustrious wisdom-lineage of Mahayana Buddhism, going back to Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dignaga, Dharmapala, and to Nagarjuna himself. In that sense, Nalanda lived up to its name, one of whose interpretations is “unending gift.”

The End of Nalanda

But the old Nalanda was finished by Islamic invaders. Around 1200 CE, it was reportedly looted and burned by a local Turkic-Afghan chieftain-adventurer, Bakhtiyar Khilji. Legend has it that Khilji and his 18 horsemen went on to capture Bengal. So popular is this view that Al Mahmud, the Bangladeshi writer, not only reprises it in Bakhtiyarer Ghora (Bakhtiyar’s Horses), but, some would argue, glorifies Khilji. Yet, 18 horsemen is an attenuation. When it comes to Nalanda, the more accurate figure going by historical accounts seems to be 200 horsemen. Even so, to imagine that such a small force could subdue such a large area is astounding.

The destruction of Nalanda was in keeping with the Muslim conquerors’ template of invasion, conquest, vandalism, loot and enslavement of subjugated people. 
The destruction of Nalanda was in keeping with the Muslim conquerors’ template of invasion, conquest, vandalism, loot and enslavement of subjugated people. 

The text that probably records Nalanda’s sacking is Tabaqat-i-Nasiri by the Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj, written just a couple of decades after Khilji’s death. A colonial period translation by Major H G Raverty published in Calcutta in 1881 is easily available. Khilji, who possessed only two villages to begin with, began plundering Bihar, earning both respect and rewards from his superiors. Eventually, he went on to capture much of Bihar and Gaur (Bengal). But his ambitions knew no bounds. He mounted an assault on Tibet, but his forces were defeated in Kamrup (Assam). As he lay ill in Devkot in Gaur, he was murdered by his deputy, Ali Mardan Khilji, in 1206.

The first volume of the translation of Tabaqat-i-Nasiri chronicles what might have happened in Nalanda: “Muhammad-i-Bakht-yar, by the force of his intrepidity, threw himself into the postern of the gateway of the place, and they captured the fortress and acquired great booty.”

The next lines indicate that the “fort” was actually a fortified university, which some historians have identified as Nalanda, others as Odantapura:

“The greater number of the inhabitants of that place were Brahmans, and the whole of those Brahmans had their heads shaven; and they were all slain. There were a great number of books there; and, when all these books came under the observation of the Musalmans, they summoned a number of Hindus that they might give them information respecting the import of those books; but the whole of the Hindus had been killed. On becoming acquainted (with the contents of those books), it was found that the whole of that fortress and city was a college, and in the Hindui tongue, they call a college Bihar.”

The Persian word used, “madrese”, from the Arabic “madrasa”, current to this day, means school or college, suggesting that the place referred to was likely to have been Nalanda Mahavihara. Some years ago, Arun Shourie had argued that the lack of definite reference to Nalanda in Tabaqat-i Nasiri had led “eminent” Leftist histories to fudge history, alleging that Brahmins, not Muslims, had destroyed Nalanda. D N Jha, named as one of the guilty by Shourie, tried to defend himself through the columns of a leading newspaper with all kinds of whataboutery, but even common sense tells us that the shaven-headed inhabitants whom Khilji slaughtered are more likely to have been Buddhist monks than Brahmin priests, since the latter would have retained their tufts or top-knots (shikha). Whatever the truth or however contested its interpretations, the destruction of Nalanda was in keeping with the practices of Muslim conquerors throughout the history of the subcontinent, indeed true to their tried-and-tested template of invasion, conquest, vandalism, loot, and enslavement of subjugated people elsewhere as well. Why would Nalanda be an exception? While reading the Tabaqat-i Nasiri, I was struck by the number of times the word “intrepid” was repeated. Khilji was anything if not audacious, bold, doughty and fearless. That cannot be taken away from him or the tradition of conquistadors that he belonged to.

Minhaj-i-Siraj’s account also shows how the whole state got its name, Bihar, from the viharas, the monasteries, colleges, and libraries that dotted it. Apart from Odantapuri and Nalanda, the other Hindu-Buddhist seminaries nearby, namely Vikramshila and Jagaddala, were also similarly pillaged and destroyed. It is to be noted that all the monks and Brahmins were slaughtered, to the extent that none was left to explain the import of the books. Buddhist accounts also corroborate that the viharas were demolished and the libraries, with lakhs of manuscripts, burned for months. Especially of interest is the biography of Dharmasvamin or Chag Lotsa-ba Chosrjedpal (1197-1264), who went there shortly after the destruction of Nalanda (1234-1236). When he visited, Nalanda was only a shadow of its former glory, barely functional.

Making meaning of the loss

At its peak, Nalanda had over 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students, both drawn from many parts of India and abroad. Viharas like it dotted the landscape of what is today called Bihar, which means that it was a great hub of educational, cultural, and intellectual activity for centuries. It is impossible to fully make sense of its loss. It is not just that a great institution of learning and an even greater tradition of philosophical and academic inquiry shattered, but that an entire civilisation was smashed and pulverised.

Thousands of teachers and students were killed, millions of manuscripts and books charred to ashes. Sanskrit, which was the main language of instruction and research, also suffered a body blow. Some of the knowledge of the Nalanda tradition of Buddhism was preserved because several monks and precious manuscripts made their way to Tibet. With the exile in India of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, some of this precious knowledge has returned to the country of its birth and from this very soil, spread all across the world, especially welcoming in North America and Europe.

The damage to India, to put it mildly, was incalculable. We have, in fact, no way even to know what we knew then and therefore what we lost in that cataclysm. Though the conquest of Delhi by Muhammad Ghori in 1192 is considered a historical watershed, Indic civilisation had already been under continuous attack for over 600 years, from the time of the Umayyad Caliphate. Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, the powerful governor of Iraq, sent Muhammad bin Qasim on the first Muslim expedition against India. Qasim conquered Debal (probably derived from “Devabal” or the strength of the gods), an important seaport, in 710. He destroyed the main temple, looted the city, extracted tribute, took slaves, and converted many of the conquered.

One, therefore, wonders what the scholars, teachers, intellectuals, not just the kings, courtiers and soldiers were doing during his half-millennium. They had no effective answer to such repeated and devastating assaults. To me, this was as much an intellectual and academic as it was a military or political failure. No real renaissance is possible without understanding, coming to terms with, and learning from the breakdown of the ancient Indian civilisation or the desolation of what A L Basham called The Wonder that Was India.

(To be continued)

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