Nalanda: Powerful Then, Powerful Now

Jan Westerhoff explores what we know about the days when Nalanda flourished and what the essential teachings that emerged from it mean for us now.

By Jan Westerhoff

Photo by Anandajoti Bhikkhu.

The Place

In a volume on the aesthetic appreciation of architectural remains called Pleasure of Ruins, Rose Macaulay notes that “Indian ruined temples need a volume to themselves, they are strewn as thickly as a galaxy…. All over the richly idolatrous subcontinent the ruined temples and monasteries stand.” Among the brightest stars in this galaxy are, perhaps, the ruins of Nalanda. They may lack the delirious fancies of the Black Pagoda at Konarak, or the solid grandeur of the Kailashanata temple at Ellora, cut from a single rock, but Nalanda’s soberly arranged brick foundations on the plains of Bihar house a different kind of wonder: the remains of one of the world’s oldest universities, a place of learning that housed as many as three thousand students in the sixth century.

To compare: the University of Oxford reached a comparable size of student population only at the beginning of the twentieth century. As a matter of fact, when visiting what is left of Nalanda’s nine monastic colleges, rectangular structures of rooms arranged around a central courtyard, one is immediately reminded of the quads and courts of Oxford and Cambridge. Some scholars have indeed argued that the architectural shape of the European university cloister has been transmitted from the outlines of the ancient Indian monasteries, via the structurally identical Islamic college or madrasa.

The origins of Nalanda are largely unknown, though its location connects it closely with the historical Buddha. About twelve kilometers from Nalanda is the town of Rajgir, once, under the name Rajagriha, the capital of ancient Magadha, and one of the Buddha’s favorite places. Its Vulture Peak Mountain is considered to be the place where the Buddha gave a number of important teachings, including the Heart Sutra, a central text of Mahayana Buddhism. One of the Buddha’s main disciples, Shariputra, who is said to be “foremost in wisdom” among all of the followers of the Buddha and plays an important role in the Heart Sutra, is said to have died in a town close to Nalanda. A large structure excavated at Nalanda, the so-called “Great Monument,” is often referred to as Shariputra’s stupa. This is a brick structure with stucco adornments; a long staircase leads to the top where a central shrine is located, surrounded by four towers at its corners. Some of the finest sculptures found on the site are the images found in niches of these towers. Reliquaries excavated in the monument carry inscriptions claiming they contain the remains of Shariputra.

Though Nalanda might have existed before this time, it rises from the mists of history at the end of the fifth century ce. Seals of various Gupta kings were found on the site, the earliest belonging to King Buddhagupta (reigned circa 476–495 ce). Such seals may have been once attached to charters documenting grants made to Nalanda and allow us to identify the time when the monastery first received royal patronage. The Gupta empire lasted from the fourth to the sixth century ce and, at its height, encompassed much of the Indian subcontinent. It is sometimes referred to as India’s Golden Age; arts, architecture, literature, and science blossomed during the reign of the Gupta kings.

Day-to-day Life at Nalanda

Much of our information about what Nalanda was like as a place comes from later periods. Particularly important in this respect are reports by Chinese pilgrims, the most famous of which is Xuanzang (who will later feature as the main character in the Ming dynasty fantasy novel Journey to the West). Xuanzang (602–664 ce) departed from China on an epic journey to India in search of Buddhist scriptures to take back to the Middle Kingdom. His trip lasted sixteen years, two of which Xuanzang spent at Nalanda. In his reports, as well as in those of later pilgrims who followed him, we learn about Nalanda as a collection of monastic colleges arranged close to one another, accompanied by various temples and stupas set in a landscaped park of shady groves and lotus ponds. Prospective students had to pass an entrance examination in the form of a debate with one of Nalanda’s senior scholars, the “gate keeper.” Only those who succeeded were allowed to join the institution.

Nalanda’s fame attracted students from all over Asia, including countries as far away as Tibet and Japan. In each monastic college, students lived in rooms surrounding a central courtyard. Individual rooms would open up directly into the inner quadrangle; some still contain a raised platform, probably used for sitting and sleeping, and a niche in the wall, potentially for the storage of books.

The day of most students at Nalanda consisted of the performance of religious rites, as well as study and debate, with great emphasis on the latter. Nalanda was well-known for its excellence in the study of reasoning, and monastic debate formed an important part in the education of its students. It is likely that most students had a fairly fixed daily timetable, since we know that Nalanda used a centralized time-keeping device in the form of a water-clock. The eight sections of day and night were announced by a system of the beating of drums and the sounding of conch shells that could be heard throughout the whole complex.

