Published:  08:07 PM, 24 June 2021 Last Update: 08:31 PM, 24 June 2021

Nalanda University: When history is not history

Nalanda University: When history is not history
Riffat Ahmed and Khaled Khan 

Part one
The Golden Age of Indian history marks the 6th and 5th century with the surfacing of Nalanda, a small seemingly developed city back then. It was also an era when the lands came under the growing influence of Buddhism, as it found a new path to ascend and spread across the states and province. The belief was nurtured and embraced by countless people surrounding Nalanda. The proliferation of Buddhism led to several monasteries or religious settlements that came to be termed as ‘Bihar’. During that time, Nalanda also had successfully evolved into a Buddhist monastery. With its growing significance, it was transformed and established as a great learning center during the 5th-6th century. Nalanda continued to thrive and prosper during the rule of the great Gupta dynasty and later under the reign of Emperor Harshavardhana. Until the 9th century, Nalanda's significance as an academic establishment massively flourished, and its essence was felt all over the province. Undoubtedly, this would have been impossible without the strong religious influence coming from the ruling dynasties. The Gupta period had served as an important era for all kinds of intellectual and religious resurgence in India. Buddhism and Hinduism spread vastly while cultural aspects enhanced through trade and business links. After the 9th century, however, religious and cultural venerations took a dwindling turn and began to shrink. 

The Indian subcontinent was a multidimensional land of diverse cultural and religious fusions during  most of the period. Its population was a brilliant blend of different beliefs and practices, but needless to say, Buddhism played the most powerful role of them all. As the ruling dynasties from that era were followers of Buddhism themselves, the religion was preached and prioritised way more than the others. Several prominent monasteries or “Boddho-Bihars” were founded, and many were eventually turned into intellectual establishments. During this age, Buddhist administrators and social leaders encouraged spiritual growth, mediation and intellectualism, and this soon began to spread geographically into other provinces. Over time, these religious establishments took the shape of renowned universities and famous education institutions primarily rooted in religious influence. Buddhism based knowledge and intellectualism initially seemed to pave the way towards a progressive imperial entity. 

An important remark during the Buddhist reign was the constant repression suffered by Hindu people in the subcontinent. It can never be denied that the Hindu population had been suppressed for centuries by the ruling empires. Even the Hindu Brahms were disregarded for their social rights and forced to lead poverty-stricken lives. As time went by, their grievance and sense of perpetual deprivation slowly turned into aggression. So when Hindu rulers finally came to power and formed the ruling class, they proved to be more belligerent and intolerant in every way. Buddhist monasteries and intellectual properties faced mass destruction, and countless Buddhists were killed ruthlessly. State subsidies to run the educational institutions and Boddho Bihars were cut off, and as a result, Buddhist intellectualism started to shrink and lose importance. Hinduism took control over the province, and the Brahmins began to re-endorse the entire structure of the society. The Hindu caste system was once again re-established and strictly preserved. Fanaticism and aggression of the new Hindu rulers confirmed the ultimate fate of Nalanda with a rather tragic end.  

Part two
During the Pala regime, the territories of Shompur, Bikromshila and Nalanda were governed by a single administration body. This facilitated the movements and exchange of teaching instructors within the three provinces. Thus, education institutions began to grow more diversified and better developed during this time. Historical records by the Indian historian Pragyabarman Gupta and Chinese tourist Hueensang credited the ancient ruler Kumar Gupta for establishing the famous Nalanda University. The later years of archaeological extraction on the land of Bengal have also provided material evidence to support this claim. In fact, the word Nalanda combines the two words- Nalon; which means lotus (symbol of knowledge) and Da; granted. Nalanda was an extremely prominent institution that facilitated education for almost 800 years. It is estimated that the university was established sometime between the periods of 427-450 AD. Nalanda reached its peak during the rule of emperor Harshavardhana and the following Pala regime. 

