Saturday, January 4, 2014

Killing an idea: Lessons from the destruction of Nalanda University

When Muhammad Bakhtiar Khilji set ablaze Nalanda University in the winter of 1193-94, he wouldn’t have guessed that he was uprooting the idea of “university” itself from the Indian subcontinent. It would take another 600 years before the idea of university got seeded in India again. It has been a couple of weeks since our visit to the ruins of Nalanda, but I still can’t get over the 600 years long burial. Is it really fair to hold Muhammad Bakhtiar responsible for the “killing”? History tells us that it is not. Then what else is responsible for the prolonged hibernation of the concept of college? Let’s see in this article.

Nalanda was established in 5th century and at its peak had 10,000 students and 1,000 teachers. For centuries it had been the most important seat of learning in Asia. It had three multi-storied libraries. Most of what we know of Nalanda comes from the travel accounts of the Chinese pilgrim and scholar Xuanzhang who spent a couple of years at Nalanda. Xuanzhang studied logic, grammar, Sanskrit and Yogacara school of Buddhism during his time at Nalanda. 

Nalanda is about 90km from Patna and we reached there by car in less than two hours. Archaeological Survey of India has done a good job in maintaining the site as well as the museum next to it. Our guide at Nalanda was a sixty year old gentleman and in this business for over four decades. He had picked up Japanese and was enthusiastic about his forty-five minute tour of the place. His version of the story of the destruction of Nalanda had an interesting twist. According to his story, when Bakhtiar arrived near Nalanda he asked the locals if this place had any loot. The Brahmins were prompt to point out that the place had something far more important than the loot and strongly advised him to destroy it. Apparently the smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days.

If the act of commission – burning the place down – was an important cause of Nalanda’s destruction, an equally if not more important cause was the act of omission by Brahmins. Historian Charles Allen writes following in his book, “Ashoka: The search for India’s lost emperor” – The most striking evidence of Brahmanical hostility towards Buddhism comes in the form of silence: the way in which India’s Buddhist history, extending over large parts of the country and lasting for many centuries, was excised from the historical record.

Do you want to kill an idea? You can, of course, try to shoot it down by sheer power like Bakhtiar Khilji. Alternately, you can silently ignore it as if it doesn’t exist like the Brahmins. Neither approach is foolproof though. You never know when a Xuanzhang would escape and start spreading the word in a different corner. 

photo credit: Gauri Dabholkar


  1. I'm curious - what does "the act of omission by Brahmins" mean, and from which historical record was Buddhist history excised ?
    Buddhism was absorbed into the larger Hindu fold with the Buddha being considered one of the incarnations of Vishnu and became like many other sects that arose in India.

  2. I have borrowed the term "Brahminical omission" from the book "Ashoka: The search for India's lost emperor" by Charles Allen. Let me first give my interpretation. Nalanda was a popular seat of learning in Asia for a few centuries. It took European Orientalists to excavate and re-establish its importance in the 19th century. To the best of my knowledge, none of the residents from Indian sub-continent took the initiative. It was as though Nalanda did not exist. I could be wrong.

    I don't know how well Buddhism was "absorbed" into Hinduism. But, to me, it looks like a good technique of killing an idea - saying it is just like my idea - I will add you as as an appendix.

  3. Vinay, most ancient Indian sites have been excavated by the British / Europeans because they were curious about history and they inherently believe in evidential or documented history, while we in India have oral history and we focus more on the philosophy / lessons part of history than the names and dates per se. So what you tell about Nalanda is true and it is as much true for most other historical places in India. BTW - do you know Taj Mahal was used by the British as a party place and so were many other tombs in Delhi.

    Nalanda as an idea was killed because of huge change in environment - people who could have preserved it were totally disempowered and were in no position to keep that idea alive - however the ruins give an idea of the idea it was and I think they are re-establishing the university with Amartya Sen at the helm of it. Tell me today's Brahmins - what power they have to establish centers of learning and what training they themselves have undergone for the same.

  4. fabricated story to protect the barbar khilji

    1. Which story you are referring to, Tapan? That Brahmins suggested Khilji to move towards Nalanda or Brahmins didn't do anything later to keep the history of Nalanda alive?