Buddhist Learning in South Asia

Education, Religion, and Culture at the Ancient Śrī Nālandā Mahāvihāra

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Pintu Kumar
  • New York, NY: 
    Lexington Books
    , May
     338 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Nalanda is a historical site, around 90 kilometers from Bodh Gaya, the site of Buddha’s enlightenment, in the present-day state of Bihar in India. Nalanda used to be a Buddhist mahavihara (great monastery) that gradually emerged as a renowned center of learning, attracting Buddhist pilgrims and scholars from other Asian countries. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016. According to the nomination dossier submitted by India to the UNESCO, few structures within the site can be archaeologically dated back to as early as 3rd century BC, however, the site’s dateable continuous history as a major center of learning starts in the 5th century AD.

Pintu Kumar’s Buddhist Learning in South Asia sheds light on various aspects of this ancient monastery, such as religious and secular learning and instruction, art and architecture of the site, archaeological discoveries, monastic organization, life and rituals at the monastery, and comparison with gurukulas (Hindu education system operational at the preceptors’ household).

In his book, Kumar addresses the problem whether Nalanda can be treated as a university. He writes that Indian nationalist historians, who wrote at a time when Indians were struggling against British rule and had just gained independence, portrayed Nalanda as the first international university in the world. However, is it justified to call Nalanda a university in the first place? And how truly international in character was it? These are some of the questions Kumar addresses, apart from other vital issues such as archaeological excavations at Nalanda, dating of Nalanda, and so on.

The author analyzes the factors responsible for the origin, growth, and decay of the mahavihara. He is in agreement with previous scholarship that Nalanda widened the scope of Buddhist learning and opened the doors of a monastic learning center to lay people as well. Kumar discusses what different travelogues and archaeological excavations have to say about Nalanda. According to him, the problem with early archaeological excavations at Nalanda was that the excavations were guided by assumptions based on travel accounts of scholar pilgrims travelling from elsewhere, mostly from China.

Hence, he argues, the excavators failed to draw independent conclusions from archaeological remains and instead proceeded from their assumptions and excavated accordingly. As far as the main debate—whether Nalanda can be considered the oldest international university of the world—is concerned, the opinion of the author is that its international character was limited in nature. Nalanda drew foreign scholars mainly from certain Asian countries, that too only during the centuries in which it was at the height of its reputation.

As far as the appellation “university” is concerned, Kumar is of the opinion that Nalanda was more of a monastery than a university. He uses the definition of university as it applies to the evolution of this institution from studium generale—the university in medieval Europe—and argues that while there were some similarities between the Buddhist mahaviharas (great monasteries) and European studium generale regarding pedagogy, curriculum, and origin in religious orientation, it is not entirely accurate to describe Buddhist learning institutions such as Nalanda as universities.

While Kumar argues that it is not justifiable to impose the Western concept of “university” on Indian Buddhist learning institutions, he does not offer any radical redefinition of the concept. One might want to ask: why should a learning institution be called a university only if it meets the European definition of the term? Evidently, we are caught in a deeper and more complex epistemic question here. The very act of referring to medieval European universities as a model for comparison is premised on a false assumption. More importantly, not only earlier nationalist historians, but also modern archaeologists admit that Nalanda was much more than a monastery—it was a center of learning—a fact borne out by the evidence from inscriptions.  

A major plank of this debate is whether an exclusively religious curriculum was followed at Nalanda. Firstly, as Kumar himself points out, all schools of Buddhism, along with some Vedic texts (probably to refute the Vedic standpoint) were taught at Nalanda. Secondly, Kumar writes: “Properly speaking, the original study at Śri Nālandā Mahāvihāra comprised five subjects until twenty-one years of age: Śabdavidyā (grammar and lexicography), Śilpasthānavidyā (arts), Cikitsāvidyā (medicine), Hetuvidyā (logic), and Adhyātmavidyā (philosophy)” (164). He cites R.K. Mookerji (Ancient Indian Education, Macmillan, 1951) in the reference for this information. However, Mookerji had mentioned this in the context of I-tsing’s account of general and elementary education before people took up specialized education in the monasteries; he did not mention it specifically in the context of Nalanda. In his Nalanda (Marg, 2015), Frederick Asher, on the other hand, argues that there is no direct evidence that subjects of liberal education such as grammar, logic, medicine, etc. were taught at Nalanda, nor is there evidence that they were not. Hence, the issue is inconclusive.

Buddhist Learning in South Asia is a comprehensive book that provides rich details about different aspects of the mahavihara. It is a welcome addition to the existing literature, where most books on Nalanda are quite old or lean volumes, covering only specific aspects. However, the author often fails to take a conclusive stand on various issues. For instance, Kumar admits that Nalanda “played a significant role in the propagation of Buddhist learning and religion into Central, East, and South Asia” (159), yet he is unwilling to call it an “international” university. There are certain unfounded remarks in the book such as: “while the Brahmanical system of learning appealed more to the head than to the heart, the Buddhist system of knowledge did just the opposite. It appealed more to the heart than to the head” (275). In the context of nationalist historians, who claimed Nalanda to be the first university in the world, Kumar writes that they “manipulated” (277) historical sources. While their attempts at establishing Indian cultural supremacy might be a blind spot, the allegation of manipulation is uncalled for. Use of contested concepts such as “Aryan” in the book could also have been avoided.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Arpita Mitra is an Independent Scholar based in New Delhi, India.

Date of Review: 
April 17, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Pintu Kumar is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Delhi University.


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