~ Samiksha Khobragade
The pride of being an Indian begins with the majestic history that India has. The itinerary of every foreign traveller includes various historic monuments and historical landmarks. Being present in those gigantic historical places makes the mind wander, things like- what must it be like growing up in these Mahals and Havelis (castles and palaces), what did they do for entertainment? What did they study? And we also get a few answers such as – this is where King Akbar had his sabha in Fatehpur Sikri, or this is where the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan used to catch glimpses of his wife Mumtaz in the Lal Quila or Agra fort. For this reason, the Indian textbook syllabus covers ancient Indian history. It is of prime importance for everyone to know the splendour and wisdom that the Indian ancient historic past holds.
One of those primary aspects of our historic memoirs is ancient Indian universities. The influence is such that the West is still trying to realise the momentum of its spirituality. Centuries before the Deepak Chopras and Dalai Lamas, there existed Universities where students were taught many important skills and trained in different skills. These teachers were much more wise and proficient in their art than ever, and the students felt so blessed to get the opportunity to learn from them, that it became a common sentiment to treat your teacher with the same love and respect as your parents. This is very much evident in many Indian folktales that depict the theme of regarding your teacher very highly. Therefore in India the word Guru which means the teacher has a solemn and sincere weight to it.
Therefore, let’s dive deep into the world of Ancient Universities of India, which were built centuries before. Most of which were functional way before in the 5th century B.C.
The Nalanda University is one of the most magnificent universities of Ancient History, in terms of its infrastructure as well as education. Speaking of infrastructure, it had dormitories for over 10,000 students and residential quarters for about 2000 teachers or “Gurus”. The building was magnificent with many towers and turrets. It had a 9 storey library, which was the biggest library at the time.
The students included kids from many countries, China, Tibet, Turkey, Persia, etc. We have many accounts of the Nalanda University due to the memoirs of their two Chinese students Yijing and Xuanzang. Xuanzang’s memoirs describe that there used to be a hundred lectures a day. More interestingly, students hated to miss even a minute of those. The University had various faculties much like today. It provided education in the field of medicine, fine arts, logic, Buddhism etc.
The process of getting into the University was difficult, very few could get in. Some teachers would train students to get into the University much like our coaching classes nowadays.
The Nalanda university flourished for 6 centuries from 425 AD – 1205 AD and burned to ashes in a fire. The enormously huge library discussed earlier contained 9 million manuscripts which burnt down. Many historians believe that those manuscripts would have had enormous knowledge and innovative means of technology. It is rumoured that the library burnt for three years.
Taxila or Takshashila University
Taxila or Takshashila University is popular because of its association with the famous Chanakya. He was one of the famous teachers of that time and wrote his book Arthshastra at that University. It is also believed that Panini, a Sanskrit scholar who wrote Ashtadhyayi, an account of the Sanskrit grammar rule book still relevant today, wrote his book in this University. The founder of the Mauryan Empire, Chandragupt Maurya also studied from here under the wings of his mentor or Guruji, Chanakya. The University had many students from across the country as well as from Greece, Persia and China. Many subjects were taught here such as economics, logic and reasoning, medicine, Sanskrit, fine arts, war science, etc The Mauryan Empire rules almost the entire part of India and Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the first ruler to rule the enter subcontinent. Hence Chandragupt Marya holds a strong place in Ancient History.
If you can imagine Nalanda University as Harvard University, think of this one like Oxford. The Nalanda Universities and the Vikramshila Universities both belonged to the same era.
It is said that the Vikramshila campus had six different buildings each belonging to a single stream of education, very much like we have different buildings for different departments now. It taught subjects like Sanskrit, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Buddhist rituals. Both Nalanda and Vikramshila Universities were highly influenced by Buddhism.
Also, they made sure that all of its students are well versed in Buddhist rituals. Vikramshila and Nalanda both had these disciplines imparting students the knowledge and rituals of Buddhism. As the fame of Vikramshila grew, so did its foreign students. Students came from Tibet, China, Turkey etc. The alumni of Vikramshila had to become monks and spread Buddhism all around the world. It was a centre for higher learning and reaching spiritual heights.
At the beginning 13th century, both reached the same height of acclamation, both saw a similar faith of being burned down to ruins.
Vallabhi University Gujarat
Vallabhi University in Gujarat was established by the Maitraka Dynasty which was a contemporary and rival of the Guptas who established the Nalanda University. This University offered many courses such as politics, Sanskrit, economics, medicine, law and also Hinayana Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism that differed in beliefs and rituals from the other branch, Mahayana Buddhism. One very fascinating feature of this University was its open-mindedness in terms of different faiths and cultures. It was a secular University of Ancient India. There are excerpts of the grandeur and educational calibre of this University in the works of Yijing, the Chinese Alumni of Nalanda University. Unfortunately, when the rules changed much later after a few successful centuries of imparting great knowledge, the University of ancient Saurashtra saw its demise due to a lack of fundings.
Pushpagiri University is one of the oldest Universities in the Ancient world. It probably existed even before Nalanda University. It was found that this University also attracted foreign students at the time. To prove that, there are mentions of Pushpagiri University in the memoirs of Xuanzang. These Universities received donations from their local kings as well as kings from far off places. As the rulers changed and the fundings withdrew, Pushpagiri saw its imminent downfall.
The Ujjaini Universities may not be heard by you, but the works of its Alumni Brahmgupta and Bhaskar II definitely must have whacked your brains at some point in school. The Ujjain University was a place of higher learning in the field of Mathematics, Logic and Astronomy amongst others. Brahmgupta has created a new Logic while in the University. Not just that, he worked on trigonometry, quadratic equations, arithmetic progressions. Moreover, he improved Aryabhatta’s sine tables.
Brahmgupta was the first mathematician to treat 0 as a number rather than just a symbol. He also derived rules of 0 such as 1+0=0, 1×0=0 etc. His brilliance reached the rulers of Arab and from there to Europe. This explains the basis of scientific breakthroughs in Europe through the influence of Ancient Indian Universities. Interestingly, in the modern world, world-renowned mathematician J. J. O’Connor while talking about his paper on Mathematics and Statistics, was seeing appreciating the works of Bhaskaracharya, Bhaskar II from before, for his contributions in the number systems and decimals which was not worked through for centuries in Europe.
Bhaskar II reached a higher rank through his works and became the head of the astronomical department, thus earning the name of Bhaskaracharya. A few other achievements of Bhaskaracharya were in using and defining the systematic usage of the decimal system. Not only that, he worked out the math for calculus centuries before Newton and Leibniz did.
So Ancient India was not just a place of religious awakenings through the kinds of Gautam Buddha and Jain Mahavir. But it was also a mathematical and educational breakthrough that impacted the workings and innovations of the entire world, the world as we know it today.