Nalanda has much history to it. the Jarasandha-ka-Akhada is where Bhima and Jarasandha fought for 28 days before Bhima tore Jarasandha's leg apart. This was when Rajgir was the capital of Magadha and Jarasandha ruled.
Nalanda is not really a holy place like most of the other towns, but it does have some importance for Buddhists and Jains. Buddha and Mahavira, the last Jain tirthankara, visited and taught at this place often, and the Nalanda University became famous because of its exceptional professors and high standard of teaching.
At one point, when Hieun Tsang visited in the seventh century, the students numbered over 10,000 and there were 2,000 teachers. The local princes supported the college, thus enabling it to accommodate the students' room, board and education without charge. And many of the Gupta Kings built monasteries for the resident monks. The university started to decline during the eighth century because of political changes in India. But, when the Mohammedan invaders arrived, they killed many of the monks and ransacked and burned the university. The library is said to have had two million volumes and burned for six months.
Presently, the ruins of the university, the main point of interest in this town, can still be seen, and from a distance it looks like a huge fortress. You can go through what is left of some of the monasteries and temples and see how big they were, with rooms for students, lecture halls, kitchens, libraries, bathrooms, and wells. Most of it is now merely when is left of the foundations. West of here is the Sariputra stupa, which was built by Asoka in honor of Ananda, the first disciple of Buddha. Nalanda also has Jain, Japanese and Burmese rest houses, as well as Thai and Chinese temples. There is also a research center on Buddhism and Pali literature set-up by the Bihar Government.
From the second to the ninth century, Nalanda was one of the greatest universities in India. It lay to the north-east of Bodh-Gaya. There were other universities, too, in ancient India, built in Kurukshetra, Kashi, Madia, Taxila, Vidarbha, Ajanta and Ujjain. Kashi was the greatest centre of Brahmin scholarship. Taxila was, even at the time of Alenander's invasion of India, known all over Asia as a centre of Hindu philosophy. Ujjain was noted for the study of astronomy, as Ajanta was for the teaching of art.
Nalanda was famous as one of the greatest centres of Buddhist thought and the Hindu philosophy of yoga. The residents, at any one time, amounted to ten thousand men, of whom eight thousand five hundred were students, the rest were teachers. Students came from different parts, also from Japan and China, Korea, Mongolia and Tartary. And out of this great University went scholars to Tibet and China and spread the culture of India.
The University of Nalanda had a hundred lecture-rooms and six hundred blocks of dormitories four stories high. Hsuan Tsang was astonished at its observatories which, he said "were lost in the vapours of the morning and the upper rooms towered above the clouds." The University was built by the devotion of great scholars and the generosity of merchants and kings. Six Kings helped the University. the first of them was a lover of the poor. He served the widow and the orphan. And he had reverence for scholars and sages.
When Hsuan Tsang visited Nalanda, the Head of the University was Silabhadra, surnamed the Treasure of the Good Law." He was a learned man. He had wandered to many parts of India and, after many wanderings, had come to Nalanda. He could, if he liked, be a Raja [King] in East Bengal, but he realized that wisdom was richer than rubies. And Silabhadra moved on in quest of knowledge, until, at last, he came to Nalanda and there became, one day, the President of the great University. Silabhadra was not only a great scholar: he was a man of awakened buddhi -- a saint filled with true spirit of seva, service of humanity.
Hsuan Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim, comes to Nalanda and in reverence bows down to Silabhadra and asks, "Tell me, master! What is knowledge.
Silabhadra says to him: "My child! Knowledge is perception of the principles or laws of life."
"What are they?" asks the pilgrim.
Principles of Laws of Life
Silabhadra says: the principles of laws of life are five:
(1) the principle of fellowship;
(2) principle of reverence;
(3) principle of concentration, meditation, dhyana,
(4) the principle of tolerance; and
(4) the principle of compassion, sympathy, seva and yagna,
service and sacrifice."
In these few words, the saintly, old man, already a hundred and six years old, summed up the whole philosophy of education.
"And I am come from China," said the Chinese pilgrim, "in order to study under your direction the laws of the yoga-shastra." He expressed three wishes:
1) After having studied in India, I desire to return
to my country, China;
2) I desire to be born again, one day, in the Heaven
of the Blessed gods, and serve Maitreyi. And
3) I long that I may one day be, like the Buddha,
a servant of the suffering ones.
