Published in AsiaViews (Indonesia), February-March 2011
At a symposium in November 2006 in Singapore to launch the project to restore the ancient Buddhist university of Nalanda in India, Singapore’s Foreign Minister, George Yeo said that this project was “about Buddhist values and philosophy which have become an integral part of East Asian civilization”. He added that as Asia re-emerges on the world stage, Asians could “look back to their own past and derive inspiration from it for the future”. Thus, Yeo, who is a Catholic, noted, “we should develop Nalanda as an icon of the Asian renaissance attracting scholars and students from a much wider region as the ancient university once did”.
India’s then President Dr Abdul Kalam delivering the keynote address via a live multimedia videocast from his office in New Delhi said that this project is a “model for evolving a happy, prosperous and peaceful society in our planet”, which he described as “Evolution of Enlightened Citizen”. He argued that this process would have three components, such as education with a value system, religion transforming into spirituality and economic development for societal transformation. “The mission of Unity of Minds is indeed gaining momentum from Bihar, the birthplace of ancient Nalanda” observed Kalam, who is a Muslim.
Since then a Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG) has been formed under the leadership of the 1998 Nobel Prize winner for Economics Prof Amartya Sen, a Bengali Hindu. The mentor group includes 3 prominent Indian scholars who are all based in the West, while it lacks any Buddhist scholar of repute from within Asia, such as from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar or Tibet, leading Buddhists countries which have carried the flame of Nalanda’s intellectual tradition after the ancient university was destroyed by Turkic Afghan invaders in the 12th century.
Nalanda was founded by Kumaragupta I of the Gupta dynasty during the golden age of classical Indian culture and it came into pre-eminence and a renowned centre of Buddhist scholarship from 5th to 12th century. Nalanda was the biggest university in India at the time, and at the height of its glory, it accommodated over 10,000 students / monks and 2000 teachers from across the region. The famous Chinese scholar Hsuan Tsang has spent some 12 years there, lecturing and writing his 3000 stanza work on the ‘Treatise on the Harmony of Teaching’. As a center of Buddhist theology and education, Nalanda university has been instrumental in the spectacular spread of Buddhism right across South East and East Asia during this period with scholars from countries like China, Indonesia and Korea studying there.
Nalanda was destroyed in the 12th century by Turkic Afghan invaders led by Muhammad Bakhtiar Khalji, who burned down the 7-stories high library and the buildings, and killed many of the monks and scholars who could not flee. Its seven story library was completely gutted, and if not for the writings of the Chinese scholar monk Huang Tsang, we may never have known about the existence of Nalanda. He has written vivid memories of his time there in the 7th century. In appreciation of his unique contribution the Chinese and Indian governments have jointly built an impressive Chinese style memorial centre close to the ruins of Nalanda, which was officially opened in February 2007. Thus, the revival of Nalanda University is seen by many as the restoration of the ancient intellectual exchanges between the two great civilizations of Asia – India and China.
Since the 2006 symposium in Singapore, the project to revive the ancient Nalanda University has gradually gathered momentum, with the Bihar State Government (where Nalanda is located) passing legislation in 2007 to establish the university and allocating 500 acres of land in Rajgir, close to the Nalanda ruins. The Indian government passed the Nalanda University Bill on August 21st last year. In October 2009, the 4th East Asia Summit meeting in Hua Hin, Thailand issued a joint press statement supporting the establishment of the Nalanda University as a “non-state, non-profit, secular and self-governing international institution” but it also noted that “Nalanda University was a great ancient centre of intellectual activity in Buddhist philosophy, mathematics, medicine and other disciplines”.
In the last 2 years, the NMG led by Prof Sen has been tirelessly lobbying governments and philanthropic Buddhist organizations for funds to create a USD 1 billion endowment. . Singapore government has so far pledged USD 5 million, and Indian, Japanese and Australian governments have also pledged undisclosed amounts. On January 21st this year, the Chinese ambassador to India is reported to have announced a contribution of USD 1 billion to help build the university after meeting the Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in Delhi. At a meeting in Singapore last month, a member of the NMG said that a wealthy Singapore Buddhist organization – the Singapore Buddhist Lodge – has pledged USD 5 million to build the Nalanda library.
