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The Great Universities of Ancient India

Most Indians and historians today are well aware of the two famous ancient universities of India that were the first known universities in the world, these are Takshashila (Taxila) and Nalanda Universities. But are these were not the only knowledge centres that existed in ancient India.

Education has always been given great prominence in Indian society since the times of the vedic civilization, with gurukul, temples and ashrams being the centres of learning. And with evolving times, a large number of centres of learning were established across ancient India of which Takshashila and Nalanda are the most famous ones known today. Below is a list of major ancient universities that flourished across ancient India.

More commonly known today as Taxila and near to modern day Islamabad are the ruins of an ancient centre of learning; thought to be one of the first and finest universities of the world. Takshashila University established around 2700 years ago was home to over 10500 students where the students from all across the world used to come to attain specialization in over 64 different fields of study like vedas, grammar, philosophy, ayurveda, agriculture, surgery, politics, archery, warfare, astronomy, commerce, futurology, music, dance, etc. Famous graduates of this University include the ones like Chanakya, Panini, Charaka, Vishnu Sharma, Jivaka etc.

The name is Takshashila is derived from King Taksha the nephew of Lord Rama and son of Bharata which puts the date of its founding near to 5000 BC. King Taksha ruled over the region Taksha Khanda that extended from the north of modern India to what is now Uzbekistan and Tashkent, the present capital of Uzbekistan is named after him.

One must remember that at that time, Vedanta influenced all cultures across Asia from the Mediterranean to the Pacific and Taxila was a link in important trade routes. Back then, the greater region of the Middle East was known as Persia and the region known as India (Hindustan) included Afghanistan, modern day Pakistan, the Indian subcontinent and stretched through what was once known as Burma and Malaya (Myanmar and Malaysia).

The rise and fall of Hindu education
Some say that the Mahabharata was first recited at Takshashila by Vaisampayana, a student of Vyasa at the behest of the seer Vyasa himself. This ancient history is unclear though along with Vedanta, the understanding of Buddhism flourished in the region from about 1000BC until the region was largely destroyed by the Huns in about 460 - 470 CE.

This was clearly a Hindu region and the university was a hub for over 10,000 students who came from many different parts of the world to garner knowledge and education. Takshashila offered courses in more than 64 different fields of study ranging from surgery and commerce to music and dance, philosophy and Ayurveda to grammar, politics, archery and even warfare.

It is said that like every modern place of education, students needed to complete their basic schooling, and be of 16 years, before applying for courses in here. The admission process was stringent, and purely based on merit and there are historical records showing that this institute admitted all as equals without any bias for caste, creed or religion.
The book:
The Educational Heritage of Ancient India
How an Ecosystem of Learning Was Laid to Waste
by Sahana Singh

Eminent scholars included:

  • Chanakya or Kautilya Said to be one of the finest political masters and the prime minister of the Mauryan Empire, Chanakya authored the famous Arthashastra - a compilation of 15 books that is undoubtedly one of the oldest yet finest works on economics, statecraft, political duties, military strategies, administrative skills and state intelligence system. He has been hailed as the third best management counsels the history of India after Lord Krishna and Shakuni.
  • Panini: Panini who lived in the fifth century BC, in his Siva Shastras (also called Maheshwara Shastras) came up with another classification in 14 categories based on phonological properties of sounds. He was the master of grammar and languages and his work titled 'Ashtadhyayi' is regarded as one of the profoundest, if complicated, work on grammar ever. It provides a highly technical perspective on Sanskrit grammar, and illustrates all the nuances, rules and features to perfection. His theory of morphological analysis was more advanced than any equivalent Western theory before the mid 20th century and his analysis of noun compounds still forms the basis of modern linguistic theories of compounding, which have borrowed Sanskrit terms such as bahuvrihi and dvandva. But what is less known is that he contributed to the development of the periodic table of elements.
  • Vishnu Sharma According to the legends, Vishnu Sharma wrote the Panchatantra to educate three dumb princes of a king into great political leaders within a span of 6 months!
  • Charaka "A physician who fails to enter the body of a patient with the lamp of knowledge and understanding can never treat diseases." This is what the famous author of Charaka Samhita had to say regarding the power of a good physician. Needless to say, Charaka was one of the most well-known Ayurvedic physicians ever. He authored Charaka Samhita which, along with Sushrutha Samhita, Ashtanga Sangraha and Ashtang Hrudayam, forms the crux of modern day Ayurveda.
  • Jivak After having studied at the University for 7 years, and specializing surgery, Marma and Panchakarma, Jivak had also invented a treatment for Filariasis (a parasitic disease caused by an infection with roundworms of the Filarioidea type) back in those days. Being the personal physician of Lord Buddha (~600 BC), he also cured the Nandi Vran of Buddha. The beautiful Amrapali retained her youthful countenance and beauty thanks to the numerous surgeries and Marma points performed by Jivak on her.
  • Srinivasa Ramanujan Subject of the movie "The Man who knew Infinity", Srinivasa Ramanujan was a brilliant mathematician who made a great deal of modern science possible. He died young from poor living conditions in wartime England.