Silabhadra sheds tears and says: "So true has proved the dream I dreamt asking me to wait here the arrival of a monk from China and instruct him in the Wisdom of India." For fifteen months, Silabhadra interprets to Hsuan Tsang the mystic philosophy of yogachara.
'Yoga', 'synthesis', was the essence of Wisdom of India. The Nalanda University was in itself a synthesis of the Community's life in its various aspects-economic, intellectual, social and spiritual. there was a farm-house belonging to the Nalanda Colony: and the University was supported by the revenues of a hundred villages.
The present-day distinction between vocational and liberation education is, to my mind, artificial. Every system of education must be liberal and vocational. It must relate knowledge to life, to ideal values and to utilities of national and social life. At Nalanda, professors and students studied and meditated: they, also, did manual work.
Secret of Education
The secret of education is communion of students with their teachers. Nalanda had great reaches. One of them was Nagarjuna, the famous Buddhist philosopher. He developed the doctrine of sunyata (void). If Nagarjuna was the great Buddhist philosopher, Shanti Deva, the greatest poet of Mahayana Buddhism.
What a noble ideal was enshrined in the world "Nalanda! The world suggests "service without intermission", uninterrupted service, unbroken seva. Nalanda had a number of able teachers, scholars who were men of character and charged with the spirit of service and sacrifice.
Look around you, today! Think for a moment what many of our schools and colleges are striving for. Degrees! And my bewildered heart has asked, again and again: "where" is character-building?" Beloved India is broken. She stands urgently in need of men of character, heroic men, pure men, sacrificial men, men who would pour their lives as an offering in the great yagna of humanity.
Shanthi Deva was a man of sacrifice. He "took refuge" in the Buddha and the Dhamma and the Sangha (Brotherhood), and rejoiced in the service of humanity and all creatures. "In giving", said he, "is the secret of the wisdom that ever shines." "No knowledge," he said, "do I desire, save such as may serve all living beings, high and low." Compassion was his constant word. "In purest compassion," he said, "give, give and enter into joy!" "Three rules", he said, repeating the teaching of the Buddha, "must you observe in daily life:
1) speak what is true;
2) from anger abstain; and
3) give, even if it be a little, to him who is in need!"
And again: "More than myriad stars hath He given of His eyes to serve and succour men! And more all the seas hath He shed of His life to serve and succour life!"
Nalanda was a great experiment in education. It aimed at pursuit of Truth and service of man and bird and beast. It taught yoga (the science of the soul), the psychology of the conscious and the subconscious. It taught a system of discipline with a view to union with the Truth. It aimed at development of inner powers by (1) meditation and (2) service.
One of the truth taught at Nalanda was Karma. Karma is the Law, of cause and effect. In obedience to this Law, man builds his character. Indeed, a man's character is his karma; for just is the Law. "If but the nations would understand that "justice" is the Law of the Universe! Justice may, to many of us, appear to be slow in coming, but come it must, sure as the sun rises in the East. Every nation carries within its actions and aspirations its own "fate", its own future, its Destiny.
Reverence, too, was taught to pupils, reverence not alone for elders, but also, for what is "beneath" us, for brother bird and brother beast. And the teaching was given, again and again, that one must sit at the feet even of "strangers" to learn of them vidya and arts. It was recognized that knowledge was international: and he who was a scholar claimed all aspect at Nalanda University - no matter what his country or creed.
The greeting given to Hsuan Tsang indicated the catholic vision of Nalanda. He was a stranger but he was a scholar; and he was received with the respect due to a scholar. Four men of distinguished positions in the University came out a long way off -- seven yojanas, to meet him. On the way he halted at a village: and the four men were soon joined by two hundred teachers and some thousand lay patrons to escort him to the University. They carried standards, umbrellas, flowers and perfumes to do him honour. As he entered Nalanda, the whole University greeted him. He was requested to take a special seat by the side of the President. An upasaka and a Brahmin accompanied him with a riding elephant. What a reception! What a recognition of "internationalism@ of cltulre!
Nor was aesthetic life ignored in the Nalanda University. I believe profoundly in the values of aesthetic and spiritual ideals in education. Ethics and aesthetics entered into the life of Nalanda and shaped the energies and aspirations of the student-community.
The current system of education in this country has awakened aggressive intellect and aroused ambitions: and nothing is sadder than to see intelligence stripped of moral obligations and those aesthetic impulses which find satisfaction in the joy of altruism.
