Nothing short of a visionary reconceptualisation of the idea of Nalanda can help today’s Nalanda University achieve its glorious objectives.
I was recently invited to give a plenary talk at the 4th Dharma-Dhamma conference held at Nalanda University from 11-13 January 2018. The topic of the conference, “State and Social Order in Dharma-Dhamma Traditions”, attracted me. I thought it worth exploring in greater detail, which I propose to do in this series of essays. The brain as well as the moving spirit behind the Dharma-Dhamma conferences, is director of the India Foundation Ram Madhav. National general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party Madhav is a reputed author-intellectual and political strategist.
The conference series was started at the Sanchi University of Buddhist-Indic Studies in 2013 when the foundation of that university was announced. A number of spectacular and well-organised events marked the ceremonies, in which the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, and the then president of Sri Lanka, Mahendra Rajapaksa, played a prominent role.
The venues included the convention centre in Bhopal in the Legislative Assembly complex and an impressive complex of temporary auditoria and exhibition marquees closer to Sanchi. After the conference, some of us visited Sanchi. I was privileged to spend some time meditating in the ruins of the ancient monastery with vice-chancellor of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies Professor Geshe Ngawang Samten. Professor Kapil Kapoor, who helped draft the statutes, acts and ordinances of the new university, was also present.
With the 4th Dharma-Dhamma conference, the setting has shifted from Sanchi to Nalanda. Nalanda University is no less impressive, though the conference was on a smaller scale. President Ram Nath Kovind was present at the inaugural session as the chief guest and main speaker, as was the Governor of Bihar, Satya Pal Malik, who didn’t give a speech. But it was Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who was the scene-stealer in that session. He connected with the audience immediately, speaking colloquial Hindi with easy and fluent expertise.
Invoking the long history of Bihar, especially of the region around present-day Rajgir, he offered the audience a vision of its future development. Before Ajatashatru moved it to Patna (then Pataliputra) in the fifth century BCE, Rajagriha, or the abode of kings, was the capital of the Magadha Empire. Actually, the city is even older, known as Girivrijja before it became the Magadhan capital. An ancient “cyclopean” wall from those times still survives. Not only is the place associated with the Buddha, but also with Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, who spent several monsoons (traimasas) in the vicinity. Even earlier, the twentieth tirthankar of the Jains, Munisuvrata, is supposed to have been born here. In mythological times, the region was famous for its association with Jarasandha, the powerful king and Krishna’s enemy, eventually killed by Bheema.
Nitish Kumar evoked this rich history, spoke of his personal efforts to get Nalanda Mahavihara recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and claimed that more excavations at Rajgir would show even more wondrous buried cities, monuments and artefacts. He urged the scholars present to help secure for Rajgir the UNESCO World Heritage tag too, complaining how the centrally-administered Archaeological Survey of India was not cooperating.
Going by the grand convention centre in which the conference took place, which was one of Nitish Kumar’s projects, he certainly meant business. The Chief Minister of Bihar is a man with a purpose; a true politician, he has shown himself not only as the master of the art of political survival, but also a genuine leader of the people. Also impressive in his quiet, confident and supportive manner was the Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi. He didn’t speak in the inaugural session, but impressed all with his modest and self-effacing demeanour, thus living up to his name.
Nearby, the new campus of Nalanda University is coming up. Some of us went there, invited by the vice-chancellor, Sunaina Singh. The campus is meant to be eco-friendly, implementing what they term a “triple net-zero energy, water and waste strategic plan”. I also took part in a tree-planting ceremony along with distinguished academics including professor at Macgill University, Canada, and current member of Nalanda’s academic council Arvind Sharma, David Frawley, Yogini Shambhavi and Madhu Khanna.
If I go back to the campus, I will have to look up my Ashoka sapling; may it grow strong, tall and resplendent, like the university itself. Hopefully, under the dynamic leadership of its new chancellor, India’s supercomputer man, Vijay Pandurang Bhatkar and vice-chancellor, things will move faster than before. Unhappily, despite so much international publicity, hardly any real growth took place during the long innings of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, first as head of the Nalanda Mentor Group and then as Chancellor of the university. After more than six years in office, the previous vice-chancellor, Gopa Sabarwal, also returned to her substantive position as associate professor of sociology at Lady Shriram College, without any noteworthy development of the campus.
It was A P J Abdul Kalam, then our president, addressing a joint session of the Bihar assembly on 28 March 2006, who mooted the idea that the region befitted a great university, given that it was the home of ancient Nalanda Mahavihara. A special bill was moved in the Rajya Sabha in August 2010 and soon passed in the Lok Sabha too, receiving the president’s nod of approbation in September as an act of the Parliament of India. With the formal implementation of the act, the Nalanda International University formally came into existence on 25 November 2010.
Despite considerable enthusiasm, especially from the Buddhist countries in Asia, the initial round of fund-raising failed to match expectations. The then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, informed members of the enactment of the Nalanda Act at the 5th East Asia Summit (EAS) in October 2010. However, reportedly, a mere $1.8 million was raised from participating countries such as Australia, China, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia. Incidentally, at the 4th EAS in 2009, member states had already welcomed the formation of such a university. It was the government of Bihar, led by Nitish Kumar, who made a more significant contribution by offering about 450 acres of land to the university on a no-cost, 99-year lease. After all, Nitish Kumar was not only born in Nalanda district but won the 2004 Lok Sabha elections from this constituency. No wonder it is one of his pet projects.