It is sad that today's generation does not know how advanced we were and world used to come and learn from us. Takshashila University was attacked and plundered and its books burnt. Priests (Teachers) were killed by Huns. The decline of Taksashila marked the destruction, persecution and decline in Indian education, thought and structure. 7-amazing-facts-about-takshashila"

Nalanda University

Nalanda University was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 2016. Nalanda University is thought to have been established by Shakraditya of Gupta dynasty in modern Bihar during early 5th century. It flourished for 600 years till 12th century. Nalanda was the world's first university to have residential quarters for both students and teachers. It also had large public lecture halls. Students from countries like Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey came to study in this university.

The library of this university was the largest library of the ancient world and had thousands of volumes of manuscripts on various subjects like grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine which was burned by Muslim invaders. The library complex was called Dharmaganja which took three days to burn, had three large buildings: the Ratnasagara, the Ratnadadhi, and the Ratnaranjaka. Ratnadadhi was nine stories tall and stored the most sacred manuscripts including the Prajnaparamita Sutra and the Samajguhya.

An RSS man has taken the responsibility of reviving the Nalanda University. The Nalanda University bill were passed in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha in the year 2010. With 15 students the University started its first academic session in September 2014 after Narendra Modi came into power."
In 2010, the parliament of India passed a bill approving the plans to restore the ancient Nalanda University as a modern Nalanda International University dedicated for post-graduate research. Many east Asian countries including China, Singapore and Japan have come forward to fund the construction of this revived Nalanda University.
The Story of the Destruction of Nalanda University by Muslim invader Mohammad Bakhtiar Khilji in 1193 AD.

The destruction of Nalanda is in one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism by Muslim invaders of India. The final dissolution of this once outstanding international university was evident in the 13th century when the world lost an unparalleled and inimitable institution of the ancient world that promoted globally, the path of virtue, compassion and wisdom.

In the year 1193, these invaders led by Mohammad Bakhtiar Khilji, attacked and burnt down and demolished this great Centre of Learning that existed for some 700 years. They destroyed its magnificent buildings and massacred its inmates, who at the time were mostly Buddhist monks. Mirjah-i-Siraj the famous Persian Muslim historian in his chronicle Tabaquat-I-Nasiri has left a detailed horrid account of Khilji's vandalism and violence.

He reports that the gigantic library complex of Nalanda containing a total of over 9 million invaluable treasures of books, mostly manuscripts were set on fire and the burning continued for over six months. He says that "smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills" . This invaluable collection of works that were destroyed was the products of centuries of scholastic studies. A few monks managed to escape with a few manuscripts to Tibet, Nepal and other neighbouring countries.

Mirjah-i-Siraj reports that thousands of Buddhist monks were burned alive and thousands beheaded as Khilji who tried his best to uproot Buddhism and plant Islam by the sword. He says that Buddhism virtually disappeared under the brutal impact of Muslim fanaticism.

Nalanda which was a true spearhead of Buddhist learning in the world for several centuries became a deserted and desolate place and its ruins were covered by jungle. A sharp decline of Buddhist Sangha and Buddhism was evident after the fall of the Pala dynasty in the 12 c. CE. continuing with later destruction of monasteries by Muslim invaders. Mughal invasions and rule contributed significantly to the decline of Buddhism in India.

In 1193 Muslim invaders seized control of Delhi, leaving defenceless the north-eastern territories that were the heart of Buddhist India. The invading Muslim forces destroyed Buddhist temples and raided places in which Buddhism had flourished. Here, they mercilessly killed Buddhists including monks. Buddhism of Magadha suffered a tremendous decline with its invasion by Ikhtiar Muhammad Bin Bakhtiyar Khilji who demolished many Buddhist shrines, monasteries and the Nalanda Buddhist University.