It would be relevant to state that the number of Boddho Bihar in India were many, so the regions were named Bihar as a single province. In 1574 AD, Bihar was conquered by Mughal emperor Akbar and was later taken over by the ruling Nawabs until the British Rule successfully defeated the last Nawab of the empire, Sirajud-Daulah. In 1911, Bihar was divided into two parts, Bihar and Orisha. Through centuries, Nalanda remained to prosper as a centre for serving Buddhist ideology and the preaching of Gautam Buddha. Not only that, intellectualism was spread beyond the religious horizon and all sorts of cultural growth were nurtured as well. The people behind Nalanda tried to sculpt it with wholehearted efforts such that it could stabilise all branches of knowledge and literature. It also facilitated debate, philosophy, astronomy, art, medical science, vedh and much more. Nalanda ensured an ideal environment that served a very progressive mindset for human development in all respects. In its mature years, Nalanda was recognised as a world-famous university with all sorts of amenities comprising 2000 teachers and 10,000 students. The Buddhist administration had always ensured and invested in the growth of Nalanda. During the Gupta rule, 200 villages were devoted to meet the financial needs of the university through tax collection. Furthermore, Nalanda was well-protected by its physical boundaries, such as strong walls, hostels, ponds and gardens. It was an elaborately planned educational institution that ensured external chaos could not hamper its safe learning environment. International students from Tibet, China, Persia, Greece and Japan were also accommodated and three vast libraries were constructed to meet student needs. The libraries were named Rothnoshagor, Rothnododhi and Rothnoronjok. Even teachers were recruited based on their high moral and ethical values so that they could be transmitted onto the students.

When the Sena dynasty overthrew the Pala Empire and came to power in the 11th century, they re-established Hinduism in the Indian subcontinent. The Senas were greatly motivated by their political motives rather than the spiritual beliefs behind endorsing Hinduism. Eventually, other practising religions such as Buddhism, Vasai and Saiba lost credit and were eradicated from the society. The political and philosophical and moral pressure from the superior Brahmins served as a threat to Buddhism as they were trying to establish their ideologies by force. 

It is widely believed and established that Muslim General Muhammad bin BakhtiyarKhilji was solely responsible for destroying Nalanda in 1100 AD. However, numerous historical records and statements highlighting the fall of Nalanda are bound to leave multiple question marks in our minds. Even though it is claimed Nalanda was destroyed in 1100 AD, the record of Sir Wilsly Hedge states Bakhtiyar Khilji attacked Odantapuri (present-day Bihar) in 1193 AD. In 1199, Indian historian Sir JadunathSarkar stated these attacks were made much later, in the year 1199. Interestingly, Bakhtiyar Khilji had conquered Bengal in 1204 AD. This would leave us with a conflicting thought about how a man was able to conquer Bengal in 1204 if he was responsible for destroying Nalanda in 1199. Research also stated that Bakhtiyar Khilji did not go near Nalanda during his conquests in Bihar. In his book “Antiquity of Chittagong’, Indian scholar Sarat Chandra Das stated that Bihar, Odantapuri and Bikromshila were destroyed in 1202 AD. However, there was no mention of Nalanda. Despite historian Minhaj-E-Siraj book “Tabaqat-iNasiri” holding a full account of Bakhtiyar Khilji's life, there is no mention of Nalanda destruction. 

Bakhtiyar Khilji died in 1206 AD .During that time, Nalanda was still serving as a renowned university for both national and international students. So if Bakhtiyar Khilji was responsible for eradicating Nalanda, how was it possible for Nalanda’s academic activities to be pursued during 1206 AD? The existence of the university was witnessed by a Tibetan monk in that era. 

So how did it get destroyed? A vast number of people believe it was an outcome of the Hindu-Buddhist religious conflicts. A tourist named ‘Buddagaya-DorsonRajgir Nalandapawapuri’ wrote in his book about the presence and the rising dominance of Hindu priests during the 5th century. Under the strong influence of Hindu Brahmin priests Kumar Bhotto and Shonkoracharjo, Buddhism began to lose all its credibility in society. 

