Earlier this week, Nitish Kumar asked if Mulayam Singh Yadav was the vice chancellor of the university of secularism. Universities are part of Bihar’s legacy. A bihara or vihara, in fact, was both a monastery and a university. Till about the 13th century, the kingdoms that constituted today’s Bihar housed centres of learning. The most famous, Nalanda, was among the oldest universities in the world.
Believed to have been visited by both the Buddha and the Mahavira, Nalanda, recorded history suggests, flourished from the sixth to the 13th centuries, attracting students from all of India and central and east Asia. Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese monk, left a detailed account of life in Nalanda, which he visited twice in the seventh century and where he spent spent two years studying under Shilabhadra, the then head of the monastery. Though a Buddhist monastery, it taught a range of subjects and at its peak is said to have housed over 5,000 students. Successive rulers from the Gupta dynasty to Harsha of Kannauj and the Pala rulers ensured that the maha vihara at Nalanda was not short of funds. The decline of Buddhism in India and the pillage of Bhaktiyar Khilji led to the end of Nalanda.
The land of Nalanda today lags behind most of India in education. Bihar’s literacy rate is 63.9, 10 points below the national average. It has 13 universities and 815 general colleges with 8.5 lakh students, besides 70 professional colleges, but few of them are considered top-ranking and students with resources migrate elsewhere. In 2006, a plan was mooted to revive Nalanda as a centre of learning by building an international university at $1 billion. The Nalanda University Bill, 2010, was passed by Parliament. Classes started on a modest scale a year ago.