In Light of Nalanda

By Namit Arora | Aug 2007 | Comments

(A version of this article appeared in Himal Southasian, Mar 2010.)

Biggoosepagoda1I don’t know many books in which ‘Go west, young man!’ would be a call to go to India. One such book is Journey to the West, ‘China's most beloved novel of religious quest and picaresque adventure,’ published in the 1590s in the waning years of the Ming dynasty. The novel’s hero, ‘a mischievous monkey with human traits ... accompanies the monk-hero on his action-filled travels to India in search of Buddhist scripture.’ [1] It allegorically presents pilgrims journeying toward India as individuals journeying toward enlightenment. [2]

Biggoosepagoda2 The inspiration for this novel was a journey made by a 7th cent. CE Chinese man, Xuanzang. [3] Though raised in a conservative Confucian family near Chang’an (modern Xian), Xuanzang, at 13, followed his brother into the Buddhist monastic life (Buddhism had come to China around 2nd cent. CE). A precocious boy, he mastered his material so well that he was ordained a full monk when only 20. Disenchanted with the quality of Buddhist texts and teachers available to him, he decided to go west to India, to the cradle and thriving center of Buddhism itself. After a yearlong journey full of peril and adventure, across deserts and mountains, via Tashkent and Samarkand, meeting robbers and kings, debating Buddhists on the Silk Road and in Afghanistan—where he saw the majestic Bamiyan Buddhas—he reached what is now Pakistan.

Nalanda48 He spent 17 years, from 629-645 CE, in the Indian subcontinent, traveling, visiting places associated with the Buddha’s life, learning Sanskrit, and studying with Buddhist masters, most notably at the Nalanda University in modern-day Bihar, one of the first great universities of the world, where subjects like grammar, logic, philosophy, metaphysics, astronomy, medicine, and theology were taught. His erudition seems to have brought him fame and royal patronage in India. In a convocation of religious scholars ‘in Harsha’s capital of Kannauj ... Xuanzang allegedly defeated five hundred Brahmins, Jains, and heterodox Buddhists in spirited debate.’ [4]

The Nalanda establishment greatly admired Xuanzang. Beseeching him to stay, they even offered him a senior position on their academic staff. But he declined with this reply: ‘Buddha established his doctrine so that it might be diffused to all lands. Who would wish to enjoy it alone, and to forget those who are not yet enlightened?’ For scores of years, he was accorded a place in Indian temple paintings with his ‘hemp shoes, spoon and chop sticks mounted on multicolored clouds.’ [5]

Biggoosepagoda4 Before returning to China, he gathered hundreds of Sanskrit texts, relics, statues, and other artifacts, loaded them on pack animals, and set off for Xian across the Pamirs. For the remaining 19 years of his life, until 664 CE, he worked with a team of linguist monks to translate into Chinese many of the 657 books that survived his journey (many lost when he was crossing the Indus) and wrote commentaries on them. When Buddhism died out in India, its texts lost forever, these translations became the only version of the Indian originals—like the ancient Greek texts we know only via Arabic translations from the ‘golden age’ of Islam in 9-10th-century Baghdad. He also published an account of his travels, now an invaluable historical and archaeological record. [6] He even sent back to India a Sanskrit translation he made himself of Lao-tzu’s Tao-te Ching.

BigGoosePagoda50Xuanzang founded the Faxiang school of thought in China, whose ideas live on in Zen Buddhism. It was based on the phenomenology of the yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism (reminiscent of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty), focusing on consciousness and positing that the world is a representation of the mind. The Buddhist Tang emperor, Gaozong, supported Xuanzang’s later enterprise and even built a pagoda—now the Big Goose Pagoda of Xian—to house his translations (many still in use) and displayed in a small museum on site. Outside the entrance is an elegant modern statue of the man. It is said that the emperor was so upset when he heard of the monk’s death that he canceled all audiences for three days.

Xuanzang’s death and grand funeral in Chang’an was likely witnessed by Yi Jing, [7] a younger admirer and Buddhist monk who had been inspired by ‘the noble enthusiasm of Xuanzang,’ and had for over a decade wanted to follow in his footsteps to India. Yi Jing, 30, now became serious about his dream, found a sponsor for his journey, and set sail on a Persian boat for the kingdom of Srivijaya in Sumatra, where he stayed for many months with other foreign scholars and learned Sanskrit. In the preceding centuries, Indian merchants had not only brought Buddhism to Southeast Asia but also a linguistic script, religious texts and rituals, literature, art, architecture, and countless other aspects of Indian culture, immersion in which helped Yi Jing's preparation for India.

Yi_Jing.JPG Arriving by sea in eastern India in 673 CE, he found a group of merchants and priests heading for Nalanda. Traveling by foot through a region said to be unsafe, he was struck ‘by an illness of the season’ and couldn’t keep up with the group. Finding him alone, some mountain brigands descended on him, stripped him naked, and snatched his stuff. Despairing and fearful of the rumor he had heard that in these parts they liked sacrificing white-skinned people, he writes, ‘I entered into a muddy hole, and besmeared all my body with mud. I covered myself with leaves, and supporting myself on a stick, I advanced slowly.’ [8]

A few days later Yi Jing reached Nalanda, where he stayed and studied for ten years. He also traveled to the places associated with the Buddha’s life, such as Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, and Kushinagar. He reports traveling to over 30 countries in the subcontinent, which historians conveniently refer to as ‘India’. He met famous teachers ‘renowned for their brilliant character,’ and wrote, ‘I have always been glad that I had the opportunity of acquiring knowledge from them personally which I should otherwise never have possessed.’ When leaving India in 685 CE, he carried back 400 books and translated many of them on a second, multi-year stint on Sumatra. He died at age 79, and, like Xuanzang, was lavishly honored by the Tang emperor. In the wake of these two men, India, and Nalanda in particular, attracted a great many students and scholars from all over Asia, including Sri Lanka, China, Tibet, Persia, Indonesia, Japan, and Korea.


Nalanda01 Nalanda University arose in early 5th cent. CE during the reign of Kumara Gupta, though references to precursor sites associated with teaching and learning go back a thousand years to the time of the Buddha and Mahavira. Between Xuanzang and Yi Jing, we have a compelling portrait of the university’s curriculum, the life of the monks, buildings, and other general features of the community.

Nalanda23 Nalanda was more like a school of higher learning than an undergraduate college. Prospective students had to be at least 20 years old and submit to an oral exam at the university entrance. They had to demonstrate deep familiarity with a host of subjects and with old and new books in many fields. No more than two or three out of ten were admitted, and even they were promptly humbled by the caliber of their teachers and co-students. According to Xuanzang,

‘The day is not sufficient for asking and answering profound questions. From morning till night they engage in discussion; the old and the young mutually help one another. Those who cannot discuss questions out of the Tripitaka are little esteemed and are obliged to hide themselves for shame. Learned men from different cities, on this account, who desire to acquire quickly a renown in discussion, come here in multitudes to settle their doubts …’ [9]

Nalanda49 When Xuanzang visited Nalanda, there were 8,500 students and 1,500 teachers in 108 residential monasteries, which often had two or more floors. Excavations thus far have revealed many exquisitely carved temples and a row of ten monasteries of oblong red bricks directly across a row of stupas in brick and plaster. Each monastery has rooms—either single or double occupancy, with wooden doors back then—lining four sides of a courtyard, a main entrance, and a shrine facing the entrance in the courtyard. Rooms typically had chairs, wood blocks, small mats, and utensils stored in niches cut out in the walls. Mattresses were like two sewn sheets of cloth with a layer of wool in between, and pillows were ‘stuffed with any suitable home products, such as wool, hemp-scraps, the pollen of Typha latifolia, the catkins of the willow, cotton, reed, Tecoma grandiflora, soft leaves, dry moths, the ear-shells, or beans.’ [10] Yi Jing approvingly wrote that each year before the monsoon, the best rooms were awarded to the eldest members in the community.

Nalanda05 Some of the best teachers not only taught but also composed treatises and commentaries, much as Xuanzang himself did later in his life. Many acquired great fame and a Nalanda education held serious cachet among the public. Teachers lived among the students in the monasteries, common features of which include a podium for lectures, a communal brick oven, bathrooms, and a water well (often with octagonal cross-section, supposedly inspired by the Eightfold Path). Where the floors were not made of brick or stone, they were periodically daubed with dried cow-dung mixed with straw, providing a cleaner, firmer surface than mud, termite repulsion, and cheap thermal insulation. Water clocks guided daily routines and gongs were used to signal the start and end of events, services, and ceremonies.