Nalanda recognized the truth that Immaterial was the Vital, that the Ideal was the Real, that the truly dynamic and transforming things are those of a spiritual order. In the hearts of the teachers of Nalanda was reverence for the spiritual truths of life. Are the teachers and the teaching dead, today? Are the songs and the lore of the Buddha and Shankara, of the Vedic Rishis and the Sages of the Upanishads a matter of history? Or do they still slumber in India's heart, making India still a Holy land, the hope of a new world-culture, the cradle of a new synthetic civilization? Ask not the fettered school-master of today: ask the singers in the streets, for an answer.
Infrastructural facilities at Nalanda
Nalanda gave to all her students free tuition, free board and lodging, and free medicine. And Nalanda taught her students to be simple and pure in daily life. Ten great swimming pools belonged to the University. Cleanliness was recognized as the way to holiness. The students were taught for thirteen years: some stayed for thirty years: some, indeed, remained at Nalanda till death. And in the teaching they received, the emphasis was always on purity, simplicity, reverence, service and sacrifice.
Nalanda was built in the heart of spaciousness, in an atmosphere of the beautiful. The record of the Chinese pilgrim scholar speaks of the "richly adorned towers", the "fairy-like turrests". "From the windows", we read, "we may see every hour the winds and the clouds produce new forms. and above the soaring eaves one may see the conjunctions for the sun and the moon." "Round the monasteries," we read further "there flowed a winding stream of azure water, made more beautiful by blue lotus flowers. Within the Temple, beautiful trees hung down their dazzling golden blossoms and outside groves of mango sheltered the dwellings with their thick shade." "The roofs were covered with tiles" that reflected "the light in a thousand shades." "These things", says the Chronicle, "add to the beauty of the scene." Surrounded by such things, Nalanda stood erect to bless teachers and students and develop in them the impulse to worship and to serve for Beauty's sake.
Shanthi Deva was revered as a poet a Bodhisattva, a lover of the Beautiful and a servant of all creatures in suffering and pain. He loved the contemplative life: he loved, also, the teacher's vocation. He loved to draw the youths, nearer and nearer, to the Buddha. Shanthi Deva has been rightly compared to the Asian mystic who renounced his throne and said, "Write me as one and who loves his fellow-men!"
In his teaching at Nalanda Shanthi Deva emphasized the thought: "build your lives in bodhi (wisdom." He further taught: "Learn self-control, for to the pure is given bodi or Illumination." Therefore, he said, "take the vow of purity in the presence of the Buddha or the Teacher: for such a vow is not likely to be broken."
Shanthi Deva emphasized the moral foundation of knowledge or wisdom. So he asked his pupils to take special care of their sangha - company or environment. And he stressed the life of discipline. Never, he said, praise yourself even if you really have the virtue of which you speak. and never speak lightly of any teacher. Never boast of your attainments, and resist the temptation to speak of siddhis or "psychic powers" or "higher attainments".
Shanthi Deva's heart was filled, through and through with the prayer which he prayed, again and again, in the "presence of the buddhas": "May I still the pains of all creatures in suffering and pain!"
Shanthi Deva taught in an atmosphere full of the associations of nature. "For a yojana around this spot", we read, "the space is full of sacred trees." Such a site gave scope for outdoor life, for nature-communion, for fellowship with birds and animals of the woods, a fellowship emphasized in the teaching at once of the rishi and of the Buddha. The beautiful surroundings of the University of Nalanda secured that correlation of the physical, intellectual and aesthetic powers which is essential to sound training.
It was difficult to find fault with the discipline of Nalanda.The Chinese Pilgrim says that "during the seven hundred years since the foundation of the Nalanda University, there has been no single case of guilty rebellion against the rules."
Shanthi Deva rightly points out that the true discipline is one of Dhamma, not of the "rod". Yes, right discipline is not of the "barrack-room" but of the ashram. The community of the teachers and taught at Nalanda lived a life of self-control and self-discipline. Study, toil and duty were intermingled one with the other and the mainspring of this discipline was the inspiration of human fellowship in the service of the Sangha (Brotherhood) and reverence for the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Comradeship of the right type made the teachers one community, one Fellowship of Service: and the pupil was often addressed as a "son". Nalanda was a family.
Source: Excerpts from the book "Spiritual India Handbook" by Stephen Knapp