Nalanda’s curriculum covered the Abhidharma and Mahayana schools of thought, but also included non-Buddhist classical Indian philosophy (the Vedas and Samkhya are mentioned in particular), as well as what we now regard as secular topics, including logic, grammar, medicine, and the arts. In addition to its colleges, all laid out in a row, Nalanda encompassed five temples and, as Tibetan sources tell us, a library consisting of three buildings, one nine stories high, called Sea of Jewels, Ocean of Jewels, and Jewel-Adorned. Even though it is difficult to know exactly what these contained, it is likely that Nalanda’s collection of manuscripts was quite extensive and that the monastery contained provisions for the copying of manuscripts. We know of various manuscripts that were copied at Nalanda, and Yijing (635–713 ce), another Chinese pilgrim, who stayed in Nalanda for more than ten years, is said to have obtained copies of four hundred manuscripts there.

Food was supplied to Nalanda from the villages given to it as gifts; according to Yijing these numbered more than two hundred. Managing these supplies must have been a major logistic undertaking; Tibetan sources inform us that one of the tasks of the great Madhyamaka scholar Chandrakirti was essentially to serve as Nalanda’s catering manager, administrating the supplies arriving from the university’s various possessions.

Final Days

Like its beginnings, the end of Nalanda is hidden behind the veil of time. We know that Nalanda ceased functioning as an institution at the beginning of the thirteenth century and that its ruins emerged from Indian soil about seven hundred years later, when the Archaeological Survey of India started excavating the site at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet what precisely caused Nalanda’s demise is unclear, and it is likely that multiple factors played a role. In many descriptions the fall of Nalanda is linked with the invasion of the Afghan military commander Bhaktiyar Khilji in 1193. Whether he really sacked the monastery, killed the monks, and put its libraries to the torch is unclear, though Persian historians record the attack on a “fortress” that happened to contain many books, and it later turned out “that the whole of that fortress and city was a college.”

In any case, Bhaktiyar Khilji military campaigns in Bihar and Bengal certainly destabilized the region in a way that disturbed Nalanda’s familiar patterns of patronage. As an enormous institution it depended on the resources provided by the surrounding villages. Once these agricultural centers were no longer able to function properly due to recurrent military invasions, Nalanda’s future as a residential monastic university became unsustainable. We have one chilling report from a Tibetan pilgrim who visited Nalanda around the year 1235, describing a deserted place. Though some of the buildings remained undamaged, there was nobody left to care for them. There was only a single scholar left, over ninety years old, cared for by his only disciple. This is the last Tibetan source telling us about Nalanda, before the curtain of oblivion closed upon one of India’s greatest places of learning.

Who Was There

The reason Nalanda’s fame continues to the present day, however, is not because of its buildings, its artworks, or even its libraries of rare manuscripts, but the succession of scholars who studied and taught there. In Tibetan and Chinese sources, we find many of the luminaries of Indian scholasticism associated with Nalanda, even though it is usually impossible to support this by independent evidence. Nagarjuna (first to second century ce) is sometimes taken to have served as the head of the institution, even though the first datable information we have from excavations of the site is several centuries younger. The Tibetan historian Taranatha records that Asanga lived at Nalanda for twelve years during the later part of his life. When we consider the succession of scholars associated with Nalanda, it becomes evident that this monastic center played a key role in the development of every major intellectual stream of Mahayana Buddhism. Chandrakirti, Shantideva, Shantarakshita, and Kamalashila were all highly important in the development of Madhyamaka thought; Chandragomin and Sthiramati were great Yogacara masters, Dignaga and Dharmakīrti represent the logical and epistemological tradition, while Atisha and Naropa indicate Nalanda’s connection with Buddhist tantra. Traditional hagiographical accounts of these scholars present them as involved in numerous magical events, many of which took place at Nalanda. It is easy to dismiss these as pious fictions, but we should keep in mind that according to Buddhist understanding, the biographies of enlightened masters do not just record events that happened to them, but describe scenarios they manifested in order to teach their disciples.

Let us consider two examples, both of which involve the great Madhyamaka master Chandrakirti. In the first story, Chandrakirti, when walking along one of Nalanda’s many corridors, hit his head on a pillar. One of his academic colleagues is quick to mock him: If everything is empty and illusion-like, as the Madhyamaka teaches, how can the pillar still hit Chandrakirti’s head?

Chandrakirti replies by moving his hand through the pillar, suddenly bereft of all solidity, as if it was a mere optical illusion. This story aptly illustrates an important point of debate between the Madhyamaka and its opponents, focusing on the question of how the emptiness of all things can still be compatible with their function. We find arguments for their compatibility in many Madhyamaka texts (Nagarjuna’s Vigrahavyavartani is a good example), but Chandrakirti does not simply demonstrate his argumentative mastery of Madhyamaka. Rather, he demonstrates the fruit of realizing emptiness at the experiential level, showing how one thing, the pillar, can both play its role in ordinary reality when Chandrakirti hits his head, and be ultimately free from its intrinsic nature of solidity when he moves his hand through the piece of rock.

The second story concerns Chandrakirti’s prolonged debate with the Yogacara master Chandragomin. According to traditional accounts, their debate continued for several years, with Chandrakirti representing the Madhyamaka position, while Chandragomin argued for the Yogacara view. Often Chandragomin is not able to respond to Chandrakirti’s challenges immediately, but gives perfect responses on the next day.

