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Learning to Unlearn

A book that questions many long-standing sources that establish Nalanda as a seat of higher learning, placing it instead in the heart of monastic practices in ancient India

Updated: July 25, 2015 4:39:11 am

By André Wink

The ruins of Nalanda in Bihar. (Source: Paras Nath photo) The ruins of Nalanda in Bihar. (Source: Paras Nath photo)

BookNalanda: Situating the Great Monastery

Author – Frederick M Asher

Publication – The Marg Foundation

Pages – 140 pages

Price – Rs 1,872

The history of Buddhism in India is shrouded in obscurity. Almost nothing is known about its origins, nor of its founder, the Buddha — not even when he lived. Claims of a “Buddhist India” notwithstanding, it cannot be shown that Buddhism ever had much impact on Indian society. While it cannot reasonably be doubted that Ashoka’s politics have been favourable to the expansion of Buddhism by bringing about an increase in the size of the Buddhist sangha, Buddhism appears to have remained essentially a monastic religion. Even the number of monasteries and stupas attributed to Ashoka has been greatly exaggerated. Especially the voluminous accounts left by the medieval Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims have contributed to an inflated sense of the importance of Ashoka in the history of Buddhism in India. Yet, this evidence hardly points at a decline of Buddhist monasticism, but rather to a transformation which brought it to its peak of importance in the mahaviharas which flourished in Magadha or what was called the Eastern Tract under the Pala and Sena dynasties in the 11th and 12th centuries. These great Buddhist centers of learning never declined, but were sacked and destroyed in the violence accompanying the military conquests of the Turks. It is also likely that the mahaviharas, or what was left of them, lost much of their royal patronage in the wake of these conquests. Not much is known about this either.

In the absence of certainty, a plethora of inflated claims has been advanced. This is especially true for Nalanda — the most famous of India’s great Buddhist monasteries, often showcased as the world’s first university. It is one of the merits of Frederick Asher’s Nalanda: Situating the Great Monastery that it consistently debunks such claims and is grounded in a good deal of scepticism regarding the long-known sources of information on Nalanda. To begin with, no monk residing at Nalanda during its almost millennium-long existence has ever committed his thoughts to writing and we, thus, have no inmate’s account of what it was like. Then, the translation by Samuel Beal of the much-used account of the seventh-century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang leaves a great deal to be desired and Asher questions the extent to which we can use it to recuperate a reliable picture of the site during the pilgrim’s stay at the monastery. The information provided by such pilgrims’ accounts and the inscriptions, as well as the records of explorers and archaeologists, and, most often, the visual remains themselves, as Asher points out, are of limited usefulness, as we obtain but snippets of data through time, not a continuous history of the place.

Claims that Ashoka worshiped at Nalanda and provided either a temple or stupa to the monastery, or that Nagarjuna, the Buddhist philosopher who probably lived in the second or third century AD, served as Nalanda’s chief abbot, are quickly brushed aside. We cannot be certain that there even was anything at Nalanda in their lifetime, and, as far as the art-historical and inscriptional record goes, the earliest royal patronage for Nalanda came from the Gupta kings in the last quarter of the fifth century AD. In the subsequent centuries, the great monastery of Nalanda actually developed as a complex of Buddhist monastic dwellings or viharas, and temples or chaityas, and the complex as a whole became enormous. Yet, even if we take into account that this complex extended to other monastic establishments in the vicinity, according to Asher, it could never have accommodated the reported numbers of 10,000 or even 3,000 residents. It was much too small for that.

Was Nalanda a university? There is no evidence that subjects like logic, grammar and literature, medicine, the arts and metaphysics were studied at Nalanda, nor evidence that they were not. But it appears to have been more or less exclusively focused on religious texts and their exegesis rather than the subjects of a liberal education associated with the curriculum of a modern university. It cannot be shown, in other words, that Nalanda was an institution of higher learning in the modern sense. In seals and copper-plate inscriptions excavated at the site, Nalanda is invariably called a mahavihara, a “great monastery,” not a vidyalaya, a “school” or “seat of learning.” Nalanda’s international reputation has also been exaggerated; the claim that it attracted monks or “students” from Japan, Indonesia, Persia and West Asia, in addition to those who came from China, Korea and Tibet, is again without evidence.

As for the visual remains of Nalanda, Asher points out that the site has long been pillaged for bricks prior to the beginnings of its transformation, starting in 1915, to the official site of “ruins” that are displayed today. Not all of the remains have been excavated, but extensive conservation work obscures the original monuments. Over the years, more than 100,000 bricks “of the large Gupta size” were brought in. This means that most of what we see here is, in fact, a modern reconstruction. There are also several conjectural reconstructions of a temple, motivated by presuppositions rather than an examination of the ruins. Even its iconic monument, commonly called the Great Stupa, would better be called “the Great Monument”, in Asher’s opinion, as there is no evidence that this structure, like similar ones at Sarnath, Vikramasila or Paharpur, actually was regarded as a stupa by contemporaries.

The book is primarily art-historical in orientation, even though it does not omit the historical context entirely, and, in addition to numerous original observations, provides a good summary of the previous work done on the subject — which surely must rank as one of the most enigmatic yet “spectacular” archaeological sites of the entire medieval world. It provides numerous excellent photographs, most of them taken by the author himself, with a few selected from historical collections of the Kern Institute at Leiden and the Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi. Asher is an expert guide to the greater Nalanda region. He ably dissects what little we know about the changes it underwent in recent times and over the many centuries of its historical existence and provides a careful description and analysis of the ruins, sculptures, paintings, and other artifacts that should be of interest to art history students, general readers, or visitors of Nalanda today.

Wink is professor of history, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA

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