In the years that followed, however, despite more pledges and promises from countries like Singapore, China, and Japan, the consortium entrusted to spearhead the establishment of the university was unable to raise the estimated $1 billion required to build a world-class university. After BJP won the national elections in 2014 and Narendra Modi became prime minister, there were major changes at Nalanda. Sen, a vocal Modi-baiter, resigned as Chancellor. George Yeo, Singapore’s former defence minister, who became the next chancellor, resigned in November 2016, citing political interference. Bhatkar was appointed in January 2017. By the end of March, the university got its new vice-chancellor (VC), Sunaina Singh, who had already served a term as the VC of the English and Foreign Language University, Hyderabad. The transition was thus complete.
Nalanda University certainly has a long way to go. At present, it has three schools – School of Historical Studies; School of Environment and Ecological Studies; and School of Buddhist Studies, Philosophy and Comparative Religion; with hardly about 130 students and 25 teachers. According to its original plan, four more schools are planned – the School of Languages and Literature; School of International Relations and Peace Studies; School of Information Sciences and Technology; and School of Business Management, Public Policy and Development Studies. Nitish Kumar’s dream, which he announced in his speech, is to build an International Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Nalanda. The Vice-Chancellor told me that she was working on it.
Not only was the location of the 4th Dharma-Dhamma conference historic, but its topic hugely significant too. The relationship between dharma on the one hand and state and social order on the other is crucial to our self-understanding and progress today. That is because I believe we are on the brink of a second Indian renaissance. The first, quite well-documented, began as the Bengal renaissance, because its first glimmers – or should I say tremors – were felt in that province of India, but soon spread to every nook and cranny of the subcontinent. This renaissance worked its action roughly over 150 tumultuous years, from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. It was no accident that it coincided with the British colonisation of India; arguably, its greatest achievement was India’s Independence in 1947.
When asked some months ago by a panel of experts what my own views of Nalanda University were, I quoted from Sri Aurobindo’s seminal text, The Renaissance in India: what we need is “a new age of an old culture transformed, not an affiliation of a new-born civilisation to one that is old and dead”. In other words, the old Nalanda Mahavihara, no matter how magnificent it may have been in its heyday, cannot be revived. We cannot hope to revive a traditional Buddhist university that reached its zenith over a thousand years ago and was already in decline when it was ransacked and overrun by Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1200 CE.
If Khilji and his fabled 18 horsemen also went on to conquer Bihar, it only shows that the professors of that once-great institution of learning were incompetent in practical matters such as warfare, statecraft and politics. They seemed totally unaware of hordes of invaders from foreign lands, fortified by a faith totally different from Hinduism or Buddhism, who had already conquered Delhi and were proceeding east and southward. Had they known, wouldn’t the Nalanda professors have at least tried to save their precious books and manuscripts, in addition to their own lives?
The conquest of India after over five centuries of resistance in both the west and north was as much a failure of knowledge as it was of arms. Much of the Hindu and Buddhist principalities in central Asia had already fallen before Delhi, but kingdoms in the Hindu heartland failed adequately to prepare, resist, or even understand them. By the thirteenth century, Nalanda had probably reached a state of decline. After its sacking, a few of its surviving teachers and students fled to Tibet, thereby preserving its intellectual and spiritual treasures for humankind, until the Dalai Lama returned them to India after the conquest of his country by China and his exile in India in 1959.
If the old Nalanda is dead, that does not mean we cannot draw inspiration from its spirit or achievement. Just because we cannot revive it or rebuild it as it once was, does not mean that the new Nalanda must turn its back to it and become the replica of any other modern “world-class” university. Perhaps, that is what its erstwhile head, Amartya Sen, wanted. As reported in The Telegraph, he believed that “religious studies could be imparted without involvement of religious leaders” (4 August 2010), This was, supposedly, not just to keep the Dalai Lama out, whom he described as “heading a religion”. Was this to avoid antagonising China or to ensure that the “hard” secularism that the earlier regime wished to institutionalise was not neglected at Nalanda? Luckily, the Rs 2,500-crore budget lay more or less frozen, given several doubts raised by the Ministry of External Affairs over the way Nalanda was being run.
Now that the Nalanda project is all set to unthaw, nothing short of a visionary reconceptualisation of the idea of Nalanda can help mend its fortunes. Neither can the old Nalanda be revived, nor should the new Nalanda consider its hoary past irrelevant deadweight in its attempt to be just another modern university, albeit better endowed and more privileged. Instead, what is required is what Sri Aurobindo called “new creation”, the more apt meaning of “renaissance”, implying “true rebirth”. For what is required is nothing short of a radical transformation.
“…such that the spiritual power of the Indian mind remains supreme, recovers its truths, accepts whatever it finds sound or true, useful or inevitable of the modern idea and form, but so transmutes and Indianises it, so absorbs and so transforms it entirely into itself that its foreign character disappears, and it becomes another harmonious element in the characteristic working of the ancient goddess, the Shakti of India mastering and taking possession of the modern influence, no longer possessed or overcome by it.”Sri Aurobindo, The Renaissance in India
To my mind, this is as true for India and our second renaissance as it is of the newly established Nalanda University.