Chandrakirti suspects someone is helping Chandragomin, and sets out to investigate. And indeed, in the middle of the night Chandrakirti finds Chandragomin in front of an image of Avalokiteshvara. The stone image has come to life and lays out for Chandragomin which responses he should present to Chandrakirti. Somewhat upset, Chandrakirti complains to the bodhisattva of compassion that he is giving an unfair advantage to his opponent. Avalokiteshvara responds that since Chandrakirti is already favored by Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, he, Avalokiteshvara, is trying to level the playing field a bit by assisting Chandragomin.

What is interesting about this account is that it opens up a perspective on the debate between Madhyamaka and Yogacara as an exchange that is not conducted in order to determine who has the right interpretation of the Buddha’s words, but to bring about a deeper understanding of his teachings. After all, since Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri are both highly realized bodhisattvas, if they decide to support opposing parties in a debate, this cannot be because the understanding of one bodhisattva is superior to that of another. Rather, they must do so as a display of their skillful means, allowing both Chandrakirti and Chandragomin (as well as us, the later students of their works) to gain a better understanding of the various facets of the Buddha’s enlightened mind illuminated by the twin lights of Yogacara and Madhyamaka.

If we try to understand aspects of the life stories of the Nalanda scholars along these lines—with less emphasis on dividing “fact” from devotional “fiction”—we might learn more about the essential points of their teaching than by setting out on a most likely futile quest to divide the historical wheat from the hagiographical chaff.

The Nalanda Tradition Continues

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of scroll painting (thangka) we find a specific set of figures called the Six Ornaments and Two Supreme Ones (rgyan drug mchog gnyis). It constitutes a group of the most important Indian Mahayana masters: the Madhyamaka teachers Nagarjuna and Aryadeva; Asanga and Vasubandhu representing Yogacara; Dignaga and Dharmakirti for the logico-epistemological school; as well as Gunaprabha and Shakyaprabha for the Vinaya tradition. In recent years HH the Dalai Lama has put together an expanded set of seventeen Indian scholars, adding nine more; six primarily known as Madhyamaka scholars (Buddhapalita, Bhava­viveka, Chandrakirti, Shantideva, Shantarakshita, and Kamalashila); two connected specifically with teachings on the Perfection of Wisdom (prajnaparamita), Vimuktisena and Haribhadra; as well as Atisha, who was instrumental in the transmission of Buddhism from India to Tibet. He also designed a thangka showing Buddha Shakyamuni surrounded by these seventeen “Nalanda panditas” and composed a new lineage prayer in their honor, called Illuminating the Threefold Faith. When we see contemporary references to the “Nalanda tradition,” it is usually this set of seventeen Indian scholars that is meant. For some members of this group, the association with Nalanda is easier to establish than for others; it is best, therefore, to understand the term “Nalanda” in this context not as referring to a specific place, but to Indian scholasticism as a whole. Given that all of these scholars were associated with some of ancient India’s major monastic centers, it is reasonable to include them all in a single group.

The specific set of seventeen scholars is obviously a modern construct; it is not anything we find referred to in ancient sources. This gives us a particular reason to think about the motivation behind it. Like Janus, it seems to be facing in two directions at once: the past and the future. Looking into the past, it provides an answer to what is actually meant by “Tibetan Buddhism.” From the Tibetan perspective, Tibetan Buddhism is not an innovation the Tibetans came up with, but the result of the faithful transmission of Indian scholastic Buddhism to the Land of Snows.

The Buddhism that was thus transmitted is reflected in all its facets—Abhidharma, Mahayana, and Vajrayana—in the works of these seventeen scholars, providing a unified understanding of the Buddha’s doctrine as it flourished in Tibet that transcends the specific Tibetan division into distinct schools and lineages. Facing the future, the Dalai Lama emphasizes that the Nalanda scholars embody a specific quality of the Buddhist teachings: an approach that is not primarily faith-based, but stresses the importance of personal inquiry, of reliance on logical analysis, reasoned argument, and debate, and thereby embodies the spirit of scientific inquiry we also find at the heart of the Western intellectual tradition. It is no accident that the famous rejection of a view of Buddhism based primarily on authority (“Monks and scholars should well analyze my words, like gold by melting, cutting, and polishing, and then adopt them, but not for the sake of showing me respect.”) is cited in one of the key works of the Nalanda scholars, Shantarakshita’s Tattvasamgraha. If we study the works of the masters of the Nalanda tradition in this spirit, we will realize that we are not simply dealing with the embers of a philosophical system handed down to us from an ancient culture, but with the living flame of an intellectual tradition that is able to throw its light far into the future.

Jan Westerhoff

Jan Westerhoff is Professor of Buddhist Philosophy at the University of Oxford. His research concentrates on Buddhist philosophy (primarily on Madhyamaka) and on contemporary analytic philosophy (mainly on metaphysics). His publications include Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka and The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy.