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Old school is new again in India

Which Indian institute of higher education enjoys the highest esteem in the world? Most people would say it’s a close race between the Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institutes of Technology.

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Which Indian institute of higher education enjoys the highest esteem in the world? Most people would say it’s a close race between the Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institutes of Technology.

For decades, these state-funded schools have produced the sort of highly-skilled, motivated and competitive graduate — usually from a middle-class background — who promptly leaves for big things in America, where, to use the language of the Indian family, he or she “makes us and India proud”.

Even so, one Indian university has an aura that far exceeds that of any other. And although the school is itself extinct, it continues to embody the virtues traditionally associated with a university education: A love of knowledge for its own sake, an ability to frame a question from different points of view and a passion for formulating new answers to the great questions after making a thorough study of a tradition.

The name has echoed around India and the world for well over a thousand years: Nalanda. The Buddhist monastic university, located in the modern state of Bihar, enjoyed a great reputation in the second half of the first millennium.

From what we know of contemporary records, such as that of the great Chinese traveller Xuanxang, it was no ordinary seminary. Nalanda was not just a place where Buddhism could be comprehended in all its complexity, but also one where different schools of thought within Buddhism and outside it could be considered and a spirit of intellectual self-reflexivity and heterodoxy prevailed.

“At its peak, it offered an enormous number of subjects in the Buddhist tradition, in a similar way that Oxford (offered) in the Christian tradition — Sanskrit, medicine, public health and economics,” Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen observed in 2010. Although it was sacked by Turkic invaders in the 12th century and slowly faded into oblivion, Nalanda endures as a symbol of the questioning spirit and intellectual freedom.


Last week, in a culmination of many years of work by Prof Sen and an international team of academics, supported by governments in many East Asian countries, Nalanda did, in a manner of speaking, rise from the ashes. Nalanda University, funded principally by the governments of India, Japan and China — the civilisations most closely connected with the history of Buddhism — reopened its doors after eight centuries to its first batch of graduate students in two disciplines.

There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical of the dreams of a new Nalanda. Much of the infrastructure is still in the nascent stages. The East Asian crisis of 2008 has kept the new university well short of the US$500 million (S$632 million) in funds it requires. And there are worries that its location in one of India’s least developed states will be a disincentive to both academics and students.

But history, as well as deep roots in the humanistic tradition, is a prominent part of the school’s unique capital. And its vision of itself is refreshingly different from the more technocratic and outcome-oriented one of higher education around the world today. The university’s website says: “Nalanda is a word known across the world and for centuries. It stands for a university which attracted students and scholars from across Asia and even farther away. It was a centre of excellence not only for Buddhist studies and philosophy, but for medicine and mathematics as well.

After teaching thousands of students for centuries, Nalanda ceased its existence just as universities were opening up in Bologna, Paris and Oxford at the beginning of the second millennium. The shift of centres of knowledge from East to West was symbolic of the eventual transfer of power which followed within half a millennium.”

There is now a perfect opportunity to recreate the hallowed universalism of Nalanda as a centre of knowledge.

The second millennium ended with a tremendous resurgence of Asia after centuries of stagnation, division and decline. Our challenge is to match the excellence of Nalanda of the first millennium for the third millennium.

Importantly — though this has caused some distress in India, especially within the ministries that have committed funds for the project — the new Nalanda does not see itself as an Indian university, one that can be easily co-opted into some narrative of “India rising”. Rather, it sees itself as an international body, one that stands for values not necessarily aligned with those of nationalism — even if the great Asian powers seek to increase their influence by funding it. How it manages this tension will in great measure determine its future.

China, Japan and Australia have been important donors to the project. A special Act passed in Parliament gives the university a considerable autonomy that other Indian institutions do not enjoy.

In recent years, there has been a great deal of soul-searching about why the country’s universities are almost invisible in global rankings, with the sense that higher education is trapped in a web of bureaucracy and petty standardisation.

The unusual powers — both individuals and states — behind Nalanda mean that in the next decade, there will be an unusual level of scrutiny not just of its fidelity to the glorious past of its name, but also of its potential as a game changer in higher education. BLOOMBERG


Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi.

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