The priests had claimed that their long 12 years of Sun worship and mediation had helped them burn down the renowned libraries of Nalanda along with Boddho Bihar. Similar statements have been found in various books over the later years. For instance, a valuable Tibetan book, “Paksum Yen Jang” states that aggressive Hindu Brahms were responsible for the destruction of Nalanda. On another account, D.R. Patil believes the libraries were burned by people of Shoibo community. Surprisingly, the famous Hindu philosopher and writer Bhupendranath Datta admit that Brahms were behind the attack on Nalanda. In his book ‘History of Bengal’, he claims that the libraries were destroyed not once but multiple times. Although the accusations made against Bakhtiyar Khilji stand strong, several prominent historical books have entire stories to tell. In the book ‘Aspects of Indian History and Civilization’, writer Buddha Prakash clearly stated that “Hindus were solely responsible for Nalanda destruction”.  

It is no secret that the ruling dynasties and kings were always responsible for proliferating or eradicating social, religious beliefs. So when the great Hindu rulers such as the Senas formed the ruling class, Buddhism was threatened and dethroned. One such ruler was the king Mihirakula from the 6th century, who had extreme intolerance and abhorrence towards Buddhism. It is widely said that Nalanda was destroyed during ruler Mihirakula’s conquests in Pataliputra in ancient India. Under his leadership, Nalanda faced multiple attacks (455-467 AD) where several Buddhist students and teachers were murdered ruthlessly. The next big threat for Nalanda came through the great Emperor Shashanka, who served as a powerful patron and devotee of the Brahmin religion. Much of the antagonism between the rulers Mihirakula and Harshavardhana was due to religious conflicts. Emperor Shashanka’s hatred towards Buddhism was so extreme that when he conquered Magadha, he eradicated its Buddhist monasteries and sacred places in a way that removed its mere existence. 

One of Bangladesh’s greatest historians and former Vice Canceller of Chittagong University, Dr Abdul Karim also acknowledged the false accusations made against Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khilji for Nalanda destruction and claimed that Khilji had no part behind the downfall of Nalanda. Researchers Dr Abdul Karim and Shomokho Mukhopoddhay have carried out extensive intellectual research on Muhammad Bhaktiyar Khilji for their respective Bangla books ‘বাংলার ইতিহাস: সুলতানী আমল’ and ‘বাংলার ইতিহাস’. However, none of these books has anything to say about holding Bakhtiyar Khilji responsible for Nalanda destruction. Furthermore, Sri Ramesh Chandra Mukhopadhayay’s book ‘বাংলাদেশেরইতিহাস’ holds no such account either. 

The reckoning of Buddhism had begun during the 11th-12th century when the Sena dynasty came to power. Even though the Sena rule established a powerful empire and forcefully proliferated the Hindu religion all over again, it came to an end when the rulers grew weak and became vulnerable to its local people. Thus, when Bakhtiyar Khilji came to conquer Bengal in 1201, his army did not face much resistance from the locals. People living under the rule of the Senas were somewhat relieved as they had been suffering for years under the intolerant extremist Hindu rulers. Thus they welcomed this new hero with the hope of a better entity. The outcome was phenomenal; the Sena dynasty was easily overthrown through the defeat of Lakshmana Sena, and Muslim rule was founded in Northwest Bengal.

The teaching of Buddhist doctrines at Nalanda lingered on even after the invasion of Islamic forces in the twelfth century. The Tibetan monk Dharma Svamin (Chag Chosrjedpal, 1194-1264), for example, points out the declining state of the monastic institution in 1235. However, he was still able to spend several months studying Buddhist philosophy under the monk Rahulasri bhadra at the Monastery. Moreover, according to a Korean inscription dedicated to the fourteenth-century Indian monk Tinabotuo (Dinavati; also known as Chanxian [Dhyanabhadra] and Zhikong [Sunyadisya] ), the Indian master was trained and ordained at Nalanda before he travelled to Beijing, the Mongol capital, in 1254. Nalanda seems to have continued to receive support in the thirteenth century from wealthy merchants and the Magadhan king Buddhasena, who had allied with the local Muslim rulers

Since extensive research suggests that Khilji was not related to the destruction of Nalanda, it is about time this misinformation was removed from his name.

▪️Riffat Ahmed is the Chairperson of Siddiqui's International School, Treasurer of Bangladesh English Medium School Forum and a Psychology graduate from the University of Dhaka.  

▪️Khaled Khan is an academic with interest in history,  civilization, and computer security. He currently teaches at Qatar University

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