He massacred Buddhist monks and scholars. Some Buddhist monks who escaped the massacre fled to Nepal, Tibet and South India. The Generals of Qutb-ud-Din, the first Muslim Emperor of India, who ruled from Delhi, resorted to widespread destruction of Buddhist monasteries and killing their inmates. Many Buddhist monuments and sanctuaries near Benares were destroyed by these invading Muslim armies.

Mughal rulers like Aurangzeb destroyed Buddhist temples and monasteries and replaced them with Islamic mosques. There were deliberate and organized designs to convert Buddhists to Islam. Girls and married women with children were taken and converted to Islam. Buddhism became virtually extinct in India by the end of the 19th century, excluding small isolated communities in Eastern Bengal and Nepal.
Vikramashila University

Vikramashila University was established by Dharmapala of Pala dynasty during late 8th century and flourished for 400 years till 12th century. It was located in the Bhagalpur district of modern day Bihar. It gave direct competition to Nalanda University with over 100 teachers and over 1000 students listed in this University. This university was well known for its specialized training on the subject of Tantra (Tantrism). One of the most popular graduates from this University was Atisha Dipankara, a founder of the Sharma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism who also revived the Buddhism in Tibet.

Valabhi University

Valabhi University was established in Saurashtra of modern Gujarat at around 6th century and it flourished for 600 years till 12th century. Chinese traveller Itsing who visited this university during the 7th century describes it as a great centre of learning. Gunamati and Sthiramati, the two famous Buddhist scholars are said to have graduated from this University. This University was popular for its training in secular subjects and students from all over the country came to study in this University. Because of its high quality of education, graduates of this University were given higher executive posts.

Pushpagiri University

Pushpagiri University was established in ancient Kalinga kingdom (modern day Odisha) and was spread across Cuttack and Jajpur districts. It was established in 3rd century and flourished for the next 800 years till 11th century. The university campus was spread across three adjoining hills - Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri and Udayagiri. This was one of the most prominent centers of higher education in ancient India along with the universities of Takshashila, Nalanda and Vikramashila. The Chinese traveler Xuanzang (Huien Tsang) visited this university in 639 CE. Lalitgiri is said to have been commissioned by early 2nd century BCE itself and is the oldest Buddhist establishments in the world. Recently a few images of Emperor Ashoka have been discovered here, and it has been suggested that the Pushpagiri University was established by Emperor Ashoka himself.

Odantapuri University

Odantapuri University was established by Dharmapala of Pala dynasty during late 8th century in Magadha (which is in modern day Bihar) and flourished for 400 years till 12th century. The famous Acharya Sri Ganga who was a professor at the Vikramashila University was a graduate of this Odantapuri University. According to the ancient Tibetan records there were about 12,000 students studying at this University. Ancient Tibetan texts mention this as one among the five great Universities of its time, the other four being Vikramashila, Nalanda, Somapura and Jagaddala Universities - all located in ancient India.

Somapura University

Somapura Mahavihara was established by Dharmapala of Pala dynasty during late 8th century in Bengal and flourished for 400 years till 12th century. The University spread over 27 acres of land of which the main complex was 21 acres was one of the largest of its kind. It was a major center of learning for Bauddha Dharma (Buddhism), Jina Dharma (Jainism) and Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). Even today one can find ornamental terracotta on its outer walls depicting the influence of these three traditions.

Other Ancient Universities

The above mentioned list is not a complete list of ancient Indian universities either. Dharmapala of Pala dynasty alone is said to have established 50 mega learning centers across his kingdom, and they have been as huge and as popular as the ones mentioned above. For instance, the Munshiganj Vihara discovered as recently as Marh 23, 2013 in Bengal is said to have been established in 9th century and was home to 8000 students who came from faraway places like China, Tibet, Nepal and Thailand.

Destruction of Ancient Indian Universities

As you can see, many of the universities mentioned above came to an end around 12th century. The universities like Nalanda, Vikramashila etc were destroyed around this period during the Turkic invasion of India by the fanatic Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193 CE. The great library of Nalanda University was destroyed, ransacked and burnt by the soldiers of Khilji's army and it is said that it was so vast that the manuscripts kept burning for three months. In-numerous number of ancient Indian manuscripts carefully preserved for thousands of years were destroyed in this fire. Thousands of monks in the University were burnt alive or beheaded by Khilji's army. According to DC Ahir, the destruction of these centres of learning at Nalanda and other places across northern India was responsible for the demise of ancient Indian scientific thought in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, and anatomy that was taken up by the Greeks and Arabs.

Contributor: Arjun Kadya Balakrishna Gowda

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