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The Rebirth of Nalanda

By Manoj Motwani

Nalanda University in India was established over 500 years before Oxford University and Europe's oldest university, Bologna, At its peak Nalanda was home to a vast library of more than 9 million manuscripts.


Nalanda University has a long and storied history dating back over 1,600 years. The university was originally established in the 5th century CE in the ancient kingdom of Magadha, located in the Indian state of Bihar. At its peak, the university also attracted around 10,000 students from around the world who came to study a wide range of subjects, from medicine to philosophy.


Tragically, the university was destroyed in the 12th century. However, in 2014 Nalanda University was revived and a new campus was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, echoing its historic legacy. The modern Nalanda University now boasts eco-friendly infrastructure spanning 100 acres, and hosts a diverse array of academic programs and research centers.

For centuries, the ancient seat of learning known as Nalanda University stood as a towering symbol of India's intellectual and cultural supremacy. Located in the modern-day state of Bihar, this sprawling complex was once the largest and most prestigious institute of higher education in the world, attracting scholars and students from across Asia to study everything from philosophy and mathematics to medicine and the arts.


Established in the 5th century CE, Nalanda was the largest and most influential university of its time, with a sprawling campus that housed as many as 10,000 students and 2,000 professors at its peak.


Students flocked to Nalanda from across the Asian continent to study a vast curriculum that spanned subjects as diverse as logic, metaphysics, medicine, and fine arts. The university's library, reputedly the largest in the ancient world, contained an astounding nine million manuscripts, covering the full breadth of human knowledge. Nalanda's reputation as a center of academic excellence was unparalleled, and its alumni went on to become renowned scholars, philosophers, and spiritual leaders throughout the region.


The university's prestige and influence only grew over the centuries, as it attracted the patronage of successive Indian dynasties as well as foreign rulers. Visitors to Nalanda were often in awe of its sheer scale and grandeur.


Nalanda's legacy as a center of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment was further cemented by the presence of the acclaimed Chinese Buddhist monk and traveler, Xuanzang described it as a "wonder of the world.". After studying and teaching at the university, Xuanzang returned to China in 645 CE, bringing with him a wagonload of 657 Buddhist scriptures from Nalanda. Xuanzang would go on to become one of the world's most influential Buddhist scholars, translating a portion of these volumes into Chinese to create his life's treatise, which centered on the idea that the entire world is a representation of the mind.


Xuanzang's teachings would later be introduced to Japan by his Japanese disciple, Dosho, and would subsequently spread throughout the Sino-Japanese world, where they would remain a major religious influence ever since. As such, Xuanzang has been rightly hailed as "the monk who brought Buddhism East," further solidifying Nalanda's enduring legacy as a global center of spiritual and intellectual thought.


 Tragically, this beacon of knowledge was snuffed out by successive waves of foreign invasions, with the final blow dealt by the forces of the Bakhtiyar Khilji in the 1190s. Khilji's troops ransacked the university, setting fire to its famed library, which reportedly contained a staggering nine million manuscripts - a devastating loss that would be felt for centuries to come. Historians says that it took six and a half months to completely burn the library​.  As described by the Tibetan Buddhist scholar Taranatha, one of the library's three buildings was a towering, nine-storey structure that "soared into the clouds."


The loss of this intellectual and cultural treasure was a devastating blow, not just for India, but for the entire Asian continent. Centuries of accumulated knowledge, painstakingly accumulated over generations, were wiped out in a matter of months.


 Reviving Nalanda: A Vision for the 21st Century


Yet, in a triumph of national will and cultural resilience, India has now undertaken an ambitious project to revive this iconic university. Through the coordinated efforts of the Indian government, international academic institutions, and private philanthropic organizations, Nalanda is being painstakingly reconstructed and reimagined as a 21st century center of learning.


In a momentous occasion for India's academic and cultural legacy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently inaugurated the new campus of Nalanda University in Rajgir, Bihar. This international university stands near the ancient ruins of the renowned Nalanda University, which had once been a beacon of learning and intellectual discourse across the world.


Speaking at the inauguration, Prime Minister Modi celebrated Nalanda as a symbol of India's vibrant academic heritage and its rich cultural exchanges. "Nalanda is the proclamation of this truth that books may burn in the flames of fire, but the flames of fire cannot destroy knowledge. Nalanda is an identity, respect, and pride," he asserted.


The Prime Minister expressed his confidence that the renaissance of Nalanda University will showcase India's immense potential to the global community. "Nalanda is not just a renaissance of India's past, the heritage of many countries and Asia is linked to it. In days to come, Nalanda University will once again become a major centre for our cultural exchange," he said.


The revitalization of this iconic institution is a testament to India's unwavering commitment to reclaiming its rightful place as a global leader in higher education and research. The new Nalanda University, with its eco-friendly infrastructure spread across 100 acres, is poised to host a diverse range of academic programs and cutting-edge research centers.


As India continues to rise as an economic and technological powerhouse, the rebirth of Nalanda University serves as a symbol of the nation's determination to also reclaim its historic prominence as a hub of intellectual excellence. This landmark achievement is not just a proud moment for India, but also a testament to the enduring spirit of knowledge and cultural exchange that has defined the subcontinent for centuries.


As India continues to rise as an economic and geopolitical power, the revitalization of Nalanda University will be crucial in positioning the nation as a leader in higher education as well. By investing in this historic institution, India is signaling its readiness to share its wealth of knowledge and wisdom with the world, and to reassert its role as a cultural and intellectual superpower.


 At the heart of this revival is a desire to recapture the spirit of openness, innovation, and intellectual curiosity that once defined Nalanda. The new university's curriculum, developed through a collaborative process involving renowned academics from India and abroad, is designed to foster critical thinking, cross-cultural exchange, and a holistic understanding of the human experience.


"Our aim is to create a world-class institution that can reclaim India's historical legacy as a global center of learning and scholarship," explains Gopa Sabharwal, the university's first Vice-Chancellor. "By drawing inspiration from Nalanda's past, we hope to cultivate a new generation of leaders, thinkers, and innovators who can help shape the future of Asia and the world."


"We want Nalanda to be seen as a place where the best minds from India and beyond can come together to push the boundaries of human knowledge," says Sabharwal. "By reviving this historic institution, we have an opportunity to reclaim India's rightful place as a guiding light in higher education – not just for Asia, but for the entire world."


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