Recently there has been much criticism among followers of Tibetian Buddhism in both Asia and the West, that the exiled Tibetian spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who lives in India, has not been assigned any role in the Nalanda University revival project. They have pointed out that since the burning down of Nalanda University, it was the Tibetians who kept alive the Nalanda tradition and teaching of Buddhism’s Mahayana sect. In a recent article in the Sri Lankan Guardian, the retired Indian Additional Cabinet Secretary B. Rahman has claimed that the Dalai Lama has been sidelined on the instigation of Singapore because of “misplaced deference to the sensitivities of China”. When the question was posed to Prof Sen recently, by Indian journalists, his response was that “being religiously active may not be the same as (being) an appropriate person for religious studies.”
While Singapore has been playing a leading role in collaboration with its Indian partners in getting the Nalanda project off the ground, the fact that Singapore is not seen as a Buddhist country in the region, has also raised certain question marks about Singapore government’s own intentions among some Buddhists in the region. Some idea about Singapore’s thinking could be extracted from the report by Vibhanshu Shekhar of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi titled ‘Revival of Nalanda University: Key Players and their Soft Power Diplomacy’. Referring to Singapore’s catalyst role, the report says the project fits into Singapore’s politico-strategic framework because of its own fear of India and China getting into a conflictual mould, and it could also act as a facilitator of “partnership of countries in the region and hopefully in the management of the university”.
Giving the keynote address at the 98th Indian Science Congress in Chennai on January 4th, Prof Amartya Sen said “had it not been destroyed and had it managed to survive our time, Nalanda would be, by a long margin, the oldest university in the world”. He pointed out that Nalanda was more than 600 years old when the oldest European university of Bologna was established, and Oxford and Cambridge were founded long after Nalanda was burned down.
Prof Sen made a strong argument that the Buddhist intellectual tradition of gathering knowledge through argumentation is very much part and parcel of science today. “The faculty and students in Nalanda loved to argue, and very often held argumentative encounters” he noted, “it is part of the scientific tradition as well, to seek arguments and defences, refusing to accept positions and claims on grounds of faith”.
The new university will initially be set up as a postgraduate institution with Schools of International Relations and Peace Studies; School of Business Management and Development Studies; School of Information Sciences and Technology; School of Historical Studies; School of Buddhist Studies, Philosophy and Comparative Religion; School of Languages and Literature; and School of Ecology and Environmental Studies. A Nalanda University office has already been set up in Delhi, with the appointment recently of its first vice-chancellor eminent Indian sociologist Prof Gopa Sabharwal. On February 4th this year, the Bihar state government has officially transferred 500 acres of land to the university.
In late January Prof Sabharwal spoke about the emerging Nalanda University at a seminar organised by the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre at the National University of Singapore, where she was questioned by Buddhists in the audience about the lack of involvement of Asian Buddhist scholars and educational institutions in the project. When it was pointed out by one audience member that the question of West-centric modernity needs to be challenged by the new university, and indigenous Asian Buddhist scholars, rather than Asians with PhDs from American and European universities, should be intimately involved in the Nalanda University revival process, her response was that “we don’t want this to be an anti-western institution”.
If Nalanda is going to realise its true potential, the challenge facing its initiators is not to make it a clone of Harvard or Cambridge located in Asia with an Asian cover page. For too long Asian intellectuals have been used to going to the West to obtain their PhDs to gain recognition back home, and in return they have been churning out western ideas and theories, especially in humanities, economics, healthcare, environmental and developmental studies, without critically examining it. We have been brainwashed to think that such critical examination is “anti-western”. One hopes that the revived Nalanda University would be able to start this process of “de-colonising” the Asian mind.