COLOMBO (IDN) - In 1193 A.D. Nalanda, the world’s oldest Buddhist university was ransacked and destroyed by foreign invaders led by the Turkish Bakhityar Khiliji because the 14 acre “giver of knowledge” was a strong pillar of Buddhism and attracted students from all over the world, including countries such as Turkey and Persia. The invaders burnt to ruins the magnificent library and other architectural masterpieces of the Nalanda University.
In 2006, it was announced that Nalanda University was to be revived with the efforts and contributions of numerous countries. However, the issue is that old Nalanda was essentially a Buddhist place of learning promoting Buddhist beliefs and philosophy – the new architects are ironing out a creation of ancient Nalanda with a modern twist to include subjects that are taught in general universities thereby denying the Buddhist niche that Nalanda epitomized.
The Buddhist leaders and the Buddhist world need to make clear that if Nalanda is to be revived it must remain a Buddhist university both in its aims and objectives, promoting Buddhist idealism and not be turned into a secular one.
Nalanda must remain true to its origins, attached to its moorings, and reflect its unique heritage and the set of beliefs it fostered for over 700 years until it was brought down through death and destruction by invading Islamic armies that had no respect for the others’ beliefs and the institutions that sustained and promoted such beliefs through study and learning.
It would be outrageous if this new initiative of a group of people led by Amartya Sen, a Professor at Harvard University, were to achieve what the iconoclasts could not do; erase old Nalanda from public memory that is still kept alive by the well preserved ruins of that outstanding Buddhist University.
Why cultural heritage is important
Cultural heritage is the legacy of tangible culture (buildings, monuments, books, landscape, works of art and artefacts), intangible culture (traditions, language, knowledge, folklore) and natural heritage (biodiversity and culturally significant landscapes) belonging to a group that they inherited from past generations, to be maintained in the present for the benefit of future generations.
Preservation and Conservation become two important attributes towards ensuring that cultural heritage is unique and irreplaceable. This is why UNESCO has declared 936 World Heritage Sites, 725 cultural, 183 natural, 28 mixed properties in 153 countries.
In modern times where structural engineering cannot match the marvels of histories past, what needs to be reiterated is that cultures that left legacies for present generations to feel proud of their ancestors should not be despised or subtly desecrated because a handful of other cultures did not leave such legacies. Therefore, liberals and secularists and those who believe in iconoclasm should not use their positions to dilute the pride that cultures and heritage sites continue to provide and Nalanda is just one case in point.
It would be totally out of context and tantamount to religious sacrilege to declare the revival of a Buddhist institution where it was a seat of Buddhist learning for over a period of 700 years with 2000 Buddhist teachers and 10,000 students, medium of learning was in Sanskrit, as a modern secular university to satisfy some Asian’s thirst to set up modern institutions in the East to rival those in the West.
The curriculum of the ancient Nalanda University covered different forms of Buddhism including Theravada and Mahayana, Buddhist law, Buddhist politics, Theravada administration, astronomy etc. While the promoters of the project say that ancient knowledge systems would be revived, but in the same breadth say that important subjects relevant to Asian integration would be taught at the new Nalanda without allocating a special place to Buddhist studies and Buddhist ideals.
Hieun Tsang, a Chinese scholar who spent many years at the ancient Nalanda University, said that 100 lectures were delivered daily. It was referred to as “international” because the Buddhist students came, among other countries, from China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, Myanmar, and Mongolia. The three libraries at Nalanda (Ratna-Sagara, Ratna-Nidi and Ratna-Ranjana) were nine storeys high. Foreign invaders under Bhaktiar Khilji not only massacred the Buddhist monks and Buddhist students but also burnt the books in the library. It is said that the books continued to burn over a considerable length of time with the sky turning black due to the smoke.
If the project aims at reviving “Buddhist values and philosophy, which have become an integral part of East Asian civilization” it cannot leave out Buddhist participation, particularly if the goal is to “develop Nalanda as an icon of the Asian renaissance attracting scholars and students from a much wider region as the ancient university once did”.
Thus we question how the Nalanda Mentor Group can be headed by a Bengali Hindu (Prof. Amartya Sen) and include three Indian scholars all based in the West devoid of any leading Buddhist scholars based in Asia in order to carry Nalanda’s intellectual flame of tradition? That tradition cannot lead to creating replicas of foreign universities using the Nalanda name. The politicization of Nalanda is obvious with donors attempting to use Nalanda for geo-political benefit.
While being grateful to the donations from various foreign Governments to revive the world’s most ancient university, what needs to be reiterated is that it should not be turned into simply a secular international university totally suppressing its Buddhist cultural identity. We like to see committed Buddhists leading dedicated Buddhist Universities.
Buddhism is not a showboat religion. It is still very much a living religion and its practices and institutions must be preserved and respected accordingly. Business ventures are important but not to the extent of transforming a highly venerated historic Buddhist educational institution into something else that will hardly have any Buddhist colouring. This should be simply unacceptable to the Buddhists of the world.
*Shenali Waduge is a freelance writer based in Colombo. The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the position of IDN and its editorial board. [IDN-InDepthNews – August 16, 2013]