I was amused to read ‘How History was made up at Nalanda’ by Arun Shourie (June 28, IE). Since he has referred to me by name and has charged me with fudging evidence to distort the historical narrative of the destruction of the ancient Nalandamaha vihar, I consider it necessary to rebut his allegations and set the record straight.
My presentation at the Indian History Congress in 2006, and not 2004 as stated by Shourie, was not devoted to the destruction of ancient Nalanda per se. It was in fact focused on the antagonism between the Brahmins and Buddhists, for which I drew on different kinds of evidence, including myths and traditions. I cited the tradition recorded in the 18th century Tibetan text Pag sam jon zang by Sumpa Khan-Po Yece Pal Jor, mentioned by B.N.S. Yadava in his Society and Culture in Northern India in the Twelfth Century (page 346) with due acknowledgement, though Shourie is quick to discover plagiarism on my part. I may add that “Hindu fanatics” are not my words but Yadava’s, which is why they are in quotes.
Shourie is dismissive of the Tibetan tradition, which has certain elements of the miraculous in it, as recorded in the text. Here is the relevant extract from Sumpa’s work cited by Shourie: “While a religious sermon was being delivered in the temple that he [Kakut Siddha] had erected at Nalanda, a few young monks threw washing water at two Tirthika beggars. (The Buddhists used to designate the Hindus by the term Tirthika). The beggars being angry, set fire on the three shrines of Dharmaganja, the Buddhist University of Nalanda, viz — Ratna Sagara, Ratna Ranjaka including the nine-storeyed temple called Ratnodadhi, which contained the library of sacred books” (page 92). Shourie questions how the two beggars could go from building to building to “burn down the entire, huge, scattered complex.” Look at another passage (abridged by me in the following paragraph) from the History of Buddhism in India, written by another Tibetan monk and scholar, Taranatha, in the
“During the consecration of the temple built by Kakutsiddha at Nalendra [Nalanda] the young naughty sramanas threw slops at the two Tirthika beggars and kept them pressed inside door panels and set ferocious dogs on them”. Angered by this, one of them went on arranging for their livelihood and the other sat in a deep pit and “engaged himself in surya sadhana” [solar worship], first for nine years and then for three more years and having thus “acquired mantrasiddhi”, he “performed a sacrifice and scattered the charmed ashes all around”, which “immediately resulted in a miraculously produced fire”, consuming all the 84 temples and the scriptures, some of which, however, were saved by water flowing from an upper floor of the nine storey Ratnodadhi temple.” (History of Buddhism in India, translated by Lama Chimpa and Alka Chattopadhyaya).
If we look at the two narratives closely, they are similar. The role of the Tirthikas and their miraculous fire causing a conflagration are common to both. Admittedly, one does not have to take the miracles seriously, but it is not justified to ignore their importance as part of traditions that gain strength over time and become part of the community’s collective memory. Nor is it desirable or defensible to disregard the element of longstanding antagonism between the Brahmins and Buddhists, which may have given rise to the Tibetan tradition and nurtured it till as late as the 18th century. It is in the context of this Buddhist-Tirthika animosity that the account of Sumpa assumes importance; it also makes sense because it jibes with Taranatha’s evidence. Further, neither Sumpa nor Taranatha ever came to India. This should mean that the idea of Brahminical hostility to the religion of the Buddha traveled to Tibet fairly early and became part of its Buddhist tradition, and found expression in 17th and 18th century Tibetan writings.
Of the two Tibetan traditions, the one referred to by me has been given credence not only by Yadava (whom Shourie incorrectly dubs a Marxist), but also a number of other Indian scholars like R.K. Mookerji, Sukumar Dutt, Buddha Prakash and S.C. Vidyabhushana, who interprets the text to say that it refers to an actual “scuffle between the Buddhist and Brahminical mendicants and the latter, being infuriated, propitiated the Sun god for twelve years, performed a fire-sacrifice and threw the living embers and ashes from the sacrificial pit into the Buddhist temples which eventually destroyed the great library at Nalanda called Ratnodadhi”. (History of Indian Logic, as cited by D.R. Patil, The Antiquarian Remains in Bihar, page 327). The scholars named above had nothing to do with Marxism.
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Now juxtapose the Tibetan tradition with the contemporary account in the Tabaqat-i-Nasiri of Minhaj-i -Siraj, which Shourie not only misinterprets but also blows out of proportion. Although its testimony has no bearing on my argument about Brahminical intolerance, a word needs to be said about it so as to expose his faking of an important source. The famous passage from this text reads exactly as follows:
“He [Bakhtiyar Khilji] used to carry his depredations into those parts and that country until he organised an attack upon the fortified city of Bihar. Trustworthy persons have related on this wise, that he advanced to the gateway of the fortress of Bihar with two hundred horsemen in defensive armour, and suddenly attacked the place. There were two brothers of Farghanah, men of learning, one Nizamu-ud-Din, the other Samsam-ud-Din (by name) in the service of Muhammad-i-Bakhtiyar; and the author of this book [Minhaj] met with at Lakhnawati in the year 641 H, and this account is from him. These two wise brothers were soldiers among that band of holy warriors when they reached the gateway of the fortress and began the attack, at which time Muhammad-i-Bakhtiyar, 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 greater number of 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 were killed. On becoming acquainted (with the contents of the books), it was found that the whole of that fortress and city was a college, and in the Hindu tongue, they call a college Bihar.” (Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, English translation by H.G. Raverty, pages 551-52).
The above account mentions the fortress of Bihar as the target of Bakhtiyar’s attack. The fortified monastery that Bakhtiyar captured was “known as Audand-Bihar or Odandapura-vihara” (Odantapuri in Biharsharif, then known simply as Bihar). This is the view of many historians but most importantly of Jadunath Sarkar, the high priest of communal historiography in India. Minhaj does not refer to Nalanda at all: he merely speaks of the ransacking of the “fortress of Bihar” (hisar-i-Bihar). But how can Shourie be satisfied unless Bakhtiyar is shown to have sacked Nalanda? Since Bakhtiyar was leading plundering expeditions in the region of Magadha, Shourie thinks Nalanda must have been destroyed by him — and, magically, he finds “evidence” in an account that does not even speak of the place. He concocts historical evidence and ignores the fact that Bakhtiyar did not go to Nalanda, which “escaped the main fury of the Muslim conquest because it lay not on
the main route from Delhi to Bengal but needed a separate expedition”. (A.S. Altekar in the introduction to G. Roerich’s Biography of Dharmasvamin). Also, a few years after Bakhtiyar’s sack of Odantapuri, when the Tibetan monk Dharmasvamin visited Nalanda in 1234, he “found some buildings unscathed”, in which some pandits and monks resided and received instruction from Mahapandita Rahulshribhadra. In fact, Bakhtiyar seems to have proceeded from Biharsharif to Nadia in Bengal through Jharkhand.
It is neither possible nor necessary to deny that the Islamic invaders conquered parts of Bihar and Bengal and destroyed famous universities in the region. But Shourie’s laboured effort to associate Bakhtiyar Khilji with the destruction and burning of the university of Nalanda is an example of the wilful distortion of history.
Shourie created much controversy by publishing his Eminent Historians in 1998 during the NDA regime and now, after 16 years, he has issued its second edition from which his article under reference is excerpted. His descent to this planet in a historian’s avatar coincides with the BJP’s ascent to power. Interesting, isn’t it?
The writer is former professor and chair, department of history, University of Delhi