On a visit to Nalanda some years ago, I had wandered the evocative ruins trying to fill in the missing walls, roofs and pillars, and often found myself transported back to the quotidian life of the monastery: sounds of gongs, chants and debates, cooking smells, unstitched yellow robes drying in the sun; monks sitting on low rattan chairs with wicker-work and having dinner, which might include bean soup with butter, rice and vegetables, perhaps also ghee, honey, sugar, or a seasonal fruit like mango; monks gathered around a podium, chatting in the hallway, or queuing for the toilet each morning. ‘There are more than ten great pools near the Nalanda monastery,’ wrote Yi Jing, ‘every morning a ghanti is sounded to remind the monks of the bathing-hour.’ [11]  For their daily exercise, the monks went for walks in mid-mornings or late afternoons.

Nalanda45The university relied on royal patrons, including the Guptas of Magadha, Harsha of Kannauj, and the Palas of Bengal. Besides periodic endowments of land grants, money, and livestock, Nalanda also received tax revenues from over a hundred surrounding villages, which paid for essentials like food, clothing, lodging, and medicine for all students and teachers. But like all good things, this too had to end.

Buddhism began waning in India after 800 CE. By then, Hinduism had assimilated many of its features—vegetarianism, insider critiques of the caste system, ending animal sacrifices—and embraced the Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. A bigger factor was the rise of Bhakti, or devotional Hinduism, and its great appeal to the masses. One could say that the religious market was shifting to a more user-friendly product, and as a result, Buddhism lost much of its royal patronage. The Palas were the last major royals to support Nalanda as a center of learning and the arts (stone and bronze sculpture in particular). A museum on-site, which houses many finds from Nalanda and the nearby region, has many curious sculptures from this period: Buddhist deities trampling on Brahmanical ones, such as Shiva, Parvati, and Ganesh. A Buddhist goddess has mighty Hindu gods like Indra, Vishnu, and Shiva as her ‘vehicle bearers,’ while she carries the severed head of Brahma in one hand. A plausible explanation is that the Buddhists were on the defensive—they had to resort to more dramatic imagery to assert their religious superiority to the ambivalent.

NalandaStoneTemple02 In 1193 CE, Nalanda was put to a brutal and decisive end by Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkish Muslim invader on his way to conquer Bengal. He looted and burned the monastery, and perhaps killed hundreds or even thousands of monks. The shock of this event lives on in local cultural memory; during my visit, I too heard the legend that the three libraries of Nalanda—with books like the ones Xuanzang and Yi Jing carried back to China—were so large that they smoldered for six long months.

ThreeBoys It is a heartbreaking irony of history that the present population around Nalanda is mostly illiterate. In nearby villages I saw lots of children with distended bellies. Despite its beautiful landscape, natural riches, and awe-inspiring history—the land of the Buddha and Mahavira, Ashoka and the Mauryas, and the cultural effulgence of the Gupta age that invented zero and the decimal system, created great art, drama, and literature, and furthered astronomy, mathematics, and metallurgy—Bihar today has some of the worst human development indices in the country and is infamous for its political corruption and material squalor.

An ambitious project is underway for a new international university—also a residential school of post-graduate studies—near the ruins of Nalanda. A consortium led by Singapore, Japan, China, and India plans to endow it with a billion dollars. It will have a School of Buddhist studies, philosophy, and comparative religion; School of historical studies; School of International Relations and Peace; School of Languages and Literature; School of Ecology and Environmental Studies, etc.—all ‘aimed at advancing the concept of an Asian community ... and rediscovering old relationships.’ [12] Xuanzang and Yi Jing would surely have approved.


Notes & Bibliography:

[1] Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, 1991, p.9.
[2] Wikipedia entry, Journey to the West, July 2009.
[3] Xuanzang is variously spelled Xuan Zang, Hieun Tsang, Hsüan Tsang, Hiouen Thsang, Hsuan Chwang, Hsien-tsang, etc.
[4] Xuanzang, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, July 2009.
[5] Prabodh Chandra Bagchi, India and China: A Thousand Years of Sino-Indian Contact, 1944, p 250.
[6] Samuel Beal, translator, 1906, Si Yu Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, by Hiuen Tsiang (629 CE).
[7] Yi Jing is variously spelled I Ching, I-Tsing, Yějěng, Yiqing, YiChing, etc.
[8] J. Takakusu, translator, 1896, A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago A.D. 671-695, by Yi Jing, p xxxi-ii.
[9] Ref [6], Book ii, p 170.
[10] Ref [8], p 112-113.
[11] Ref [8], p 108.
[12] Times of India, Nalanda to move from Ruins to Riches, 11 May 2008.

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